It’s said you can earn twice the living wage by working in the £7.4 billion sharing economy. Harry Wallop becomes a bike courier, rents out his living room and cooks for strangers at home to find out if it’s true.
I am not sure if it was the rain or the pity that tipped me over the edge. But I can pinpoint the moment I fell out of love with the sharing economy with some accuracy. It was shortly after 9.51pm on a Monday night, when I was trapped on the inside of an upmarket gated community in Islington, London, unable to open the exit, at the end of a shift as a Deliveroo cyclist, couriering takeaway meals around north London.
While I was desperately hunting for the button that would release me and my bike, my phone was continually alerting me with a loud “ting”. The message on my Deliveroo app said, “You have a new order. Slide to accept order.” There was, I realised for the first time, no option to decline, just an incessant “ting”.
I tried to log out to end my shift, scheduled to finish at 9.30pm, but got the message, “You cannot log out; you have a pending order.”
Stuck in a blind alleyway, both literal and metaphorical, and becoming increasingly wet, I started to rant Lear-like at the injustice of it all.
At this point, the customer, who must have heard my desperate howls, came out of his front door and said kindly, “It’s OK, mate. The gate’s really tricky.” He did something with a fob and released me.
“Thank you,” I said. And nearly burst into tears with relief.
My 13-year-old asks me forlornly, ‘When are we going to stop having strangers in our house?’
The sharing economy, or the gig economy as it is sometimes called, has been predicted to become as big a force as the internet, promising to change not just how we earn money but how we live our lives. The term may be new to many people, but the brands at the forefront of this revolution have become household names. The two most famous are Uber, which allows ordinary drivers to offer up their time and car as a taxi service, and Airbnb, which transforms your home into an impromptu bed and breakfast.
Airbnb does not own a single piece of real estate, yet it is valued at an estimated $30 billion (£22.5 billion), making it more valuable than the Hilton hotel chain. Uber, which does not own a single car, is worth twice that.
The idea is that ordinary consumers can earn money by sharing their unused assets with other consumers. Suddenly, your spare bedroom or even electric drill becomes a potential revenue stream. The platforms put the user and provider in touch with each other via a website or app. They then take a cut.
“It is an unstoppable force,” says Debbie Wosskow, the founder of LoveHomeSwap, a home-exchange business, who also acts as chair of the trade body, Sharing Economy UK.
According to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), the consultancy firm, the amount of money generated by the sharing economy in the UK climbed from £3.9 billion in 2014 to £7.4 billion last year, helped by Britain embracing flexible working. Compared with a decade ago, there are 1.18 million more part-time workers and 918,000 more self-employed.
Possibly the greatest reason for this stellar growth, however, is the promise that people can make serious money, be it from renting out their front rooms or delivering parcels.
This partly explains how I ended up in the pouring rain, delivering bufala pizzas around north London.
In May, I was made redundant from a long-standing staff job at a newspaper and decided to go freelance. Could I boost my dented income by throwing myself into the sharing economy? TaskRabbit says that its average “tasker” makes £15.30 an hour in the UK – nearly double the national living wage – for performing unskilled handyman jobs, such as gardening or putting together flat-pack furniture.
The simple claim on the Deliveroo application is, “You’ll earn great money.”
So, with a deep and possibly gullible breath, I decided to see how much I could earn in a fortnight.
There is a strange array of platforms, from dog-walking to meal-cooking services; most come with the standard internet-era branding of missing vowels and jaunty animal logos. Some, such as BlaBlaCars, a modern hitchhiking service, just aren’t suitable for a father of four – who would want to share my Volvo XC90 with a toddler watching PJ Masks on the iPad and a teenager picking his nose?
I am ruled out of Uber, because they don’t accept my model of car. This is a relief, because I am a terrible driver. I also discount Airbnb, because I’m not uprooting the wife and four children from the family home.
But there are a few possibilities that I think I can combine with a day job writing from home. I sign up to Stashbee, “a community marketplace for storage”, making my spare room – or rather the space between the end of the bed and the wardrobe – available for people to store boxes.
The sitting room is uploaded onto Vrumi, which offers alternative meeting rooms for those who think the local coffee shop is too noisy. Nimber, a “social delivery service”, is also added to my list. Apparently, I could earn as much as £25 for taking a document just a mile or two.
I’m soon discovering that the sharing economy is aimed squarely at the generation who grew up uploading their entire lives online
The kitchen and my cooking skills are press-ganged into VizEat, a service where you host a dinner party for complete strangers. “Welcome people at your table. And live unique moments!” is its strapline.
My wife tells me she doesn’t want to live unique moments with people she’s never met. “Anyone who wants to come and have dinner cooked by a complete stranger is almost certainly an axe murderer.” I tell her she’s being a killjoy.
All of these I join without leaving home. The only real cost is a surrendering a huge amount of privacy. All sites ask you to post a profile picture as well as details about you and your home. VizEats even forces me to fill in my favourite travel destinations and my “guilty pleasures”.
