Like millions of Americans, Sam Lyon had career plans earlier in the year — a carefree time when jobs were plentiful, a time full of naive predictions on how 2020 might pan out.
Earlier this spring, the 26-year-old from Salem, Oregon, was set to start a new position in the IT field. Then the coronavirus changed his trajectory.
“Due to budget cuts, it put me in a situation where the position wasn’t available anymore,” Lyon told Codetic.
He couldn’t have predicted that within weeks, instead of troubleshooting technical issues, he’d be famous on TikTok, a popular video-sharing app, and thousands of dollars richer.
All he knew then was that he needed money. Fast.
He did some digging and stumbled upon one of the quickest-growing areas of the gig economy: delivery services. As people adjust to social distancing, they’re turning in droves to delivery apps to get their groceries, takeout and other creature comforts, all without having to leave home and, in many cases, without any human interaction.
With traditional jobs disappearing, the gig economy is proving to be a lifeline. It certainly was for Lyon.
“You can just sign up and start delivering in a few days,” he said.
And that was that. With a smartphone, his Ford Mustang (to be later named James Charles Jr.) and steely determination, he set out to make as much money as he could delivering food.
An Uber Eats Challenge
Lyon’s challenge was straightforward:
“I wanted to see what was possible and how much you can make given the time frame that these delivery apps give you,” he said. “Can you make a wage that pays for a house, pays for a car, that can [amount to] what most people would consider an actual career?”
He landed on Uber Eats mostly out of name recognition. In retrospect, he admits that probably wasn’t the best methodology, but he’s glad that he chose it over similar apps such as DoorDash or Postmates. He says those apps are stricter when it comes to your delivery stats and ratings, and he wanted flexibility to experiment to maximize his earnings.
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With the app chosen, he set some basic rules: 30 days straight. 12 hours a day. Make as much money as possible in June.
“Uber Eats gives you 12 hours a day [to work]. That’s the limit, so that’s what I did,” he said.
The 12 hours don’t have to be consecutive. And he took advantage of that. Each day, he allowed himself one lunch break, about 30 minutes to an hour. He’d go home, make some food and relax. Then head back on the road.
Lunch was his only meal each day.
“Very frugal,” he laughed. “I did not have any fast food during that 30 days. I wanted to make money — not spend it.”
To “completely eliminate the temptation” of spending while on the road, he brought one $20 bill with him each day, not even a debit card. The $20 was for gas only, and conveniently, that’s how much it took to keep his Mustang rolling.
His cash-based system kept him in check.
“I didn’t know if I had the drive it took to make the amount of money that I needed,” he said. “So I set a hefty goal and decided to document that goal [on TikTok] and kind of reach for the stars and hopefully grab the moon.”
At the very beginning, Lyon’s plan was simply to make as much money as possible. He didn’t have a clear amount in mind.
But a week in, he got into a groove and started noticing trends in his earnings. He could then estimate how much money he could make over a certain period of time. During his first week alone, he raked in more than $2,100. In a video recapping that week’s success, he says that amount of money is “absolutely crazy” and that he would’ve been content with $1,000 in one week.
That first-week recap was also the first of his daily videos to really take off on TikTok. So far that video has received more than 5 million views, and in total, he’s surpassed 10 million.
Then, he upped the ante: $8,000 by the end of the month.
Can you make a wage that pays for a house, pays for a car?
Lyon tracked his grind, day in and day out, with meticulous detail. He was earning hundreds of dollars each day and hundreds of thousands of views each video, which include helpful advice for aspiring and current food-delivery gig workers.
Over the course of the challenge, TikTok was his diary and ledger during an often lonesome quest from restaurant to front porch. He made hundreds of contact-less deliveries. The vast majority of the time, he never saw the customer. Maybe a text here or there specifying where he should leave the food. Perhaps a phone call for detailed directions.
Ultimately, TikTok was a crucial part of seeing his challenge through.
He built up a massive following. Hundreds of thousands of people cheered him along (and occasionally pestered him about 1099 taxes and car depreciation, to which he says he set aside 30% of his earnings for taxes and factored in his car’s depreciation using a Kelley Blue Book estimate, thank you very much.) Without TikTok, he says he definitely would have burned out. Or taken a day off, at least.
But he stuck it out. Not only did he reach his goal and “grab the moon,” he bearhugged it. He grossed $8,357 with one day to spare.
Instead of taking the last day off and resting like anyone else would have done, he turned it into a charity drive.
Using TikTok, Lyon live-streamed his entire 12-hour day. During the stream, viewers could send him tips, which he then donated to Save The Children, a global nonprofit that provides health and education programs for kids. He also donated his final day’s earnings to the cause, $247. In total, he sent the organization $720.
After that, he took a much-needed week off. But he didn’t stay put for long. He came up with a new delivery challenge: Lyon is dotting his way down the west coast, hitting up major cities like Portland, San Diego and San Francisco. He spends one full day delivering in each city then uses those earnings to spend one day exploring.
He embarks on this challenge not as Sam Lyon from Salem, Oregon, but as SabbiLyon. You know, the TikTok legend who made $8,000 in a month delivering food.
Adam Hardy is a staff writer at Codetic. He covers the gig economy, entrepreneurship and unique ways to make money. Read his latest articles here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.