Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Have Tesla, will Uber. (How’s this for a second career?)

Of course, it’s not really John Pepper’s second career. He’s going to have bigger fish to fry, or burritos to roll, or whatever.

But it’s certainly an interesting little story.

Pepper is the co-founder – and until October was the CEO – or Boloco. For those not fortunate enough to live within walking distance of a Boloco, it’s a small, primarily New England, chain that makes “globally inspired burritos.”  I highly recommend the Bangkok Thai - Thai-style peanut sauce, Asian slaw, cucumbers, brown rice – which I augment with a plop of white-meat chicken. Definitely yum.

Anyway, a few months back, Pepper and his board had a parting of the ways. Rather than do the standard serial entrepreneur thing – start something else immediately, write a book, invest in the startup ideas of others, become a Bloomberg pundit:

Pepper decided to become a part-time Uber driver. (Uber is a transportation service that lets you summon a range of vehicles, from taxis to SUVs, using a smartphone app. The drivers are all freelancers.) He's done almost 50 rides so far, in his Jeep Wrangler and his Tesla Model S electric sedan. Often, he picks up Uber passengers after he has dropped his kids off at a Cambridge private school. Yesterday, he said he drove seven hours non-stop, until his wife called and asked him to "stop Uber-ing." (Source:

While I am an ardent Zip Car member – wheels when you want them  - I haven’t yet tapped into Uber.

In the last couple of months, Uber has, however, been twice recommended to me.

Once, when I was picking up my Zip Car, a woman who was returning hers told me I should complement Zipping by Uberizing myself. Then my husband’s podiatrist told us that it’s a much better way to nab an ad hoc ride than hailing a cab, and hoping that the Brookline cab will stop and pick you up in the sleet, even though he’s not supposed to.

While I may get to Uber eventually – I suspect I’ll need to upgrade my legacy smartphone, and surrender my status as the last Blackberry user in the world – I do have a tiny bit o’ reservation about the Uber model. (This is the same reservation – perhaps generational – that, while I comfortably, indeed blithely, do short term rentals via VRBO and similar outfits, keeps me off the pullout couch in the living room at Airbnb.)

I know that  the bad drivers/amateur hoteliers will get quickly found out and exposed. Vox populi, and all that. But it would be just my luck to get some Travis Bickle gone bad who’d decide to take me and his 1992 Honda Civic on a suicide plunge into the Charles. 

Maybe I’m just too nanny-stater, but I do like at least a soupçon of regulation.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued by Pepper’s decision to put his pedal to the metal as an Uber driver.

He is not, of course, doing this to make his living – no one who drops his kids off at a private school in Cambridge in a Tesla is going to make it on Uber pay:

I was out yesterday, and I missed the peaks [when Uber charges a higher rate]. I made $190 working 7 hours, minus Uber's 20 percent. That's about $21 an hour. I went on at 8:30 AM and was done at 3:30 PM. Maybe it was a big day, because it was the day after a snowstorm.

Twenty-one bucks and hour certainly isn’t shabby for a part time, low-skill, flexible flyer job, but Teslas start out at about $70K, and private schools – like Shady Hill and BBN -  in Cambridge don’t come cheap, either.

But Pepper’s in it for the learning experience, not the walkin’ around money.

He was a Uber user, and on the day he and Boloco parted company, an Uber driver mentioned that he could get $250 if he referred a new driver. Pepper was in!

He went through a training session, hit the road, and is studying – first hand – the Uber model to see how it can apply to other businesses.

I get to see the other side of a consumer technology business that I really like — I'm motivated and inspired by it.

And I suspect that he won’t be much longer at it, either.

So, alas, it is doubtful that, if and when I decide to Uber, I’ll get picked up by the guy with the Tesla.

Meanwhile, my appetite is so whetted for a Bangkok Thai burrito. Wish my local Bolocos delivered…

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