Just when apps like Uber/Lyft started taking off and no one really had any idea what it was, one man saw an opportunity and made the most out of it. Harry Campbell is the owner/founder of The Rideshare Guy. In his chat with David Metz, Harry shares how he went from aerospace engineer to starting a blog to help rideshare drivers navigate their new gigs. He started sharing his experience as a driver himself and found out what great help this information was to other workers in the space. And as the industry grew, so did his platform. Listen to learn more about Harry’s experiences and get his insights on what opportunities are opening up in the space next.
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Harry Campbell: The Rideshare Guy
We have the Owner of The Rideshare Guy, Harry Campbell here. Welcome, Harry.
Thanks for having me, David. It’s fun to have the tables turned on me for once.
Full disclosure, I was on Harry’s podcast. Now, he’s on mine. We’re excited to turn the tables. Harry, it’s pretty simple. There are five questions I’m going to ask you so that the audience hopefully can get a better idea of who you are, learn about your experiences, and get to know you better.
I’m ready. Let’s do it.
Question number one, you went from aerospace engineer to Uber and Lyft driver to professional podcast blogger. Can you tell the audience a little bit about that journey? It’s a fascinating one.
It’s a bit of a circuitous path but my formal training or my last career was the opposite of what I do now. I was an aerospace engineer for Boeing. I got my degree in Aerospace Engineering from UC San Diego here in California. I started working in the aerospace industry as a structural analyst, making sure the planes stayed in the air and didn’t break. That was my job.
I always had a bit of an entrepreneurial side. I liked this concept of working online. If you type in, “Make money online,” you could imagine the types of results you’re going to get. It’s a little bit scary there but at the same time, I started a few personal finance blogs. I was meeting people who were legitimately making money online and it opened my eyes.
I was like, “With a lot of things in life, there’s a good side and a bad side.” I was meeting a lot of people on the good side, so I was looking for the right opportunity. In 2014, I was still working as an engineer. I started driving for Uber and Lyft on the side to try and check it out. My wife was in med school at the time, so I had a bit of free time on my hands. We were in Newport Beach, California in Orange County.
How long have Uber and Lyft existed at this point?
They have been around for a few years but they were just starting to launch in the rest of Tier 1 and Tier 2 markets. Orange County is outside of LA, for example. They have been live in LA and they started rolling out UberX. It was still early. More of the hip people knew about Uber at that time. If you were cool, you knew about Uber. If you were like me, you probably didn’t or a friend was telling you. Your grandma, your mom, and your dad haven’t heard about it yet. That was the timing.
I realized, “It’s not rocket science being an Uber and Lyft driver but it is a little tougher than it seems.” You’re out there and you don’t have a coworker that you can turn to. There’s no training. The companies were in such a high-growth mode. There were literally no resources for drivers and they weren’t honestly giving much customer support to drivers. That’s still one of the complaints. Customer support is very challenging in general. You could imagine if you don’t prioritize it.
There were all of these opportunities for me to go out there and start blogging about what it was like to be a driver. That’s what I did. I started my podcast first because I thought to myself, “If people are in the car all the time, they’re going to want to listen to a podcast.” It turned out that was wrong. The podcast is still popular but it’s our least popular medium.
The YouTube channel is by far our most popular. The blog is probably second and then the podcast is third. I started creating a ton of content now as I used to be an engineer. There were a lot of detailed spreadsheets and analyses. I was like, “Here’s how I could make more, Uber versus Lyft. Here are my optimization rates, routes, and all this type of stuff.”
I had a little bit of experience blogging and got lucky with the timing. Fast-forward eight years later, hopefully, I like to think that we’re one of the biggest players when it comes to content in the gig workspace because we have expanded beyond Rideshare. For the past few years, it has been all last-mile delivery. That has been some of our most popular content and where we make most of our revenue.
When you had those spreadsheets, what were the trends that emerged? You’re like, “I found this loophole if I drive from 9:00 AM to 11:00 AM. Lyft versus Uber.” What were some of the things that popped out?
