What if you could invest in human beings instead of companies?
The Liberman brothers, Daniil and David, want to create a world where you can do just that. Last year, the brothers and their two sisters, Maria and Anna, incorporated themselves as Libermans Co., a holding company that has all their assets, debts and profits, and investments. So far they are valued at $400 million and hope to be listed on the stock market by 2023. The idea sparked another one. What if other people could do this?
Now they’re working to create a platform called Humanism that allows people to invest in people.
When they discussed their idea with Fast Company recently, the Liberman brothers bubbled over with enthusiasm and statistics, at times cutting each other off to complete each other’s sentences, or dragging the conversation into entirely different directions, making it difficult to identify who was speaking. Historically, they have functioned as a unit, sharing social media accounts, interviews, and their house.
The children of Russian scientists, they’re also part of the tech elite: They’ve founded four companies and have served as directors of product at Snapchat. Their startup Product Science, which makes mobile apps faster, raised $17.5 million from 25 investors, including Peter Fenton, who invested early in Yelp. In the case of Humanism, they currently have a fund of $15 million and hope to increase it to $50 million by the end of this year.
With Humanism, the Libermans are starting small. Their initial pilot, which they plan to open to the public next year, will include about 20-30 handpicked tech founders. Their logic, in part, is underlied by a statistic from the startup accelerator Y-Combinator’s 2010-2011 class: Only 5% of companies became unicorns, but 11% of the founders created unicorns—so why not remove the middleman and simply invest in founders? After all, they pointed out, isn’t Berkshire Hathaway essentially a holding company for Warren Buffett?
“Credit is very expensive when you are young,” they said. They hope to reduce existing inequalities by allowing founders to access capital for cheaper by getting investors.
Founders as companies as C-corps
Founders in their initial cohort will be expected to incorporate into a C-corp, where they are the full owner, and sign a pledge agreement that defines what’s included in the C-corp: professional activities but not personal. Much of these definitions would be premised on using definitions companies already use today: Flying business class on a business trip, for instance, is a professional expense; flying business class for vacation is not.
“We wanted to start with a group who is very familiar with investments,” the Libermans said. The pilot will allow them to work out kinks, such as how to protect individuals from investor pressure, so people don’t start marching to the beat of the share-price drum the way CEOs are wont to do. The plan is to reach potential investors through media stories such as this one.
However, the Libermans dream of eventually extending this group to all professions: think doctors, lawyers, artists. This is where questions began to multiply and the concept becomes more fraught. Based on someone’s education and profession—and with the right data—you can get a fairly good idea of how much someone will make over their lifetime and how to create a valuation for them, the Libermans point out, such as looking at the difference between the typical salary of a taxi driver versus a doctor. And yet, while the notion of gauging people’s worth based on such objective measures might make sense if you’re talking about risk analysis or returns on investment, it’s perhaps also the most contentious aspect of the Humanism concept. In reducing people to companies, are the Libermans willing to look past individual lives to focus on broader group behavior?
The brothers propose eventually creating statistical models to predict valuations for each industry, including people who change industries, which they pointed out tends to be a statistical anomaly anyway. Warming up to the subject of career changers, they pointed out, the question of interest is why someone changes a career. Potentially, they say, investors could become a lobbying group that fixes some of the industry problems that lead to career changes, such as burnout for doctors. As someone who has changed careers more often than partners, I had mixed feelings about the idea that my life could be modeled, but then perhaps I am a statistical anomaly, or worse, someone who fits very neatly into a statistical model.
“What’s the youngest age someone can be on your platform?” I asked. I was thinking about the tradeoff between how money creates opportunities (expensive colleges, unpaid internships) versus the terrible vulnerability that comes with being a teenager.
For legal reasons, the Libermans are starting with founders who are adults, but in time, when they have a better understanding of what regulations they should implement, they hope that high school students could join, so they can pay for college and found companies, Daniil said. (David had to duck out of the interview earlier).
“The more complicated question isn’t how young, but how old,” Daniil added. He was thinking about how someone who is 60 is near the end of their career and may not be the most attractive to investors, which may explain why the Libermans are rich and I am not.
Quantification of . . . everything?
At times it was a pleasure to watch the Libermans take a question, pull it apart, and put it back together. Recently, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy cited the irresponsible use of social media as one of the factors contributing to the youth mental health crisis. How did Humanism fit into this space when people would literally know the dollar valuation of their lives?
Valid question, Daniil said. First, Humanist would limit stock trading days, so people wouldn’t be thinking about their valuation 24/7. But, he pointed out, there’s a different dimension to mental health: access to wealth. He noted that younger generations have much less purchasing power than their parents did at the same age. Humanism could change that, he asserts.
Finally, I wanted to know, how would they make sure that Humanism didn’t exacerbate existing inequalities? We live in a world where people are valued differently for any number of reasons: the color of their skin, their gender, their sexuality, their educational credentials. Daniil acknowledged that they didn’t have all the answers, but floated the idea of creating an ETF in the future, where people are bundled together, so investors don’t know their gender or race, as it were, and are investing in a group wholesale.
Expounding on that idea, he added, Humanist could do experiments to demonstrate that race or gender made no difference in the performance of an ETF. However, Daniil stressed that finding a diverse group for the initial cohort was a key concern.
Still, as they spoke, I couldn’t help but think Humanist sounded like a platform that would be good for people like the Libermans themselves: smart with data the way that tech prizes, able to raise money, people with big dreams of disruption.
The Liberman were appreciative of questions, quick to acknowledge what they were still thinking about, and willing to delve into thought experiments. They made a refreshing change from well-spoken leaders who place a positive spin on every story and deftly steer away from pushback. The result was a fascinating but head-spinning conversation that leapfrogged from topic to topic. They had the infectious belief that pervades the tech industry, that anything is possible if you are smart enough to create the right technology.
And tech companies have indeed changed the world as we know it. Facebook wanted to create a more connected world, and now we can all see Grandma’s cat photos, even as we also live in a world more divided by algorithms that prioritized posts that generate more anger. Instagram wanted to build community, and did, but it also crippled our self-esteem. Airbnb wanted to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere. Now we can do homestays in the Faroe Islands but rents have skyrocketed and there’s a housing shortage.
The premise of Humanism asks a fundamentally uncomfortable question in the bluntest way possible: Just how much is each human being worth? The Libermans have several answers, but not all of them.