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Courier - An Uber Driver Alternative

This page is intended for inidividuals without prior courier experience, but whom have driven for Uber, Lyft, or a similar ride sharing app/service. If you have already worked as a courier/messenger, you may find this page more helpful. Interested individuals without any professional driving experience can click here for more information.

IMPORTANT NOTE REGARDING GEOGRAPHY: Green Delivery Service only services customers in the Maryland, Nothern Virginia, and Washington D.C. areas, (the "DMV"). Although some trips may have destinations outside of the DMV, all pickups are within the DMV. If you have stumbled onto this page but live in another state, you will likely not be eligible for driver openings at Green, however the information on this page may still be helpful, and you just need to find a local courier service in your area.

Driving for a Courier Service vs App or Ride Sharing Service

So you have tried driving for Uber and you have mixed thoughts on it... you really like being out on the road, no clostrophobic office, no boss hanging over your shoulder, no annoying co-workers, meetings etc.. On the other hand you are feeling that this new job "could" be much better, once reality sets in, and you realize some problems you were not aware of before beginning your new endeavor.

Driving for a courier service shares most, but not all, of the benefits of a ride sharing app, but there are some key differences. Some of these differences are generally advantages or disadvantages of one or the other, and some differences may be advantage for some people and a disadvantage for others.

This article focuses on these differences, rather than the similarities. There are many more of similarities however, as the nature of work is essentially the same, with the exceptions discussed here.

Difference #1 - Your "passenger" is stuff, not a person.

Is that good or bad? This is an individual preference, so the answer will vary from person to person. Some drivers like to have someone to converse with during the trip. Of course, boxes and envelopes are not very conversational, but for other drivers this is a good thing.

"Stuff" is also not very good at getting in and out of the vehicle on it's own. Drivers usually need to get out and walk into the building at both the pickup and delivery end of the trip. While this can certainly pose an inconvenience at certain locations, it is actually a big advantage if you ask any fitness expert or personal trainer, who would tell you that any break from the sitting to get up and move around is benefitial to overall health, blood circulation, and muscles and joints. At the same time, courier work may not be ideal a for a disabled person or individuals with trouble lifting heavy boxes.

What is the "Stuff"?

Just imagine what a UPS or FedEx driver might deliver to you. Customers may send anything from a single envelope to one or two small boxes, to 5 or 6 heavy boxes (or more for van drivers). Importantly, the customers are charged more for the extra weight on top of the mileage and base charge, so the heavier the delivery, the more it pays.

Other advantages of moving people are that, unlike stuff, they might tip you or give you a good rating. On the other hand, stuff will never yell at you, assault you, or give you a bad rating either.

There is one final, and significant, advantage that moving "stuff" has over moving people. This is called "piggybacking", and is a one of the main reasons courier drivers have higher overall earning potential. (See #2 below for more details)

Difference #2 - Slightly lower rates per mile, offset by higher overall earnings.

The rate per mile and commissions are usually higher with a ride share service than they are for courier delivery. The actual rate difference depends on which "class" of courier service you are comparing, and whether the trip is within the local area (where "piggybacking" is more likely).

When you are giving a person a ride, they generally expect to be picked up and brought directly to their destination. In courier terms, this is called "exclusive" or "direct" service and rates this (direct from A to B) service are similar to taxi and ride-sharing services.

However, most courier shipments are sent as non-exlusive, in less urgent classes ranging from 2-4 hours to an entire business day. On the surface it may seem that the lower rate per mile of these lower class deliveries would adversely impact a driver's earnings. In reality, however, this is how couriers make their money. With more time to complete the job, and no requirement to go directly from A to B, couriers will often be assigned multiple pickups with destinations in the same direction. This is the "piggybacking" referred to earlier in this article.

So instead of one single trip at a higher rate per mile, a courier with two trips on-board, each paying mileage rate of 10-25% less, the courier still comes out ahead. Moreover, experienced couriers can often handle 3 to 10* or more jobs simultaneously. Now, you can do the math, but in fairness it should be noted that the deliveries are not all going to the same address so we do need to figure in the additional distance between each stop, but that is usually much less than the point A to B mileage that the customer is paying.

* The specific number of deliveries a driver handles at any given time varies depending on many factors including driver ability, vehicle size, current business volume, and the amount of time remaining to deliver each job.

Difference #3 - You are working as a team, not in competition.

One of the top complaints among drivers for Uber, and other ride-share apps, is the competition they face every day. Not competition from other companies, but too many drivers for the company they work for, resulting in tough competition between drivers for each ride. Do you move? Do you stay and hope others will move? It is often the luck of the draw, but if driver supply exceeds demand you most likely end up waiting.

