Most business successes inevitably require some sort of compromise of your youthful ideals. James Beshara learned that lesson earlier than most.
Beshara, now the co-founder and CEO of group payments startup Tilt, was six days post-graduation and newly arrived at his not-for-profit microfinance job in Capetown, South Africa, when his boss gave him a new assignment in the surrounding slums.
"She said, 'Here's a six-foot-four white guy; he'll look really intimidating. Let's send him out to go collect loans,'" Beshara recalls now, with a practiced wince audible in his smoothed-out drawl.
Which is how Beshara, a then-22-year-old Texan with a degree in developmental economics and dreams of alleviating world poverty, wound up as a South African debt collector.
He claims the experience helped serve his original goal--"Each loan that we would recoup was money we could lend to another family"--but it was also a clearly formative demonstration that sometimes external success means, well, tilting away from your original intentions. That's a lesson that's served Beshara well with his San Francisco company, which started life in Austin as Crowdtilt, a more charitably minded version of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
"I thought it was going to start with nonprofits" using the platform to fundraise, Beshara says, but the friends he invited to test it out had other ideas: "They hijacked it to use for a fantasy football league, for a friend's birthday, for a party bus."
Five years, a dropped syllable and one Y Combinator stint later, Tilt has morphed into a Venmo-for-college-groups, a payments company that's growing 41 percent every month on university campuses. Fraternity keggers, birthday revelry, and other events involving lots of alcohol remain popular but not exclusive Tilt uses; its website has separate pages devoted to Tilt-enabled "parties," "Greek life," and "fundraisers."
"It's meant to be bite-size, simplified, kind of like a Twitter for crowdfunding," Beshara says. "It ultimately sits at the intersection of social graft, mobile payments, and crowdfunding."
Like Kickstarter, the platform allows anyone to set up a project or a fundraising goal; it charges credit card processing fees and takes an additional 2.5 percent cut of any products sold. Tilt doesn't charge individuals who send or collect money for events on its platform; the company says that it gets most of its revenue from businesses paying for its enterprise service.
Like Venmo, Tilt also allows friends to send each other money--in this case for shared projects, publicly naming those who have chipped in, or shaming those who still owe. That's a function praised by Jeff Jordan, the Andreessen Horowitz partner who led the venture firm's early investment in Tilt.
"I organize a twice-weekly basketball game and collect money for the Stanford utility staff. Now I collect more, because the name of everyone who contributes shows up on the page," says Jordan, a former PayPal president who gave Tilt his ultimate endorsement: "I stopped using PayPal for this. It's not good for this functionality--but Tilt is."
What Tilt is also good at: word-of-mouth marketing, or what Beshara calls "virality." Like Facebook and Snapchat, his startup has found its adoption among college students spreading infectiously: A Tilt campaign could collect money from up to hundreds or even thousands of people, all of whom have to sign up for the service, and some of whom will use it to start new Tilt campaigns for their own purposes. That spreads the technology into new social groups and, inevitably, to new college campuses.
Tilt claims a "viral coefficient" of 2.1, meaning each successfully funded project on the platform launches at least two new ones within 90 days. Beshara won't disclose revenue, but says a number of projects funded grew 350 percent last year.
That's the sort of potential that drew early, big-name investors, who helped urge Beshara and his co-founder, chief technology officer Khaled Hussein, toward the "fun" social rather than the "do-good" social. The company has raised a total of $67.1 million from backers including Andreessen, Sean Parker, Chi-Hua Chien's Goodwater Capital, and Ron Conway's SV Angel.
Whether Tilt can continue growing when its most fervent users graduate from their haze of keg stands and red Solo cups remains to be seen, but Jordan, at least, is confident in Beshara's ongoing ability to pivot.
"He's continued the same vision while changing a lot of tactics along the way, in the entrepreneur's ongoing effort to get product market fit," Jordan says. "It's the constant iteration and innovation that we love to see in founders."