Stumbling upon success

Garrett Camp sold his startup to eBay for millions. What’s his next idea worth?

StumbleUpon’s Garrett Camp. (Portrait: Jonathan Sprague)

In 2001, a 22-year-old Garrett Camp founded StumbleUpon, a service that helps users find new websites based on their interests, with fellow University of Calgary students Geoff Smith, Justin LaFrance and Eric Boyd. He wound up in Silicon Valley, where he grew the business, and sold it to eBay for US$75 million in 2007. Then last year, he bought it back for an undisclosed amount. StumbleUpon is now the web’s leading “discovery” engine, with 15 million users. In 2009, Camp launched another web venture, Uber. Uber is a no-hassle executive car service currently available in four U.S. cities. Canadian Business western editor Michael McCullough recently spoke with Camp in Vancouver.

Canadian Business: You have such a great personal story. Can you walk us through that?
Garrett Camp: I started, like everyone, as a grad student at the University of Calgary. I was doing a master’s in software engineering. At the same time, a couple of friends came up with the idea of starting a company. The initial idea was, let’s try so that every time you open up your home page it’s a new page, just for you. It’s personalized and it’s always a different page. We reserved the name StumbleUpon
.com and then started to work on the prototype. For the first few years in Canada, it was part-time. I was still going to classes. But it started to get a little traction—a couple hundred thousand users maybe—and that last year it actually started to really take off. It went to maybe half a million users, and that was right when I was finishing my thesis and deciding what I would do next. Someone actually reached out to me who was a very active user, and we just started chatting. He was an angel investor, he wasn’t really a VC. He invited me down [to Silicon Valley].

CB: His name was?
GC: Brad O’Neill. I wasn’t actively seeking investment. I was still in school. I met him in December 2005, something like that. After that first meeting, I thought, “OK, I’ll come down for a few weeks.” He wanted me to meet some other people. They liked the fact that we’d achieved 500,000 or 600,000 users with zero funding and no help. We were just hacking away. Basically, they were going to give us a million bucks for a slice of the company.

CB: How did the eBay acquisition come about?
GC: We’d been talking to a few different companies, and we had to decide do we want to continue on and raise more money, or join another company? EBay was basically the one that gave us the best price, the most flexibility. Some people were like, “I don’t get it.” EBay has a lot of businesses, and there were a lot of potential synergies that could have happened a little bit later. And I kind of liked the idea of not being integrated.

CB: So it was almost good for you that they had a completely different core business.
GC: We were free to develop the product, but we just didn’t have to deal with HR and payroll and all that. In the first year, I liked it, and then I got a little frustrated with how things weren’t moving quite as fast. Once you get to a certain size, you have to have rules and regulations, just to protect yourself. When you’re small, you’re just five people, you just trust everybody. You don’t have those rules, right? And I think the rules that were applied to 15 people were the rules that were devised for 15,000 people. I think we decided about a year and a half in that it would be better to be independent.

CB: Where did you get the capital to buy back the company?
GC: Partially myself. I put some of the money I made back in. So I was giving up a lot of what I made, but at the same time I knew the investment really well, I felt it was worth more than what we were able to buy it for. And my prior investors, they’d had an exit, they’d made money and they were happy to invest as long as it was at a good price. Now I’m a board member and CEO, but I’m an investor as well. So it’s like investor, chairman, founder, CEO all in one.

CB: Have things unfolded more or less the way you imagined they would, way back when?
GC: The whole spin-out was not something I initially expected. We only came up with the idea maybe a year in, and then it was, ‘Can this even be done?’ I had heard it had been done in other industries. Sometimes General Mills will buy a cereal and hold it for a while, and then it will be bought by someone else. But in the tech world it doesn’t happen that much.

CB: Is Uber an opportunity on the same scale as StumbleUpon?
GC: Sometimes people don’t realize how big of a market it is. Billions of dollars just untapped. I mean,, it’s neat, but it’s pre-book, and Uber’s just like (snaps fingers). Right now we’re partnering with small fleets, but we could just partner with big fleets, potentially accelerate things.

CB: What have you learned working in California that you never would have learned if you’d stayed in Canada?
GC: Just because I got the exposure to a certain kind of people who had done it before, that was pretty helpful. You can get that coaching anywhere, but it’s just really helpful if it’s from people who’ve been in that exact same position before. At the time, I didn’t know anybody who was doing this up in Canada.