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Figure raises $7.5M to help startup employees better understand their compensation

The topic of compensation has historically been a delicate one that has left many people — especially startup employees — wondering just what drives what can feel like random decisions around pay and equity.

Last June, software engineers (and housemates) Miles Hobby and Geoffrey Tisserand set about trying to solve the problem for companies by developing a data-driven platform that aims to help companies structure their compensation plans and transparently communicate them to candidates.

Now today, the startup behind that platform, Figure, announced it has raised $7.5 million in seed funding led by CRV. Bling Capital, Better Tomorrow Ventures and Garage Capital also participated in the financing, along with angel investors such as AngelList co-founder Naval Ravikant, Jason Calacanis, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman and other executives based in Silicon Valley.

The startup has amassed a client list that includes other startups such as fintechs Brex and NerdWallet and AI-powered fitness company Tempo. 

Put simply, Hobby and Tisserand’s mission is to improve workflows and transparency around pay, particularly equity. The pair had both worked at startups themselves (Uber and Instacart, respectively) and ended up leaving money on the table when they left those companies because no one had properly explained to them what their equity, which changed at every valuation, meant.  

Image Credits: Figure co-founders and co-CEOs Miles Hobby and Geoffrey Tisserand. Image Credits: Figure

So, one of their goals was to create a solution that would provide a user-friendly explanation of what a person’s equity stake really means, from tax implications to whether or not they have to buy the stock and/or hold onto it.

“I’ve gone through the job search process many times before and there’s all these complex legal documents to understand why you’re getting 10,000 stock options, but obviously we knew the vast majority of people have no idea how that works,” Tisserand told TechCrunch. “We saw an opportunity there to help companies actually convey the value to their candidates while also making them aware of the potential risks of owning something that’s so illiquid.”

Image Credits: Figure

Another goal of Figure’s is to help create a more fair and balanced process about decisions around pay and equity so that there’s less inequality out there. Pointedly, it aims to remove some of the biases that exist around those decisions by systematizing the process.

“We saw a void in this kind of context around equity…and knew that there had to be a better way for companies to structure, manage and explain their compensation plans,” Hobby said.

To Hobby and Tisserand, Figure is designed to help stop instances of implicit bias.

“Compensation should be based on the work that you’re doing, and not gender or ethnic background,” Tisserand told TechCrunch. “We’re trying to give that context and remove biases. So, we’re trying to help at two different stages –– to surface inequities that already exist and make sure there are no anomalies, and then to help stop them before they can exist.”

Figure also aims to give companies the tools to educate candidates and employees on their total compensation — including equity, salary, benefits and bonuses — in a “straightforward and user-friendly” way. For example, it can create custom offer letters that interactively detail a candidate’s compensation.

“Our goal is for Figure to become an operating system for compensation, where a company can encode their compensation philosophy into our system, and we help them determine their job architecture, compensation bands and offer numbers while monitoring their compensation health to provide adjustment suggestions when needed,” Hobby said.

Post-hire, Figure’s compensation management system “helps keep everything running smoothly.”

Anna Khan, general partner of enterprise software at CRV, is joining Figure’s board as part of the funding. The decision to back the startup was in part personal, she said.

“I’d been investing in software for eight years and was alarmed that no one was building anything around pay equity when it comes to how we’re paid, why we’re paid what we’re paid and on how to build equity long term,” Khan told TechCrunch. “Unfortunately, discussions around compensation and equity still happen behind closed doors and this extends into workflow around compensation — equally broken — with manual leveling, old data and large pay inequities.”

The company plans to use its new capital to expand its product offerings and scale its organization.

University entrepreneurship — without the university

Across the country, university campuses are in limbo.

The California State University system has committed to online classes in Fall 2020. Northeastern University is reopening as normal. UT Austin is taking a hybrid approach: in-person classes until Thanksgiving break, then online classes during flu season.

This presents a special set of circumstances for university entrepreneurs. The traditional resources and networks are nonoperational. But time and focus, historically the most scarce resources for ambitious students, is now at an all-time high.

It’s often noted that both Facebook and Microsoft were started during Harvard’s Reading Period, a week where classes are cancelled to let students study. This spring has been like one long Reading Period, sometimes with even less responsibility.

Deprioritizing classes

Stanford undergraduate Markie Wagner is taking advantage of the mandatory Pass/Fail policy that the school adopted. Since grades are no longer a consideration, Markie and her friends have free rein to put classes on the back burner to focus on talking to entrepreneurs and experimenting with business ideas.

She told us, “I’m going full hackathon mode this quarter. I’ve been reaching out to lots of founders and VCs to learn from them.” Planning on spending her upcoming senior year building a company, she’s getting a head start on exploration and network building.

If the pandemic forces school closings for the long-run, however, students will have to deal with more than a semester with an easier course load.

There’s near-universal resentment toward the idea of paying full tuition for online classes. Many of the students in Contrary’s network are planning gap years. Or, like Austin Moninger, even skipping senior year altogether. A senior at Rice studying computer science, he originally intended to graduate in spring of 2021. But given the virtual nature moving forward, he decided to accelerate graduation and is currently pursuing full-time software engineering roles. He notes, “We’ve all learned that we’re really paying for the experience and the network at the end of the day, so without it, I might as well take my time and money elsewhere.”

