Angel Torres was driving down a major Los Angeles boulevard in late 2016 when it happened: Ride requests from Uber and Lyft arrived at the same second. As he looked away from the road to decide which trip was more worth his time, he nearly rear-ended the car ahead of him. “It scared the crap out of me,” Torres says. He was new to juggling the two apps, and was so rattled by the near miss that he started pulling over every time he needed to accept a ride on one app or turn off the other. That’s time-consuming and costly: For Torres, like all workers in the gig economy, “every minute is money.”
Torres’s plight is all too common. Nearly 70 percent of on-demand drivers work for both Uber and Lyft, and one-quarter drive for more than just those two, according to a survey by The Rideshare Guy, a popular website for rideshare drivers. But each app wants to keep drivers exclusively on its platform. The apps’ designs make it easier for drivers to accept every ride they’re handed, rather than consider options: When a ride request comes in, drivers have about 15 seconds to assess the type of ride (Lyft Line, Uber X, etc.), the passenger rating, the time it will take to pick up the passenger, the length of the trip, and whether or not surge pricing applies. That’s a lot of information to absorb in a short amount of time, let alone compare with a competing offer. In other words, as much as Uber and Lyft promise their drivers independence, they make it difficult—and at times unsafe—for drivers to exercise it.
Those constraints inspired former Uber and Lyft driver Herb Coakley to start Mystro, an app that circumvents on-demand platforms’ notorious psychological tricks to give drivers more control over their work. Mystro aggregates jobs from Uber, Lyft, and (as of December) Postmates, and presents them to drivers on one screen; it also lets its 40,000 users set filters to automatically accept or reject rides based on distance, surge pricing, passenger ratings, and more. As of a month ago, Mystro lets drivers do all that without taking their hands off the wheel.
Coakley started driving for Uber and Lyft in Los Angeles in 2016, when he felt like he had hit bottom: He’d drained his life’s savings trying to produce a movie, and was crashing on a friend’s couch while going through a divorce. Driving was supposed to be a stopgap measure until he figured out his next move, but when Coakley found himself longing for a way to see what both Uber and Lyft were offering simultaneously, he realized he had stumbled upon something big.
His idea appealed immediately to drivers, who spar regularly with the app companies. Uber has blocked drivers’ attempts to unionize in Seattle; Postmates has fended off claims that its drivers should be granted employee benefits; and Grubhub recently prevailed over a driver who argued he’d been misclassified as an independent contractor. Coakley also won over Dwayne Shaw, an old friend from Howard University who was working as a contract art director at Audible and who would soon become Mystro’s cofounder and COO.
Emboldened by Shaw’s enthusiasm, Coakley relocated from Los Angeles to San Francisco and started pitching every person who wound up in his car. His tech-savvy passengers were skeptical. To make Mystro work, they insisted, he would need access to Uber’s and Lyft’s APIs—and neither company would grant access to a service that makes it easier for drivers to switch.
How It Works
A year after moving to San Francisco, Coakley was starting to lose hope. But then, as a last resort, he posted a call for technical assistance on Craigslist—and his listing caught the attention of Matthew Rajcok, a developer who was just finishing his BA at Yale. “I was really motivated by the fact that so many people said this was impossible—I was like, OK, I’m going to crack this nut,” Rajcok recalls. He flew to San Francisco to meet Coakley and Shaw at a coworking space, and within six hours, he’d built them a working prototype. He is now Mystro’s CTO and cofounder.
The key was tapping into Android’s accessibility features, which allow one app to “see” what’s happening on other apps running in the background and perform actions on them. The team felt stymied when they realized that Apple’s iOS, the operating system for iPhones, does not allow apps to snoop on one another. But they regained enthusiasm when Coakley, who was still driving, picked up an Uber staffer, who casually mentioned that 55 percent of Uber drivers use Android phones; overseas, the passenger said, it’s closer to 90 percent. Soon after, Coakley found himself chauffeuring a then-Google employee named Andrew Taylor, who was so impressed by his pitch that he secured Coakley a $100,000 seed investment from a wealthy friend.
