On-demand in small business: Four ideas for growth

Where is your place in the on-demand economy? Many workers and small businesses, including retailers, see the encroachment of Amazon, WalMart, and myriad other services as destructive. Yet media-enabled global brands are consistently challenged when engaging home- and office-based customers. The future of your business, whether a physical location or as an independent contractor, depends upon finding new niches where human expertise overwhelms online-only engagement.

Non-manufacturing businesses account for about 80 percent of the U.S. economy and are reported by the Institute for Supply Management as growing strongly for 97 consecutive months. Amazon, Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit, Instacart and other services seem poised to steal business from local experts, but we think that by studying their approaches, small business and independent businesspeople will find greater revenue opportunities and a foundation for maintaining a trusted relationship with consumers. There are many new niches in the ever-specializing economy.

Last week, Uber announced beauty salon network bgX had become the first “business that has fully integrated with Uber for Business.” If you are seeking styling or a blow-out before an important meeting, “The platform will provide the convenience of having premium salon styling delivered directly to women at home, work or at a hotel.” The stylist comes to the customer if they happen to be in London, Paris, or Dubai. It’s a small footprint, but bgX could build geographic presence with time and marketing, adding cities with high concentrations of luxury styling customers.

Services consistently add greater value than other sectors of the U.S. economy

Uber’s head of Uber for Business in Europe told the Evening Standard that 65,000 businesses have begun to integrate Uber services. Health services and elder care home companies pioneered the gig-sourcing local drivers to bring patients to appointments and ferrying retirees to an from shopping, events, and around town. Westfield Malls set up Uber transit centers in 33 of its malls last Fall. Yet, a survey last year showed that the majority — 73 percent — of small businesses used no gig services.

Likewise, Amazon extended its Whole Foods home delivery service last week. Adding San Francisco and Atlanta, as well as adding a Prime discount of five percent on Whole Foods purchase, the once virtual giant is developing a physical footprint in local markets. With Amazon Go stores prepped to serve walk-in-walk-out shoppers, potentially as ubiquitously as 7-Eleven does today, the Bezos machine is targeting the consumer on the go while catering to their home and office needs with Prime and Prime for Business memberships.

As a small business or an independent worker thinking about how to compete against these global brands, focus on where the human-to-human gap has opened as a consequence of automation. Logistics have been improved dramatically, but feedback, recycling, and recirculation of products all remain stubbornly local in nature. A salesperson is still the best way to capture feedback because they bring the ability to ask questions and report back non-verbal signals. This is where a massive opportunity remains for individuals in the gig economy.

Scale, surprisingly, is the reason the Small Business opportunity is growing. The delivery of services and products-as-a-service require deep personalization. Mass personalization will remain a matter of demographic or psychographic templates that must be tuned in the last-mile to engage the specific customer’s values. 

The Minte, an apartment cleaning service in Chicago, demonstrates how small businesses can find and fill gaps by selecting a target market to serve better than national brands can today. The company identified apartment buildings as a market where it could rapidly lower the cost of service by increasing customer penetration in a single location. 

“Once you’re in one building, all the others start coming to you,” The Minte CEO Kathleen Wilson told BuiltInChicago. “It really just exploded.” Call it “share of locality” thinking. Instead of simply thinking of gaining more of a consumer’s wallet, look to expand a business’ relationship with customers’ neighbors.

Word-of-mouth and local selling of these services don’t happen entirely online. People make the sale and pass customers along based on their satisfaction with a service. The focus on increasing Share of Locality inverts the marketing challenge. Small promotional and direct-sales engagements can kickstart a local on-demand business. If you are looking at the on-demand economy as a looming threat that will wipe out your local services market, study the gaps opening between big brands and local buyers to find a new niche. 

