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Is This “Kickstarter for People” a Good Idea?

Does Upstart turn investing into a popularity contest?
April 22, 2013

In my years reporting on startups, I’ve often encountered stories of venture capitalists who’ve invested in a person, rather than a person’s idea. Hustle, an entrepreneurial spirit, a solid education, resolve, sheer likeability–often, these are qualities that seem to matter as much to investors as anything else.

Something like this idea–that investors invest in people rather than businesses–animates Upstart, a young company that helps investors do just that. The company just announced $5.9 million in Series A funding, reports PandoDaily.

Richard Nieva breaks down how Upstart 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. [CEO] Girouard suggests investors back more than one person as a way to diversify his or her “portfolio.”

It’s pretty addictive to explore Upstart’s site, even if you’re not looking to pony up anytime soon. One of the featured young men on the site, for instance, includes the wonderfully named Allah Jesus. Here’s his video.

Jesus, who won a local pool tournament in a wheelchair, says he’s “en route to publish an NYT bestseller in the next 5 years.”

Here’s another aspiring writer and New Yorker, a Pratt Institute graduate working on a novel about secessionism in the Pacific Northwest.

So is all this a good idea or not? First and foremost, if you’re an investor looking to make a lot of money, there are probably better places for you to do so. I can think of few things that are less sure than betting on a 22-year-old bursting with ambition, and certain that he or she will change the world, or get rich quick, or cure cancer. I’m pretty sure most young college graduates feel that way, and a substantial subset can talk in such a way to make you feel it, too.

Then again, CEO Girouard’s background at Google, and the real data he puts to work quantifying the likelihood that a given candidate, having taken a certain set of classes with a certain set of grades, will be making decent money, does bring more than a gut feeling to bear on these investments. Whether his algorithm will pay off for investors remains to be seen.

My intuition here is that Upstart is trapped between two visions of itself. First, there’s Upstart as digital popularity contest. I’ve already complained before that Kickstarter itself has become too much of a popularity contest, that the reliance on slick promotional videos over substance can lead worthy projects to be discarded, while less worthy ones are overfunded. I worry, too, that this “Kickstarter for people” could become another kind of popularity contest. It’s not always the likeable who end up doing the best work. Girouard’s past comments that his company is about creating a “platform for people to market themselves” does not sound very appealing to me.

And yet elsewhere, Girouard talks about making Upstart something like a vast network for mentorship. This is the most worthy vision of Upstart’s future. Investors shouldn’t go on Upstart hoping to make a quick buck (or even a slow one). They should be on the lookout for kids who, as the cliché goes, remind them of themselves when they were that age. As PandoDaily puts it: an investor “can also mentor an upstart to and have a hand in the kid’s – and eventually his own – success that way.” That system of mentorship shouldn’t be a side aspect to the work Upstart does. It should be the main work.

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