He Thought He Could Outfox the Gig Economy. He Was Wrong

By Lauren Smiley

The work didn’t come naturally—“You’re pushed to treat people like products,” he says—but it was a job he could do without a college degree. His mom, who was splitting her time between Beijing and San Francisco, started buying houses as an investment. She tried to help Fang get business by having him process one of her loans. She also urged him to borrow for a place of his own. Fang was 22 and earned only $40,000 after bonuses, but it was 2004. He got an adjustable-­rate mortgage for a cookie-­cutter $638,000 house in a working-­class neighborhood. His parents pitched in on the down payment.

Four years later, scraping along at the bottom of employee performance targets, he quit the bank before he got fired. Now 26, he returned to City College, this time with zeal. He dove into philosophy, sashayed on the waltz team, and won election to the highest student office, student trustee, hoping to juice a transfer application to his dream schools, Stanford and Berkeley. Fang was on his way up, haranguing the community college board to step up their leadership, lobbying the California legislature in the Mao suit made for his high school prom, presiding over graduation on the same stage as Nancy Pelosi. The guy who gets things done.

In 2010, with only a part-time gig at a pet shop, he was also the guy who often missed his $2,500 monthly house payment. His house wasn’t worth what he owed on it, and in 2013 he was pushed into the ranks of the 10 million Americans whose homes were put into foreclosure during the Great Recession. He was lucky once more: His parents let him move into one of their investment homes, rent-free. Still, the grind—his money woes, college politicking, the side job—started pulling down his grades. A familiar shame set in: “Forget your dream, you’re not going to make it.” So, he says, “I left.”

During a trip to Beijing in 2013, Fang encountered a more welcome complication. His parents, he says, wanted him to get on with his life—their younger son was married, while Fang had “X number of failed relationships and nothing to show for it,” he says. They invited a young physical therapist over for dinner. He was struck by her gentle­ness and her college education. They stayed in touch, and over the months, via texts and calls, he fell “super in love.” They started talking about marriage. He told her that he was broke, his credit shot, and he had no job. She said they’d work it out. “I told myself, ‘She’s the one.’”

Fang pulled more than half the money from his 401(k) to buy a ticket to China for the wedding in April 2014. The plan was for his wife to eventually join him in San Francisco. But to make sure immigrants don’t become public charges, US citizens need assets to sponsor visa applications. Fang figured that it would take months, if not more than a year, to raise enough cash to bring his new bride to California. Soon after returning to San Francisco, married but alone, he learned that his wife was pregnant. Now, with two people to sponsor and his bank account empty, the process was going to take longer. He needed a job where he could save money and also take time off to visit Beijing for a few months a year. What job would allow that?

One day, while Fang was walking in Union Square, a car plastered with a Day-Glo mustache drove by. He Googled “pink mustache.” While Fang had been consumed with City College politics, his adopted city had become a post­recession boom town. Since Uber’s founding, in 2008, venture capital had poured into the so-called on-demand economy. Using freelancers to meet the fluctuations of customer demand, apps promised groceries delivered, Ikea cabinets assembled, dogs walked. The companies’ pitch to drivers: In a city of hustling disruption, they too could be entrepreneurs.

Fang just needed the money. He climbed into his dad’s 2002 Acura TL and opened the pink app. After a couple hours of driving, he’d earned $71. “I got comfortable with this job really quickly,” Fang says, “and I got good at it pretty quickly.” Looking back, this was precisely the problem.

In the beginning, Fang was the driver of Lyft’s marketing fantasies. He cheerily accepted nearly every ride for eight to 10 hours a day. Customers gave him five-star reviews: “Great guy. Very intelligent.” He’d wait half an hour, unpaid, for a couple to finish their sidewalk spat before one of them climbed in. He handed out free water bottles. He chatted amiably, played the classical station, and dressed up as Batman for Halloween.

After a few months, Fang got more strategic. He divided up the day to surf the morning and evening rushes, when the surge would push up fares. Thursday through Saturday he ferried the bar crowd home until just before dawn. Fang imposed a tight budget, scoping the $3 Safeway burrito bowl or the $1.50 hot dog and soda at Costco. He was bringing home $1,200 a week before expenses—enough, because he was living rent-free, to put money away and send some to Beijing, where his wife had moved into his parents’ home. He’d visit her, usually for about two months at the beginning of the year and again for a month in the fall. The app, the passengers, and his strict frugality aligned in a virtuous circle. I’m helping people. I’m making money. This is gonna work out.