My Two Years with Uber and Other app jobs in the Gig Economy

I have tried numerous startups with apps at the center in my search for flexible work that would not be too taxing while I build my own business. Having decent money is key to making a creative life happen.

As a creative, you need time and money to build your dream so one of these indie-contractor jobs could help. But don’t expect to get rich working part-time and still have time to do art unless you can live without sleep.

freeway sanfrancisco

Fast money but not good money

In 2015 to 2018, When I got back to Berkeley. California after a year in Sonoma County I needed income fast. I had spent a year in Sebastopol teaching Pilates till I was so bored I nearly screamed.

I had even finagled free rent just for being home by 8 pm with a 91-year-old mom of a friend. But alas the Sebastopol scene just was not for me, with too many Pilates studios within a three-mile radius.

I had stumbled upon a reasonably lucrative vacation rental cleaning gig, but it was seasonal, and I would have had to hustle for more of my own off-season clients, and that would have meant more cleaning and living in a very dull place for another six months while I waited for the next vacation rental season. So it was back to Berkeley once again. I decided to get in on this “gig economy thingy” so I started with Handy cleaning company

Slaving away with Handy cleaning company

Handy has a quick online background check and an hour orientation. They hook you up with a backpack vacuum cleaner and supplies that you pay off with your first job or two. In San Francisco, a lot of people do Handy without a car using the bus and train to get around and walking to gigs dragging their supplies. It is easier than trying to park in the city.

Handy is hard work and bending over backward to please sometimes unpleasant people without tips.
Better to have your own clients and cut out the middleman. If you are going to do backbreaking labor 8 or ten hours a day you might as well be making at least 800 to 1000 a week in profit.

With Handy, I realized it was going to be hard to make decent with most jobs paying only 40 to 60 and paying by the hour instead of by the gig.

If you drive parking is going to be a hassle, and if you don’t, you have to drag your equipment up and down those hills and get to the next job on time. The Handy app monitors all your time once you get there and start working, so there is no reward for being more efficient as your regular cleaning gig gets easier because you have been cleaning the place regularly.

Your own cleaning gigs are a lot more lucrative than App Cleaning Jobs

Cleaning for myself I mostly had clients who were not home and were happy to have the home cleaned by the same person and did not care how long or short it took as long as it was spotless.

I could do more houses and make more money on my own. It can take time to build up cleaning clients of your own without the middle man taking a cut. But it is well worth it to make up to 30 to 60 per hour minus travel time.

Running around with caviar food delivery

Then I tried Caviar food deliveries because I only had a two-door car and a four-door car, six years or newer is required for ride-sharing with Uber. (Lyft is more lenient about how new your car is).

Food delivery is fun, and you get to jump out of the car and run around a lot which gives the body more variety than constant sitting.

But food delivery eats up gas fast with a stop to pick up the food and another to deliver with only 4 to 8 hours of actual work per day if you are lucky.

It depends on how many orders you get and if the dispatch will let you double up on orders when you get to a restaurant. Caviar is a good company, but it just does not give high enough profits or enough hours of delivery per day for what I needed.

Lunch only lasts 2 or three hours, and dinner goes from 4 to 9 or 10 if you are lucky in the east bay and maybe longer in San Francisco.

Sweet spot or so I thought

My first week I worked all the lunch and dinner shifts and made over $800 in the East Bay minus gas, but after that, the dispatch must have been told not to give so many orders to one person, so I never broke 600 dollars per week.

I tried driving in the East Bay and San Francisco, and it was impossible to make more than $600 a week no matter how many shifts I signed up for.

San Francisco has a lot more restaurants but you are driving farther, and you have to double park every time you stop so there is much more chance of getting hefty citations to pay off. Caviar does sometimes pick up the tab but not always.

You can bicycle which could be a bit easier for lunch rush, but I would not want to do delivery from a bike at night in the city.

Uber’s Car Finance Scheme

I found out that Uber had lined up several car dealerships that will sell cars to people who have very little money to put down or bad credit, just because they know you are going to be driving with Uber.

So when my little 2-door VW GTI needed a new transmission, and I was in a panic because I could not deliver any more gourmet pizza, I registered with Uber and got a promo code to go to any of the dealerships that signed up with Uber.

I traded my half-dead VW for a new 2015 Toyota Corolla and started driving humans instead of food.

It turned out that I did not have to go through uber and have them take the car payment directly out of my weekly pay.

One Toyota of Oakland, CA was willing to sell the car directly to me and seemed to think I had excellent credit (strangely enough, just because I have always made my car payments on time).

I am in control of all payments. So it is worth looking into even if you have less than perfect credit and want to buy a new or used car.