This is an area where courier work is quite different from working for an app. On the downside, you usually do not get to choose where to standby for the next job. Rather, a (human) dispatcher will either assign your next pickup, move you, or have you stand by where you are (more details in #4 below). On the plus side, the reason the dispatcher may move you is to get you to an area where you will be the first, or only, available driver for a pickup, and/or to an area where a pickup is more likely.

The number of drivers in a given area is much lower in the courier business, especially with smaller companies, who often only have one driver in a particular area. The dispatcher and drivers are working as a team to cover all bases, which benefits everyone from the driver, to the dispatcher, and the end customer. For example, if you happen to complete a delivery in an area where two other drivers are already waiting (you would be third in line for a nearby pickup), a dispatcher may move you (or give you the option to move) to another area where you will be the only driver, and therefore first in line.

Difference #4 - You are assigned jobs by a Dispatcher

A real person, or people, are coordinating driver/trip assignments, with a constant eye on fairness and even distribution of that day's available work. As with most of the other differences, this can be a pro or a con. Firstly, the dispatcher's primary responsibility is to the end customer. Ensuring fastest possible pickup/delivery time is extremely important in the courier business because most of the customers are repeat business clients who place multiple orders each day. Even though the average driver typically does more trips than he/she would working for an app, the customer base is vastly smaller, so all these orders are coming from a much smaller number of unique customers.

If more than one driver is available for a given pickup, and assuming that the customer experience will be approximately the same with either, the Dispatcher's next priority is to ensure even distribution of the work among available drivers. As a result, if you are that very lucky Uber driver that always seems to get the ride even though there are 8 other drivers nearby, you are likely better off driving for the app, whereas the app driver who always seems to miss out on trips, or has bad luck in choosing what area to move to, would likely be better off with dispatcher guidance.

Courier jobs also vary widely in terms of requiring a certain type or size of vehicle, so for example, a van driver may be assigned to a pickup even if a car driver is available closer to the location, if the car has insufficient room for the material. The reverse can also occur, where a van may be closer to pickup of one small envelope, but the trip rate is more desirable to a driver with a small, fuel-efficient hybrid car.

Like Uber drivers, however, courier drivers are independent contractors ("IC"s), and ultimately have the option to accept or decline any job or instruction from the dispatcher. In reality though, doing so is very rare and generally only happens in event of sudden, unexpected personal matters that require immediate attention.

As noted in #3, the work atmosphere is one of teamwork to get the jobs done, as opposed to internally competing for each job. This is especially true with small to mid-sized companies. If a driver has a bad day, the Dispatcher remembers that the following day and will attempt to, without sacrificing customer experience, even things out... When was the last time your app did that?

Difference #5 - More work/driving, less waiting.

Don't read this as "no waiting". Some amount of waiting, or "stand-by" time is inherent with all forms of on-demand driver work. By definition, "on-demand" means that nobody knows in advance or has any control over when and how many orders come in.

With that said, there are big differences when comparing a ride-sharing app to courier work. Both the app, and the human dispatcher can use historical data and experience to predict supply/demand imbalances, but that is where the similarities end. The very nature of the apps (and their biggest advantage to drivers) is also the primary cause for the imminent, and necessary, oversupply of drivers. That is their complete flexibility on work schedules. The app can tell everyone when and where the work is, but the number of drivers available is completely determined by decisions of each individual driver. What if everyone logs on at once? What if nobody logs on at a given day/time? The latter would break the usefulness of the app, hence the need to hire more drivers than are actually needed. They are not designed to guarantee a limit on the maximum number of drivers at the most popular times (despite that some may imply such a feature). They are designed to guarantee a minimum number of drivers at the least popular time.

With courier, the difference here is not the human dispatcher (although human intuition is a minor factor). The reason courier work is much better in this area is also their biggest disadvantage for many app drivers: their relative inflexibility in setting your own work schedule (see #7). By taking some degree of control over driver scheduling, in advance, courier companies can "plan" accordingly, and do a much better job at matching the supply of drivers with the fluctuations in demand.

There are several other minor reasons the couriers win this one hands down, including advance-ordering, and piggybacking (discussed above) which often means that the driver already has the next job on board when another job is completed. In the end, with on-demand courier work, most days include a small amount of down time, but there are also many days that couriers have no down time at all.

Difference #6 - Fewer restrictions on vehicle type, model year, and condition.