This puts universities in a precarious position: They must choose between letting students take breaks and defer admissions, which risks class size or financial issues (as an example, Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business decided against this, refusing to allow students to defer), or pushing forward at full price and risking brand damage.

That said, some students are affected by shutdowns or online classes more than the schools themselves are. Research-focused entrepreneurs working in biotech, hardware or other sectors typically require expensive lab equipment to make progress. Pure software plays like Facebook and Snap usually come to mind first when talking about university entrepreneurship, but such lean operations are certainly not the only ones being built.

It’s also unclear how prolonged closures or online classes will impact education itself and how that will impact founders in the long run. Most founders have completed the majority of their degrees by the time they commit to their companies and attempt to raise money. We have not seen any meaningful skill gap in 2020, nor do we expect to throughout the rest of the year.

Unless building a deep-tech startup, company-building can continue as long as an entrepreneur has enough of a technical or financial foundation to self-educate and learn by doing. Malwarebytes CEO Marcin Kleczynski is an excellent example of this — he famously started his cybersecurity company as a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and did the bare minimum required to get C grades in school.

Virtualizing campus

Although seed funding for university entrepreneurs has not slowed down since school closings, company-building has certainly not gotten any easier.

The main challenge for 22-year-old talent is not having energy or being scrappy — it’s usually growing the network needed to recruit the right co-founder and hire an early team. In an on-campus environment, there’s enough serendipity to make this natural. But if school closings persist and virtual offerings don’t fill the vacuum, we’ll likely see a lag in new company formation.

It’s rare that founders embark on the startup journey without having known each other for at least a year. Right now, not enough time has passed to make this a problem. But at campuses where students can’t get to know peers at a deep level, it’s impossible to build bonds over a long time period.

To combat this, at Contrary, for example, we hosted a virtual community of founders this past spring with a simple premise: Put 100 people in a room (or Slack channel, more literally), make sure they spend time together and give them the tools to build.

Over the course of six weeks, 150+ collaborations occurred as people experimented on different ideas and projects. Seventy-five percent of the founders said they’d been more productive since the remote transition occurred, and at the end of the program, nearly 70% of the group planned to continue working on their companies or begin a fresh project.

Perhaps most notable is the diversity of connections made — most interactions between participants were between students enrolled in different schools. Since even the best institutions in the world each matriculate only a single digit percentage of talent nationwide, virtualizing the program made the talent pool far larger.

Successful entrepreneurs like Steve Huffman from Reddit and Paul English from Kayak (and now Lola) gave off-the-record talks, but it turned out that most of the value came from access to a highly curated group of peers that each member wouldn’t otherwise meet. The program forced the serendipity that school closures lost, then combined that with the other necessary ingredient: Tangible opportunities to build rather than talk.

You can treat a university like a bundle of tools: The education, network, credential and social learnings all compose into one holistic experience.

Over the past decade, much of that value-stack has been eaten by other organizations.

To prove that you’re a talented individual, you can try applying for the Thiel Fellowship, or lean on name-brand past internships. Or to learn about venture, you can read Scott Kupor’s book or Paul Graham’s blog.

Until very recently, the university’s main “network effect” was the fact that you had to be there to meet other great individuals. Since COVID-19 has shifted most interactions to the cloud, however, that’s no longer the default path.

Looking forward

Hopefully flattening the curve will soon become extinguishing the curve. But until then, university-based founders will have to focus on the alternative infrastructure that powers funding, networking, credentialing and learning.

Had Contrary, Slack, Y Combinator or free AWS credits not existed prior, the closure of schools may have dealt a death knell to founders. But given the abundance of options now available to plug into the Valley and build, surprisingly little has changed.

Reddit CEO: TikTok is ‘fundamentally parasitic’

TikTok is one of the hottest social media platforms but the CEO of Reddit had some harsh words for the popular app, calling it “fundamentally parasitic” at an event Wednesday.

The comments from Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman were some of the more controversial offered up during a panel discussion with former public policy exec Elliot Schrage and former Facebook VP of Product Sam Lessin. During a brief conversation about the feature innovations of TikTok, Huffman pushed back hard on the notion that Silicon Valley startups had something to learn from the app.

“Maybe I’m going to regret this, but I can’t even get to that level of thinking with them,” Huffman said. “Because I look at that app as so fundamentally parasitic, that it’s always listening, the fingerprinting technology they use is truly terrifying, and I could not bring myself to install an app like that on my phone.”

“I actively tell people, ‘Don’t install that spyware on your phone,’” he later added.

The comments were made in front of a large group of Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs gathered for a one-day conference called “Social 2030” put on by Lightspeed Venture Partners and Lessin’s VC firm Slow Ventures. The event aimed to highlight and identify trends in social apps that would be shaping the next decade of the space.

Huffman’s comments critiqued how TikTok tracks the actions of its users. The social media app was a hot topic of discussion throughout the event, and while Lessin asserted that the app had made a number of notable innovations, Huffman was one of the few at the event to offer deep criticisms of the app.

TechCrunch has reached out to TikTok owner ByteDance for comment.