When Matthew Kulp graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design last year, he became part of an intriguing financial experiment. To help pay back student loans and fund a new design company, Mr Kulp raised $38,500 via Upstart, an American firm that helps youngsters, or “Upstarts”, find wealthy investors willing to give them hard cash in return for a stake in their future earnings. This novel application of crowdfunding promises to be both popular and controversial.
“Venture capitalists have long said, ‘We invest in people, not ideas or businesses.’ Well, not really. We are the first people really doing it." So says Dave Girouard, the founder of Upstart, a new operation in Palo Alto that’s part loan agency, part investment fund, part mentoring network, and part dream factory.
It used to be that you had to have an actual company to capture investors’ attention. Last March, entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham upended that basic standard, inviting candidates with no plan whatsoever into his Y Combinator program, arguing that “[a]lmost every smart person has an idea in them.”
Now, Upstart, a 10-month-old, 10-person company based in Palo Alto, is making even Graham’s unconventional thinking seem quaint. Specifically, Upstart wants investors to loan money to entrepreneurial-minded college students and recent graduates based on their academic credentials – period. It’s a little like the peer-to-peer lending marketplace Prosper.com, if Prosper’s lenders were voracious capitalists in search of the next Mark Zuckerberg.
Upstart itself has plenty of smart backing. Last summer, the company — founded by Dave Girouard, the former head of Google’s enterprise business, and run predominately by ex-Googlers — raised $1.75 million from Kleiner Perkins, NEA, First Round Capital, Google Ventures, Crunchfund and billionaire Mark Cuban. And the company has just raised another $3.5 million from those same investors, along with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and IronPort Systems cofounder Scott Banister.
Despite the inexorable move to the cloud, some companies cling to the idea that the risks outweigh the benefits. Dave Girouard, former President of Enterprise for Google, argues that the logic these skeptics use is, well, “insane.”
In the years that I led the Google Apps team, I heard every imaginable objection to cloud computing. Back in 2007, perhaps, those arguments may have had more merit, given the immaturity of most services and limited track record of the providers.
But over time, it became clear to me that those who rejected cloud computing (typically in favor of that unicorn of technology: the private cloud) were experiencing a form of insanity that, if left untreated, would put the very existence of their companies at risk.
When I left Google last year (to found Upstart), I jumped over the table and became a consumer of the cloud. As CEO of a tech company that does not even own a computer, tablet or phone, I now get to fully experience the cloud from a customer’s perspective. So before I get into any specifics about the myths of the cloud averse, allow me to recount a couple of anecdotes to give a little context.
January inevitably brings reflection and consideration for what’s next in life. For many of us, as we begin 2013, that means dreams of throwing caution to the wind (as well as reliable paychecks) to make a go of it as entrepreneurs. But dreaming isn’t doing ? and the reality is that most people aren’t willing to take on the risk associated with entrepreneurship.
Since leaving Google nine months ago to found Upstart, I’ve spent a lot of time visiting college campuses, talking to aspiring entrepreneurs across the spectrum of engineers, MBAs, artists, and writers. Thinking back on these visits, I’m struck by the fact that the focal point of entrepreneurial activity on campuses tends to be among freshmen and sophomores. The e-ship clubs and classes are dominated by underclassmen, who are busy starting companies in their dorm rooms, sometimes one right after the other.
Like many early-stage entrepreneurs, Shefali Friesen poured all her personal savings into her start-up, a mobile service for adding bits of music evoking emotions to text messages.
As she worked toward her graduate degree in music at New York University, Friesen felt neither the start-up nor the musician crowds really understood her vision. “If I’m with music people or artists, I’m a musician who has a start-up, and if I’m in the start-up community, I’m a start-up who does music.”
Upstart, a Silicon Valley startup led by Massachusetts native and former Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) executive Dave Girouard, has extended its crowdfunding site for young entrepreneurs to students and recent alumni of five Boston area universities.
When I graduated from Dartmouth in the late ’80s, there was little talk of startups and the whole notion of entrepreneurship. Sure, the roommate had a business selling bouquets of helium-filled balloons out of our dorm room. But when it came time for graduation, seniors lined up dutifully for the prestigious jobs in management consulting or investment banking. Bill Gates and Michael Dell? Big-time exceptions to the rule. I founded Upstart because aspiring graduates needed a new way to raise capital and find mentors that can help them get started on a path to success. If you want to be an upstart, we allow you to raise capital in exchange for a small share of your future income. You start by creating a profile telling us about you and your goals. Using a variety of factors, such as major, GPA, and other statistics, we’ve built a predictive model that calculates the dollar amount you can raise per 1% of your income. You can then choose how much money to raise and what percent of your income you’ll share (capped at 7%) for a period of 10 years. Unlike Kickstarter, which is focused mainly on funding creative projects like short films or comics, for example, Upstart is a way for promising students with ideas and talents of all kinds to raise money. Most other crowd-funding projects are a means for a large group of people to band together and make small investments that collectively are enough to fund a startup company. Upstart is focused on funding individuals with a high level of potential.
Is a college education a good investment? Warren Buffett has often quipped, before audiences of business-school students, that he would pay $100,000 for 10% of a student's future earnings. One new website, Upstart,allows some of us to make a similar move. "Accredited investors"—generally, those who earned $200,000 or more in each of the last two years, or have a net worth of more than $1 million, not including a primary residence—can loan money to a specific recent graduate in exchange for a portion of his or her income for the next 10 years. The money can be used for any purpose, and some of the initial graduates have used it to help with student debt.
Dave Girouard has worked in Silicon Valley for nineteen years, through good times and bad. Starting as a Product Manager in the "dark years" of Apple in the mid 90's, he was then VP of products & marketing at Virage, a pioneer in video search technology. Dave joined Google a few months before its 2004 IPO, where he served as President of Google Enterprise for 8 years, building Google's cloud apps business worldwide, including product development, sales, marketing, and customer support. Earlier this year, Dave left to become the founder and CEO of Upstart, a crowd-funding platform that lets college grads raise capital in exchange for a small share of their future income. We talked to Dave about this decision and the team's vision for this new idea.
Somewhere between Kickstarter, micro-loan non-profit Kiva, traditional bank loans, and venture capital sits Upstart, a lending service for college graduates started by ex-Googler Dave Girouard. Think of it as the money you might get from an indulgent relative, but you have to pay it back. The service, which was unveiled today, rolls out this fall at Arizona State University, Dartmouth College, Rhode Island School of Design, University of Michigan, and University of Washington.