That money allowed the team to create a basic, working version of the app, which they began offering for free in February 2017. They then landed a spot in Y Combinator’s summer class, and launched commercially later that summer. Users now pay $11.95 a month, $99.95 a year, or 20 cents per ride. To date Mystro has raised just under $2 million, and the startup is in the process of closing a round that will bring that to just under $3 million, according to Coakley.
The team has grown to seven staffers, three of whom, including Coakley, are former rideshare drivers. Things are moving quickly: They’re looking to offer the app outside the US by the beginning of summer, and they’re doubling down on their pitch of safer streets. Mystro just finalized a deal to give users a discount with Arity, an Allstate spinoff that offers insurance for rideshare drivers. They also introduced voice-control features, so drivers can accept trips, end trips, and toggle Uber, Lyft, or Postmates on and off without looking away from the road.
Voice control is a favorite of Angel Torres, the Los Angeles driver who nearly crashed his vehicle while hopping between Uber and Lyft. Endeara Cureton, a driver in the Washington, DC area, uses the app’s filtering feature to reject passengers with ratings below 4.8.
Mystro claims it helps drivers earn 30 percent more money. Sonny Fowowe, a driver in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says he has noticed that uptick. But Sohail Rana, a New York-based driver and a member of the Independent Drivers Guild, is more skeptical. “If people were really making 30 percent more on that app, trust me, every single driver would have it,” he says. “I don’t see these people doing anything else for the drivers—they charge $12 a month and they are keeping all the profits themselves.”
Coakley calls Mystro “a tool for the resistance.” But the company does not view itself as an enemy of the ridesharing services. “We love Uber and Lyft,” says COO Shaw. “I feel like it’s given so many people an opportunity to make money where prior there was not an opportunity. But it is hard work, and where Mystro comes in is we try to ease the burden a bit and give a little bit of power and agency back to rideshare drivers.”
Summoned to a Meeting
Mystro has caught the attention of Uber and Lyft , and the on-demand giants don’t seem overjoyed. Last summer, Uber requested a meeting with Coakley, Rajcok, and Mystro’s attorneys: “They thought we were illegally using their API, and then they thought we were stealing stuff from their server,” Coakley recalls. “But once they realized we weren’t doing anything they could actually sue us for, they pretty much left us alone.” Coakley and his team haven’t talked directly with Lyft, but the companies share an early investor who told Coakley that Lyft is “not thrilled” with what Mystro. At the same time, Lyft is referring some drivers to Mystro, according to a text exchange between Mystro’s social-media lead and a Lyft employee. Uber declined to comment. Lyft and Postmates did not respond to requests for comment.
“It benefits anyone not named Uber to come on with Mystro—it gives them access to a supply of all of Uber’s drivers,” says Harry Campbell, who runs The Rideshare Guy and is an adviser to Mystro. Coakley feels confident that eventually, the platforms Mystro aggregates will see the value of the app. Drivers quit the apps almost as quickly as they sign up. If Mystro can improve drivers’ earnings and quality of life, Coakley thinks that might entice more to stick around longer.
The on-demand giants face their own constraint: Banning a tool that gives workers more control could undercut their long-held positions that drivers are independent contractors, not employees. “The platforms are walking a fine line: Clearly they each want as much time as possible from the drivers, but they also don’t want to step over the line where there’s any indication that this is anything other than an independent contracting relationship,” says Arun Sundararajan, a professor of business at New York University and author of The Sharing Economy. “There’s also potentially a danger in blocking the app, because both Uber and Lyft have market power now. This is an app in an adjacent space, and it could attract antitrust attention if they blocked it.”
That’s left Mystro in a delicate dance with the on-demand behemoths. They’re not trying to shut down the upstart, but also don’t yet seem open to partnering and giving Mystro access to their APIs. Either way, Mystro’s existence suggests that drivers will seek, and find, new, tech-savvy ways to seize back power. And, Mystro thinks, that could end up benefiting everyone involved. “We’re like this pesky mouse running around an elephant,” Coakley says. “But the thing about the mouse and the elephant is they can be allies. The mouse can see things the elephant can’t see. I think in time, they’ll be able to see we’re actually a really good ally.”