On Christmas last year, 31-year old William Neher posted a mosaic to his Instagram of all the apps he’s worked for during the three years he’s spent as a full-time side-gig hustler. There are ride-hail ventures like Uber, Lyft, and Via, food delivery platforms like Grubhub and Uber Eats, dog-walking services like Rover and Wag, and a shockingly diverse litany of electric scooter companies that have taken over every metropolitan sidewalk in America.
Neher, who is a bachelor, childless, and an American citizen, represents a seemingly unavoidable reality as we turn more people into “independent contractors.” He’s itinerized his app work into many combinations during his time as an iPhone-based worker, and now has landed on some semblance of a schedule: collecting and recharging the electric scooters that are left on street corners, with intermittent dog walks mixed in for good measure.
The tech conglomerates who’ve orchestrated our current app-hustle economy largely rely on the moral pretext that the non-employees are working their posts to make a little extra money on the fringes. “Over 75 percent [of our drivers] drive less than 10 hours a week to supplement their existing jobs,” said Eric Smith, a spokesperson for Lyft, in response to a recent ride-share drivers strike.
If workers should regard their app earnings as ancillary income, these companies’ logic goes, they therefore shouldn’t be eligible for employee protections like paid leave or benefits. Local governments, however, are beginning to push back on that sentiment. In March, a bill was raised in the California legislature that would make it harder for those companies to misclassify workers as contractors. In New York, city officials passed a law to establish a blanket minimum wage for ride-hail drivers, which arrived after reports that those contractors could only count on seeing $12.50 of a $27 fare. For years, Uber has referred to its drivers as “partners” in order to avoid classifying them as employees.
Neher has eight “partners” on the eight different apps he’s worked. The thing is, he likes it. He says he certainly prefers it to his earlier salaried positions as a salesperson or a cellphone repair clerk. We talked about how he’s able to juggle so many apps at once, the tricks of the trade he’s learned as a permalancer, and how he avoids burnout in a job where you could be working 24 hours a day.
How did you transition to a fully app-based income? What about that life made sense to you?
I started with Lyft, just over three years ago, and before that I was bouncing from one lousy job to another. I worked sales jobs for a long time, I worked at a hardware store for a couple of years, and I was doing cellphone repair right before Lyft. But it wasn’t giving me enough money to live comfortably. They wouldn’t give me more hours, and I wanted something that would allow me to work as much as I needed to. So I left my job and I didn’t look back.
Redundancy is a cornerstone for working as an “apportunist,” which is what I consider myself. Obviously a lot of those drivers are on both Uber and Lyft, because it affords you a bigger net to cast as far as rides you can get, and in terms of where you are in space and time. There’s different bonuses, different surges in different areas.
What are your total stats at this point? How many app gigs have you taken?
I’m probably up to about 4,000 scooters at this point. I’ve done hundreds if not thousands of dog walks. I’ve worked with 130 dogs at this point, and I know so many different dog breeds now. I finally did one delivery through Postmates, my first one, because they offered a $50 bonus. That’s another reason to sign up for a bunch of apps — you never know when they’re going to offer a bonus. I’ve done 2,000-plus Uber Eats drives, 650 regular Uber trips, just over 2,000 Lyft trips, and I think only two Via trips. I know for sure I’ve done 1,200 Lime scooters, because that’s the only one that keeps a lifetime counter.
I try to stack things as much as possible. I’d combine the scooters with [dog-walking] and the Uber Eats deliveries. I would look at the scooter map, I’d drop off food and grab a couple scooters. I call that multi-apping. You can’t load a bunch of passengers in the car, so one appeal of the deliveries is that you can make multiple deliveries at once, [because] a lot of people are running multiple food delivery apps.
How much money are you pulling in a month?
It varies. I don’t always hustle my butt off. But you can make two grand a week pretty easily on apps. If I had a bigger Prius or some kind of a trailer, I could be making substantially more. I’m at the point where I can make about a dollar a minute pretty easy. When the juice is worth the squeeze, I’m out there. But obviously, there’s a lot of volatility in the app world. That’s why I’m on so many. If the scooter thing goes under tomorrow, I can jump back into dog walks.
You seem like you’re making good money, but it seems like there’s such a crazy hustle. You’re only making money when you’re working, so how do you stay comfortable? Do you feel like you’re under the gun?
I’m very comfortable for the most part, but I don’t like to allow myself to feel too comfortable. I’m always trying to psych myself out and run different scenarios in my head so I’m motivated and I’m hustling. I try to stay ahead, so I never get caught up with bills that I can’t afford to pay, or my cellphone goes out.
