Human IPO lets individuals sell their time on the open market. Its cofounders believe its valuation model is agnostic—but it may still reflect an unequal world.
On Human IPO, a marketplace for investing in people, Tristan Pollock is currently trading at $180—up 20 percent from his debut price. “I’m looking at my dashboard now, and it looks like 12 people have bought time with me so far,” he says. “One has almost 30 percent.”
Pollock, a startup investor, “went public” on Human IPO earlier this month. The platform lets people sell up to 500 hours of their time on the open market, at one hour per “share,” at a price of their choosing. Investors make a bet that those hours will be worth more in the future, whether to them or someone else. Share owners can then redeem that time—with a one-on-one meeting, for example—at their discretion. A person’s value goes up and down depending on market conditions.
Kirill Goryunov and Vlas Lezin, the cofounders of Human IPO, came up with the idea in 2018, after a conversation about how the best asset at any company is the people. Goryunov has spent his career working in tech, most recently at Google; Lezin is a former VP at Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo. Both agreed that there was untapped potential in the business of “human capital”—the intangible value of a person in the workplace. They launched Human IPO very quietly in October with the tagline “Issue, trade, and redeem human equity backed by time.”
The site attracted more attention earlier this month, when a feature on Product Hunt drove a wave of curious visitors. Not everyone liked what they saw. “‘Meet Publicly Traded Individuals’ is the most Orwellian technocratic headline to express modern wage slavery and actually existing capitalism,” wrote Ravi Bajnath, a designer, in a comment on Product Hunt. “There are ideas that sound great on paper but are terrible in reality,” commented Stefan Von Imhof, a product manager at a startup. “I think this has the opposite problem. It’s not necessarily a terrible idea in reality, but the branding and optics are horrific.”
Goryunov and Lezin seem genuinely surprised by these criticisms, and the pair say they’re very sorry if someone took their idea the wrong way. Entrepreneurs generally talk about selling their ideas on the open market, but there is, the cofounders pointed out, a history of venture capitalists talking about choosing to invest in the founder, not the company. (There is also, as critics note, that other history of literally buying and selling human beings.) Goryunov says Human IPO has over a thousand “investors” already and a pipeline of 600 applicants who want to start selling their time on the platform.
At what cost? For society, unclear. For would-be investors in publicly traded people, Human IPO lets individuals set their own price now, but Goryunov and Lezin are developing a machine-learning algorithm that uses data from platforms like LinkedIn and Glassdoor to assess an individual and suggest their initial “stock” price. When a company prepares for an offering, Lezin says, “you have numbers, revenue, market share, and other frameworks that help you to value that particular company.” To value a human, he and Goryunov had to create their own metrics. This formula, Lezin adds, is used to “estimate and forecast the value of the personal time of individuals throughout short and long terms.” The cofounders declined to describe their metrics or algorithm in detail, but they said it will combine an analysis of a person’s work experience, the usual career progression for someone in their industry, and other factors, like whether or not they were featured on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list.
Human IPO caught the internet’s attention just as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across American cities, and as entire workplaces and industries were grappling with the systemic racism that holds certain people behind. Had its cofounders imagined a scenario where their platform inflated the “value” of certain types of people over others? Human IPO is a global platform, too, suggesting that any algorithm may assign higher “value” to people in higher-earning parts of the world. Lezin acknowledged that there are “discrepancies in wealth distribution.” But he says “the model is agnostic. It’s driven by who you are, what you can provide, and those who believe in you.”
The model may be agnostic, but the real world is not. Algorithms are only as good as their inputs, and markers of someone’s value in the modern business world—salary, job titles, the opportunities they’ve had—are riddled with bias. Research shows that women and minority groups tend to get paid and promoted less than their white male counterparts. Venture capitalists say they invest in the founders they believe will deliver the biggest returns. The numbers say they believe in white men.
While exploring Human IPO’s website, I had noticed that the homepage featured about a dozen men and two women. All but two lived in the United States, and all but one appeared to be white. When I pointed this out to the cofounders, Lezin said that this did not accurately reflect the diversity of the community—merely the “early adopters” to the platform. After our call, several new faces appeared on the homepage.
One of those new faces, now prominently displayed, is Bret Lockett, a business consultant and former NFL player. Lockett, who is black, had joined a few days earlier to look around. (He did not know, until I called him, that his profile was being used to market the website.) Lockett told me he would consider “going public” himself, but first wanted to make sure there was a sound system for determining each person’s price. “That was one of my main concerns: How are you valuing people’s time? What’s the underwriting process?”
Human IPO reminded Lockett of Fantex Holdings, which paid professional athletes an advance sum for a share of their future earnings. Arian Foster, then a Houston Texans running back, was the first to “go public” in 2013; he sold 20 percent of his future income in exchange for a $10 million check up-front. Fantex fizzled out a few years later, but the model lives on. Another example is income-sharing agreements, aimed at college students with high earning potential. Companies pay for tuition and then receive a percentage of the student’s future salary in return.
Those models have their own critics, whose admonishment ranges from the ethical (income sharing reminds them of indentured servitude) to the economic (the return on investment isn’t nearly as good as playing the stock market). Even so, Lockett liked the idea that the ROI for an “investment” on Human IPO could be more than just money. He saw real appeal in buying 15 or 20 minutes with someone today who might be in the big leagues in a few years. “Imagine Tony Robbins, or someone like that, before they became big,” he says. “I’d love to have 15 or 20 minutes with Tony Robbins.”
Pollock said he hadn’t purchased anyone’s “stock” just yet, although he hopes to invest in others at some point. He is waiting for a more diverse group of people on the platform, who he thinks could benefit from his support. “I’d be more than happy to write some Human IPO checks on here,” he says, especially if he finds up-and-coming founders. “It’s another new way that you could invest in somebody and value their time and help build their platform.”
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