What happens on the other side of the screen when you summon a stranger from the Internet to order your food, run your errands and drive to your desired destination? Do apps like Lyft, Doordash and Postmates make it as easy to earn spare cash as the hundreds of thousands of workers that the services employ make it seem?
As part of a project investigating the relationship between companies and workers in the sharing economy, we wanted to shed our relatively cushy mantles as computer science undergrads and try running errands for a gig service app. After signing up for a handful of apps — and getting accepted almost immediately by most of them — we decided to spend several hours doing deliveries for Postmates last week. The following is a condensed log of our time running errands.
Tuesday, 1:30 p.m. — We log into the app as workers, and within seconds, a pleasant chime on Sam’s phone instructs us to pick up a poke bowl for a customer named Jason.
1:45 p.m. — Poke in hand, we drive to Jason’s office in Palo Alto. Jason doesn’t seem to want to interact with us, so at his request we drop his poke in a cubby. Quick. Easy. No human contact required. Poke for Jerry, and $9.57 for us thanks to a tip of $4. Cha-ching.
2:00 p.m. — A Kappa Alpha brother puts in a $35 order for dim sum on campus. We turn it around in under 15 minutes and make a quick $6.
2:15 p.m. — A customer named Lucia asks us to make a complicated order at Tender Greens. (Gluten? Forbidden. Extra steak? A must. Cookies with her salad? Sure thing, but peanut cookies are out of the question.) After 20 minutes of haggling with the restaurant over the specifics of the order, we truck Lucia’s entrée over to her Palo Alto house and leave it on the doorstep for $5.50 plus a whopping $2 tip.
2:50 p.m. — We deliver Wahlburger’s to a creepy guy in a wifebeater at his Redwood City apartment. $8.08.
3:30 p.m. — We drop off Chipotle at the front desk of an elementary school. $7.43.
3:50 p.m. — We hand a customer his very leaky cup of hot boba through the fence of his gated apartment complex. $5.50.
4:00 p.m. — We land in a parking lot, waiting and waiting for another order that never comes in. As we watch our hourly earnings trickle away, we consider calling it quits, only to be booked to deliver a $2,100 MacBook Pro to an apartment in Belmont.
6:30 p.m. — After sitting through two hours of peak traffic to deliver the laptop, we make it back to Stanford and call it quits for the day. With a friendly chirp, Postmates dashes our hopes of a huge payoff by handing us a measly $16 in exchange for enduring rush hour hell.
As soon as we logged out Postmates starts begging us to come back for more. Sam’s phone squawks at us to do more deliveries throughout the week: “You have a Fleet bonus! Guaranteed earnings this Friday! Huge demand for the Oscars on Sunday!”
We decide to give it one more shot the next weekend. Surely with so many Bay Area socialites ordering banquets’ worth of junk food for their Oscar parties, we can strike gold on Sunday, right?
Reality hits as we spend three hours on Sunday afternoon wandering between parking lots in the area searching fruitlessly for orders. In the end, we rack up just $12 from a couple of customers who really want some Cinnabon Delights from Taco Bell to wrap up the weekend.
So what were some takeaways from our Postmates service?
Gig apps are addictive … when you can find a job. Most of the popular services make it tantalizingly easy to get started, and Postmates in particular made the delivery process as gamelike as possible to keep us coming back for the familiar cha-ching of every payout. But during off hours, you’re out of luck, and you might spend ages waiting for requests that don’t exist.
If you order through a service like Postmates, be generous with your workers. We scraped together only about $9.00 per hr for our eight hours of work, even before accounting for the cost of gas and the time we saved by working as a group. If you’re make a request, your worker might be operating well under minimum wage — be patient, and consider leaving a decent tip if you can.
If you end up in engineering or management for one of these apps, think carefully about how your work affects your contractors. Postmates dragged us across several towns without giving us the opportunity to choose where we wanted to work, and it oversold us on demand at times that demand didn’t actually exist. These choices can make users’ lives easier at the expense of the people doing their jobs — and a socially conscious service should keep a balance between the two.
Contact Matt Millican at millimat ‘at’ stanford.edu, Sam Gold at samgold ‘at’ stanford.edu and Makena Ehnisz at mehnisz ‘at’ stanford.edu.