The loophole is in the transportation or logistics business largely. People only make money when there’s someone or something in the car and your wheels are moving. If you understand that concept, that’s the utilization piece where you want to be as high as possible. You’re never going to make much if you’re sitting there and waiting for a passenger to come outside. It was all about, “How do we increase the time where I’m waiting for my next ride?”The loophole in the transportation or logistics business is you really only make money or when there's basically someone or something in the car and your wheels are moving. Click To Tweet
One way of doing that is you drive for both Uber and Lyft or you drive during times that are busy. How do I get passengers downstairs faster? Uber sends passengers a notification one minute out. If I’m going up to an apartment building and I know those typically take longer, I would text them 2 to 3 minutes ahead of time and say, “I’m almost there. Come on down.” It’s small things like that. From experience, if you understand when and how you get paid, you try to optimize a lot of that. That’s what a lot of the spreadsheets and what I was most interested in at the start.
Would you rather have five rides in an hour or have one ride that lasts an hour? In that case, what would be more profitable?
Generally, one ride that lasts an hour will make you more money because there’s so much in between and downtime. Even in that example, if you go to pick up one passenger, you have to wait for the request. Maybe it takes 1, 2, or 5 minutes. You have to then drive to the passenger and this is all unpaid time. You have to wait for the passenger to come outside, unpaid time, then they’re in the car, and you get to drive them to their destination.
The big caveat though is that a lot of times now, Uber and Lyft incentivize drivers with what are called Trip-Based Bonuses. In a city like Los Angeles or Chicago, about 30% of your pay is trip-based bonuses. If you do 100 trips, you will get a $200 or a $300 bonus. That’s one reason why. If you’re on a trip-based bonus, you want to do as many short rides as possible so that you can get your bonus quicker.
How often was the algorithm wrong? If I call an Uber or a Lyft and I want to go from A to B, they priced me $15 but they miscalculated the traffic, there was a road closed, or what was supposed to be a 5-minute ride turned into a 15-minute ride. It wasn’t as efficient and profitable. Does that happen often? Do you see the algorithms getting better?
A majority of the time, the algorithms, the behind-the-scenes pricing, and things like that are pretty spot on but if you think about the fact that Uber is doing millions of trips a day, even 0.01% of millions of trips a day, there are going to be a lot of issues and things that can potentially go wrong. That’s one thing that we work with a lot of drivers. It’s understanding how pricing normally works. Do a quick spot check because most likely, it will be fine but there are times and situations.
This was some of the type of content we were doing, especially before Uber dialed in a lot of these things. Early on, we discovered that when Uber started quoting passengers an upfront fair. For example, they would say, “Your fair is going to be $15.” As a driver, you could take a longer route. Google Maps might suggest three routes if it’s the same amount of time.
If they’re all about the same amount of time, you could take the longer route and make more money in that situation. Uber would make slightly less. The passenger would pay the same no matter what but as long as it was 1 of the 3 suggested Google Maps routes, if you knew what you were doing, you would want to take the longest route.
That makes a lot of sense. Since the Rideshare industry has had explosive growth over the years, where do you see the next opportunity for evolution in the space? What are you seeing?
What we have seen over the past couple of years is that last-mile delivery has exploded. When I think of Rideshare, I think of transporting people. That’s becoming a pretty mature industry. There’s always room for innovation but if you’ve taken a taxi in the past and taken an Uber anytime, you’ve seen that Uber disrupted taxis. In the last-mile delivery space, I don’t know if there’s a similar opportunity but a lot of the trends that we’re seeing are that people want more things faster.
There are all these different verticals. There was a lot of talk during the pandemic about food and grocery delivery but we’re seeing anything and everything delivered. There’s marijuana delivery in California and alcohol delivery. Construction materials want to be delivered. A lot of these opportunities are similar but it revolves around getting more stuff faster and more efficiently to people.
Is there an opportunity for a driver? I don’t know if it existed when you drove. If you’re an Uber or Lyft driver, can you drop somebody off, do Uber Eats, and pick up food because you’re in the neighborhood? Is that way too much to juggle as a driver?
This is something that Uber has been touting a lot. It’s the benefits of the fact that they’ve got Uber for rides, Uber Eats, and all these synergies. Personally, that sounds a lot better on paper, a PDF, or a PowerPoint than it does in real life. We hosted a conference here in LA in March 2022 called Curbivore. We had an actual exec from Uber. I was monitoring the panel and we had an actual courier on stage who used to do rides. During the pandemic, she switched to Eats. She had a funny comment that was like, “I don’t want stinky food in the back of my car and then I have to pick up a passenger.”
