Is Lyft too Cool to go National?

The pink mustachioed car-sharing service rolls into San Diego and aims to spread its fist-bump happy vibe to your town. Are you ready to ride shotgun?

Recently about a dozen or so prospective drivers sat waiting for the Lyft onboarding session to start in a converted industrial space in the trendy SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco. They'd each made it through the background check, the auto insurance check, the car inspection, and the in-person interview that ensured each driver is sufficiently personable and "presentable" enough to participate in the on-demand ride-sharing service. Launched last May, Lyft's pink mustachioed fleet is already ubiquitous in the Bay Area and has expanded to Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle. Now, the company has announced that it will be rolling out in sprawling San Diego starting on Wednesday. As the quirky car-sharing service continues to grow, it remains to be seen if Lyft can expand beyond select locales with large hipster enclaves, and if city's with strong public transportation (not to mention strong regulations) will throw up roadblocks. As the company recruits more driver in more markets, it's hard not to wonder if Lyft is too cool for its own good.

"Welcome to the Lyft community!" Komal Kirtikar, the General Manager at Lyft, tells her recruits. She fires up an inspirational video with beautiful shots of cars driving around the Bay Area accompanied by stirring words from the cofounders of the startup. "Our public transportation system is broken," intones CEO Logan Green. "We want to make car ownership optional."

"We didn’t want to just create an app," adds COO John Zimmer. "We wanted to create a movement." But Lyft is essentially an app—the drivers supply their own smartphone and car, and Lyft’s app connects them with potential passengers. At the end of the ride, the passenger donates funds to the driver, with recommended fare levels at about 70% of what you’d pay for an equivalent cab ride. But "recommended" is the key word—passengers are able to pay whatever they wish, including nothing at all. (Both the driver and passenger give each other a Yelp-style ratings, so cheapskates soon find that it's harder to get drivers to stop for them.) The simple-sounding service has drawn the ire of taxi and limo services that view it as unfair under-regulated competition, but it has also attracted $60M in Series C financing from Andreessen Horowitz and others in May.

The prospective drivers at the onboarding session look very stylish, whether they’re dressed down in hoodies and flip flops, or dressed up in pricey vintage wear and designer sunglasses. They’re also diverse, with a gender balanced and mix of ethnicities comparable to what you’d find on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. But even this crowd seems somewhat daunted by the hip, casual vibe of Lyft.

Kirtikar's onboarding session has practical advice about where the hot zones are that most pickup requests come from, and what to do if someone vomits in your car. (The passenger is charged for cleanup service through the app.) There are also tips on how to affix the giant pink handlebar moustache that designates a Lyft vehicle to the grill of your car, and advice about inviting passengers to sit in the front seat, and greet them with a customary fist bump. Kirtikar says that Lyft drivers like to personalize the riders' experiences with baked goods or karaoke and disco lighting, and asks the new drivers what unique twist they plan to offer. A sports nut says that his car will be festooned with Giants memorabilia. A musician says he’ll have special playlists to choose from. A health blogger will provide fitness info. Someone says they’ll have a soothing lavender-scented mist. Others are still racking their brains to come up with their own quirky angle.

Almost all drivers view Lyft as a sideline or supplemental gig. Kirtikar says that they can expect to make $35 an hour during morning and evening commutes and weekend nights, but just $15 to $20 an hour at other times. (It's worth keep in mind that drivers are responsible for gas and upkeep on their vehicle.) The onboarding session lays out special procedures if a driver should earn more than $20K a year, but the discussion makes it sound like that’s unlikely.

Zimmer says that a launch team of Lyft staffers has been in San Diego for several weeks preparing for rollout. "They find out what the vibe is, and meet the first 50 or so drivers," he says. "They stay a few weeks, get the word out, and distribute mustaches." But the drivers themselves share tips and best practices with each other through the Facebook group or regular meetups and parties.

Each city Lyft has rolled out to has its own personality, something Zimmer considers when planning growth. "Seattle is different from Chicago is different from Boston," he says. "Los Angeles, as you can imagine, it’s a lot of actor screenwriter producer vibe, people looking to break into Hollywood. In San Francisco, there’s an artsy craftsy vibe mixed with, yes, some hipster elements. I take Lyft to work every day, and I just met a guy who wants to be a photographer. There are so many incredible people that do interesting things—artists, musicians, chefs... It feels like a resurgence of craftsmanship, of following your passion."

Zimmer insists the company isn't thinking about the hipster quotient when considering what might make a city a good candidate for Lyft. "You need a high population density and a high level of smartphone usage," he says. "It really depends on what the existing transportation network looks like. Manhattan will present interesting challenges because its subway system is so fantastic. Our biggest challenge is regulatory; we’re trying to help regulators understand what we do."

Lyft just received a cease and desist letter from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, and the San Francisco International Airport has begun cracking down on Lyft drivers.

Besides favorable regulations, each city has to have a critical mass of people looking for a flexible source of income. Lyft drivers set their own hours and keep 80% of their donations (and more in the peak times when Lyft can’t have enough drivers on the road). They're not officially employees of Lyft, but the company provides a million dollars of excess liability insurance.

At the onboarding session, Kirtikal encourages the fledgling drivers to continue driving people to the airport despite the city's resistance, noting that citations some drivers have received don’t have cash penalties attached to them. She does note that some Lyft drivers prefer to remove their pink moustaches before they head to the airport. Whether or not they fist-bump at the passenger drop-off area is entirely up to them.

[Images: Flickr users Christiaan Triebert, and Quinn Dombrowski]

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5 Comments

  • joaquininthe

    This article surprised me. It was more about explaining what Lyft was instead of answering it's own question: "Is Lyft too cool to go national?" -- I still don't know. Always remember to not get sidetracked when you write a long piece. Great quality of writing though. :)

  • yermom72

     Can't you do that legally, without a horrid pink mustache? And ewww, that lame-o "fist bump"...