The first month that Uber driver Joseph Ziyaee made over $20,000 through the service, he gave only one ride.
No, Ziyaee didn't cart someone across the country. He makes nearly all of his money through the referral bonuses he gets when he signs up other drivers.
Total, he's made about $90,000 in the past six months while giving a tiny number of actual rides, according to pay stubs viewed by Business Insider.
Ziyaee says that it all started with a hair-line fracture on his foot that made driving uncomfortable.
"It turned out to be a blessing in disguise," he says.
See how much Uber drivers make in different cities:
Ziyaee says he remembered a story Business Insider published about the "King of Uber": a rider named Blake Jareds who earned $50,000 in credit through his referral code.
Although Jareds' story inspired Ziyaee, he thought he could be even more successful as a driver than a passenger. Uber has a system where it rewards new driver bonuses to people who sign up for its service and complete a certain number of rides. If they sign up through another driver's referral code, then both parties get a bonus.
A single bonus can be worth hundreds of dollars.
With his hurt foot, Ziyaee decided to put most of his focus on referrals, not driving. He even turned his car into an "office on wheels."
Because Jareds had his account suspended for posting his referral code on Reddit — Uber prohibits posting credit codes on forums, coupon websites, and the like — Ziyaee realized that he would need to get in touch with potential drivers more directly.
All told, he has helped activate nearly 200 people into Uber's system. He has contacted them through friends, friends of friends, word of mouth, and social media, especially Snapchat.
It looks like Ziyaee is the new "King of Uber."
How he does it
Ziyaee spends a lot of time finding out what areas have the most valuable referral bonuses. Cities that need drivers more desperately will offer higher rewards for each new person who signs on.
When Ziyaee finds a place with a higher bonus, he will either try to contact people from that area online, or by physically driving there, depending on distance. When we talked to him, he had recently taken a weekend trip to San Diego even though he's based in LA, and he has come to San Francisco several times.
Once he gets someone interested, he'll walk them through everything, from basic questions with application forms, to assisting with background checks and vehicle issues.
"That's the most important part," he said. "You need to be willing to do follow-ups. You need to be able to help [potential drivers] if they hit obstacles."
He says he has "met" every single person he's signed on, either over the phone, through FaceTime, or in person, and that many drivers have become his friends.
Although he still occasionally does some freelance writing work, making money off his referral bonuses has become Ziyaee's bread and butter.
He has gone so far as to decorate his apartment with Uber paraphernalia because it makes his pitch more convincing when he's FaceTiming potential drivers or sending Snapchats with his contact information.
"I call it 'Uberville,'" he tells Business Insider of his apartment, adding that it also helps him stay motivated and disciplined, since he works from home.
Although Ziyaee has been incredibly successful, he's not alone in his approach of making money off of Uber without driving. A quick Google search reveals a bunch of other budding entrepreneurs:
Ziyaee says that he's seen competitors promise referral bonuses that have already expired for a given city. When that happens, new drivers get frustrated, because they receive less money than they expected. Because he's constantly doing research, Ziyaee says he makes sure that this never happens to him.
His goal for the year is to grow his business even more.
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