A lot of drivers resonate with something simple like that because passengers will rate you lower if this car smells terrible. There are opportunities to leverage both rides and Eats. For example, we tell drivers, “At the end of the day if you happen to be in an area near your home and you don’t want to get along a 10, 20, or 30-mile ride, switch to Eats because you’re not going to go more than 3 to 4 miles because people aren’t ordering food from very far away.”
It’s funny because being New York, it still has a strong yellow cab culture. Probably 50/50 Rideshare and yellow cab. I like to support it. There’s still something romantic about walking out in the street but I would have thought that the yellow cab industry would have taken more pride because the quality, compared to Uber and Lyft in terms of taking care of your car, is night and day.
New York City is the biggest transportation market in the world. There are 115,000 Uber and Lyft vehicles in the city and about 13,000 to 14,000 taxis. There was a lot of pent-up demand there that wasn’t being served before Uber and Lyft. To be fair to taxis, they have been doing this for a while, maybe 100 years. There are some things that they figured out. The street hail is a good example. It has been a while since I’ve been there but I’m going.
If you walk out of a building and you try to call an Uber and Lyft, and they’re on the wrong street or going the wrong way, that might be a 5, 10, or 15-minute detour versus a taxi that might be right there. There are still some inherent advantages to the street hail model. That’s the big missed opportunity for taxis. As I remember early on, they were trying to get regulators to make Uber and Lyft become more like them. They should have taken the best of what they did and become more like Uber and Lyft. If you could street hail and book in an app, now you’ve got the best of both worlds.
I use Curb and they allow you. If I’m going to wait for the car, I use Uber or Lyft. If I’m going to walk out in the middle of the street, I’m going with a yellow cab. For me, it’s two very different mindsets. Dealing with people, being a driver and in that moment of service to another, what’s the one thing you learned about people that you didn’t know before you became a driver?
One thing is that people can be very open and honest in the backseat of a car. There’s something intimate about getting into someone else’s car in a good way where certain people will open up. It’s like, “This driver is nice to me. I had a bad night. I need a therapist, a friend, or whatever it might be.” One of the things I’ve always liked about working in customer service or jobs like that is that you see things from a different perspective. You see how someone treats the waitstaff. It’s more of a true show of their character than how they treat a colleague at work.There's something intimate about getting into someone else's car in a good way where certain people will open up. Click To Tweet
That’s one of the reasons why I’ve always liked working and being on the receiving end of sometimes unpleasant encounters. It tries to keep me balanced. The thing that I was surprised by was that people will get into the car with a stranger. There’s something about Uber and Lyft where you see their picture and their rating as a driver, and it’s like, “I’m going to open up to this person. They needed a friend.” I’ve had some good, fun, and interesting conversations in an Uber that I haven’t got in other areas of my life.
Years ago, there was a show. It was on HBO. It’s called Taxicab Confessions.
They might have originated the model for sure. There are a lot of things that taxis did right that they figured out.
On that note, what’s the wildest thing that happened when you were a driver?
I’ve had some pretty wild things happen. I used to focus on the party hours, Friday and Saturday nights, holidays, and things like that because that’s when you can make the most amount of money. Depending on how PG or R-rated you want to keep this show, I’ve got stories for you. The wildest thing is honestly a lot of people trying to pack into the car and drinking or making out. I’ve had a couple in my car that probably should have waited to get home to do what they were trying to do and things like that.
It’s usually of the semi-sexual or semi-intoxicated like being pretty crazy and wild and sticking their head out. I had one guy. I remember that they did a little fire drill where they all ran out of the car. They thought it would be funny and it was that type of joke. When we were stopped at a light, they all got out, ran into a different seat, and didn’t tell me, “What’s going on here?” It’s drunk shenanigans like that, which might be expected if you’re driving on Friday and Saturday nights in Newport Beach, California.
Did you ever have to kick somebody out and say, “You’re out?”
I never had a truly bad experience. I had some experiences where I felt uncomfortable or where I didn’t like. Imagine me. I’m 6’3. I’m 200 pounds. I feel pretty safe in most situations. You can imagine other drivers that are smaller or female drivers. They have to put up with a lot of crap. I have never personally had a truly bad experience but I also would say that one of the reasons why I started my blog is that a lot of situations can be prevented.
