Why We Should be More Like Uber (and Uber Should be Less Like Uber)
If you’re like us, you wake up every morning or, uh, afternoon (freelancers guys) and you wonder if the leader’s next big blunder means he’s a thing of the past… or is simply building a new, hellish future.
By “leader” we’re referring, of course, to Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber. You know, the guy who joined Trump’s business advisory group, was taped berating one of his own drivers, and has overseen scabbing, sexual harassment, law enforcement surveillance… plus a lawsuit from Google alleging stolen technologies. And that’s in the past two months.
Tbh, on the one hand, we kind of admire his hustle: there’s nothing this guy won’t do for money!
On the other hand… there’s nothing this guy won’t do for money.
Case in point: a piece in the New York Times this week about “the psychological levers that Uber pulls” to control its drivers. Sorry New York Times, is Kalanick doing this all day??
We’re independent pros, not corporate freelancers — but yeah, this is relevant. On the one hand, it charts a very dark future for all freelancers, in which coercion masquerades as flexibility (we’ll get there). On the other hand, it points to the ways we could benefit from, well, being more like Uber.
Before we get there, let’s start by saying the piece is relevant on a more basic level as well: Kalanick’s evil mind control tactics turn out to be, well, the same tricks Netflix uses to make us watch Iron Fist (Netflix made us, we swear!). Here’s a quick comparison of technologies.
Netflix: Automatically plays our next episode so that we binge watch.
Uber: Automatically assigns the next rider to drivers so they binge drive.
Netflix: Recommends terrible shows like Fuller House.
Uber: Recommends drivers go to places they can’t get rides.
Netflix: Lets consumers choose their own ending (reportedly in the works!).
Uber: Lets drivers choose how much money they want to make.
Let’s break down these tactics and show why they’re relevant to us:
1) The Dark Future Scenario: Flexibility = Coercion
Yes, we came up with that formula ourselves, and yes, we’re showing it off to our moms on this email (hi moms!).
But the idea is nothing new: in a freelance landscape where we all value flexibility, companies like Uber and Netflix have to pretend to empower us with more choices in order to coerce us… and override our flexibility altogether. At Uber, drivers are assigned rides to supposedly empower them with more business, and who would complain about more business? Drivers are given the empowering choice to work more and get more rides in strange destinations, but like, who wants to turn down more $$?
If drivers end up working extra hours and never taking a bathroom break and circling around Riverbank State Park for hours without pay, well, that was their choice.
As independent pros who work with families, unfortunately, we’re not so different from these corporate freelancers. At Amazon, for example, freelancers have “flexible hours” only because they’re on-call to work only the hours Amazon needs them. But aren’t we really at the mercy of a client’s “flexible hours” in a given week as well? In fact, our payment schedules are also “flexible,” at the whim of clients, whereas at least Uber and Amazon pay on time.
But that’s the thing about freelancing. Getting to be self-reliant means you have to be self-reliant. Flexibility… or flexploitation? (Came up with that one too!).
2) The Bright Future Scenario: Why We Should be Like Uber
Ok, it’s not actually a bright future that Uber is treating its workers like consumers a la Netflix. But we can learn a thing or two from them.
The freelance market is bad for Uber, though, when it means that workers don’t have to report at the hours or locations the company wants… i.e. when freelancers have flexibility to manage their careers. So the drivers really are consumers the company needs to control. Uber is selling transportation to riders just as much as it’s selling riders to drivers.
But if we think about Uber as a marketplace in which the workers are consumers, we shouldn’t think about ourselves as the workers… we should think about ourselves as Uber.
Like Uber, our goal is to get individuals to work with us. And after all, what good pro hasn’t used many of the same tactics as Netflix and Uber to make clients set goals for themselves, remind them that they’re close, and recommend more work to maximize their gains? We can all learn a lesson…
3) The Actual Future: Uber as the American Economy
England and America’s economies boomed in the 1980s after unemployment skyrocketed, for good reason: huge unemployment meant people would take whatever rate they could get, so companies could employ masses of people by underpaying them. It was about that time that unions lost huge power as workers were left to their own devices… as freelancers. Sound familiar?
Basically, Uber works the same way: it wants empty cabs to drive down prices for riders and increase its number of rides. In other words? Since anyone else could take their job, workers settle for the lowest rates in times of high unemployment, which is great for business and terrible for workers.
But what happens if not everyone can take their job? What if the workers are, say, personalized experts like tutors, personal trainers, or chefs? Suddenly we have a very different economy, in which the workers have the power to set high rates.
Whether this happens is a different story. Since these more meritocratic positions will mean heavy competition between individuals, it’s harder for them to come together to exchange info on market rates and referrals… see where Felix comes in?