There’s been definitely been times like that. I had to give three Lyft trips using [an] Xfinity Wifi [hotspot] because my data plan went out. So I was on a spare tire and using wifi.
All these gigs change. There was a time where you couldn’t cash out on Lyft till you had at least $50. I had to take somebody to the airport, and I expected to have at least $50 from that trip. But I had $49.97. I was almost out of cash, and I couldn’t cash out, and I had no gas. I made it back to DC and did one more trip. It was fine, but I try to avoid those moments.
Are you still living paycheck to paycheck, or are things more stable now?
Things are more stable now. I do have to move shortly, which I’m trying to get more padding for. It will also change my game. There won’t be as many scooters where I move, so I’m thinking about transitioning back into dog walks, because that’s the interesting thing about these gigs. The city never sleeps. Even if you’re just doing something like dog walks, I’ve had clients that wanted me to walk their dogs at midnight, because they’re working a graveyard shift. You can fill your schedule up any way you want to. You turn your phone into a Swiss Army knife for money.
It’s like you could be working 24 hours a day.
I could! I could be working 24 hours a day just on scooters and dog walks.
Run me through your schedule. What’s an average workday for you?
I try to run scooters as often as I can. I look at the map, and when there’s a lot of them clustered in my area, I’ll go out. Typically in the early afternoon I’ll grab one round, and later in the night I’ll do one or two more rounds. That goes from 8 pm to anywhere from 10 pm till midnight. Then I can get some sleep so I can put out scooters in the morning, usually 4 am to 7 am.
But everything changes. They’re constantly changing the terms and how all this works. As recently as last week, Skip [a scooter company] changed their whole deployment formula. Now, instead of only being able to put out scooters at 4 am, you can put them out any time in the day. Lime also put out a feature where you can reserve the scooters that you’re going to go pick up, so we’re not fighting over them. I’ve walked to so many Lime scooters, and within 30 seconds, someone else has grabbed them and put them in their car.
I guess the thing I’m learning from talking to you is that you don’t have anything anyone would consider a “routine.” You’re constantly switching up your schedule and your itinerary depending on what apps are currently paying the most or are the most convenient. Is that accurate to say?
A big part of that is just me. I could easily plot a scenario where I’m just working Lime for the next two weeks, and if I did that, I’d have a very set pattern. I kind of like puzzles, and it’s gotten to the point where I don’t have to drive more than 3 or 4 miles from my home base to do my work. I do juggle it, even with things like weather, because I don’t want to work in the rain. For instance, I don’t have any recurring dog walks scheduled right now, and I instead add on-demand walks. But when I used to work ride-sharing, there were a lot of surges in the rain. So the weather really affects how you work in the side-gig economy.
I saw you post something on Facebook in solidarity with the Uber and Lyft drivers who were striking. What are your thoughts on that trend? What improvements would you like to see for full-time app workers?
I think there’s been a lot of improvements over time. All of these things are starting at square one.
Support is always very bad. It takes forever for them to get back to you. So I think one thing a lot of people would like is for people to be able to call support for any one of these apps. Back in the day, I tried to call Uber support and I was on hold for 45 minutes. I’ve had my accounts be paused on almost every single app I’ve been on for one reason or another. I’ve had problems with pay, I’ve had to argue with support, and the first time you send an email arguing over $4, you feel like you’re wasting your time, but ultimately, you just made $4 off an email.
It does get frustrating when you have to send 10 different messages saying, “No, I need these four dollars.” But if you’re on a handful of apps, you don’t feel like you’re being victimized by support or some unruly client. I could easily have a Rover client give me a bad review for no good reason because they’re having a bad day, and I could get kicked off. But early on, I saw the advantage of being independent from any one app.
I don’t know how much can change. We’re working through our phones. Obviously, ride-sharing drivers need more money. They’re not getting paid enough to eat and break even at the end of the day. But it all varies on the market you’re in, how well you understand the app, how good you are at math — all of that determines whether or not you’re going to do well off the app, or if the app will do well off of you.
How do you avoid burnout?
It can definitely be hard sometimes to take a break, and then to look at your phone to see all the scooters around. But just this last weekend, it was raining, and I took the weekend off. On Monday, I felt like I was reborn. I just took a nice little break, and I didn’t push myself. It’s important to stay in check with yourself, or else you’re gonna wreck yourself.