As Myles Hunter recounts how he and his roommate, Ari Stiegler, made six-figure incomes during his senior year at the University of Southern California, he sounds like he still can't quite believe it really happened. "It's a crazy story," he says. "This is the most money we’ll ever make with this little time put into the effort.”
Their windfall came from work they did for pink-mustached ride-sharing service Lyft — not as fist-bumping drivers but as user recruiters. "We personally recruited tens of thousands of new Lyft users," says Hunter, 23, by phone. Lyft paid them up to $20 per person who signed up — in real money, not in ride credit. Hunter paid off his $30,000 in student loans, bought a BMW, and took a trip to Croatia, all while "living like a king" in Los Angeles, including "weekly lobster business meetings."
It started in 2013. "Uber came on the scene and asked club promoters to help them get users," says Hunter. One of his fraternity brothers started recruiting for Uber, making cash for every user he got to download the app. Hunter and Stiegler thought they could make more by helping out Uber's lesser-known competition which they assumed would be even more desperate for users. Stiegler emailed Lyft's general contact address in October of 2013 saying that Uber was paying recruiters $15 per user, and suggesting Lyft pay them $20. Somehow it worked. "We told them that we were really skilled at promotion and would get them tons of users," says Hunter. "We were business majors, but we are just both real hustlers."
They are either expert growth hackers, or experts at hacking Lyft's growth hack. While reluctant to share their "proprietary" strategies for user recruitment, Hunter says some of it was done through email lists, passing out flyers, and Facebook ads promising a free ride to anyone who downloaded Lyft. At least one of their 'bread-and-butter tactics' was regarded as too spammy by Lyft engineers, who complained to Lyft's growth team about what they were doing.
"We were getting 100-200 users per week," said Hunter. "Then we set up a kind of pyramid scheme where we got ambassadors to work under us and got a percentage of their earnings."
It was a pyramid, with Hunter and Stiegler at the top of an army of ambassadors, but a scheme in which everyone involved really did get paid. Hunter and Stiegler were pioneer brand ambassadors, acting in that capacity before Lyft made the program official. They got hundreds of people in 54 cities to work under them, setting up Craiglists ads and job listings for people who wanted to get paid to promote Lyft. "Make $800 every weekend!" says one old posting. That way, they got grassroots recruiters pounding the sidewalks and got to tap into any more creative strategies these folks came up with.
"Our brand ambassador program was launched in 2013 as an additional paid acquisition channel to help spread the word about Lyft on college campuses across the country," says Lyft spokesperson Paige Thelen. "Ari and Myles were two of our earliest brand ambassadors in Los Angeles and helped build out our brand ambassador teams on the UCLA and USC campuses. Additionally, Ari became a Lyft mentor, a leading ambassador who coached and mentored hundreds of other ambassadors across the nation."
Many start-ups have "brand ambassadors" now. It's an old concept, one you might associate with celebrity spokespeople and vodka girls offering free shots at the bar. But the start-up version has a twist: these brand ambassadors get paid not just for associating their personal brand with the latest app, but for each new user they bring in. Start-ups hope the ambassadors, who are often college students, will help them achieve Facebook's famed viral spread, with their apps taking root at campuses and going on to take over the world. The ambassadors are the modern day door-to-door CUTCO knife sellers or Tupperware promoters, but they're hawking their wares at bars, frat parties and on social networks. As with the start-ups' user referral programs, recruiters get paid when users sign up with their promo codes, but instead of getting virtual dollars for use in the app, they get the kind they can put in their bank accounts. While individual ambassadors can make big bucks, as Hunter and Stiegler did, it's still cheaper for these start-ups than a traditional large-scale marketing and advertising campaign likely would be. (And at Uber, brand ambassadors don't just recruit, they also reportedly help sabotage the competition.)
Lyft, which has received over $330 million in venture funding, wouldn't confirm how much Hunter and Stiegler made, nor reveal how much it's spent on the ambassador program.
"We gamed the system," Hunter admits. "But we didn't screw over Lyft. We used a lot of creative tactics to reach a lot of people who didn't know about Lyft."
Hunter says he needed to police the people working under them. One of them was using the Burner app to create fake numbers for Lyft accounts, getting paid $10 per account he created. "Once he’d hit the $5,000 mark, Lyft asked us how he was recruiting so fast," says Hunter. "When we asked him, he told us. He thought we would be impressed, but that’s just straight up spammy and fraudulent, and we told him he couldn’t do that anymore. Lyft banned him from the ambassador program but let him keep the $5,000 he made.”
Over time, Lyft realized it didn't necessarily need to outsource its operation to the USC students, and cut the rate it was paying them, first to $10 per user and now to $5. Stiegler and Hunter have stopped doing recruiting, though their promo code still brings in a small trickle of cash. "It's not worth it for us anymore," says Hunter. "We're just getting $1,000 or $2,000 a month now. It's heartbreaking. We're making a tenth of what we were making before."
Hunter is now graduated and working at a high-profile consulting firm, but considering a side business doing app promotion and ambassador programs for brands that want them. His only worry is that it will be harder with other kinds of apps. “There’s nothing in the world that will be as easy to sell as Lyft and Uber," he says. "Anyone in any demographic will eventually need a ride somewhere. They won’t necessarily need to sleep in someone’s house or get clothes online.”
Hunter says Lyft is starting to wind down the ambassador program, though its spokesman Thelen says it's still active. "Lyft is spending money in smarter ways now," says Hunter, "using more established marketing platforms like a typical large company does."