Anyone who has driven for a ride share app knows the app operators can be extremely finicky about your vehicle's make, model, model year, type, and condition. Worse yet, many drivers have been shocked when they receive a letter in the mail from their ride sharing employer that the vehicle they have been using, which used to meet the company guidelines, is no longer acceptable, an they will receive no further jobs until it is replaced.

Fortunately for couriers, unlike human passengers, "stuff" does not mind much what your vehicle looks like or how old it is, as long as it reaches Point B in a timely manner. This is not to say that there are no minimums or restrictions on vehicles accepted for courier work, but it does open up the possibility of doing driver work to a vastly larger number of people than those who qualify for the passenger transport apps.

In general, vehicles used for courier work must be presentable (free from physical damage, rust, etc.), and should fall into one of two categories: Either (1) small and fuel efficient, or (2) a van or box truck. While not strictly enforced, these requirements are mostly in place for the driver, and because the courier company, through it's experience, knows that individuals with other vehicles types will have much higher costs/earnings ratios and likely not work in the business long term (although some will stay on a change vehicles).

The differences between running a small efficient vehicle vs a van vary by courier company and their customer base. Both are good for courier work, but for different reasons that are beyond the scope here and the topic of another article.

Difference #7 - Less flexibility on work/availability hours.

At this point, about 30% of readers who have worked for ride sharing apps wlll likely be split on the pros/cons of courier work vs driving for a ride share service, 50% will be somewhat split but favoring courier work, 10% are gone because they did not find the differences they were looking for (they are not a good match for either), and 10% left because they already determined that driving for an app better meets their needs (for example, disabled individuals, prefer passengers over "stuff", and the perpetually "lucky" driver, etc.).

This last point, however, could even things out in the big picture, although it's significance will vary widely among individuals, anywhere from not relevant to a game-changer. Among all the negative points in reviews of working for ride sharing apps, there is the huge advantage of absolute freedom to make your own hours, and completely dictate your availability for trips to conform to your schedule. Of course, experienced Uber'ers know that this is not "quite" as simple as that, because "being available" on the app and actually "working" are two different things, and the latter will depend a lot on your location and how well your schedule fits in with the peak demand times of riders.

In any event, courier work is far less flexible. Although as an IC you can still, technically, set the hours you are available, most of the work (demand) is generally during normal business hours (give or take an hour or two on both ends). This is simply because most courier work is B2B (business to business). There is a gradual shift under way toward more B2C (business to consumer) demand, with more and more retail business online and shipping to consumers. This will mean an increasing volume of jobs that can be delivered in the evening, but rates for B2C are often lower than standard B2B rates, so, in the courier business, the real money is, at least for the foreseeable future, in the 11 hours between 7:00 AM and 6:00 PM.

As for flexibility on which days you will work, this varies from one courier company to another, and here the advantage goes to the larger companies, who have hundreds of drivers in their region and just work with whomever checks in on any given day (much like the apps). Smaller courier companies, although generally preferred by most experienced, and virtually all full-time couriers, are the least flexible on schedule and the most strict on attendance. The reason is obvious, if you consider a company with only 10 total drivers, for example, is without 20% of their workforce if just 2 drivers do not show up, making it very difficult to keep their customers happy on any but the slowest of days.

Final Thoughts

Some readers will not find the differences they are looking for with courier, as compared to driving for a ride share app. Both occupations include driving in traffic, dealing daily with all the morons out on the roads, working as a contractor, mileage on your vehicle (although usually more than offset by the per-mile tax deduction), and careful accounting of mileage and other expenses. If you tend not to like these things, frankly speaking, driving work is simply not for you.

If you love driving, being out of the office, not having a supervisor always looking over your shoulder, and prefer looking at the clock and wishing there were more time, instead of looking at the clock and wishing it to go faster, you are probably a good candidate for driver work. Which type of driver work will depend largely on what is most important to you out of the differences listed above. If you want to work during off-hours and/or set an unusual or changing schedule, ride-share apps will likely work better for you. If you are OK with conforming to a regular work schedule, or willing to trade scheduling flexibility for more jobs and less waiting time, you might find that courier work eliminates most of the gripes you have with the app based work. Some, very ambitious, individuals may even find the best of both worlds, doing courier work by day and filling in extra off-hours through the app.

The extent to which you come out ahead, in both cases, is largely dependent on your own motivation and work ethic. These are not salary or hourly wage jobs. Every week there are drivers that worked hard and are very happy with their earnings, some who did not put much effort in and are accordingly disappointed with their pay, and the majority, who are somewhere between the two extremes.

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