StumbleUpon’s Garrett Camp: The Anti-Renegade

Garrett Camp is far removed from the tech entrepreneur that popular culture has come to celebrate. You know the typical kind of entrepreneur: the genius hacker who drops out of college and goes on to create a multibillion-dollar company or two while wearing hoodies and flip-flops.

For starters, Camp, the 32-year-old co-founder of the discovery engine StumbleUpon, wears button-down shirts. And unlike a lot of entrepreneurs who use their status to pile into hot consumer Web deals as angels, Camp has invested in just one friend’s startup, Schematic Labs, maker of an iPhone app called SoundTracking.

“I have so much on my plate, I wouldn’t want to let anyone down by becoming an advisor and investor and then not be responsive and not answer emails,” he says.

Far from subscribing to the notion that talented coders would be wise to quit school to pursue their entrepreneurial passions, Camp says that they should stay in school and earn advanced degrees if they can.

“I don’t know if I buy into the idea that people should drop out,” he says. “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.”

True to his own advice, after Camp launched StumbleUpon while still an undergrad at the University of Calgary in 2002, he didn’t drop out to focus narrowly on the company.

Instead, he spent the next five years dividing his time between StumbleUpon and pursuing a master’s degree in software engineering from the school.

“If I’d quit, I wouldn’t have read all those papers” on collaborative systems, evolutionary algorithms and information retrieval that “ended up being the basis for what we do at Stumble,” Camp says.

His plan has worked well for StumbleUpon to date. After raising just $1.5 million in funding for their company, Camp and co-founder Geoff Smith sold StumbleUpon for $75 million to eBay in 2007. About two years later, with the help of the company’s original investors—including Ram Shriram and First Round Capital—they bought back their baby for a reported $29 million.

Another indication that Camp is no run-of-the-mill entrepreneur is that he is deferential when speaking about his experiences with eBay.

At the time, the move stunned industry observers who assumed Camp had hit already hit the jackpot. Asked now about what happened, however, Camp is circumspect.

He admits to lobbying his investors to spin the company out of eBay, but he says he initially came “fixated on the idea” in late 2008. He tries to downplay the frustration he experienced as the head of an eBay subsidiary.

“We had our own product map and we continued to grow,” including from 2.5 million to 7.5 million registered users, Camp says. “But we realized if we were going to accelerate growth, we needed more flexibility, and that maybe it’d be better if we were on our own.”

Camp is also quick to point out the growth StumbleUpon enjoyed at eBay, growing from 10 to 35 employees under the auction giant and from 2.5 million registered users to 7.5 million registered users. And as one of few entrepreneurs who has been able to buy back his startup, he says he’s thankful for the insights he gleaned from the experience, including that anyone who sells his company had better be prepared to attract a different kind of employee.

“At a startup, you’re rewarded for pushing limits. At a big company, people have no financial incentive to take a big risk,” he says.

Certainly, StumbleUpon’s investors think the company holds more promise on its own. In early March, several VC firms, led by Accel Partners and including August Capital, DAG Ventures, Sheraplo Ventures and First Round Capital invested in StumbleUpon with a fresh, $17 million Series B round of financing.

The company has now signed up 14 million registered users, 4 million of whom are active users, spending an average of seven hours a month stumbling around its recommendations service, which presents them with a new Web page every time they hit the “Stumble” button in their browser’s toolbar. (By inviting them to click on either a thumbs up or thumbs down tab, the service learns over time what content is better suited to each user’s interests.)

That’s good for business. Every 20 “stumbles” or so, its users pass a pre-approved advertisement from one of more than 60,000 advertisers that pay the company between 5 cents and 25 cents per unique visitor and can target their ads based on gender, age and location, as well as dictate how often they want them shown. (Advertisers can pay more to target mobile users, to obtain better analytics about who likes their ads, and for placement if, for example, they want to promote a movie two days before its premiere.)

While StumbleUpon doesn’t disclose its financials, the analytic service Statcounter reported early last month that StumbleUpon has now blown past Facebook to become the No. 1 website for generating social traffic in the United States.

But the best indicator of StumbleUpon’s future success may be Camp himself.

“Garrett has grown immensely in his leadership and communication skills and in his ability to run a business,” says Ram Shriram, managing director of Sherpalo Ventures, who also calls Camp “tenacious, creative and positively energetic.”

Camp is also dedicated to StumbleUpon, even 10 years on. While many entrepreneurs look for the quick flip, or begin running second companies in tandem with their first, Camp has already passed up one opportunity to do that, turning an idea for a personalized car service application—known as Uber—over to his friend Travis Kalanick, who is now running the increasingly popular company. Camp serves as Uber’s chairman and has a financial stake in the company.

Asked if he might run with another idea himself, he tells VCJ: “I think I’ll always have other ideas and some may become companies.” He adds that Uber is “the only idea I’ve had that’s been compelling enough that I had to put money in and go and do it.”

Besides, says Camp, “The majority of my ideas are oriented around content discovery and personalization and informational retrieval and collaboration. So much of them are relevant to and going into Stumble. And I think that’s a good idea, too.”

Garrett Camp at a Glance

Age:

32

Hometown: Calgary, Alberta

Degree: Master’s degree in software engineering, University of Calgary

Career: Co-founder, StumbleUpon; Founder, Uber, Inc.

Did you know: Camp’s parents have designed, developed and decorated dozens of homes in Calgary. “They definitely influenced me to build my own stuff.”

Sample Investments

StumbleUpon

Mission:

Personalized content discovery engine

Located: San Francisco

Funding: $18.5 million, including the company’s initial $1.5 million round and its new, $17 million Series B

Exit: Acquired by, then spun-out of, eBay

Uber

Mission:

On-demand car service

Located: San Francisco

Funding: $12.5 million, including from First Round Capital, Lowercase Capital, and Founder Collective

Exit: None

SoundTracking

Mission:

a free iPhone app that invites users to “share the soundtrack” of their lives

Located: San Francisco

Funding: Not disclosed, including from True Ventures, Google Ventures, and AOL Ventures, along with numerous angels

Exit: None