Upstart grabs $5.9 million to let investors back people. Yep, a “Kickstarter for people”

By Richard Nieva , written on April 22, 2013

From The News Desk


Last month, I attended a pitching event for entrepreneurs and VCs. One particular pitch was not going so well. The business model was not compelling, and there was no spark to the idea. The entrepreneur, however, was charismatic and likeable. Giving feedback, one of the VC panelists repeated words that his mentor said to him: “You’re the right jockey, but you’re on the wrong horse.”

In a nutshell, that’s the idea behind the company Upstart: Instead of betting on a company, why not bet on a person? Today the company announced $5.9 million in Series A funding from Founders Fund, Khosla Ventures, Collaborative Fund, Eric Schmidt, Marc Benioff, and Scott Banister.

David Girouard, CEO and cofounder, and former head of Google’s enterprise division, describes it as essentially a “Kickstarter for people.” The idea is that a young person can get started on her dream career right away, instead of taking a safer job because it pays better – a reality for many struggling with student debt. Typical fund-seekers are recent college grads or career changers.

Here's how it works: An “upstart” creates a profile on the site, and an investor, which must be accredited, can invest in him or her. An algorithm determines an upstart’s projected income, based on things like classes taken, standardized test scores, job offers, internships and the like. Then an investor can decide to back one or more people and receive a portion of the upstart’s income over the next decade. Girouard suggests investors back more than one person as a way to diversify his or her "portfolio."

Investors can put in as little as $100, but on average contribute $1,000. An upstart typically raises $20,000 to $25,000 on the platform. In its first year since founding, there are more than 80 profiles on the platform and 35 upstarts have been funded. The company says more than $1 million has been collectively raised on the platform since it opened up in November. Most recipients use the money to pay off school debt, try their hand at starting a company, or take lower paying jobs they wouldn't be able to accept otherwise.

Trina Spear joined the platform after graduating from Harvard Business School, weighed down with debt. "To come out of there and not think you had freedom and opportunity was a weird thing," she says. She cofounded Figs Scrubs, a medical apparel company, after raising $20,000 on the site. One of her backers, Ryan Randall, an investor from Virginia, contributed $2,000 to her fund, and even made a significant investment in Fig Scrubs' seed round.

Other companies founded or in development by participants include, an ecommerce site, and Ziibra, a crowdfunding platform for musicians. One upstart is using the money to support herself through Teach For America then going to law school. Another took the money so he could accept a clerkship for a judge, and passed on a lucrative job at a law firm.

Each upstart decides how much of her income she wants to give up – no more than 7 percent annually. An investor’s return can be as high as 15 percent a year, though the company targets about 8 percent annually.

The platform has only been open since November, so it’s a little hard to judge returns yet for such a long-term bet. The first upstarts have just begun their repayment plans, and Girouard describes their monthly payments as in the “low hundreds” range. (Speaking as someone with student debt, "low hundreds" sounds reasonable.) If an upstart makes less than $30,000 annually, he doesn’t have to repay, but a year gets added on to his total repayment plan.

Girouard says the idea dawned on him when he was at Google and interviewing people for jobs. The vetting process there is very analytical and data-driven in trying to predict how well a candidate will perform at the company. If he could do that with a job applicant at Google, he figured it could be done for others with more entrepreneurial desires. He teamed up with a Thiel Fellow named Paul Gu, who authored the income-predictor algorithm. The other cofounder is Anna Mongayt, another ex-Googler.

There are, of course, wrinkles in the plan. Basing someone’s financial worth over the next decade is an enigmatic undertaking, and there’s a chance the algorithm can under- or overvalue someone. That’s where someone’s investor savvy kicks in, Girouard says, mentioning that a backer can always choose to disregard the algorithm and go with gut. He can also mentor an upstart to and have a hand in the kid’s – and eventually his own – success that way.

There are other crowdfunding sites for individuals, though they feel more charity-based and usually center on financing something specific, like GoFundMe. This is the only one with a true investment bent.

It’s an unusual proposition, and it remains to be seen if the idea will stick, or end up an interesting academic experiment. The trick will be to attract investors. The company says it has received more than 500 funding offers on the platform. And in a Valley culture where serial entrepreneurs bounce from idea to idea, it might make sense to have a people-centric approach. "Although companies may fail, if you choose an individual with intelligence and passion, you'll be rewarded," says Randall, Spear's backer. In other words, bet on a good jockey.