Life Hacks: Armed With Smartphones, Young Houston Entrepreneurs Work to Live, Not Live to Work
Vaughn Chung, 22 and a student at the University of Houston, doesn't have a job. Correction: He doesn't have "a" job. Subsequent further correction: He doesn't have a job as most people define the term, though he certainly works and makes money.
Every Friday and Saturday from about 8 p.m. to 3 a.m., he's in his car getting paid to give people rides home from the bars. If he's feeling like making an extra bit of effort, he'll keep going until 4 a.m. in order to pick up some of the strip-club crowd when those venues close.
It's exciting work and he meets exciting people doing it. Strippers and escorts make up part of his clientele, but also celebrities and other notable people who need a ride.
"One time I picked up the road manager of a bunch of metal bands, Ozzy and the like," says Chung. "She asked me to take her to this vegan restaurant in the ghetto. I said okay, and apparently she thought I was cool enough to ask if I'd pick her up afterwards. I took her to the venue. This was Walters, because she was there for Senses Fail."
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Declaring Chung to be "pretty cool," the manager, Jenny Douglas, asked if he'd like to hang out with the band for a little while before they went onstage. Chung enthusiastically said yes, and was escorted to the band's tour bus.
"It was awesome!" he says. "They were just sitting there, hanging out and eating chicken wings. I sat down and we talked music for about half an hour. Just really cool, laid-back guys."
Music is something he's very passionate about. When he's not scooping up clients from the bars and clubs at night, he's giving others a lift on the way to giving guitar lessons. He's got a pretty diverse group there as well. Kids, of course, make up a fair number of his students, but the CEO of a recycling company and even some of the same escorts he picks up on weekends also have Chung teach them "Smoke on the Water" or whatever it is they want to learn. Both gigs are lucrative. Just the bar pickup on the weekends can be $500.
Here's the thing, though. Chung doesn't have a license to drive a cab. He doesn't have a dispatcher sitting in an office somewhere telling him what shifts he's working and where. He doesn't have his own music studio, either, nor does he rent space from a music store to teach.
What Chung does have is something most adults have these days: a car and a smartphone. Chung is one of a new kind of entrepreneur Houston is starting to see more of. He uses a variety of apps and a big tub of elbow grease to be his own boss, set his own hours and life-hack his way around the idea of punching a clock from 9 to 5.
It's not surprising that there are young people in Texas looking to break free from conventional employment. Though many people call the booming economy of our state "The Texas Miracle," there are some very disappointing facts about the job market here.
According to a report from the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve, 7.5 percent of hourly workers in the state make at or below the federal minimum wage compared to the national average of 4.9 percent. We are second only to Idaho in the number of our residents who earn so little. MIT has a living wage calculator, and it shows that for Harris County, even a single adult with no children who lives alone is making $1.99 too little per hour on minimum wage to sustain a basic lifestyle, even if you assume the person is pulling in 40 hours a week.
As our own state Representative Garnet Coleman once told Huffington Post, "If you want a bad job, go to Texas."
Analyzing the data sent to us by the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Dallas office tells a murky story. In 2009, when the Great Recession had the country in economic freefall, Texas's full-time employment rate was 32 percent of the population; however, nearly 4 percent were working less than 34 hours per week for various reasons economic and non-economic. Our part-time rate was 7.5 percent.
Post-recovery in 2013, our full-time employment numbers (adjusted for population growth) have risen two percentage points while the rate of those employed full-time but not attaining 35 hours a week dropped by a point. However, our part-time rate barely budged, dropping just to 7 percent.
"There was a time during the recession when the number of self-employed rose," says Patrick Jankowski, president of the Greater Houston Partnership. "It's because they were involuntarily self-employed. They'd lost their jobs. That number has slipped some, but in 2013 it's still 6.3 percent of working adults."
Jankowski believes the Houston area is experiencing this rise in entrepreneurial endeavor because of several factors. One, obviously, was born of necessity in the tight times that followed the near economic collapse. Though the Great Recession was the worst of the lot, it was not without precedent. Our region has had three major boom-and-bust cycles since 1990, according to him.
Another factor is that Houston is very immigrant-heavy. Jankowski cited a 2010 study from the U.S. Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy showing that out of 100,000 people, 280 native-born Americans started businesses, but 620 immigrants did.