  1. SMBs should position themselves as a local connector between global brands and customers. Uber, for example, has a massive local targeting investment that relies on its teams localizing and distributing marketing offers based on geotagging and artificial intelligence.SMBs have extensive insight into local demand and can tap into, for example, mobility services such as Lyft, Maven, and Uber, providing deeply contextualized local offers.One small business may offer Lyft rides to customers who want to shop at their location while another may choose to offer in-home delivery. Both, however, bring a local customer to the relationship with a mobility provider that can be mined for additional service opportunities. If a customer likes dinner delivered every evening, would they also like a housecleaner to come tidy up after the meal? Assembling these local services, consolidating them into a single point of contact and feedback for global brands, is a defensible position in the market.
  2.  Shopping destinations should consider aggregating delivery opportunities. Amazon has begun installing Amazon Lockers in Whole Foods stores, allowing shoppers to pick up online orders while at the store. Groups of retailers and service providers need to look at the businesses near them to understand where they can consolidate the delivery of goods and services. With improved logistics and retail management systems, a local store could become the destination for picking up a new product and receiving hands-on support and training for the consumer. Expertise is the rarest commodity. Small business is the most distributed approach to expertise delivery, which has been the foundation of consumer trust for generations. If your small business is isolated from others but draws regular customer traffic, can you use Uber or Lyft to “do the shopping” for a customer while they have their hair cut, their car serviced, or while they learn a new skill in a small training center attached to a local mall?
  3. SMBs and workers should focus on excellent service and enduring customer relationships. Today, gig work is treated as a commodity, and it results in lower wages as more workers join. However, consumers prefer trusted providers, especially for personal services. As the on-demand approach to work expands, small business and labor both need to leverage the trust they develop with local consumers in order to build their pricing power.Differentiation based on service level and trust will increase earnings. At the very least, a highly regarded local source of service or product expertise — the person who sold the customer their last three lawn and yard tools or the regular provider of the perfect massage — can earn more based on increased demand. Going further, the local expert service provider can follow the “breakage model” adopted by many companies, such as DropBox. They charge a little more for a lot more service on the bet that most of the services will not be consumed. A local SMB service provider, for example, could offer priority callback and service visits to “members” who pay a small monthly fee to jump to the front of the line when they need help. 
  4. Tie into the on-demand economy and push the limits. Uber for Business, for instance, has extensive information about the routes and timing for deliveries but does not have a personal relationship with local consumers outside the Uber app. Like salon company bgX, look at what your business, or you as a service provider, can deliver and seek to be the local partner for on-demand product manufacturers and local mobility providers. You will find that there is no local sales interface to collect feedback from potential customers and expertise is unevenly distributed.Your ability to use multiple on-demand services is critical to success, so mix and match aggressively. Attack the problem of how to get a product from point A to point B, to onboard a customer to a new service, such as home security DIY installers who need to train customers to manage their security systems, or the need to efficiently deliver for hands-on expertise, whether a doctor, lawyer, auto mechanic, or any other person-to-person service. Small business and individual workers can take a robust part in extending services revenue, by tying expertise to products, fulfilling delivery, service, and post-purchase support locally, and thinking systematically about where value can be added in the on-demand economy.

MIT Paper Suggests the Gig Economy Is An Illusion

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research has released a paper that purportedly blows a hole in the ship of the gig economy. The findings are already much contested, and I’ll lay out in this posting where more research is needed, the flaws in the paper’s methodology, and the policy implications of the MIT CEEPR report.

Here is the damning summary of the paper’s findings:

Results show that per hour worked, median profit from driving is $3.37/hour before taxes, and 74% of drivers earn less than the minimum wage in their state. 30% of drivers are actually losing money once vehicle expenses are included. On a per-mile basis, median gross driver revenue is $0.59/mile but vehicle operating expenses reduce real driver profit to a median of $0.29/mile. For tax purposes the $0.54/mile standard mileage deduction in 2016 means that nearly half of drivers can declare a loss on their taxes. If drivers are fully able to capitalize on these losses for tax purposes, 73.5% of an estimated U.S. market $4.8B in annual ride-hailing driver profit is untaxed.

