Inside the mobile-only, on-demand market (and gig economy)

 In Blog

“Smartphones are making us fat.”

I told my girlfriend this the first time I rode with her while she delivered food for Postmates, the popular on-demand food delivery app.

Postmates, if you’re unaware, is among one of the most popular mobile-only, on-demand services in the market. Such apps have also grown today’s gig economy.

When I first started dating my girlfriend in August, I instantly got a front row seat to the gig workforce as she worked a combination of Lyft, Postmates and Uber to help pay for college.

While I’ve used all three mobile apps as a consumer, the chance to get an inside look at one of the apps from the worker’s perspective was something that intrigued me for obvious reasons. I wanted to know how such apps worked from a mobile-experience perspective.

Plus, this was a good way to spend some extra time with my girlfriend. That’s how you score brownie points.

When I made the above comment to my girlfriend on that first trip, I was only half kidding.

I couldn’t believe someone would use Postmates to get food delivered to them from a half mile away. How lazy is this person?

I made this assumption without any context of a user’s situation, which I would find out later varies.

The end user is not always a drunk or high millennial, though I ran into plenty of those situations in a 30-day run as a Postmates courier.

As my girlfriend showed me how Postmates worked from the courier’s perspective, a few things came to mind.

Postmates, and other mobile on-demand services like it, is the culmination of many things when it comes to the evolution of the smartphone and operating software, the current gig economy and today’s mobile experience.

This spurred me to experiment with Postmates as a courier to help me better understand the mobile experience.

Before I share some of my experiences as a Postmater, allow me to give you a brief background about the company.

Mobile-only, on-demand

Three men, Sam Street, Sean Plaice and Bastian Lehmann, founded Postmates in 2011, two years after Uber essentially created today’s current mobile-only, on-demand services market.

Lehmann once called Postmates the anti-Amazon.

“Amazon comes along and builds a warehouse outside a city. We like to say the city’s our warehouse,” Lehmann told BBC in late 2014. “We try to understand the inventory available, hacking the city, and having a fleet of delivery people that distribute these inventories.”

Postmates today operates in almost 50 U.S. cities, including every major metropolitan area. While the company works with local and national restaurants in each city to get their menus on the app, consumers can get just about anything delivered to them via Postmates, including alcohol, groceries, drug store items and even a smartphone charger.

The company recently started to test robot deliveries in two cities, giving us a glimpse of what’s to come with automated technology in the next decade.

I soon learned none of this stuff mattered to most Postmaters. They see the company as an opportunity to put some extra cash in their pocket as an independent contractor. When I went for my Postmates orientation, only three of 50 people in the room had used the app themselves (more on that later). And some people also drive for Uber and Lyft like my girlfriend.

The experience

While I decided to work Postmates from an education standpoint, I also decided to do it for another reason: to help my girlfriend earn a $350 referral bonus.

If I completed 60 deliveries in 30 days, she would receive the bonus. I would also receive $100 as part of the incentive program, as well as the money I made from deliveries and tips.

I completed deliveries in two ways during that span: driving and walking.

Postmates had just approved Chicago for walking deliveries when I signed up in October. I completed about half my deliveries via walking and used my girlfriend’s car for the rest.

We sometimes alternated shifts using her car. She would do as many deliveries as she could do in two hours, and then I jumped in to do the same the same. I eventually finished those 60 deliveries with a day to spare. And for the record, I worked Postmates during my free time, usually in the evenings and on the weekends.

Postmates has two apps: one for consumers and one for couriers. The latter is one you won’t find in any app store because those users download it via a special link from Postmates.

This is where the mobile experience aspect comes into play for me.

While companies toss around the word innovation, few actually do it.

But then a company such as Uber comes along and turns a couple of industries on their heads, so much so that every payments company you run into at an industry conference speaks about providing a mobile experience similar to Uber.

And that’s an experience where the payment is an afterthought and the end user can focus on ordering a ride, or in Postmates’ case, ordering some tacos.

The courier’s side of the Postmates experience is nifty as well, but there is some room for improvement that I’ll address later.

For now, I’ll let you in on the Postmates on boarding experience. I’ll share some actual delivery stories and the mobile experience perspective in my next post.


I attended a Postmates on-boarding session right before I left Chicago for Money2020 in October. Funny, huh?

The company’s on boarding process is simple. You complete a simple background check and then attend an orientation that the area’s community managers conduct.

How Postmates works from the couriers’ perspective is simple.

You switch on the fleet app when you’re ready to do a shift, which can be at any time of the day. Some neighborhoods in Chicago are more busy than others. If you’re familiar with Chicago at all, the River North area (just north of downtown) is a hot spot, especially for walkers.

The fleet app will alert you to a potential job. As a Postmater, you have the option to accept or deny any job. If you accept, you’re on your way to the location to either place or pick up an order for delivery.

Postmates gives you a prepaid debit commercial Visa-branded card to pay for any job that requires a payment. The company deposits into the account only what it needed to pay for the order. So, a courier never has to worry if they’ll be short.

Once you pick up your items, the app will ask you to start your delivery and will highlight the destination on a map. It’s up to the courier to determine which navigation app to use to get to the destination. Apple Maps, Google Maps and Waze all can be easily accessed from the fleet app.

Couriers complete a delivery only when they do so through the app. The bonus there is that you can instantly see how much you made from the delivery, minus the tip. When a tip is added, you’ll see it on a list of deliveries completed.

At minimum, you get $4 per delivery. But the final payout is based on the distance you traveled to make the delivery. That’s why a car is the preferred delivery method for couriers who work Postmates, though bikers also can do well.

Walkers can have an advantage in that it’s possible to do more deliveries per hour in a certain area. Postmates will determine which jobs to send your way depending on your transportation mode, though I found out the hard way the system is not always perfect.

On Thursday, I’ll share with you some of those less-than-ideal delivery experiences, as well as some changes I’d make to the mobile experience.

Read part II of the series. 

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