Kjerstin Erickson launched her first nonprofit as a junior in college. That organization, FORGE, helps African refugees rebuild their communities after surviving tribal warfare. She has been profiled on CNN, and the Clinton Global Initiative has recognized her work. Erickson is 26, and her future looks bright. If you are an investor willing to take a gamble, you can own a small chunk of it.
Erickson and two other young social entrepreneurs recently made the decision to, in effect, take themselves public. Through an online marketplace called the Thrust Fund, the three have offered up a percentage of their future lifetime earnings in exchange for upfront, undesignated venture funding. Erickson is willing to swap 6 percent of her future lifetime earnings for $600,000. The other two entrepreneurs, Saul Garlick and Jon Gosier, are each offering 3 percent of future earnings for $300,000.
Despite the fact that her plans remain vague -- she is writing a book and has ideas for nonprofit and commercial ventures -- Erickson says the response from investors has been positive. She has lined up two investors and hopes to spread the deal out among a small group of backers. "My preference would be to have about 20 investors," she says. "That would be ideal in terms of a manageable number of relationships."
Can both Erickson and her investors do well under such a scenario? Maybe. But "it's certainly a worry to see someone this early in her career already sign herself over to become a sort of indentured servant," says Seth Goldman, CEO and co-founder of Honest Tea. "I think it speaks to the tendency entrepreneurs often have to undervalue their long-term potential when they get into tough or desperate situations. I've certainly been in that kind of situation before, but I can't say I endorse this approach."
The Thrust Fund entrepreneurs prefer to see it in a different light. "I view the 3 percent as an opportunity tax," says Garlick. "This investment now could be catalytic for me to go on and do other things I believe in. I've always said that I could live off of 97 percent of whatever I earn."
Of course, the legality and enforceability of these "personal investment contracts" have yet to be established. Likewise, the Thrust Fund entrepreneurs say they will collaborate closely with investors on specifics, such as when and how payouts would be made. "This is something that people will look at in different ways," says Erickson. "The idea is to unite people who share the same ultimate purpose, which is seeing me succeed."
Neil Patel, a Seattle-based angel investor and co-founder of the Internet analytics company Crazy Egg, says it doesn't work that way in the real world. "Hunger, in my opinion, is what makes most entrepreneurs successful," he says. "Give a young entrepreneur a big check, and that takes away a lot of their drive, because they don't necessarily have to make money that month or even that year to survive. Without that lump sum, you're going to figure out a way to make money."
But that same hunger, others say, often drives entrepreneurs to take desperate measures. Anyone who has attempted to secure venture funding has certainly felt the sting of being asked to give up what feels like an arm and a leg, so perhaps 6 percent of your future income isn't so bad. "When you think about it, a lot of entrepreneurs risk a lot more than that when they are starting their businesses," says Marc Lore, CEO of Diapers.com. "Between mortgaging your house and maxing out your credit cards, you're risking a lot more than 6 percent of your lifetime earnings. If it means giving up a percent of your future earnings to do something that you believe in and are really passionate about, I say, go for it."
And who knows? If this sort of financing catches on, imagine the lucky investor who puts his money down on the next Bill Gates. A very unscientific, back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that 6 percent of Bill Gates's lifetime earnings would reel in about $3.2 billion. That's a return most investors could live with.