We wrote an article called Being the Captain of Your Own Ship. You have to understand when you’re in customer service, you’re serving a customer but at the same time, you can’t let them be the boss of you. You’re still the boss of them, especially in an intimate environment like a car. It’s identifying, “Is this person someone who I even want to let into my car?”
If they’re intoxicated and puking on the side of the road, you probably don’t want to let them into your car. It’s identifying things like that, especially early on, it was a lot tougher to find passengers. Give them clear and concise directions but if they can’t figure it out, that’s a bad sign. When they get into the car and if they start messing with things, you’d say, “I would appreciate this,” or if you want them to put their seatbelt on.
It’s not about being confrontational like, “You have to put your seatbelt on.” It’s more about making a joke, “I’m a crazy driver. You probably want to put your seatbelt on so you don’t get thrown all over the place.” It’s lightening the mood. That’s what you learn if you’re doing a good job at customer service. I’m sure there are some fancy books and training materials around Ritz-Carlton levels of service but for a lot of drivers like me, we figured it out on our own.
It’s tougher now. Drivers have to deal with, “Can you please wear your mask?”
Masking is a perfect example. That’s challenging for drivers because there’s such variation from region to region. I’m here in LA and I probably haven’t worn a mask in 3 or 4 months, then I went to Mexico City and everyone is wearing masks. I’m forgetting a mask. If you fly a Mexican Airline to Mexico, you have to wear a mask but if you fly an American Airline, you don’t. It’s tough for some of these employees. It’s why it’s nice. If you’re doing these services yourself, you then have some empathy. It’s like, “Uber might send me a message if customers are complaining that I’m not wearing a mask, and then other passengers don’t want to wear one.” It’s tough to balance all that.
On a good note, what’s the largest tip you’ve ever gotten being a driver?
I don’t think I ever hit triple digits because I remember that was always something if drivers got a $100 tip but there were lots of $5 tips. A lot of people used to tip me cash too, which I always thought was interesting. You would get a little cash tip here and there even though they’re booking the ride on Uber. I got a few $20s here and there.
I got a $50 tip once. Someone handed me $50 or maybe tipped it in the app but I don’t think I ever got much higher than that. A lot of my driving strategies too were to drive during the busiest times and places. I was going for a high surge. They were already paying a lot for the ride. If you pay $150 for a ride that normally costs $50, you’re probably not going to tip much if anything beyond that, which is fair.
Is that an awesome feeling when you’re driving away and then you get the alert that the person tipped you?
That’s a good example. Uber has added some cool features over the years. In a lot of digital transactions, sometimes it’s hard to thank people or still have that connection. In food delivery, it’s faceless. You place the order, and then someone goes and picks it up. They drop it off on your door, and they don’t even stick around because of COVID. This has changed. I get it but I’m not in love with that because it makes it seem like a faceless transaction even on Uber. When you do leave a tip, it does notify the driver that you got a tip and then you can thank the customer for the tip. It’s not super obtrusive or anything but it’s nice as a driver. It’s like, “That guy or that lady left me a tip. Let me thank them quickly.”In a lot of digital transactions, it's sometimes hard to thank people or have that connection. Click To Tweet
Those are the fringe benefits. There’s that two-minute action, which is pretty cool. Here’s the last question. Would you rather take a ride to the bottom of the ocean or a ride to the moon?
That’s a good question because I used to be an aerospace engineer. I’ve always had an affinity for the air and space. I did one internship one summer at JPL, which is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in NASA. I would probably have to go to space. I did apply once to be a NASA astronaut mainly so I could get the rejection letter, which I still have somewhere in my closet. I would have to pick a ride to the moon.
That makes complete sense. Harry, I appreciate you taking the time to chat. To anyone that wants to reach out to Harry, you can find him on LinkedIn. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Take care, David.
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About Harry Campbell
Harry is the owner and founder of The Rideshare Guy. He used to be a full-time engineer but in 2015 he quit his day job to run the blog full-time! He and his team write about what it’s really like to be a driver for Uber, Lyft and lots of other gig services. His goal is to educate drivers and help them earn more money by working smarter, not harder.