Steady Stories

Entrepreneurial Thinking in the App-Based Workforce

Aspirations for a better life and defining one short-term goal have people like 27-year-old Lauren working multiple jobs.

The only new element in her equation is the flexibility app-based jobs allow: she’s in charge of her schedule and constantly updates her progress.

Let’s follow a recent week in Lauren’s life. She is engaged and saving money for the wedding. She also wants a better life and looks for side-work to fund it.

She’s a fast-talker with an expressive face and a humorously blunt attitude. It’s not hard to see why Dollar General, the fast-growing chain of small discount stores, has her working full-time near headquarters. After-hours and on weekends, she picks up extra income through app-based work.

Her description of the juggling she does confirms decades of research about the power of goal-setting: When you have a goal and know which tactics bring you closer, you make time-management decisions more easily.

“My real side hustle is my Shipt™ ing,” she said in a recent video diary, referring to the pick-up-and-delivery service she works for.  “I set a goal for myself every week and I just work to obtain that so that I can pay for parts of my wedding and also just kind of live the life I want to live, ‘cause my normal job just doesn’t cut it.”

During a typical work week leading up to the 2018 Thanksgiving holidays, her impatience grew as her numbers for the week stalled. Shipt seems to have read the research about goal-setting too, so its proprietary coaching videos encourage couriers to name a number. How much would they like to make per week and month?

Regular reports on progress toward that goal prod couriers to respond when customers want groceries bought, delivered and even shelved in pantries and refrigerators. Good for that goal, good for Shipt’s response times.

Lauren had to be out of town during that week, but didn’t let that get in the way. “While I was in a different city, I decided to put myself on the schedule for Shipt™, to see if I could get any orders because usually this place is really busy.” Her eyes widened to emphasize her disappointment. “I have gotten one for like two hours, so it doesn’t look like I’ll be making any money tonight, so that’s kinda what slow nights are like.”

In her next entry, her phone alerted her to a later delivery request and she was dithering. “I don’t like shopping too much when it’s dark out and delivering to people’s houses that I don’t know, so …I missed it.”

She shook her head. “I missed the shop so somebody else got it and so I am shopless today, so I won’t be making any money today, either.’’

With the lack of good orders weighing on her, her next diary entry included a screenshot showing her revenue and another showing the map of a delivery request: a longish run to a Kroger’s grocery store, then back across town to the customer’s home in Nashville. “It was 20 minutes away from the store in traffic right now, so it would probably take me about 40 minutes. The order total was only like eight-to-ten dollars, so it would 100% not be worth my time.” Looking into the camera, she offered this cautionary note to her peers: “That’s what it’s like to get an order you know you cannot claim for your own sanity.”

Next evening, she was not the same high-energy performer seen in prior posts. “I didn’t get to do any shops today,” she said dully. “My workweek at my day job has been crazy. We’re in the middle of a buy for fall 2019, so we’ve been running around like a bunch of chickens with our heads cut off. So I’m a little too exhausted to go out and Shipt™ tonight.”

But in her final entry, made the next day, she was back in problem-solving mode, smile back in place, ready to salvage her budget by rearranging her schedule.

“I was going to work on my bathroom downstairs, painting it all weekend, but I decided because I did not get any Shipt-ing done this week and I didn’t get to make any money  other than DScout™ and my regular job, that I needed to look at my priorities and decide that I will put myself on the schedule for a bulk of the job tomorrow so that I can pick up some extra money.” DScout is a qualitative research firm that recruits pools of survey participants to provide quick feedback online to help companies and others assess marketing campaigns and products and services.

This is how non-traditional labor will change American culture. In the moment, Lauren had to consider the potential payout, the consequences of taking the delivery and of passing on it and the impact on her progress toward goal. Those are considerations management usually handled in the traditional economy. Now young workers are pondering the elasticity of demand, revenue versus profit and opportunity costs while sensing the weight to be given to low-margin and high-margin work. They’ll be formidable judges of economic policy.