Street Swipes—Makeshift
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Mobile money fuels a new wave of street trade in San Francisco

— Street Swipes

06. Trade Dispatches

In some ways, San Franciscan Josh Bukstein is living the very definition of mobile money. Last year he was asked to participate in a new venture: he would be a driver for a start-up called Lyft, a company where regular licensed drivers use their own cars to act as taxis to shuttle people around town. But instead of passing bills or coins, Lyft operators receive payment through a unique app that both rider and driver must possess.

Bukstein—like many Americans pursuing extra cash through side gigs—is diversifying the way money gets into his pockets.

He never set out to be a cab driver, though the idea had appealed to him. “I’m a San Francisco native and I know the city well. I know how to get around, and I really like driving.” Bukstein has a background in green building consulting and most recently found himself between jobs in the summer of 2012 when the start-up he was working at lost its footing. That’s when Lyft, in need of beta testers, approached him. Through an app, Lyft drivers and riders meet each other and journey to an appointed destination. Upon arriving, a notification pops up on the rider’s phone to give the driver a suggested donation. There’s no running meter like a traditional cab, no card to swipe, and no cash exchanges hands.

Bukstein likes that. “I don’t want to be a target. I don’t want people to know that I have cash on me.”

After Lyft takes a small percentage, the rest of the money goes to the driver, who acts as an independent contractor; he is not technically employed by the company. Bukstein makes his own hours and gets a kick out of the relaxed peer-to-peer nature of the business, instead of feeling like a chauffeur. “When you’re the first person to drive someone, they’re excited about it,” he says.

In on the ground floor, Bukstein has been driving for Lyft longer than most. “I’ve had my share of interesting passengers,” he says. “You get a good cross-section of San Francisco.” Then he pauses, considering things for a moment. “Actually, it’s a not a true cross-section. there’s a lot of the yuppie-ish tech crowd,” he admits. After all, you need a smartphone and an understanding of how Lyft works.

Still, Bukstein says he’s having a pretty good time. “It’s a good way for me to bridge the gap between jobs right now”.


Lyft driver Josh Bukstein navigates his digital drop-off list.

Oakland resident Rachel Combs also embraces the cash-free business model. Combs has been a vintage clothing purveyor for seven years, and her store, Mousevox, has evolved from eBay to Etsy to temporary “pop-up” events around the San Francisco Bay area since she moved here from Nashville in 2011. early in her pop-up career, Combs realized that she needed to diversify the way she collected payments and went with what seemed to be the only mobile method at the time: Square.

“I love using it,” Combs says of the tiny white adaptor she plugs into her iPhone. the device allows her to receive payment via credit and debit cards. “My money always shows up when it says it’s going to. It has definitely helped my business.”

Not only has it helped her scoop up sales she may have previously missed, but Combs also feels customers end up spending more when they pay with a card. “they’re not seeing the actual cash leave their hands.”

While street and fair vendors are known for keeping cash off the books, Combs says customers are used to using credit cards with her now and she sees them pulling them out for payment more often these days. “This is a very technologically savvy area.” She also sells her clothes at Mascot General Store, a brick-and-mortar establishment in Oakland, just over the bridge from San Francisco, stocked with vintage housewares and locally made goods. There, too, all of the store’s card transactions are performed via Square on an iPad.

In early 2009, Square user Brian Kimball was working as a psychotherapist at a clinic in the tenderloin, a historically rich but crime-addled central San Francisco neighborhood. the pay was low so he started a food cart business, Magic Curry Kart, to make extra cash on the side. “It blew up pretty fast,” says Kimball. He was still selling his curry out of a bike trailer when Square approached him to set up an account with them. Taking the plunge was a game-changer for Kimball: his profits grew, and most of his sales flow as wholesale to stores. “I think it’s still impressive, honestly,” says Kimball of the device, although he uses traditional invoices to collect payments from stores.

For many, the arrival of such alternative payment methods is timely: second jobs are increasingly common in the shifting US economy. Between wholesale gigs, Kimball still takes Magic Curry Kart out for a spin to a handful of music festivals each summer. Many vendors steer clear of credit card fees, but Square’s rate is lower than most, and Kimball is okay with it, even for a small sale. “People don’t expect it,” Kimball says of peckish concert-goers looking for a snack.

Back in San Francisco, Mission District resident Denise Collier recently held a garage sale to unload some housewares and furniture. “am I a dork for using Square to accept credit cards?” she mused. Her friend was quick to chime in: “That’s brilliant, actually.”



Mumbai’s night crew fend off a rodent tide

— Rat Trap

06. Trade Dispatches