There are several underlying problems with these findings, ranging from the way that the researchers characterized the share of earnings from driving to the research team’s conclusion that because drivers can take the standard mileage deduction when calculating their taxes the on-demand mobility business goes mostly untaxed. Uber’s chief economist, Johnathan Hall, examined the report’s findings in a Medium posting on Sunday, suggesting the estimated earnings are deeply flawed.

The authors fail to note that every transportation provider, from a Lyft driver and local taxi to a long-haul trucker or local salesperson, may take a $0.54 cents-per-mile deduction on every mile they drive. By extension, the MIT research is arguing that all mileage deductions are a form of subsidy rather than a recognized cost of doing business. There is a substantial debate to be had about the mileage deduction’s sustainability, but these research judges that policy debate with an emphatic assessment of its own that is not supported by the data or current law.

The full research report will not be available for six months, as it has been distributed to CEEPR’s sponsors and remains inaccessible to the public. We think that’s counter-productive, as it prevents a full assessment of the data gathering and findings.

What stands out for us is CEEPR’s comparison of Driving Costs and Driving Revenue without regard for the number of hours driven in the available data. Uber’s critique of the research revolves around how drivers characterized the share of revenue they earn from driving. CEEPR’s methodology uses qualitative expressions, e.g., “very little” or “around half” of the respondent’s income attributed to the share of income earned from driving both with and without distinctions between all income from on-demand work or any questions about the specific number of hours driving.

We need to see the full data set and the research paper. However, it appears that based on these qualitative assessments by drivers, the MIT team used hard statistical categories to discount reported earnings, apparently by 50 percent or more from what drivers said. Uber argues that the methodology builds in a 58.5 percent discount on actual earnings. We understand this is a conservative statistical approach to take. However, it seems to have reduced the real income reported because the number of hours driven to earn any income isn’t factored in. MIT CEEPR should release the full report so that others can review the methodology.

Drivers in Las Vegas responded to the report in this ABC15 news report. Admittedly, this is anectdotal feedback, but it does reflect the fact that drivers who treat their on-demand work as a business appear to be earning more than minimum wage. Infrequent drivers, who cannot expense much of their automotive financing and care costs, certainly don’t make as much after deductions as full-time drivers.

In more than 100 conversations with Lyft and Uber drivers, I’ve found that the drivers typically earn more than $18 an hour, and those who drive full-time or near that level do report having an economically satisfying experience in most cases. More drivers report that ride-sharing is their primary job, as well. That said, a significant minority of these drivers reported that they commuted 100 miles or more to major cities to work for three-to-five days straight, while sleeping in their cars, to earn a viable living for their family back home.

Gigging isn’t perfect, there is plenty of room for improvement. This paper adds to the controversy and requires full disclosure of the data to support the discussion about how the economy can evolve for fairness and prosperity among workers.

Every driver should be treating their ride-sharing work as a business, taking the maximum appropriate tax benefits for mileage, writing off car payments and repair to the extent that they are attributable to ride-sharing revenue.

Marketplace Fees Under Pressure: Uber Settles With Drivers, Again

Uber headed off a class action lawsuit by 2,000 New York-area drivers this week, with a promise to pay $3 million to end a dispute over the fees it imposes on those drivers. It is evidence that marketplaces will see more pressure to lower fees in order to retain workers. 

The ridesharing company has settled many similar suits and appears headed for many more settlements. We think the underlying signals point to a decline in the advantage marketplaces had over workers which allowed fees of up to 30 percent to be deducted from fares.

On-demand companies should be prepared to thrive on margins similar to retailers, such as Amazon and WalMart. Where a 25 percent or greater fee is deducted from a driver’s or a housekeeper’s earnings today, the on-demand market his headed for a sub-10 percent fee structure over the next decade.

