Tuesday, November 20, 2018


I have had the occasion of using Uber three times in the past week, mostly because of some work that was being done on my car.

Those experiences were awful, bad and then… very good. 

The first time, I was picked up in a 20-year old Honda Accord with torn cloth seats, filthy windows and French fries on the backseat floor. 

The next time, I was picked up by a 70-year old man driving a minivan, a sullen retiree who was clearly unhappy with his retirement situation and driving strangers around to make ends meet.

And then this morning, I was picked up by Valerie, a 4.9 rated driver from Boulder in a sparkling clean Toyota Prius who offered me bottled water, fresh fruit and a welcoming smile.

I was trained as a journalist in college, and I’m in sales… so it’s natural for me to want to ask questions.  And so, on our 25-minute ride together, I engaged Valerie in conversation.

She and her husband are both Uber drivers, as it turns out, and they actually have implemented a business model that works well for them. 

They purchased a Prius about three years ago and this is their primary “work” vehicle.  Valerie drives most days from 6 a.m. to 12 noon, she and her husband have lunch together, and then he drives from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., or whenever demand tails off. 

Their small car gets about 50 miles to the gallon, maintenance costs are minimal, and while they are not getting rich as Uber drivers, they have created an efficient, low stress life where work is contained in a manageable box and there’s plenty of room on the side for life.

Compare that to the lives most of us lead.  Technology has created a 24/7 economy, where those of us in management or sales are expected to be available seven days a week and a call that’s not returned within four minutes is an invitation to go elsewhere. 

There’s more money to be made by working seven days a week, for sure, but at what cost?

Our conversation took an interesting twist when I put my management cap on.  Having had two marginal (at best) experiences and then a great one with Uber in the span of seven days, I asked what Uber could do to make their “top 10%” feel more appreciated. 

Surely, it would be in the company’s interest to retain and reward their top drivers, the ones who strengthen their brand by delivering quality service in clean cars. 

As it stands now, there’s no much Uber does to honor its best ambassadors. 

So as we drove along Highway 93, we brainstormed options about how we could make being a great driver a great incentive. 

After some dialog, we eventually coalesced into a concept I called “Uber Plus”.  In short, an “Uber Plus” driver (one with rankings and trips in the top 10% of all drivers) would get the following perks:

-        A one minute “head start” on other drivers for accepting fares on “premium rides” (fares of $30 or more, and not trips down the street to the grocery store)

-        One “power hour” for every eight hours worked, with a “power hour” being defined as a 60 minute window where Uber would add a 25% bonus on to the driver’s wages

-        “Directional preference”, which simply means an Uber Plus driver could put in a final destination he or she wants to work toward and a window for arriving at that place
We also agreed that a significant percentage of riders (like me) would be happy to have an “Uber Plus” option on our phone, because I would gladly pay a premium for a clean car, cold water and a top-rated driver.

I’m sure you can come up with other ideas as well, but the name of the game is to make sure the best drivers have the most reason to stay, because good drivers make Uber look good, and bad drivers drag the brand down. 

It’s the same in real estate. 

There are premium brands (good drivers), and there are knockoffs (bad drivers).  RE/MAX has always been the “gold standard” in real estate because its business model is focused on attracting and retaining top agents, experienced producers who have succeeded in all markets. 

There are other brands with models based on recruiting new agents (instead of selling homes), stock options for each home you sell, or zero-dollar desk fees in exchange for sharing a larger percentage of your commission (if you ever earn one) with the brokerage.

These models don’t ask for commitment or results.  They aim to distract rather than discern.  RE/MAX is about working and selling.  RE/MAX agents sell real estate.  They pay a reasonable monthly desk fee and keep all of their commissions.  The more homes you sell, the better it gets. 

No sideshows, no gimmicks.  And if you don’t sell homes, the monthly desk fee will quickly take you out of the system. 

In the market that’s coming, one with more inventory and fewer buyers, skills are going to matter.  As Warren Buffet famously said years ago, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you can tell who has been swimming naked.”

There are a whole bunch of naked agents out there, most of whom jumped into a frenzied market and were carried by a high tide.  We’ll now see who’s who when it comes down to having real skills. 

Delivering more value than you are paid for is the secret to longevity and success in any business. 

Valerie is going to continue to crush it as an Uber driver because she has figured it out.  That is, unless another driving service that creates a model which better recognizes excellence doesn’t come along and steal her away (“Nordstrom Rides”, anyone?).

In a good economy, everything works.  But when a market transitions, the cream rises to the top.  Creating models around brand excellence and service that exceeds expectations will always have a following.

I do believe people will pay for quality, and I do believe that excellence is a white space in an increasingly-commoditized world.

You may not be able to control technology.  And you may not be able to control the market. But what you can control is effort, attitude and preparation.  Being the best version of yourself, whether as an Uber driver or a real estate broker, is the surest path to remaining relevant in a world where those on the margins are increasingly endangered.