Shivering with… Slava Rubin

March 6, 2014, 10:08 PM UTC

“Want to borrow my gloves?” Slava Rubin, co-founder and CEO of crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, asks me as we walk on a chilly February afternoon toward a café in New York’s TriBeCa neighborhood. “They’re from Russia,” he adds, revealing the tag hidden inside one of the gloves and exposing its soft shearling liner. His grandmother had given them to him when he was a child, promising one day they’ll fit him. Twenty years later, their resilient leather exterior hides any signs of wear.

Rubin migrated to the U.S. at just six months old. He came from Belarus with his father, a mechanical engineer, and his mother, a doctor. “Two of the most sought-after jobs in communist Russia,” he notes. His brother, four-and-a-half years his senior and with whom he is fiercely competitive, moved with them. Rubin liked to watch sports; his brother preferred sitcoms. Growing up in the 1980s, the boys would play Jeopardy! against each other for control of the television remote.

Rubin had a hard time blending in at school. He was the only Jewish kid in class, and his given name, “Slava,” stuck out. At age 7, he petitioned his father to change it. “My name was spelled ‘S,’ consonant, vowel, ‘V,’ vowel,” Rubin reasoned — why not just change it to the more common American name “Steve,” which shared the same composition? His father obliged. Today, Slava’s legal name is Steve. He hands me his driver’s license to prove it.

These days, Rubin sports a lush but manicured beard, and on the day I meet him, he has paired it with a violet button-down shirt, which he wears casually with a couple of buttons undone. He’s not one to leave a first impression only to looks and is unapologetic about his willingness to talk to anyone and network. “I have no problem getting rejected,” he says. Indeed, more than 90 venture capitalists rejected funding Indiegogo before it ultimately became a leader in Internet crowdfunding. In January, the 85-employee company secured $40 million in financing in a round led by Silicon Valley fixtures Institutional Venture Partners and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Rubin uses the platform himself, in an effort to raise money for a cancer research charity he started called Music Against Myeloma. When he was in his teens, he lost his father to the disease. A young Rubin coped by throwing himself into his work. (He was captain of his high school’s football team and class valedictorian.) One of his projects was starting a charity in his father’s honor. He developed Indiegogo with friends after becoming frustrated at the difficulty of raising money on the web.

The company prides itself on its open-door, somewhat Darwinian platform for fundraising. Anyone can try to raise money to reach a goal, but the crowd decides what efforts get funded by virtue of directly funding them. The site primarily competes with Kickstarter and has successfully enabled projects such as an award-winning Roger Ebert documentary that premiered at Sundance last month and what appears to be the first crowdfunded baby.

When I ask Rubin how he would categorize something like raising money for fertility treatments vs. more traditional entrepreneurial efforts, he doesn’t wince. “Everyone on Indiegogo is an entrepreneur,” he says. “To me, an entrepreneur is someone who sees something they want to accomplish, and between them and what they want to accomplish is a big brick wall. And they know they’re probably not going to break it. But they are dumb enough to run straight into the brick wall. And you know what happens? Exactly what you think. Their head really hurts. And then they’re dumb enough to run into it again” — until, presumably, they break it. “Entrepreneurs use creativity to find solutions that don’t exist yet,” he says, draining a glass of purple juice. Rubin mentions that equity crowdfunding, which would allow unaccredited investors to use crowdfunding techniques to invest directly in startups, is a recent source of interest.

A baby in the café erupts in a crying fit. “It’s usually quiet here,” Rubin mutters. He adds that he hardly cried as a newborn. “But now my mom says I’m super-difficult as an adult, since I’m an entrepreneur who’s still single.”

“Have I shown you our office?” We leave the café and walk down a narrow city block toward Indiegogo’s New York headquarters. Inside, the space is startup-sleek, with handsome wood paneling and a mostly open floor plan. As he takes me around the empty facility — it’s the weekend, and the office is devoid of employees — Rubin tells me about several hires he’d like to make to fulfill his vision of becoming the de facto international crowdfunding platform. “Certain countries are so far behind in the access-to-capital infrastructure, “ he says. According to Rubin, these countries can leapfrog over the burdens of legacy infrastructure using his company’s platform.

Our visit is brief, and soon enough we’re back outside in the bitter February cold. We part ways, and as Rubin walks down the street into the distance, I can see him slide his gloves back on.

For more stories in our Rendezvous series, click here.

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