Challenge Festival Winner HandUp Uses Tech, Innovation to Help Homeless
Inspiration can come from anywhere. If you want proof, just ask Rose Broome.
As Broome walked home one night during a cold winter in San Francisco, the sight of a homeless woman with just a thin blanket protecting her from the ground prompted Broome to act. She created HandUp—a tech startup that helps people give back to homeless individuals in need. Donors can browse profiles and decide how much they’d like to give to provide a homeless person with a “hand up.” The company also partners with homeless service organizations to help deliver resources such as glasses, interviewing clothes and money for dentures to homeless members who register with HandUp.
But Broome never anticipated just how far HandUp would go.
“We certainly never planned on doing this as a company, but there was just so much traction from the very beginning and such a big need,” she says. “Homeless organizations around the country and the world are saying, ‘We want this technology.’”
And HandUp’s quick growth and unique business model caught 1776’s eye as well. The company is the first ever winner of 1776’s Challenge Cup—a competition where startups pitch their companies in an effort to win investment dollars. HandUp won in the Smart Cities semifinals and took home $150,000 at the Global Finals.
HandUp got a fast start when it was accepted to an urban innovation incubator just one year after the initial idea. The pilot launched in August 2013, and the first investor, entrepreneur Jason Calacanis of This Week in Startups, came on board in December of that year.
Broome attributes HandUp’s lightning-speed growth to a variety of factors.
“We’re a pretty unique organization,” she says. “We’re bringing a solution to a very large problem. We’re a piece of the solution. But it’s a very large problem that we haven’t seen a lot of technology going into this space. We’re helping to pioneer technology around urban U.S. poverty.”
The startup’s unique business model also has allowed it to thrive. HandUp qualifies as a public benefit corporation, a company with a corporate purpose to create a positive material impact on society and the environment. HandUp achieves this goal by allowing donors to give money to provide the homeless members with specific items (interviewing clothes or dentures, for example) to help them find work or housing.
“It was important to me to be clear—to the public and to our team, to our members—that our social mission is a priority for the company. It’s a legal obligation. It’s crystal clear,” Broome says. “This is a new corporate form and we’re excited to be one of the first startups to use this model.”
Unlike traditional nonprofit organizations that aim to help the homeless, however, HandUp is for-profit—and has a highly scalable business model, which attracts investors.
“We partner with nonprofits that are already serving the homeless community. They serve the homeless community, and we build the technology,” Broome says. “That’s what traditional investors are looking for: highly scalable models. They’re for-profit investors, but they also have a commitment for civic improvement. We fall very closely along those lines.”
As a result, HandUp has been able to nab early-stage funding, Broome said.
“The nature of for profit funding is more flexible, whereas nonprofit often comes with a lot of restrictions or direction,” she says.
And the company’s success has not gone unnoticed: Earlier this month HandUp won 1776’s Challenge Cup competition in Washington, D.C. At the weeklong Challenge Festival, 64 startups representing 16 cities around the world pitched their companies to judges—and HandUp came out on top.
“They came up with a revolutionary for-profit business model that tackles a big social problem,” 1776 Director of Strategy Brittany Heyd said. “They take donations from the community, partner with city governments and take corporate sponsorships. It’s an interesting way of developing a sustainable model for actually helping communities.”
Heyd also praised HandUp for using technology to help solve an urban problem, as well as Broome’s vision for the organization’s future and her stellar presentation skills.
Yet, the path to success wasn’t entirely smooth. Broome says that initially finding funding and organizations to partner with was a real challenge.
It also takes time to secure initial partnerships. Yet, Broome said HandUp was most successful when they tracked down organizations looking to accomplish similar things.
“One thing we’ve learned is that there are a lot more organizations out there than you would think,” she said. “Finding an initial partner that’s willing to give feedback and help shape the product is extremely important.”
And feedback is exactly what HandUp got when they first met with San Francisco-based Project Homeless Connect.
“[HandUp] really wanted to understand what our participants experience on the street every day to see if they would be effective, which really excited me,” said Kara Zordel, executive director of Project Homeless Connect. “By creating this relationship by somebody having to walking into an organization to redeem a donation, you’re really making a big difference in their life.”
Project Homeless Connect was excited about HandUp’s potential from the beginning, and now is one of HandUp’s partners in San Francisco. Still, Zordel says she was hesitant at first.
“My very first initial reaction was that it doesn’t reach the most vulnerable people, those that are sickest,” she said. “But what I realized is that it reaches this other group that’s being overlooked: this really mobile, get-off-the-streets, ‘I need a hand up’ group.”
Broome and HandUp also impressed Zordel with her knowledge of the population HandUp was trying to reach.
“HandUp is really effective because they really did look at the market,” Zordel says. “It’s exciting to me when we do get a call from someone who has an idea that will be effective, and the reason is because they’ve really taken into mind the voices of the participants and of the community at large.”
And feedback does seem to be the key to achieving success. HandUp Cofounder and CTO Zac Witte advises that new startups keep it simple and heed advice.
“Getting feedback on your ideas and making sure that you’re building something that people will really want to use,” he said. “You can’t create something like this in a vacuum. It has to be through interacting with people, though many iterations of refining it, and getting feedback and continuing to improve it. Nothing is perfect out of the box.”
And now that the launch is over and the company is thriving, what does the future hold for HandUp?
“We’re focused on scaling up in the Bay area, but then we want to expand across the country,” says Broome. “We got international requests, but we’re focusing on the U.S. for now.”
The company’s business success benefits HandUp’s members as more donors and organizations help further this startup’s mission. Broome highlights one story about how one man encouraged his high school class to donate to a HandUp member and high school friend during a 40–year reunion. Overnight, the graduating class raised $5,000—enough to land their classmate a spot in permanent housing after he had been homeless for 25 years.
“We just connected the resources with organizations or nonprofits that are already around and doing this work,” says Broome. “Seeing how we can be an important piece of that puzzle is incredibly rewarding.”