Editor's Three Key Takeaways:
- Too many young people stress themselves out too much at too young of an age.
- Confidence comes as much from repeated failures as from repeated successes.
- To be happier, people should wake up in the morning feeling passionate about what they are going to do.
Slava Rubin finished his undergraduate degree at University of Pennsylvania in 2000. After a few years in consulting, Slava took the leap of faith into entrepreneurship. In 2008, Slava founded Indiegogo and since has been putting his 100 percent into growing the international crowdfunding website. To date, the platform has attracted more than $800M investment for creative, entrepreneurial and cause-related projects launched on the site.
Editor: In mid-February, The Sign.al attended an open talk with Slava and Penn's Engineering Dean Vijay Kumar at the Pennovation Center. After an engaging hour of discussion and hearing about Slava's hurdles and challenges throughout his career, we could not pass off the chance to interview him ourselves.
The College Years
What were you like in college?
I tried to have a really well-rounded experience. I was a Wharton undergrad — finance, entrepreneurial management double major. I was a Management 100 TA. I also played football as a freshman and then rugby all four years. I was in a social fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, as a sophomore, and I also helped found a business fraternity chapter at Penn: AKPsi. I liked hanging out with friends, and I was one of those people who tried to experience a lot of stuff at college.
Being that well rounded, when did you decide to take a leap of faith and really dedicate yourself to one thing or did you really enjoy the well-rounded education that you got?
I was much more into well-roundedness, and having that diverse set of friends and doing lots of different things. I tried not to be too focused on any one thing while I was in college.
How did you balance time and your commitments?
I just kept myself really busy. I wasn't one to spend a lot of time at home in my dorm room. I wasn't one to take lots of nap. I really love the experience of interacting with people going to events. I loved all the socializing and going to all the incredible experiences that happen in college. Plus, being a part of all these communities, whether the professional fraternity, the social fraternity, being a Management 100 TA, or various sports really exposed me to a lot of fun activities.
What do you think of college students these days and their approach to either having a well-rounded education or being very focused in a particular area?
I think that college is difficult, especially at Wharton, and it could easily be highly stressful.
Too often I see young people that stress themselves out too much at too young of an age. It is important to do well in school and get good grades. It's really important to have a well-rounded experience.
Becoming an Entrepreneur
Now on career type stuff — what did you want to do when you got to Wharton?
I thought I was going to become an investment banker. That's why I applied and got into Wharton. As I started to actually take classes, I decided that I did not want to become an investment banker. I really didn't decide what exactly I wanted to do but I started to sense that I really felt entrepreneurial.
I like identifying new problems in a world that need solutions. And I just felt like entrepreneurship was the path that I wanted to navigate.
Looks like it worked out because you ended up becoming an entrepreneur! What did you think about the Wharton entrepreneurial education overall?
Wharton, like many schools, provides a very good curriculum. Being entrepreneurial is much more hands-on, so I can't say much about your classes since I was ready to jump them and become an entrepreneur. Hearing the stories [of entrepreneurial ventures], meeting the entrepreneurs, and learning about the experiences were super valuable as I continued to forward my career, and overall was just very inspirational.
Were there any specific resources that you used over here that you thought were really useful for entrepreneurs. And if not, what do you think Wharton can definitely do better on in their education and resources for entrepreneurs?
Being a Management 100 TA was helpful because some of the things that I learned were teamwork, leadership, communication, which I think was helpful for entrepreneurship. Coming up with a project that we had to figure out how to run.
Beyond that, I took a few entrepreneurial classes — like Ed Shil's class really awesome. He would bring in these super experienced entrepreneurs that would share their stories and you get ask them how they navigate it all. (Editor's note: Ed Shil is no longer teaching this. MGMT265: Culture of Technology, taught by Vice Dean Rosenkopf is very similar and currently offered.)
Also, an OPIM class back in the day was a mixed Wharton and Engineering class where you would come up with a startup and pitch it to VCs at the end of the class (Editor's note: This course is now EAS445/545: Engineering Entrepreneurship). These sort of hands-on courses include having to navigate ideas and build up business plans, create mockups or the original web site, what the plans would be, marketing plan, logo, and what the target markets would be.
So pertaining to this very hands-on approach to entrepreneurship, if you were designing an entrepreneurial curriculum for your kids is that the approach you would take?
Yeah, if I tried to teach entrepreneurship. I would actually start in seventh grade and do a ten-year program, through high school and college. It would have a dashboard that would track you along the way to see what you're doing well at and what you still need to improve on. And each year, I would do three sections in my class starting in seventh grade. So the first section will be the theory where you learn the material. The second would be your hands-on having to start a company and bring it to market part. And the third section would be learning and reviewing everything: what happened and what went well, what didn't go well, what you can improve on. And I'll do it for ten years in a row so you get practice at bringing the idea to market and the process of probably failing a lot, and learning a lot from this failure.
