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Organizing lessons from a ride sharing company?

(This one is for all you organizing nerds out there. If that sentence doesn’t make sense to you, than this piece probably won’t either ;)

Despite all the amazing advances in technology, we organizers seem to still mostly be doing leadership development and organizational development the good ole fashioned way, probably bested summarized by Cesar Chavez: “First you talk to one person, then another, then another…”.

So, I’m always looking for inspiration on new approaches. Oddly enough, I just found some in the way Lyft, a ride sharing company, hires and vets it’s drivers.

Ride sharing background

If you haven’t been following all this, ride sharing companies like Lyft, Uber and Sidecar are basically creating a new type of cab service. The drivers are all folks who own a car and are looking for extra income. For some, it’s their full time job. For others, it’s part-time gig. You tap your phone, and a car will automagically show up in a few minutes to pick you up. After you’re done with the ride, you rate your driver and are charged a fare.

Uber and Lyft are in a big battle for global domination right now—fueled by half a billion dollars worth of VC funding. It turns out that two of the key puzzle pieces in this battle are: How quickly can you enter a new city and how can you recruit enough drivers to keep up with demand?

I’m not involved with either company, but after talking to some drivers and looking over their web sites, it became clear that they’re solving these questions in very different ways.

Uber’s approach

As far as I can tell, Uber is solving this with a fairly standard bricks and mortar approach. They set up offices in each city, hire local marketing and operations teams, and have recruits come to the office for interviewing/hiring.

In other words, a lot like a traditional advocacy/electoral campaign would.

Lyft’s approach

Lyft seems to do things differently. Instead of setting up offices in each city, they just send out a team of “launchers” to kickstart the machine in a new city by building buzz and recruiting/training the initial set of drivers. Once that’s up and running, the machine can keep going on it’s own, and the launchers move on to another city.

In other words: they not only don’t have an office, they don’t even have any corporate staff in most of their markets. How? By handing responsibility over to their best drivers, building a strong online training/application tool set and creating a reputation based accountability system.

Here’s how it seems to work. As a new driver, you apply online. This involves everything from submitting your proof of insurance to taking photos of your car. You then have to watch a bunch of training videos. If you pass through their screening process, then you meet with a “mentor.”

To become a mentor, you need to have one of the top user feedback scores, and to watch a bunch of videos. But, that’s it. There is no big centralized training. No in-person interviews.

Mentors then meet with new drivers to get them started with the program. That involves the tangible (confirming that the car meets the required standards) and the intangible (how to “delight your passenger”).

Mentors have an app based check list to guide them through this process. If the answer to a question is no, the mentor provides more details, but doesn’t make hire/fire decision. Presumably, if there are unexpected answers, the central team looks them over and makes a decision.

My favorite part of the checklist is a question that asks you to guess the recruits’ average customer rating. Such a cool, and subtle, way to get at how likely this driver is to be good at their job. I’d love to see how accurate those peer generated predictions are.

After a driver passes through their meeting with a mentor, they’re an official Lyft driver. 

Lyft also has an online community group for each city where drivers can connect. There also seem to be regular driver created in-person meetups.

No where in this entire process does a driver/recruit interact with anyone from Lyft’s corporate staff. The entire thing is done through the app—all the way down to recruits requesting mentor meet-ups. In other words, it’s completely decentralized and scalable. (Though, I’m sure they have large, and very busy, support teams helping the recruits, drivers and mentors who run into hurdles, get confused, etc).

For more on all of this, check out some of Lyft’s mentor training videos: or FAQ.

Lessons Learned

The Power of Reputation Tracking
Because every rider is required to rate their driver (and provide detailed feedback if it’s less than 5 stars), Lyft is able to build a huge data set on driver performance. This type of reputation tracking has allowed other platforms to scale in markets that one would have thought would require personal relationships (like buying goods from a stranger on Ebay). Lyft is leveraging this in two ways: 1) To find their mentors 2) To weed out weak drivers who make it through their process. Presumably, they’re also able to track those weak drivers back to their mentors, and complete the feedback loop (and maybe weed out weak mentors).

Most campaigns lack the ability and volume to collect performance data on such a fine level. But, you could easily imagine contacting everyone who signed up for an event after it was done and asking them to rate it on 1-5 scale. If the same folks are running these events, it would only take a few of them before you got some interesting, peer-generated, feedback.

Many-to-many leadership development
Lyft puts a huge amount of trust in it’s top drivers. Every ride is a potential disaster (from the really scary safety stuff to the less scary, but important stuff, like ensuring your drivers aren’t creepy), but those drivers are vetted by their peers, instead of someone from central staff who specializes in just that.

We organizers tend to always talk about organizing ourselves out of a job. But, that implies you’re training someone else to take your position. The power of this model is that it’s not a command chain, or even a snow flake, with the of people becoming diminishingly smaller as you work your way up. It’s one ever growing group (the mentors) training another ever growing group (the recruits) held accountable by the largest group of them all (the riders).

(Though, I suspect their corporate structure looks more like the traditional organizational model)

Important note: This is in no ways an official report on how Lyft, Uber or anyone else runs their business. I’ve just talked to a few drivers about it and found some training videos online. If anyone from either company wants to correct this, just let me know! (and thanks for reading ;)