Work all the hours you want with Uber

Uber has unlimited riders most times of the day and night, at least in San Francisco. So I was able to work as many hours as I could stand to sit in the car. So it is possible to make over 1000 per week before deducting expenses of course. Gas is 20 to 30 or more per day and tires and brakes, and oil changes come up once a month or more.

One problem with the Uber app is it allows unlimited drivers to sign in at any location to drive with no limit. So you end up with tons of drivers and few riders and lots of waiting.

Uber was great when it started in SF, but saturation killed the joy

If I had gotten into Uber when it first started and they were only taking 15% of the profits, it would have been a lot more profitable, but now with all the drivers and a 25% cut taken off the top, there are too few price surge opportunities go around.

Nowadays you can get lucky and get a few surge rides which are higher priced based on demand but then it is undercut by all the crappy low pay rides you do at the regular price.

They have created a competitive model that is way lower than cab fare because it is their app and they can do whatever they want.

Pack in those late nights like an Uber sardine

Late nights on the weekends in San Francisco thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers wander the city, lurking and waiting anxiously to pick you up.

Most riders wait less than 5 minutes because we drivers are always within two blocks of your home at all times; driving around, dropping off other passengers, or if we can find a parking spot in SF: reading our books, taking naps, eating our lunches, talking on our phones, watching Netflix, stretching and generally being in the way.

Kind of creepy when you stop and think about it.

Berkel;ey steps

Drive Uber in the suburbs to have less competition

If you drive outside of the city there are fewer drivers to compete with but there is also less demand, and you wait around a lot longer between rides.

It surges all day long in Marin and Sonoma counties far from the action in downtown San Francisco, but the rides are so far apart you waste a lot more gas getting to them.

Santa Cruz and Monterey have price surges at certain times, but the rides are shorter in duration for the most part, so it all evens out.  I checked it out thinking weekends would be useful there, but of course, that was just as saturated as the city by the time I thought of it.

The whole west side of the peninsula, and Half Moon Bay, surge a lot but you get there, and the one other driver has already picked up the one rider so that surge is over and you are stuck out in the middle of nowhere with no rider.

Finding the sweet spot only to have it ripped away again

I found a new area that was not as crowded with Uber drivers in Silicon Valley. Once again I was making ok money. With less competition, people were desperate for rides, and they were usually long enough to make money and still be in a good location to pick up someone else once you dropped off a passenger. But within a month or two the algorithm changed again making it impossible to make money in my new location.

Uber sucks, but it is better than nothing

With Uber, the hourly rate truly sucks like any unskilled labor job, but you can work a lot of hours for a few weeks and take breaks whenever you need to.

At the time that I worked for them, they didn’t have a slot for tipping on the app, so this made it suck even more.

If you are like me and have few marketable skills that match the era we live in, this can be a useful stopgap while you retrain for higher paying work or launch a profitable creative business or in my case, some of both.

Uber Eats nightmare at lunch hour

I tried Uber eats the first week or two it came out. You went to a kitchen to pick up all of your food. They supplied you with a heated bag and a cold bag.

It was smart to have a set menu instead of having to pick up from restaurants. You drove to the location which was only downtown San Francisco at the time I tried it.

Downtown SF is always a mess and not the kind of place you want to be at lunchtime unless you work there. There was no place to drop off, and once you got stuck in a traffic jam, there was no way out. Even with customers coming out to pick up from the car window this got messy fast.

It might be better now that they have regular restaurant pickups and you can choose to drive somewhere that has room to maneuver and park and isn’t in a crowded downtown location.

Here is why all the hype about “getting lucky” and gaming the system with Uber and Lyft is a load of crap:

You can’t really “be in the right place at the right time” and get that surge money consistently. Even if you position yourself just right you could get nothing but short rides, charging under 10 dollars in which case you only make 6 or 7 dollars a pop.

Or if you do get a nice long fair it takes you away from the “right place” very rapidly, and then you are stuck out in the sticks where there is no surge and few riders, or you end up wasting some gas and time to get back to surge areas.

Price Surge Evaporation

Another factor is that surge areas change fast. With all the extra drivers they have hired you can sit in a high demand area and never get a customer because some other driver was a block closer. Then the surge ends the smart customers turn their app back on and call you to do the little 7 dollar ride down the street.

The House Always Wins

Uber is a system that you can’t play. They have been refining it for the past eight years and have worked out all the kinks. Drivers cannot make a load of money working 3 hours a night or even 10 hours per night. The house always wins.

I don’t care which ride-share-guru says they are making “bank” working short hours because they know the city inside out. The only “secret” to making a grand or two a week is to sit in that car on your poor tired ass for over 12 hours a day seven days a week. It is not glamorous or healthy or a whole lot of fun.

Gigs are better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick

It is better than a lot of unskilled labor jobs only because you can make more money by offering yourself unlimited hours and you do not have to take crap from bosses.