Two factors will accelerate this trend:

1.) As purpose-specific marketplaces mature, such as ridesharing,  workers will diversify their listings, making themselves available on many systems. This is true of Uber and Lyft drivers, who typically use both apps simultaneously to get work. This means workers will be arbitraging work opportunities across many marketplaces. Purpose-specific markets will respond by consolidating related markets, which presents significant brand challenges. “Uber” has become a verb denoting ridesharing, but not housecleaning; It would have a very difficult time extending its brand into home-services. Price is the manageable factor in consolidating markets.

2.) Information efficiency favors the consumer, not the marketplace. As more data is applied to the problem of anticipating demand, consumers and workers alike will move to low-cost marketplaces in pursuit of better prices and pay rates. These twin demands put the marketplace in a lurch. In order to lower consumer costs while retaining an attractive workforce, the marketplace must lower its fees charged to those workers. 

As workers diversify, marketplace providers will compete for labor supply, lowering their fees charged to workers who focus on their service categories. Likewise, consumers will embrace marketplace brands that solve many in-home and on-demand needs,  leading to greater optimization within those marketplaces and lower fees charged to workers.


Didi diversifies with Bluegogo

Here’s the problem with building a purpose-specific marketplace, such as a consumer mobility platform like Uber, Lyft, or Didi Chuxing: Once the platform is saturated, it’s necessary to diversify. In the case of China’s Didi Chuxing, the ridesharing company is adding management of a bike-sharing service, moving into an adjacent, though painful, market with its platform.

Didi customers will get access to Bluegogo bikes in Chinese markets. Didi is taking a chance with Bluegogo since the company has already failed. In fact, all Didi is doing is acquiring Bluegogo’s abandoned bike inventory, hoping to earn back the cost by increasing revenues from existing customers.

As on-demand evolves, the apparently explicit delineation (rides on demand versus, for example, housecleaning) between one consumer market and another will become a barrier to expansion. Markets are more efficient when they include many products and services than in any dedicated marketplace. Early leaders in transportation may find that adding any non-mobility service proves difficult.

Didi customers may consider taking a bike instead of a ride. But not all those customers will be interested in bike options, so expansion into bike-sharing could produce little incremental additional spending by Didi customers.

This Week’s On-Demand Business Activity Rundown

Didi Chuxing, purchased Brazil’s 99 for $600 million, in addition to its previous investment in the target company. 

Splend, an Australian fleet management company that provides cars to Uber, Lyft, and other transportation network company drivers, raised $220 million in new debt financing this week to support inventory expansion. Between equity and debt financing, Splend has $232.2 million on hand to spend now.

Search and content don’t always go together. In fact, they may work at cross-purposes, raising barriers to search access to competitive content sources and reducing trust in the search engine’s objectivity. Google seeks to sell restaurant guide Zagat after purchasing it for $151 million in 2011.

GrubHub’s annual Year In Delivery list is out. Lettuce Chicken Wraps were the biggest gainer among orders last year and is expected to be popular in 2018. Avacado toast peaked earlier in 2017, but earned the biggest gain in orders overall.

Transportation network companies are changing wealthy New Yorkers’ home buying preferences, sais a leading realtor.  “Today, in our Uber-tech world — I [can be] in the back of a car with my iPhone, and I’m not losing out on anything. That has changed [commutes] dramatically. Your commute time is not lost productivity,” realtor Leonard Steinberg told Business Insider. Consequently, the wealthy are willing to buy homes further from work than in past years.

Consumers experience of media will inform their retail expectations. Now that the majority of audio consumption is fulfilled through streaming services, with video close behind, consumers have come to expect immediate gratification in most transactions.  Watch for media to set consumer’s patience levels with on-demand delivery and service experience.

Beauty products companies are shifting to chatbot-based and interactive customer interfaces.  The idea is that beauty-related tasks are immediate and susceptible to machine analysis. Wondering if you have too much eye shadow on, let a camera-equipped bot check it out? What if a human being was also able to provide advice? That’s a one-two punch that will convert.