Electric scooters are a new and trendy way to get around cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
They're not yet legal in New York City, where I live, but they're all the rage out West, where electric scooter start-ups like Bird and Lime are based. When I visited L.A. in March, I couldn't leave without taking one for a spin — and trying to make some money.
I met up with Harry Campbell, founder of The Rideshare Guy blog and podcast, who has experimented with a number of side hustles, from driving for Uber and Lyft to delivering food for Postmates and DoorDash. Most recently, he's made extra cash by charging electric scooters.
The scooter-sharing companies rely on "an army of independent contractors" to locate scooters that need juice, charge them overnight and release them the next morning before 7 a.m., says Campbell, who's been charging scooters since the program launched in 2018.
The gig is not that complicated, he adds: "If you can charge your smartphone, you can charge a scooter."
He let me tag along for an evening of "Bird hunting" in Santa Monica. Here's what happened.
For starters, you have to apply to be a "Bird charger" or a "Lime juicer." Since I don't live in a city where either company operates, I can't sign up.
If you do live in a city with scooters, though, the sign-up process is simple: Using the same app you'd use as a consumer, you provide your personal information and bank account information so you can receive direct deposits. The one caveat, says Campbell, is that "you may not be instantly approved if there are too many chargers in your city." In that case, you'll be added to the wait list.
Once you're approved, the company will send you three sets of charging supplies, which include a wall plug and power brick. "At the start, that's your limiting factor," says Campbell. "The more supplies you have, the better."
Over time, you can get more supplies if you establish yourself as a consistent and reliable charger. Campbell has six, "which is not a ton," he says, but it suits his situation as a more casual charger: "I'm not looking to do 100 scooters a night."
We head out in Campbell's SUV around 9 p.m, which is when Bird releases most of the scooters on the map. We're specifically looking for Birds tonight, but you can collect and charge Lime scooters at the same time.
We use the map on the app to locate scooters near us. They're valued between $3 and $5. I look for the closest $5 scooters, direct Campbell towards them and we pull over when the map says we're on top of one. Spotting the black scooters isn't always easy at nighttime, and they aren't always parked in obvious spots. We find one lying on its side behind trash cans in an alley.
The gig starts to feel more like a treasure hunt.
To add to the fun, there's pressure: We're not the only chargers out there. Just before we arrive where one scooter should be, it disappears from the map. That means there's another Bird hunter close by, Campbell tells me. We change course, locate a different scooter and, as we're loading it into the trunk, another charger pulls up behind us. He's too late.
"It can get a little competitive, sort of in a friendly way," says Campbell. "I've been walking up to a scooter before and someone else has run in front of me to get it."
To capture the scooter, you scan the QR code located on the handle bar.
Loading the 30-pound apparatus into your car requires more effort, especially after you've gathered a few. "It's like a game of Tetris trying to fit them all in," says Campbell.
How many you can fit "really depends on how much you like your car," he adds. "If you don't mind scooters sticking out the windows and scraping up the upholstery, you can surprisingly fit a good number into even just a regular sedan." He estimates his SUV can hold 12.
In about 30 minutes, we pick up five scooters — four $5 scooters and one $4 one — and head to Campbell's house to charge them. He has an effective set up in his garage and doesn't even have to unload the Birds: The chargers, plugged into his garage wall, extend to the scooters lying in his trunk, so we plug them in and close the car doors over the cords.
When it comes to creating space to charge, "you have to get creative," says Campbell. "There are companies that are popping up to try to provide space for chargers, but I think, definitely, space can be a limiting factor."
One Los Angeles-based start-up, Perch, is building charge centers in high-density scooter markets, where you can rent pods and suites that come with power supplies and layer racks. The first location is up and running in the arts district and more are on the way, Perch co-founder Thomas Lord tells CNBC Make It.
If you're charging at home like Campbell, keep in mind that you will be paying for the electricity: One Bird typically costs between $0.08 and $0.25 for a full charge, depending on your local electricity rates, the site notes. The gig also requires putting miles on your car and paying for gas to get around.
The scooters take anywhere from four to six hours to charge so, if you have more scooters than charging supplies, you can switch them out in the middle of the night. If you do that, though, you risk the first batch of scooters losing some battery.