Immigrants, judging from the very fact that they left home and came here, are risk takers, and starting a business requires that.
And another reason we're seeing so many people adapting and starting their own businesses is a fundamental shift in the way modern young workers approach life, Jankowski says.
Jacqi Kill, singer with The Bad Drugs, would rather hustle as her own boss than work for a company who refused one night off a week for her music.
"There's a delayed onset of adulthood now," says Jankoswi. "People in their twenties no longer go into a job expecting to be there forever. Instead, they expect to be there for a few years at most. When I was 26 in the '80s, I was married with a child. Most of these young people aren't even seriously dating by then. They want a new lifestyle, to try things out. It's a good thing, too. Anything that gives you life experiences makes you a better worker and more able to handle unexpected things that are thrown at you."
If you're into the Houston music scene, you might have seen the embodiment of that sentiment onstage with The Bad Drugs. Their singer, Jacqi Kill, 27, is by her own admission "a loud, drunken, pissed-off bitch recovering from a drug problem." She and her band put on a hell of a show and are planning a full-length follow-up to Screaming Bitch Creature very soon.
When she's not onstage, Kill makes her living as a L'Oréal brand ambassador. She has worked for other beauty brands over the years since finishing cosmetology school, often many at once, but at the moment L'Oréal is the main company contracting for her services. Thanks to tablets, smartphones and connection through social media, she makes twice what her in-store counterparts bring in by legging it on her own.
"Definitely, I would die without my phone," says Kill. "I've gotten to this awesome point where I'm very comfortable everywhere. I have a tablet in my bag, and I can go into a Starbucks and do a consultation and a slide show and email clients. I can even scan in images."
Her job mainly involves doing large store events. She works at getting crews excited and crowds in the door, then does makeovers all day to push the products she's hired to promote. There's also day-to-day product education at stores all over the state.
Kill admits it's inconsistent work and probably wouldn't be viable if she weren't a somewhat compulsive saver. Some weeks she works ten hours, and some weeks it's 30. As the holidays approach, so does the big money for people like her. Which is helpful because January and February are usually completely dead for her line of employment, and she has to coast on her savings to make ends meet. Sometimes she'll get lucky and land an assignment in town, and other times she'll find herself driving all the way out to San Antonio.
Chung started out buying into the same employment system that most of us do. Interested in electronics, he got a job at Best Buy, but it didn't take long for him to realize that there were some pretty big roadblocks on the path to the American Dream of independence and prosperity if he continued to work there. Or, really, anywhere that people put up help-wanted signs.
"I had to have sold over $4,000 a month in warranties when I worked there," says Chung. "I was their top salesman and employee of the month three times in a row. But they were always asking for more and more and more from me and it was never, ever reflected in my paycheck. It was never enough, no matter how hard I worked."
He started to wonder if there was a better way to get ahead than slogging it through the ranks until someone up top deemed him worthy of ascension. He considered moving to another retail position, maybe something with Apple. However, no one seemed to be hiring, and even if he did move, there was no promise of better treatment.
"I just thought that was how jobs were," he says.
Eventually he ran across an ad on Facebook for Thumbtack, and clicking on it changed his life.
Thumbtack is another San Francisco-based program that enables entrepreneurs through an app. It's a listing site for professionals of every stripe.
"You look at someone like a plumber, for instance," Thumbtack CEO Marco Zappacosta said in an interview. "They band together in companies to maximize reaching clients, but they don't actually need to do that to just be a plumber. When you call a plumber, a company doesn't come out. It's just one or two guys, for the most part."
Thumbtack aims to eliminate that sort of overhead for professionals, which Zappacosta says can eat up nearly 60 percent of the income a professional brings in just by doing his actual job. For Chung, Thumbtack does away with the need to pay a studio rental fee or even to print up flyers to post on bulletin boards when he's searching for students.
When he first signed up for the service, he managed to get only three students, but now he has more than 20. The way he runs his teaching service through Thumbtack also gives him some unique advantages over the more conventional way many music teachers operate. Rather than rent a space, losing some of that income Zappacosta mentioned, Chung makes house calls to give lessons, something most music teachers have traditionally been loath to do.
