Backers invest in people, not businesses through ‘Upstart’


Students are pictured on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut on Tuesday, June 10, 2003. Yale is one of 30 universities whose students or recent graduates can apply to Upstart. (GEORGE RUHE/BLOOMBERG NEWS)

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.”

A couple of months ago, Friesen began seeking funding for her business, called Emotitones. She stumbled upon Upstart, a crowd-funding platform launched seven months ago by former Google Enterprise president Dave Girouard.

Instead of investing in businesses, Upstart allows backers to invest in promising individuals — “upstarts” — entitling them to a percentage of an individual’s future income over the next 10 years. Backers can also opt to be mentors for people they fund. Each upstart — who must have graduated from undergraduate or graduate school between 2010 and 2013 — has an online profile, detailing their accomplishments and goals, which backers may browse. About 100 Upstart hopefuls from 30 eligible universities applied to be on the platform, which currently features 22.

Friesen was primarily drawn to the platform because she needed funding and mentorship. But she also thought Upstart would be a better venue in which to gather support for her personal vision — the synthesis of music and entre­pre­neur­ship — than the traditional venture capital pitch, which would likely place disproportionate emphasis on the business plan.

Upstart’s “pricing engine” attempts to predict each candidate’s future income based on factors like standardized test scores, work experience and job offers. Using the income estimate, Upstart determines a “funding rate” — or how much a backer must put forth to receive 1 percent of an individual’s income later. For example, the engine might suggest backers put in $12,000 for 1 percent of a person’s future income, and recipients can decide how much to request based on how much income they’d like to share with investors in the future. Upstart keeps three percent of the funding a graduate raises, and charges an annual account servicing fee of 0.5 percent to backers. Income is verified based on the recipient’s tax returns, and the payment is waived for years during which the recipient makes less than $30,000, extending the contract by a year.

Girouard launched the platform to discourage young graduates from accepting high-paying jobs just for the financial security, and instead encourage them to pursue their passions. “We conceptualized that [a person] should be able to borrow from himself or herself,” he said.

In the past couple of months, Friesen has attracted investments from four backers: Girouard himself, Andy Palmer, a serial entrepreneur and his wife, artist Amy Palmer, and Matthew Glotzbach, a managing director at YouTube. Upstart’s team vets backers to make sure they’re accredited investors, and subjects them to due diligence background checks.

Though the Securities and Exchange Commission’s ban on general advertising for certain investments prevents Upstart from sharing details about how the recipients will use the funds they request and how much each backer puts forth, Friesen she said she plans to generally direct the funds to Emotitones.

Amy Palmer said she invested in Friesen because her profile suggested she was“creative, confident, and believ[ed] in her mission.” Between the five upstarts Amy Palmer is backing, her investments range from $3,000 to $20,000, she said.

The site places no restrictions on how recipients use the money they raise, Girouard said. The majority of recipients currently featured on the site plan to use the money to repay student debt, but others indicate they would use it to support their business or living expenses.

The site’s most controversial aspect is that it’s for profit, Girouard said, indicating that some critics might feel that backers are only interested in making a return on their investment instead of supporting the upstart’s best interests. But “most of the backers like the concept, and want to make a good return on investment,” he explained.

For Friesen, the debt she owes to her backers is a motivation for her business. “I like having more people to answer to. When you’re a start-up founder, you don’t have the traditional work community to keep you in line and make you want to live up to expectations,” she said.

Though she feels added pressure to make enough money to repay her backers — who she feels obligated to impress because she doesn’t want to “let them down”, she said, “I’m up for it.”

Girouard noted that the platform may not have attracted so many applicants in the past, but that social networks have opened young people up to very public fundraising. “If this wasn’t the Facebook era, this wouldn’t work,” he said.

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Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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