“It’s a genius way to start a business nowadays, especially because nobody’s doing it.”
The man sitting beside me is sharing the most insightful business advice I’ve heard lately. His ideas are as unconventional as the location of our conversation. We’re not in a coffee shop or a corner office. We’re in an Uber and he’s my driver.
His name is Gavin Escolar, a charismatic Filipino man with a laugh that’s even louder than his orange-and-red striped dress shirt. We’re cruising down Valencia street when I notice diamond earrings dangling on the dashboard. Around his wrist, an emerald bracelet gleams through the sunlight. In the seat pockets, glossy catalogs display more jewelry. The cover reads: Gavin Escolar’s 2014 Collection.
Then it hits me: I’m not in Gavin’s car. I’m in his mobile showroom. He’s not just an Uber driver. Nor is he just an entrepreneur. He’s an Uberpreneur, using the ridesharing app to promote his jewelry business. The Uberpreneur I find myself hoping we hit more red lights so I can hear more of Gavin’s story. He tells me how he immigrated from the Philippines to start a jewelry company in San Francisco. He recalls his initial struggles and how he became an Uber driver to make ends meet.
“My passengers surprised me,” Gavin says, remembering his early days. “I thought they would be silent or on the phone. But most people wanted to talk. When I mentioned my jewelry, they asked for business cards, but I didn’t have any.”
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That’s when a light bulb went off in his mind: Why stop at business cards? Why not just show them my jewelry? So Gavin turned his car into a showroom. He positioned jewelry everywhere and stored extras in the glove compartment.
“My passengers peel back the onion,” he says. “I never solicit. I only keep subtle hints to spark conversation if they notice. If they don’t, they probably wouldn’t be my target customer anyway.”
“It’s a salesman’s dream,” he continues. “I have 10 minutes to make an impression. Would that happen if I went door-to-door? Or if I bought tiny online ads? My way, I get quality time with quality leads. Best of all, I’m being paid as I do it. It’s like Uber is providing a base salary before I make any jewelry sales.”
Gavin may be savvy, but do passengers find him sleazy? After all, they use Uber to request a ride, not a sales pitch. I’m also curious: does Uber condone drivers speaking about side businesses?
“Absolutely,” Uber spokeswoman Kristin Carvell says. “One of the greatest things about the Uber platform is that it offers economic opportunity for a variety of drivers — full-time, part-time, veterans, teachers, artists, and students — in more than 260 cities around the world. Supporting and fueling the local economy is important to Uber and our driver partners help us to achieve this goal.”
His passengers seem to agree. Gavin’s ratings are 4.85/5.00 on Uber Black, 4.87/5.00 on UberX and 4.95/5.00 on Lyft, which he also uses. Those ratings have held up over time; Gavin drove over 3,829 passengers in the past 18 months.
These passengers include “executives who people pay thousands of dollars to meet at networking events,” Gavin says. He’s met Vogue fashion editors and Silicon Valley’s top brass, including legendary investor Shervin Pishevar.
“I’ve had a lot of amazing drivers, but Gavin is one of the best,” Shervin told me. “I was in his car with my daughter when I saw his jewelry designs. I thought they were wonderful and gave him a lot of encouragement to pursue his dreams.”
I had to see it for myself. So I spent a day with Gavin picking up passengers (we used Sidecar, another ridesharing app, to avoid breaching Uber’s policy on driving with companions). For most rides, he barely says a word, respecting passengers who are on the phone or disinterested. Even when he speaks, it’s not a monologue. It’s more about the consumer, asking them questions and understanding their needs.
It’s these tactics that translate to sales. In the past year, Gavin designed many jewelry pieces for passengers, averaging $18,000 in transactions per month. Adding the $3,000 monthly gross earnings from Uber, he made $252,000 last year. Gavin used the income to expand his business, buying three more cars and hiring six new drivers.
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“The best generals are always with their soldiers,” he said. “That’s why I drive at least eight hours every week. It keeps me up-to-date so I can tell my drivers where to pick up customers, which hours to drive and when big events are happening.”
For his top drivers, Gavin “graduates” them from the low cost UberX to the premium Uber Black, where they meet more affluent passengers who might buy jewelry. One day, he hopes to buy a Tesla to make his mobile showroom feel on par with his brand.
But Gavin’s growing business doesn’t tell the full story. As he’s become more successful, he hasn’t forgotten about his fellow Filipino immigrants.
“I reach back to my roots,” he said. “When hiring new drivers, I find underemployed Filipinos and give them the jobs first. Most don’t know much about smartphones — and that’s okay. I teach them about Uber and Lyft. I teach them how to use the internet so it can help their lives in other ways, too. I let them use the cars to run errands and pick up their children. It’s not about squeezing every dollar from them. It’s about empowering the community that you came from.”
Gavin’s greatest contribution, however, may be to entrepreneurs everywhere. He’s the pioneer of Uberpreneurship, a discipline with the best of all worlds: salary of a stable job, autonomy of an entrepreneur, relationships of an executive and feedback of a focus group. He’s showing the world that Uber may not just be a disruptive platform for transportation, but one for small businesses.
Eventbrite CEO Kevin Hartz, another of Gavin’s high-profile passengers, sees a big opportunity ahead. As the founder of an online ticketing platform that processed $1.5 billion in sales last year, he believes Uber can venture down a similar path.
“New technology is providing small business owners and entrepreneurs not only with additional revenue streams, but also with platforms to help them market and compete better than ever before,” Kevin said.
But have other drivers caught on? I asked my subscribers at Every Vowel to help find an answer. Together, we surveyed 89 Uber and Lyft drivers in six cities. Turns out 28 drivers (31.5%) ran their own businesses. But here’s the kicker: only two of them had marketing materials in their cars that could spark a conversation (a Los Angeles driver had a flipbook for her hair salon while another San Francisco driver wore his startup’s bright orange T-shirt). This means there’s a huge missed opportunity for more of these drivers (and people who aren’t even drivers) to talk with passengers about their products.
Of course, the dark side of Uberpreneurship is drivers who don’t have Gavin’s tactfulness. They may push products in our faces without waiting for signs of interest. But that’s where the rating system comes in. If passengers give poor ratings, others will know to cancel (as long as it’s within 5 minutes of your request) or Uber will deactivate them altogether. That way, Uberpreneurs can follow their dreams without creating nightmares for passengers.
So if you’re starting a company, what are you waiting for? Whether you use Uber, Lyft or another ridesharing app, there’s never been a better time to drive your business forward.
Jon Youshaei – I share unconventional career stories & ideas.