"If you work in a music store, they take commission from you, which is fair of course because you're using their space," says Chung. "You get a greater guarantee of students from them, but I felt that I could connect better with them by going to their homes. It works, too. I may have to drive, but I have far fewer cancellations because it's so convenient for them."
Spending so much time in the car got Chung wondering if there was a way he could also use those hours to further increase his profits. That's when a friend of his told him about Lyft and the money he could make as part of its network. Chung thought that sounded too good to be true, but didn't see any real reason not to give it a shot.
"I signed up, did my mentorship and background check, and soon I was making in a week what I was making in a month at Best Buy," he says.
His pickup work is all handled through Lyft. The San Francisco company produces and runs an app for smartphones that allows people who need rides to find those with cars willing to give them a ride for a fee. It started as part of Logan Green and John Zimmer's company Zimride, which used Facebook to help find ridesharers for long trips between cities. Zimride became the largest program of its kind in America, and Lyft took off even bigger by linking people who wanted to take shorter trips. Today it makes millions from private contractors like Chung.
"The Lyft community has weekly meetings, we talk to each other on the phone, it's very active," says Chung. "We're friends; we hang out at restaurants during down time or right after work hours. We'll probably hang out at House of Pies or an IHOP or something at four in the morning because we'd be the only people out that late. We keep in touch on Facebook because there's a private page where we all post and get updates from.
"We talk about our bad experiences and we talk about our crazy experiences; we talk about everything. As drivers, we literally see people from all walks of life constantly. It's a job that makes you grow up really fast."
Despite having a masters degree, Stephanie McFall still has a rough time finding work outside of retail, and knits hats and scarves on the side.
Stephanie McFall, 28, had a dream job not too long ago. She was working as a closed-captioner at Seraphim Digital, a post-production anime company responsible for dubbing English voices onto Japanese cartoons. For an anime fan and unabashed nerd like McFall, it couldn't have been better. She sat around watching her favorite animes, and at the end of the week she collected a paycheck.
It was only her second post-collegiate job after she received her master's in literature from Stephen F. Austin State University, and she'd been headhunted by a family friend because Seraphim desperately needed people. Just seven months later, though, her office was closed and seven of the ten people employed there were laid off as redundant. The rest were transferred to another office, and McFall was out of a job.
The geek community came to the rescue and she secured a retail position at Third Planet, but, again, it takes more than the federal minimum wage to really get by, even in a city like Houston that's fairly cheap to live in. It's even harder when you pay for your own health insurance, as McFall does, including a $350 premium she owes because of a lifetime of kidney problems.
To try to dig herself out of her hole, she started selling knitted clothing online.
"I've always knitted," she says. "I've always kind of toyed with the idea of selling it online. I occasionally sell at comic conventions when I attend in exchange for helping at booths."
McFall is fortunate in that she has an outlet that she says she can disconnect her mind from and allow her hands to flow. She can do it at down periods at work, while watching TV or at any time her attention needs to be elsewhere. Initially she started selling to friends on Facebook and Twitter. She'd bust out the app on her phone and post asking if anyone could use anything with the winter coming up.
"I'm sort of lucky that a lot of people I know are starting to settle down and have babies," she says. "They'll buy a blanket, love it, then order little hats and tell other parents they know."
It's a slow-growing business that reduces, even if it doesn't entirely pay, her bills, but the smartphone revolution hasn't exactly enabled her to leave behind retail the way it has Kill and Chung. For one thing, there's not a whole lot that apps seem able to offer her outside of basic social networking. A search on the Thumbtack website for "knitting" in the Houston area brings up teachers of the craft but few actual creators of knitted clothing.
McFall is looking into Storenvy as a digital marketplace because it doesn't take the percentage cut of its main rival, Etsy, but Storenvy still doesn't offer the sort of community-building aspects of Lyft that Chung uses. It's also harder for her to employ the same sort of multi-area approach Chung does because she lacks some of the amenities that make his -entrepreneurship possible. She doesn't have a car reliable enough to offer rides, and her apartment is not really nice enough to list on a room-finding app such as AirBnB.
Actually making things rather than providing services comes with its own risks that also aren't shared by the smartphone lifehackers.
