StumbleUpon’s Garrett Camp: Stay in School, Fools

Tech culture tends to celebrate renegade entrepreneurs who drop out of school to pursue their passion. But that was never really Garrett Camp’s bag. Though Camp co-founded the popular discovery engine StumbleUpon as an undergrad at the University of Calgary, he didn’t quit to focus narrowly on the company. He went in the opposite direction, spending the next five years dividing his time between StumbleUpon and pursuing a master’s degree in software engineering from the school.

Today, as we talked for a longer profile to appear in the next Venture Capital Journal, I asked Camp, now 32, if all that school was worth it.

“I don’t know if I buy into the idea that people should drop out,” he said. “There’s a fraction of all entrepreneurs who, sure, don’t mesh well with a traditional teaching structure. But for most people, I wouldn’t recommend it. I like that I got an education. It helped me learn how to build stuff and how to work with engineers and that was super important.”

As important to note, suggests Camp: StumbleUpon might not be where it is today had he not spent so much time researching collaborative systems, evolutionary algorithms and information retrieval as a graduate student.

And StumbleUpon looks to be in a very good place. You’ll likely recall that after raising just $1.5 million for their company, Camp and co-founder Geoff Smith sold StumbleUpon for $75 million to eBay in 2007. Two years later — with the help of the company’s original investors — they bought back their baby for a reported $29 million, a feat that very few company founders (Skype’s among them) have been able to pull off.

The eBay acquisition wasn’t all roses and sunshine, clearly, but StumbleUpon grew from 10 to 35 employees and from 2.5 million registered users to 7.5 million registered users on its watch. Since then, the company has doubled in size. Today, it employs nearly 70 people who cater to 14 million users, many of whom are slavishly devoted to the service. According to StumbleUpon, users spend an average of seven hours a month stumbling around its recommendations service.

That’s good for business. Every 20 “stumbles” or so, its users pass a preapproved advertisement from one of more than 60,000 advertisers that pay 5 cents per unique visitor and can target their ads based on gender, age and location. In fact, data from the analytics service Statcounter suggests that Stumbleupon recently blew past Facebook to become the No. 1 website for generating social traffic in the U.S. Little wonder StumbleUpon this week closed a fresh, $17 million Series B from Accel Partners, Sherpalo Ventures and others.

“Some people say to get your bachelor’s [degree] and move on, but in grad school, I got to choose my courses and my professors and [had] tons of of flexibility in the research I was conducting,” says Camp. He cites a collaborative user interface project on which he worked, papers from which “ended up being the basis for what we do at Stumble. If I didn’t have those years to study parallel computing and artificial intelligence, if I hadn’t had the opportunity to read those papers and think about what’s good for what, I don’t think I’d be a very good systems designer.”

School may not be for everyone with the entrepreneurial itch, said Camp, but “I’m glad I had an extra few years. If you can pull it off, I’d personally recommend it.”

For more on Camp, including insight into his longstanding relationship with co-founder Geoff Smith, why he doesn’t do much angel investing, and what he’ll keep in mind should StumbleUpon ever go down the acquisition path again, check out the April issue of Venture Capital Journal.