I ask David Mantle, the boss of Stashbee, why anyone storing boxes needs to know what I look like. He waxes lyrical about the importance of the personal touch. “A friend of mine who was going to use our service went on the website and saw someone called Ruth was one of the hosts. Then he saw on the map it was right round the corner and saw Ruth’s house and profile picture, and he instantly felt more comfortable storing with Ruth, because he felt like he knew her already … We’re trying to develop that personal angle.”
I’m not sure self-storage needs a personal angle, but I’m soon discovering that the sharing economy is aimed squarely at the generation who grew up uploading their entire lives online. More than that, many of the platforms appeal to consumers searching for that buzz phrase of the decade: an “authentic” experience. A real home, a real meal.
I sit waiting for a reply, often for days. It feels like dating. Why does no one want to book my lovely sitting room, with its high ceilings and passable wi-fi?
Deliveroo, however, is different. I get an answer almost immediately.
Here, the asset I am sharing is my bike, not my house. With their distinctive teal and black uniforms and backpacks/boxes on their bikes, the 5,000 riders or “roos” are easy to spot around various cities in the UK, from Aberdeen to Bournemouth. Some are on scooters but most are on bicycles.
After filling in the simplest of online forms, I get a call the very next day from a woman inviting me to attend a cycling proficiency test.
This is conducted at its main base in Angel, north London, in an air of mild chaos. There is a continual stream of potential “roos” arriving to do the test or the later initiation session, which involves sitting at a laptop answering an online exam about the importance of washing your hands, putting a smile on people’s faces and not wearing “excessive aftershave”.
My trainer, Massinissa, tells me about 40 new cyclists a day are signing up at this base. Our bikes are checked thoroughly; one of my fellow newbies is told he can’t do the test because his brakes are not up to scratch.
I pass, thanks to my ostentatiously meticulous hand signals on the test route to Nando’s.
Two days later, after they’ve completed a background check on me, I return for the initiation and am handed my uniform and kit, which includes a thermal food bag and a huge lightweight box that clamps onto my bike. The deposit for the kit is £150, to be taken out of my first wage packets, which I find rather dispiriting.
So too, the slightly Big Brother tone of the company. I am told that monitoring software will be used to track me and that I am not an employee of Deliveroo nor a worker “within the meaning of any employment rights legislation”. I am a self-employed supplier to the company.
So far, the two sessions have used up five hours of my time and I am down (temporarily) £150, which rather focuses the mind on making money.
I will be paid £7 an hour (below the national living wage – legal as I am a supplier, not a worker), plus £1 per delivery and any tips.
Supply of workers, spare rooms, cars and bicycles appears to outstrip demand. In part, that is the secret to these platforms’ business models
My first shift does not start auspiciously. I cannot find the address of my first customer, who has ordered some pork and chinese leaf dumplings from Mama Lan. He lives on the seventh floor of a tower block so new it has yet to make it onto Google Maps. This becomes a common theme. Some customers leave helpful messages on their electronic order (sent to my phone), telling you which bell to call or where to park your bike. One or two even stand on the street waiting for you – a sight I greet with as much relief as Roger Bannister viewed the finishing tape at Iffley Road.
Addresses you can’t find – or worse, when there is a six-minute trek up the stairs of a council block with a broken lift – are something I learn to dread. Combined with rain, it can be miserable.
But it is not all drudge work. On certain evenings, when the sun is still warm and I don’t have to tackle the precipitous hill down and back up to King’s Cross, it can be almost satisfying. Once, I cycled more than 21 miles in a 3-hour shift, but it is less tiring than standing on your feet all day on a production line.
Tips, however, defeat me. Because the app allows customers to tip electronically when they place their order, it makes no difference if I comment on how lovely the hydrangeas are in their front garden, or indeed whether I avoid “excessive aftershave”. If they are a family in a council flat or someone living in a £3 million Georgian terrace in the same street as Boris Johnson, the tips are never more than £2 – and usually nothing. On average, I am tipped by one in every three customers.
Across five shifts, I earn the equivalent of £11.20 an hour, including tips. On an hourly basis, this really isn’t bad. If you were a student and the alternative was bar work in the evening, Deliveroo is a decent gig.
But there is a catch, as there is with all sharing economy platforms. The pay is OK while you are earning it. But how often can you earn it?
Deliveroo will only allow you – for your first month – to work in the evenings for three hours. Even after that, flexibility is limited. Fail to work at weekends, as I discover, and you will soon find your account suspended.
I get emails from Nimber every other day offering me jobs, including well-paid ones, such as £22 to pick up a couple of garden chairs bought on eBay and drive them two miles. But every time I log on I get the message, “Oops, you just missed it.”
Supply of workers, spare rooms, cars and bicycles appears to outstrip demand. In part, that is the secret to many of these platforms’ business models. For consumersto enjoy a genuine on-demand service when a handyman, courier or burrito can arriveat the push of an app, there needs to be competition among workers.
