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Big Wheels Turning

Like many college students, Spencer Wood wasn’t surprised when a friend called one night, too drunk to drive home.

“He was calling from a bar in downtown Orono,” said Wood. “He had spent all of his money on drinks and he couldn’t afford a taxi home. He needed a ride.”

Wood, who was in his first year of graduate school at the University of Maine, agreed.

“When I dropped him off at his apartment, he gave me his last two dollars,” said Wood. “I thought to myself, ‘This was fun and easy, and I just made some cash from it.’”

That ride got the wheels rolling in Wood’s head. “It all just kind of clicked at the same time,” he said.  “When I gave my buddy that ride and I saved him from potentially ruining the next 10-plus years of his life, it was a really good feeling. I just knew this was a good idea.”

In January of 2014, Wood started paying one of his friends to drive a red Astro van that he owned, “and it just kind of naturally became this vehicle that people called the ‘Tip Whip,’” he explained. “The name stuck and I knew it would work.”

Three years later, Tip Whip employs at least 65 student drivers at UMaine and has provided rides to more than 10,000 students since August. Unlike Uber or other commercial ride sharing programs, Tip Whip is exclusively for students at the Orono school. It doesn’t charge fares, instead relying entirely on tips.

To get a ride, students download the Tip Whip app to their mobile device and fill out a profile page. They must prove they’re currently enrolled at the University of Maine, then provide a credit or debit card. “It’s cashless tipping,” explained Wood, “so our drivers aren’t carrying around a bunch of cash”

Once that’s complete and they’re approved, the student enters their destination.

“We’ll tell you how much an Uber would cost you to get there, how much a taxi would cost you to get there, and then how much it would cost you if you decided to drink and drive,” said Wood. “So we have a nice little $10,000 sales pitch at the end of those three options.”

Students are asked to base their tip off of those representative fares. “They can put in zero dollars if they want, or they can put in $15,” said Wood.

The drivers are unaware of how much they’re receiving until the end of the ride. “We don’t want to create an environment where someone that doesn’t have the same financial advantages as someone else can’t get a ride because they can only give a couple of bucks,” Wood said, adding that riders have the option of upgrading their tip at the end of the ride. They can also request a particular driver if they want.

Andy Moser heard about Tip Whip through some friends. “Every time I’ve used it, I’ve been trying to get home from a friend’s house after a party or at the end of the night,” said the UMaine student.

He likes the idea of having students as the drivers. “Sometimes I’ll get someone that I know,” he said. “It’s also nice that they’re around the same age as me, so I don’t have to [risk] an Uber with a driver who’s an old weird guy.”

All drivers have to be at least 21 and have a vehicle with four doors. “They also need to have a clean driving and criminal record,” said Tom Donohue, the campus CEO for Tip Whip and a senior at UMaine majoring in marketing. “Most importantly, our drivers must pass a sexual assault prevention training class and be first aid certified.”

“A majority of our users are women, about 75%,” said Wood. “It’s comfortable, it’s familiar, it’s safe. We also have quite a few women drivers.”

Tip Whip hired 45 new drivers this past fall, enabling them to offer around-the-clock service. “We’ve given rides down to the grocery stores, the [Bangor Mall], Wal-Mart,” said Wood.

Each driver keeps 80% of the tips they make. They’re covered by an insurance plan Wood provides. And their schedule is extremely flexible, simply logging on to the app whenever they’re available.

“They make a decent amount of money,” Donahue said. “Some are making upwards of $28 an hour.”

John Martin has been driving for Tip Whip since it first started up. “I was in the process of looking for a part-time job,” said the UMaine student. “Every job wanted their employees to work 20 plus hours a week, something I couldn’t do being a full-time engineering student. Working for Tip Whip gives me the ability to work when I want, and make the money I need to get through the week.”

Martin typically works one to two nights a week. “I’ll turn on my app around 8 p.m. and turn it off around 3:30 the next morning,“ he said. “There’s always someone that needs a ride between those times. The busiest times of the year are Homecoming, Halloween and Maine Day. Halloween this year, I helped move 2,000 kids in a two-day span.”

Martin admits he’s been stiffed a time or two by riders. “But usually some kid throughout the night gives you a great tip and makes up for the loss,” he said. “The largest tip I’ve ever received was around 40 dollars. Nine times out of 10, if you do a good job and provide a safe, comfortable ride, you’ll get the tip that you deserve.”

Wood remembers the time he got a call from a student that needed a ride to the doctor. “She was going to get an ultrasound,” he said. “She was spending upwards of $60 to $70 a trip trying to go down and back. She gave me $30. It was really cool to experience that. And she saved $40 bucks.”

Damian Cummings drove for Uber before signing on with Tip Whip. “I usually only work on Thursdays and sometimes Fridays, but usually the bar nights are really popular times to drive,” said the senior at UMaine. “People are usually generous but it has a lot to do with customer service. The more that certain riders like you, the more they’ll tip or will request you as a specific driver.”

Word about Tip Whip is now spreading. “We’ve received emails from almost 40 different universities,” said Wood. “All the way to California, Colorado, Florida, Wyoming and Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia. They all found out about us through social media and want to learn more.”

Now, Wood is in the process of starting up the riding sharing program at Husson University in Bangor.

“Since I’m a residential adviser, I share the same mission of making sure everyone makes it home safe,” said David Vales, an international student from Spain studying business at Husson.

Vales heard Wood speaking about Tip Whip in one of his classes.

“A light bulb went off in my head,” Vales said, “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is a really good idea.’ I talked to Spencer after class, we shared emails, and it’s been fast forward ever since.”

Vales is now hiring drivers for the Husson portion of Tip Whip. They hope to begin offering rides in the spring. “It’s not just targeting those who’ve had too much to drink,” he said. “It’s for anyone that needs a ride somewhere.”

Wood is also working with area business to sponsor rides. “When kids request a ride in real time, they might get a pop up notification that a particular business is paying for their ride for the night,” he said.

And most recently, Tip Whip began offering food delivery from Orono-area restaurants.

All this from a 26-year-old who recently graduated with a master’s degree in human development. “Why not us? We’re all smart, working people. We all have good ideas and it’s a need,” said Wood. “Maybe it doesn’t make a million dollars overnight, but we have a good chance.”

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