By the time that Daniel got a surprise call from someone at Bird this spring, things seemed dire for the dockless scooter industry. A 35-year-old former jet engine mechanic for the military, Daniel had been supporting his family of five by charging dockless e-scooters in San Diego, California, earning an average of $500 a day in the summer months, with the help of a sprinter van and generators he purchased so that he could collect and charge more scooters simultaneously. But payouts from the scooter giants Bird and Lime suddenly dropped late last year. Then, Lime left town in January, and the Covid-19 crisis hit shortly after, tanking demand for the scooters that remained. Now he was barely able to pay his bills.
The Bird salesman complimented Daniel on his work ethic and said he had a special offer. If Daniel would agree to buy his own fleet of scooters from Bird — worth thousands of dollars — Bird would finance the entire deal upfront at no interest. In exchange, Daniel would get to run his own e-scooter business.
“I would buy scooters, they would finance scooters for me, and basically [they were] telling me that I would have my own area,” Daniel says.
Since the pandemic began, Bird has been quietly changing its business model by convincing its contract workers to invest in the scooter equipment themselves. While the company announced a “franchise” program in 2018, at the time, it primarily marketed the concept to entrepreneurs, local bike shops, and other independent operators. Bird has never acknowledged that it is now offering financing on scooters to people who cannot afford to buy them outright, a strategy that seems intended to convince the company’s struggling contract workers to sign on.
After the cuts in charger pay last year, Daniel saw his earnings drop to less than $100 a day. He lost some trust in Bird as a result, and he didn’t have a lawyer to look over the new financing deal that Bird was offering him. But not seeing any easy way to start a new career in the middle of a pandemic, he decided to go for it. “At this point, I’m desperate. I will try just about…