Then there is the issue of pricing. Being a supplier, rather than an employee, means I frequently have to set my own fees. And I do so badly.
With Vrumi, I am keen to attract bookings so I price a full day in my sitting room (with access to the kitchen’s kettle) at £50. I am hoping for a quiet psychotherapist who wants to use my sofa, or possibly a fellow freelancer who finds the coffee and noise at Starbucks a turn-off.
Two weeks at the coalface of the sharing economy net a grand total of £386
My first booking, however, is from a chap called Ola, who’s from a website. He wants to use my home to film and photograph a series of interviews. He arrives with a crew of 15, 5 cars (we have a row about the cost of parking), and enough kit to light up Pinewood. The sitting room is turned into a studio with arc lights and reflector boards; the kitchen a green room, with make-up artists and wigs. I realise my £50 fee is probably too low when I have to sheepishly ask for the hip-hop, throbbing through the floorboards downstairs, to be turned down so I can do some work.
For the next booking, I put it up to £80. David, a manager at a price comparison site, wants it for an away day for his team, who I think are data analysts. “I am a big believer that if you take people out of the office environment, it frees them up to think creatively,” he tells me, as I show him the downstairs loo.
The group of six are impeccably quiet and polite; they spend most of the day glued to their laptops and talking about “our mission statement”. They have the occasional breakout session in the garden. David says that before Vrumi, “it was a real struggle to find places. We used to book a room above a pub.”
On paper, the £80 was easy money, but only if you discount the two hours of manic cleaning that took place the night before, and having to ship out four children to a neighbour’s house for their breakfast (and keeping them out of the house until the analysts’ brainstorming finished at 3.30pm).
VizEat, the dining platform, recommends that to calculate my price for a meal I should “add up your grocery expenses plus the amount you’d like for your hospitality”.
What are my anecdotes about appearing on Total Wipeout worth? How do I put a price on my golden repartee? I decide £15 is about right. Too late, I realise I forgot to price the three hours required to marinate aubergines, deseed a pomegranate and baste a leg of lamb. But that was my fault for choosing a fiddly Ottolenghi recipe.
And all the while, the platforms are taking their cut. TaskRabbit takes 30 per cent of any initial job undertaken with a client; Vrumi a more reasonable 5.5 per cent. I get £1 per order with Deliveroo, but the company is getting £1.50 plus commission from most restaurants.
The sharing economy is sometimes known as peer-to-peer. Why incur the hassle and cost of using an agent when you can get what you want by going directly to provider? But all of these platforms, by definition, are a form of middleman, taking a cut along the way.
Even if you accept the sharing economy is connecting customers more directly, it has created its own entirely separate service industry. The likes of Airbnb and Vrumi have spawned photographic agencies who guarantee to take the most flattering, estate-agent style pictures of your interiors; other firms guarantee to reduce the stress involved in renting out your space by sending around someone to clean your home and hand over keys to guests.
The real boom, however, is the companies that have sprung up to provide protection to both customers and providers – both in the form of insurance and background checks.
In an economy that has replaced CVs and job interviews with a jaunty profile pic and an online chat, how can you tell who is a genuine punter and who is going to riffle through your knicker drawer while you are at work? Nearly all the platforms use a company called Onfido, set up just four years ago, which has racked up ten million background checks. Many of the platforms also offer specialist insurance, proof that the insurance industry, like cockroaches, can flourish in any landscape.
“I don’t think it’s a whole new business for us,” says Graeme Trudgill, executive director at the British Insurance Brokers’ Association. “The whole point is that these businesses have disrupted the traditional economy. People aren’t buying as many cars, but they are renting more cars. It’s a case of moving things around, as opposed to a big new income stream.”
I am not convinced. My two weeks at the coalface of the sharing economy netted me a grand total of £386. This sounds quite a lot – about £10,000 rounded up to an annual salary. But it felt very hard-won. It was not just the days of uploading my passport for another background check, or the endless emails to and from Ola about parking vouchers, or the rain and tired legs from Deliveroo. My wife hasn’t forgiven me for turning our spare room into a storage space for someone’s Christmas decorations. And one day, as I shoved the 13-year-old out of the house with a tenner to take himself to the cinema before the Vrumi guests arrived, he asked forlornly, “When are we going to stop having strangers in our house?”
The VizEat dinner with the two potential axe murderers on the final evening of my experiment was, surprisingly, very good fun. They were charming about my Ottolenghi aubergines, and full of good, local gossip.
I asked Ciaran, 32, why he regularly signed up to eat in strangers’ houses, rather than go to a restaurant.
“I love the randomness of it. When you go to Glastonbury, it’s not standing listening to Radiohead you really remember; it’s the odd people you bump into, the connections you make.”
This might be true. And how brilliant that companies have worked out how to monetise this generation’s quest for authentic experiences. It’s just a shame that such a large chunk of the profits appear to be going to the platforms, rather than the people actually supplying the service.