Business

What if You Could Give Start-Up Money to People, Not Companies?

What if you could hitch your wagon to an entrepreneurial star? You know someone who is creative and hardworking, and you want to write a check in exchange for a piece of whatever that person produces.

That kind of wagon-hitching opportunity is hard to find today. You can invest in a company that the star founds, but that’s just one venture, which may or may not work out. You can make an income-sharing agreement with a college student instead of a student loan. But students typically don’t have track records, the terms will be standard and a bunch of students will be in the I.S.A. pool; you’re not betting on one promising individual.

Four Russian-born siblings, Daniil, David, Anna and Maria Liberman, recently started a venture they call Humanism that really will let people put their money where their mouths are when they say “I believe in you.” They’ve also formed a holding company of their financial interests, the Libermans Company. I recommend this story about them in The New Yorker, which is heavy on personal color.

I interviewed two of the siblings, Daniil and David. I also spoke to a couple of economists (of course) and another Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has heard the Libermans’ pitch.

I don’t know if the Humanism idea will catch on, but it is intriguing. “Just think about buying 5 percent of Jeff Bezos’ or Elon Musk’s future earnings back when they were both young pups,” Sam Lessin, a serial entrepreneur and a former vice president of product management at Facebook, wrote last year in an article about the concept in The Information.

According to a spokeswoman for the Libermans Company, Slow Ventures, a venture capital firm where Lessin is a general partner, invested $3 million in the company last year for close to 1 percent of the shares.

The Libermans Company is supposed to hold all the projects the family members might start through May 2051. (There are carve-outs for previously acquired wealth; up to $300,000 in salary, bonuses and the like, per person per year; and real estate and other passive investments such as publicly traded securities that can be held outside of the holding company.)

Essentially, the four have made themselves a test case for the Humanism concept. They say they’re negotiating with the Securities and Exchange Commission on issuing shares in their company and hope to get clearance next year.

Daniil and David told me that the company made $14 million in net income in its first year of operation. Its main asset so far is Product Science, a company the siblings built that speeds up mobile apps.

The Libermans Company has raised money in two rounds that equal a little less than 3 percent of equity, and the share price in the second round gave it an implied valuation of $400 million, the brothers say.

One reason people are willing to invest in the Libermans is that they’ve already demonstrated entrepreneurial flair. They built an augmented reality start-up, Kernel AR, that they sold to Snap, the owner of Snapchat, in 2016. At Snap the siblings oversaw an animation studio and worked on 3-D Bitmoji, according to a 2018 Times article.

Governance is a tricky issue for the Libermans Company. Investors get a proportional share of whatever wealth the siblings create, but they don’t have any say over how they allocate their time and effort. They can’t demand a dividend, either. The Libermans decide when to disburse some cash, at which point all investors will get a proportional share of it.

Their concept is a lot better grounded than that of Mike Merrill, an entrepreneur who in 2008 divided himself into 100,000 shares and tried selling them for $1 apiece. As recounted in a hilarious article in Wired in 2013, Merrill gave investors voting power over his life decisions, including whether to have a vasectomy.

There’s some risk that the Libermans will take the money they raise and retire to the beach, since investors have no say. The siblings think they’ve solved that by limiting outside investors to a maximum of 10 percent ownership. Since they retain 90 percent, the Libermans would mostly hurt themselves by shirking their duties.

Daniil and David told me that their Humanism concept is a natural fit for Silicon Valley, where it’s already customary for angel investors and venture capitalists to pick investments based on faith in the entrepreneurs. “People, not projects” is a common mantra.

The Humanism deal can be better for the entrepreneurs and inventors, too, they said. Investors might give money on more favorable terms because the risk is lower. Even if most of the entrepreneurs’ lifetime projects bomb, one or two winners could more than compensate. In contrast, investors will demand harsher terms — more equity for a given sum of money — to invest in any particular start-up because they’re making an undiversified bet. They’ll lose their investment if it’s one of those bombs.

Lessin, the venture capitalist, cites another advantage: It gets money into the hands of young people, who are often idea-rich but cash poor. “Unless young people can leverage their natural equity value, we’ll forever be at the mercy of the olds,” he wrote in The Information.

Sam Altman, a serial entrepreneur, told me he’s interested in any financing innovation that will “more efficiently allocate capital to people who can maybe do incredible things with it.” He added, “I love to see experiments happen at more scale.”

But Altman, who is a former president of Y Combinator, itself an innovative organization for financing start-ups, said he would be more comfortable investing in companies rather than people. Perhaps, he hypothesized, investors could give entrepreneurs money upfront in return for an option to invest in a company they might start later.

I also interviewed Daniel Herbst of the University of Arizona and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard University, who last year wrote a paper about financing human capital. They said that being able to sell a share of a lifetime stream of income would be very valuable to someone who was trying to start businesses without a track record. But for reliability the Libermans are naturally focusing on people who do have a track record. Such people don’t need the Libermans’ system as much because they have other ways of raising money.

The upshot, they said, is that the people who need it the most aren’t eligible, and the people who are eligible don’t need it so much.


The Readers Write

Regarding your Wednesday newsletter about Europe’s energy crisis, why are we still talking about hoarding and stockpiling gas and oil? Why aren’t we talking about a healthy transition to 100 percent renewable, affordable energy that does not include nuclear energy, no matter where a nuclear plant is located — definitely not in a war zone!

Connie Anderson
Frisco, Colo.


Quote of the Day

“The Quakers, more than any major Protestant denomination, fostered a style of life which Max Weber called worldly asceticism — the idea of living in the world but not of it. Work itself became a sacrament, and idleness a deadly sin.”

— David Hackett Fischer, “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America” (1989)


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