You do not have to deny yourself a bathroom break or a rest when you need it. There is a tiny bit more freedom and autonomy than a regular job.

After you have paid your own benefits, dealt with taxes, gas and all the extra car repairs you are not getting any fantastic profits. You are buying a little time to start over. That is all.

My last app dash with Doordash

My favorite app job was Doordash because not only do they have tipping on the app but people use it regularly and were often generous. Another nice feature about the doordash app is that you can see the destination and how long each trip is going to take before saying yes to the delivery.

Doordash is similar to Uber in that you can sign in to work any time, but they have a limit to the number of dashers who can be signed up in at any geographical location, so you are better off signing up for shifts ahead of time to make sure you get the ones you want.

You can also cancel before the shift started without penalty. If you don’t sign up ahead of time for the optimal lunch and dinner shifts where the orders are often bigger and tip better, you can miss out.

At first, I was taking just about every order that came in thinking doordash would penalize me for having a low “acceptance rate.”

Then while almost an hour for my order waiting at a notoriously slow lunch spot I met a guy who shared a secret. He was only accepting about 15 percent of the orders that came in and had been doing this for a year without getting dropped.

After that, I let my acceptance rate drop to about 30% and stay there for the next year without a problem.

The sweetest sushi restaurant in town

I began sitting outside one high-end sushi joint in Palo Alto and getting all my orders from them. These orders tended to be close to the restaurant for some reason was making 80 or 100 per shift in a couple of hours and only driving a few miles

I was able to within the optimal 2-hour window for lunch and dinner shifts rather than wasting time sitting around during non-peak times with the app running waiting for 6 dollar orders that pay out 2 dollars in profits.

My sweet spot ruined again

Then Doordash changed their algorithm to not send me any more orders from that restaurant ever again no matter how long I sat there even if I was the only driver close by and was the best choice.

I found other high-end restaurants and made sure I didn’t drive more than 5 miles to a delivery. But it wasn’t the same as my high-end-sushi-spot.

Corporate Lunches are decent if you can get them

I lucked out on lunch deliveries in Silicon Valley sometimes by getting large corporate orders. One delivery would be for 3o or 40 lunches to one location, and I could make 80 to 100 dollars or so in an hour. Or there would be 2 or 3 restaurants all within a few blocks where I could pick up decent sized orders and drop off all in one general neighborhood.

But the good days didn’t make up for days when there only small orders that paid little and long distances that ate up gas.

There was no longer any way to “game the system” with Doordash or make a decent wage, so I moved on.

Flexible hours make app gigs attractive

App gigs can be decent while you retool for higher paying skilled work or on the side if you have a job you can stand at the moment.

Facing facts, this is a time in our culture where most of us need to be working two jobs just to pay the bills much less launch a new career or business or retrain for a new skill.

Trying to schedule those two jobs can be difficult.

It was a blessing to be able to make my own business a priority on weeks I have clients and to then go and drive full time between clients. It made building a new business a lot less stressful.

Mix and Match

You could combine an app job with selling art, teaching painting classes, writing grant proposals, teaching CPR, doing sports massage or any number of other positions.

The nice thing about app jobs is that they find the clients for you so you can save that hustle for things you are passionate about.

You can recombine this any way you want to. It all depends on your temperament. You have to try things and see what you like. Something that one person hates might be just what you always wanted to do.

Other App Gigs to try

Depending on your location there are a lot of other app jobs I have not tried. If you look on Craigslist or any other job listing site they are all always hiring because they are bottom of the barrel jobs that most people only do for a short term solution.

Rinse.co is a service in the San Francisco Bay Area that picks up and drops off laundry.

If you have a background in childcare Shuddle seems to pay better than other ride-sharing gigs.

Mobile car detailing apps are getting to be a thing too. It could be a fun way to get started and learn the ropes before starting your own private service sans app and middle man.

There are service gig apps like Task Rabbit where you can share a lot of different skills.

You do have the option to say no to shopping gigs and just do the more straightforward pick up and delivery. Unlike Doordash you can’t see how far away the delivery is going to be before you say yes.

I did a day of moving and organizing a Silicon Valley office with Blue Crew. They also hire warehouse workers, banquet host staff and restaurant helpers.

Instacart is not as flexible as some gig jobs because you have to schedule a week in advance to get good hours. You can’t just start and stop whenever you feel like it. Customers can be fussy about substitutions if you are doing the shopping for them.

Bottom line it doesn’t hurt to try it. Its flexible and works around your other jobs and commitments but don’t rely on it because it will rapidly wear out your patience and your car, bike or feet.

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I'm a digital and traditional artist at zoezuniga.com I write for mindbodyclarity.com and have a freelance health writing site mindbodycopy.com

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