You said in another interview, one of the best things you can do for the world is to empower entrepreneurs. Where do colleges and universities fit into that in the future?
Colleges and universities need to provide the education that is helpful for students to get careers and improve the world, whether that is pre-law, writing, finance or pre-med. I do think that being inspired to become an entrepreneur is super valuable.
We all think of our entrepreneurs as having very little education, very little practice, that they just jump off a cliff and start companies — taking all the risk in the world. If we strive to provide more guidance to inspire entrepreneurs, we would be in a better place.
How do you have the creative confidence to take that kind of leap of faith, to jump off this cliff to start your companies?
I grew up with immigrant parents. We came over from Belarus, so I've seen them work hard and figure out solutions in places where there are massive unknowns. I got inspiration from my parents. I've been raised where anything is possible and that's where the confidence comes from. That doesn't mean that it's easy to have that confidence. Part of that confidence comes from the struggle that comes along when my dad died when I was a kid, and having to figure out life after that. I don't think that everybody needs to go through the same experiences that I have. Some of that can be taught in academic environments and definitely through do a hands-on experiential environment.
Do you remember what you did each summer at Penn?
I did not have a plan, so it was very organic. Between my junior and senior year was the summer that I interned for Cisco Systems, the internet networking company. I interned in Brussels, in Belgium. I did that because I studied abroad and decided to stay in Europe. Between my sophomore and junior year, I interned for West Capital Management, which is an investment management firm that is still around. When I joined them, it was actually only one person, Matthew West. Now, it's dozens of people. I got to see and experience a one-man firm that was really entrepreneurial in management evolve. Between my freshman and sophomore, I just went home.
The Story of Indiegogo
I want to jump now into more of your story. I think it's really inspirational hearing how you went from getting rejected from 50 plus investors for Indiegogo all the way to running this huge crowd funding site now. When Indiegogo was just getting started, if you had pitched me this idea as a crowd funder I would have thought, "You want me to just throw my money at something on a screen that I've no idea what it's about?" How did you go about getting your first adopters for this?
It's the classic marketplace challenge. So on the supply side it's the offering company, and on the demand side is the backers and it's a tricky chicken-egg situation trying to keep both sides balanced. We went for the private companies first that tried to used their network to tap into original funding and then tried to use the connections that we got from each of the offering companies where we start getting 10, 50, 100 backers for companies that then created a network of backers for future companies we posted on the site.
How long did it take you to saturate the supply side of products?
Saturated is a major term, so I would say that we are not even saturated now. It definitely took some time to start creating the marketplace effect. A marketplace is one of those things that you can't have it happen overnight. You really do need some time for it to reach liquidity. I would say it took 18 months to have some continuous growth.
During your presentation at Penn, you said, "If you want to change the finance industry, you can't do it in the finance industry". What are some other industries right now that can be changed from the outside? Can you elaborate on that mindset?
Highly regulated industries are very hard to change from the inside because the regulation is set up in a way to have the king stay king, and others won't be able to disrupt them. So anywhere in which there is a lot of regulation will be hard to disrupt the industry.
So as disruptor and kind of a rebel, how do you stay that rebel against the industry and the regulators but also stay congenial enough to get the final result? You were instrumental in the drafting of the JOBS Act (Editor's note: JOBS act was signed by President Obama in 2012 for new SEC rules on capital formation, including the use of capital in crowd-funding projects). How do you manage those kinds of relationship dynamics?
The important thing is to focus on the customer and the products and create something that people want to use. And if you're able stay outside the lens of regulation, then that's great! As you continue to grow, there's a good chance that the regulated industry will interact with you, and you will have to set the dynamic of engagement.
What do you think is a fatal mistake that you see a lot of young people making in the context of planning careers and approaching education?
People need to be happy. Whether you take a finance job or an entrepreneurial job, or you become a doctor, work is something that you probably spend a lot of time doing. Being able to wake up in the morning feeling passionate and happy about what you're doing all day — now that's a gift. The opposite is you really hate it or you're just doing it for the money or killing time.
You're really missing out on what incredible things you can accomplish by having the passion behind you as you move forward with your career.
Do you have any specific book or movie recommendations?
12 Angry Men: The reason is that it shows the power of an individual to believe in his/her passion to improve the world.
Inception: The reason is that it's non-linear. It's not always about the first step, next step, and next step. Sometimes it's about bringing what's in your mind into the reality of the world. In your mind, you've already created the real world, whether those are dreams or day-dreaming or thinking about what the future will be like. In Inception, you need to move from your dream world to the real world.
Jeff Weiner from LinkedIn always champions that everyone should have a one-line life goal. His has always been to reform education. What's your one-line life goal?
Empowering entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial education.
Disclaimers: The views presented here are solely those of the interviewee. They do not represent Indiegogo, West Capital Management, or any of the other individuals or institutions named above.