Campbell prefers to let them juice up over night. In the morning, he brings them to designated release spots called "nests," which you can claim in the app and reserve for 30 minutes.
Bird asks you to release them in sets of three. After you drop them off, you'll be paid the full quoted price for each one. Your payout may be reduced if you release them after 7 a.m. or with less than 95% battery.
There's incentive to release them early, says Campbell: "In the mornings, what happens is, a lot of the good nests get taken. So if you wake up too late you might have to go further away from your house."
Plus, late releases might make it harder to secure more charging materials from Bird: "They only want to give you more power supplies if you're consistently charging and releasing on time."
Picking up five scooters earns us $24. Not bad for 30 minutes of work. But you can make much more. "Super chargers," Campbell tells me, have elaborate set ups that allow them to charge 50 to 100 scooters a night and can "really rack up a lot more money."
Ryan Feldman, a 32-year-old software engineer who used to charge scooters on the side, could "fit up to 45 scooters in my pickup truck at a time," he tells CNBC Make It. He had 50 chargers, captured both Birds and Limes and earned, on average, $150 a night. His biggest limitation was, he says, "the number of scooters I could safely fit in my truck."
Gathering the scooters at night "took anywhere from an hour to four hours," he says. In the morning, "to drop off about 45 scooters would take 90 minutes: That included loading my truck, drop off and [the] return drive home."
Here's what Feldman's charging set up looked like:
And here's another creative set up, from a super charger who asked to remain anonymous:
Feldman, who stopped juicing when the payout decreased and it became less worth his time, says he made $210 on his best night.
Chargers used to be able to make a lot more, Campbell tells me. The pricing structure has changed: How much you earned used to depend on how much juice you put back into the scooter, "but now it's just a flat fee." And the minimum you take home per scooter has dropped: For Bird, "It used to be a $5 minimum payout to chargers for each scooter and now their minimum is $3."
The competition has stiffened, too. "The last two nights I charged, there were multiple occurrences when I would show up to pick up a scooter and three to four other vehicles were there to do the same," says Feldman.
While "the pay has come down a little bit over the past few months," says Campbell, "there are opportunities." Like any side hustle, "this job won't be perfect for everyone," he writes on his blog, "but it is surprisingly flexible, and I could imagine many different scenarios where it would make sense for Uber and Lyft drivers to work for Bird or really anyone looking to make some extra cash."
To get the most out of the side hustle, Campbell offers three tips:
1. Work with a team. There are a lot of moving parts when you're hunting for scooters: You're constantly checking the map for the highest-value Birds, navigating to different locations and then trying to spot the scooter, which can be visible or hidden.
That's why working with at least one other person can be helpful, says Campbell: "One person can be driving, while the other person is looking at the map."
Plus, "especially in L.A., it's hard to find a parking spot," he says. If you're working as a team, though, the driver can double park and wait in the car while someone else grabs the scooter.
While you'll have to split your earnings as a team, you'll also be able to find more scooters more efficiently.
2. Invest in the right gear. A magnetic phone mount for your car is a game changer, says Campbell. It allows you to safely look at your screen while navigating and, when it comes time to scan the QR code and capture the Bird, you can easily detach your phone from the mount.
He also recommends bringing a flashlight to help spot the scooters at night and, if you're looking to charge a bunch at a time, get a surge protector.
3. Go out at the right time. You can pick up scooters anytime during the day, but the optimal time is between 9 and 10 p.m. That's when "Bird releases most of the scooters and they become available for capture, so that's when you want to go out," says Campbell. "If you go out during the middle of the day it might be a lot tougher."
The more you charge, the more you'll get a sense of what areas in your city have the most scooters available to pick up. You'll also get better at spotting them. On multiple occasions, Campbell was able to see the scooter from his car, while I struggled to find them even after getting out of the passenger seat.
"There's definitely a learning curve," he says, adding: "It's not like rocket science, but if you go out and do it one night [for the first time], you'll probably be like, 'Man, this job sucks.'" But, "the more experience you get, the more scooters you can pick up and the more money you can make."
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