Daring to reimagine the panhandling economy
Startup Portrait #2: HandUp
Startup Portraits is an ongoing series of visual stories about the founders of Bay Area startups, their visions, and what they're learning. In mid-September I met HandUp CEO Rose Broome at her apartment in San Francisco, then tailed her through the rest of the workday. For the interview below, I spoke with Rose and her co-founder, Zac Witte. I've edited the conversation for length and clarity. Learn more about HandUp: Company homepage, VentureBeat story, AngelList profile.
What does HandUp Make?
We make a direct-giving system for donating to homeless people and neighbors in need. It lets donors contribute to specific people who are seeking donations for their basic needs, and then those people can redeem their credits for productive items and services.
What’s the most delightful experience someone can have using HandUp?
Well, it’s a full feedback loop. The idea is you see a homeless person face to face, and they give you a card that lets you donate to them directly via text message. You have that emotional connection. And then we track it all, so in the future you'll know how that person used your donation. We'll send you a follow-up message that says: “Hey, Joe just picked up some new socks using your donation. Thanks a lot.” That full loop is really fulfilling to both parties.
What we've heard from our members, and also through Project Homeless Connect, who works with our members, is they've felt a new sense of self empowerment, that they have something to be excited about, to rally around. It’s a way to help themselves that they feel is legitimate. They have this product that’s built just for them.
If you guys succeed, how will the world be different?
People won't have to sleep on the street each night. People will have access to showers and toilets and have their basic needs met. A lot of people feel invisible when they're on the street, trying to get the attention of people passing by, and this is a different way of interacting that everyone will be more comfortable with. The donor community wants that as much as the homeless community wants that—to help people rise to a basic standard of living. People want to build relationships. We let them do that.
What behavior are you trying to encourage that your users are most resistant to?
We've just put this pilot out, so it’s hard to say. Making sure that people have the confidence that we're a secure system is really important for us. It’s mostly a user experience challenge. We've already done a number of iterations to make the donation process as smooth as possible. We're using all the standard lean startup approaches. We do user testing, we look at our funnel, we look at our conversion rates.
What’s the most unexpected lesson you’ve learned about your users?
We didn't know: Are homeless people going to use this service? Or even understand it? And with very little explanation, everyone gets it. People call us every day asking how they can sign up.
What’s something you got right that you almost didn't get right?
Picking the right lawyer. We’re working with Yokum Taku’s team at WSGR. Also, choosing the right corporate entity. We had thought about being a tandem entity—both corporate and non profit. Then we thought about being a straight c-corp, because investors want that. And we decided on the Benefit Corporation after a lot of research. We feel good about it.
Why don't you just give your members cash?
Our members know what they need better than we may, but we know that donors want transparency, to know where their donations are going. That’s a main concern of giving money to people in need: Are they going to spend this on drugs and alcohol? And whether they would or wouldn’t, it’s a fact that that’s a major barrier for our donors. By providing that transparency we take that concern away, and our members have had no problem with that at all.
Isn’t that paternalistic in some way?
The point of HandUp is to help people meet their basic needs. Our goal is to expand to other fulfillment partners. We're already talking to Walgreens and Safeway. It’ll give even more flexibility to our members.
What do you guys need right now?
We would love for people to visit our website and find a member who they have a connection with and make a donation. We’d also love feedback on the donation experience. People can email firstname.lastname@example.org.