HEIDELBERG, Pa. — William O’Brien believes the Pittsburgh market for ride-hailing drivers is over-saturated.
The 52-year-old Uber driver from Heidelberg shares some of his off-surge hangout spots where other drivers wait, hungry for riders. There’s a hole-in-the-wall car wash in the Strip District where O’Brien vacuums the interior of his 2011 Ford Escape and there’s a Sunoco gas station near the Pittsburgh International Airport.
For drivers, time spent at such places is burning a figurative hole in their pockets. Each waits around for the adrenaline rush of a “ping” on their phone, signaling that a rider has requested a car. Sometimes, that takes a few minutes — but sometimes it can take hours.
“A lot of people think you can just turn on the app and start making money,” said O’Brien, who has horror stories of trips to far-out suburbs only to be cancelled by the riders. Drivers have to meticulously plan out the day in order to turn a profit, he said.
On one trip, O’Brien picked up Ryan Green, co-founder of the app Gridwise, a North Side-based startup which helps drivers make more informed decisions by leveraging data on events and airline arrivals and departures.
It’s all about efficiency, saving drivers’ time, gas and money, and decreasing unnecessary wear and tear on vehicles by optimizing every shift. O’Brien swears by it, now.
Gridwise claims it can increase drivers’ earnings by 20 percent, and investors are taking notice as cash pours into the startup — so far at least $470,000 worth, according to Crunchbase, a business information system that allows firms to self-report funding.
A tale of two drivers
Co-founders Green and Brian Finamore met during the summer of 2016 and just a few months later in December, the app launched in Pittsburgh.
Green had moved to the city and begun working at PNC Financial Services after returning from Pensacola, Florida, where he was stationed for the military. The two met while Finamore was working for a CMU spinoff called YinzCam Inc., which allowed fans with smartphones to pick camera angles inside of PPG Paints arena.
They both drove for ride-hailing companies on the side.
A year later, the duo still encourages their team of four to drive for one of Pittsburgh’s available ride-hailing options: Uber, Lyft, CabbyGo or Z-Trip. They believe experiencing driver issues, firsthand, is key to building a solution.
It’s where the original idea for the app came from, said Green, who works on the startup’s business strategy and finances.
“I noticed inefficiencies in drivers and took in anything I could to make more trips in less time,” he said. The duo spoke with drivers and found commonalities in their biggest frustrations, their own form of market research.
“We independently came to the conclusion that the driving experience left a lot to be desired,” said Finamore, who works on the technical side of building the application.
Green noted that each driver has individual strategies, so the app includes features meant to inform drivers, rather than tell them what to do.
Taking a spin
Two years ago, O’Brien was laid off from his job in furniture repair and decided to try out driving for Uber.
He said the Gridwise app has saved him actual hours per day that he would have spent sitting online, trilling for information on that week’s events at music venues and stadiums.
The app has a seven-day outlook on events and their end times, as well as updates. Drivers are notified if the Steelers head into overtime or if a Nickelback concert is ending. Drivers, then, don’t have to waste time waiting outside the venues, estimating when events will end.
“If you play it right, and you know the pulse of the city and you can strategically plan and know in advance where the demand is, you can make a pretty good bit as an Uber driver,” said O’Brien, who has now completed over 4,000 rides. “If you don’t, you can lose your shirt.”
While O’Brien would not disclose his exact earnings per week in dollars, he did estimate that he probably makes about 30 percent more profit per week than before he began using Gridwise earlier this year.
He leaves the app on 24 hours per day, and receives push notifications when an event is about to begin, even when he’s off-duty.
“I can be at home deciding if I even want to go out, and I find out about a show at Stage AE (in the North Shore) that I wasn’t even aware of,” he said.
Still, he said the most useful element is the airport feature which helps eliminate “puddle jumping” trips, as O’Brien calls them. Those are trips where you pick up or drop off a driver in an otherwise desolate area and can’t immediately find another rider.
“An airport ride from Downtown Pittsburgh is about a 30-minute ride and that’s about a $23 payout,” he explained. “The trick is getting a ride back into the city … a ping or request near the airport or Moon.”
Drivers aren’t paid for the time they spend sitting around, waiting for the magical ping. Gridwise can alert drivers when a flight is landing or departing and how many passengers there are. Drivers perform a sort of opportunity cost analysis, where they figure out whether the trek to the airport is worth their time and gasoline.