Each winter for the last few years, Quinn Collins, a 14-year-old budding entrepreneur, has not despaired. Instead, he’s grabbed his shovel, zipped up his parka, and gone door to door throughout the Crestview neighbourhood, on the lookout for clients to hire him in one of the few jobs generally reserved for people not yet old enough to vote.
His marketing is a combination of traditional — word of mouth, repeat customers — and digital — his mom scours neighbourhood Facebook groups looking for people in need of a capable shoveller. He’s open to negotiation, but he usually charges about $10 to $15 for each property. "It’s non-taxable work, so it can rack up pretty nicely," he says. He’s saving up to buy a car and a new phone.
For as long as driveways and sidewalks have existed in cold-weather communities like Winnipeg, snow clearing has been seen as an easy way to make a quick buck by neighbourhood kids like Collins. It’s a business that doesn’t require much overhead or equipment, and the work, though physically taxing, can be done on a flexible basis without much training: it’s an obvious precursor to the gig economy.
And over the past few years, Winnipeg’s private snow clearing companies and unofficial ones like Collins’ have gotten some competition, a series of phone apps looking to do for snow what SkipTheDishes did for ordering and picking up takeout or what Uber did to hailing a cab: "appify" a service that, once upon a time, customers did the old-fashioned way.
At least four app-based companies — Winnipeg-based OnTheStep, Calgary’s MowSnowPros, Edmonon’s Yardly, and Ottawa-based TouchPlow — have been clearing Winnipeg’s driveways and sidewalks in recent years, while similar apps have launched across North America: American apps Shovler and SnoHub have launched in Toronto and Calgary, respectively, while Greater Toronto Area-based Eden has expanded to major U.S. cities like Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.
MowSnowPros and Yardly both launched in Winnipeg in the fall of 2017. "Winnipeg was an obvious target," said MowSnowPros founder Aidan Klingbell, whose app launched in Calgary a year earlier. In addition to those cities, the company is now in Red Deer, Saskatoon, Regina and Ottawa. Yardly came next, and a spokesperson said nearly 1,000 customers had used the service for snow clearing and yard clean-up.
When it comes to snow, Winnipeg is sort of like Dawson City during the gold rush, it seems: everybody wants a piece. Naturally, a local company was the next to try its hand at becoming "the Uber for snow."
In the fall of 2018, a trio of students at the University of Manitoba launched OnTheStep to significant success: in a little under a year, the company did well over 1,000 snow removal jobs, said CEO Buhle Mwanza, a computer science student.
One of the biggest boons for customers using apps instead of calling in to a company is the convenience, said Mwanza, 22. The app’s design and utility is simple: add your address and postal code, select the type, size, and material of your driveway, sidewalk, or car pad, and select which service — snow removal or fall clean-up — you’re requesting. Then, fill out any special instructions, upload pictures of your property if you want, and set your own price: the higher the price, the quicker the response time tends to be.
The app also uses GPS mapping technology to generate recommended price ranges, an innovation Mwanza said no other app he’s aware of has offered locally. Plus, the company’s contractors, called "steppers" retain 100 per cent of tips on top of per-job pay. Mwanza says the company offers the contractors the highest rate of any similar provider in the city.
Not only that, OnTheStep has hired dozens of refugees and newcomers through partnerships with Hire A Refugee and Freedom International School on Sargent Avenue, a move Mwanza says is socially conscious and good business.
Mwanza doesn’t think it’s too surprising to see app developers trying to tackle the essential Canadian challenge that is snow. Technological development at its core is all about trying to eliminate inefficiencies and solve problems. That apps are looking to make snow-clearing more convenient "is just kind of inevitable," he said.
Still, endless construction, yard clean-up, and snow-removal companies rely on the increasingly ancient business model of booking by phone: you don’t have to look far to find them in Winnipeg. Non-profit SSCOPE also offers snow-clearing services by its employee-members, who have a variety of mental health issues or disabilities.
But sometimes, the neighbour kid will make it easy and knock on your door, eliminating the middleman.
As for Collins, he’s considering making some posters or business cards, and is focused on earning enough to buy a new iPhone 11. Once he gets there, he’s considering using his iPhone 7 exclusively for business calls and texts, not app development. Sometimes, the old-fashioned approach works just fine.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.