"You need time to develop an inventory," says McFall. "So you come home from work tired and force yourself to knit a hat after a nine-hour shift. Then you have to make hard decisions. Do you skip work on a weekend to go hit a convention or a craft fair? Where can you make your investment?"
Not many places, as it turns out. Getting a table at crafts fairs and other gatherings is often prohibitively expensive, says McFall. Choice gigs like Dickens on the Strand cost $300 to $400 for a booth, and the vendor must provide his or her own approved Victorian costume and decorations on top of the fee. There are almost no fairs aimed at the skilled creator just starting out on the circuit. It's pay or don't play at a level that McFall cannot afford on her salary.
"I don't think they are actively trying to keep me down," says McFall. "'Damn you, little artist. We need to turn a profit, too!' I think maybe they're trying to weed out those who may not be serious, but I feel the price squashes artists."
Jacqi Kill tried taking a regular job earlier this year.
"I was tired of never knowing where my next big paycheck was going to come from. In the interview everyone was so nice, and then when I was hired, it all changed. A single night off a week for music? No, they weren't going to accommodate even that. Why should they?
"People are desperate for work and you can be replaced. They lord these really puny checks over people's heads. I want to work to live, not live to work. Doing makeup does not drive me to better the world and go into the future."
So Kill got inventive and found a way to reduce the overhead cost of her professional dress outfits by selling her shoes to foot fetishists online.
"I had a few boyfriends who liked my feet," says Kill. "I'd honestly never really heard of a foot fetish before, so I started Googling it."
Through some careful wording on eBay, you can make fairly decent money selling your worn shoes. Kill started with a pair of thrashed sneakers that she desperately needed to replace. One buyer later, she has enough for a new pair and a few bucks left over for herself. It's not regular work, and finding clients takes some doing. It's all anonymous, for the most part, with most of her vacuum-sealed packages going to a "John Smith" and a post office box. For Kill the money is nice, but what she really enjoys is the challenge of finding a way to get done what needs to get done.
"I make the band pay for itself," she says. "I do the shoe thing. I'll buy hot big-ticket items at Christmas and resell them near the day itself for higher profit. I definitely understand the appeal of grinding it out. It's riskier and more challenging and it's all on you. There's a lot more pressure than showing up punching a clock and doing what you're told. But working for others just wasn't sustainable with me for the life I wanted to live."
No matter how much money she's making compared to the regular staff at Ulta and other locations, Kill can't deny that wages in cosmetology are falling. Her current pay is now the top tier, and finding assignments is getting harder and harder. The smartphone revolution can connect her, but it can't necessarily increase demand for what she's good at. She remains optimistic that she'll be able to continue to survive and make her music.
"I would definitely be able to find something else," she says. "It would probably be a compromise because I would have to answer to other people. I don't have the traditional excuses that most people have. I'm not a parent, and music is never a good excuse for anything ever. I usually don't even share it with my employers."
Chung also finds himself struggling to adapt. Lyft is apparently pulling out of Houston, unwilling to comply with the background-check system the city insists on since it is more expensive than the company's current system. Soon anyone using the app will be doing so illegally and will risk a $900 fine. Already Chung and his associates are beginning to gravitate to Lyft's direct rival, Uber, though that comes with its own consequences. With less competition, there is less reason for Uber to compete on the percentage it offers to drivers.
Instead, he's looking to diversify what he does with his car. He has already signed up for other services like Instacart and Deliv, both of which deliver items from retail stores rather than transport people. There's still his students to visit, too, and Chung is confident he can hold on and continue to forge his independence.
"I thought I'd miss the stability of a regular job, but it's just like the idea of staying in with your parents," says Chung. "For the most part, you come home and you're more relaxed because you have less to worry about. I feel that independence is worth it. I would rather have financial independence and be a private contractor in everything I do."
When he first started on this path, he was picking up hours helping his mother with the day spa she had just opened by managing the store. It was a traditional American entrepreneurship tale, and because of that, he feels his folks are slightly baffled by the very different route technology has allowed their son to take. It's a new way to make money that wasn't possible even a decade ago.
"I think this is the start of a new financial revolution," he says. "It's working the system and bucking the system both. Organized chaos, so to speak. It's a little bit of living on the edge, but it's worth it."
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