The first-time entrepreneur and recent Stanford graduate (he finished a computer science degree in three years) has been working on a mobile payment app for the past two years. He’s now been awarded $25 million from a long list of Silicon Valley investors which includes Andreessen Horowitz, Peter Thiel, Accel Partners’ Jim Breyer, Intel, Intuit, former Facebook COO Owen Van Natta, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, the founders of Qualcomm and VMware, and many others.
The kicker: The app hasn’t launched yet and it isn’t going to for a few more months. Duplan’s 50-person team raised the entire $25 million – the largest seed round in Silicon Valley history – on a mere working prototype and a beta test at Stanford University.
Duplan says his pitch deck didn’t move VCs to invest but as soon as he showed them the app they were compelled to back him. He’s also secured a number of patents for his technology.
What is Clinkle, the wonder app that made investors open their wallets?
It’s hard to say. Duplan declined to share many details prior to Clinkle’s launch, which is expected to be released on iOS and Android later this year. All he revealed was this:
“Our goal is to completely modernize how payments work,” Duplan says. “What we’re trying to do is basically take your phone and have it for the first time be able to rival cash and credit cards. We’ve developed a way for consumers to download an app, no hardware needed, and achieve scale from a software point of view.”
He also said the name Clinkle comes from the sound change makes and its ability to turn into a verb (“Clink this!”). Also, the domain was available.
There are many reasons Clinkle’s $25 million seed round is shocking.
First, Duplan is entering a crowded space where there are already clear winners infused with lots of cash, such as Square and PayPal, not to mention credit card companies like American Express. From Duplan’s description, it’s hard to see why Clinkle is different or easier to use than Square Wallet, which already lets people pay for items in stores dongle-free.
Second, the product hasn’t launched yet. Normally investors give founders in stealth mode a few hundred thousand dollars to see if a startup has legs before writing a massive check.
Third, this is Duplan’s first company. He doesn’t have clout like Sean Parker had before he raised Airtime’s $35 million round, or Bill Nguyen had before raising $41 million for Color Labs. Furthermore, both Color Labs and Airtime failed spectacularly. If serial entrepreneurs can’t make startups work with tens of millions of dollars pre-launch, can a young founder who lacks experience do better?
A final worry: After raising so much money, does Duplan have a high enough percentage left in Clinkle to stay motivated and see it through?
Andreessen Horowitz (A16Z), one of Duplan’s lead investors, says he will have no trouble staying motivated. It also explained why $25 million isn’t unreasonable for Clinkle.
Clinkle was first introduced to A16Z by Diane Green, the co-founder of VMWare. She suggested Margit Wennmachers, one of A16Z’s partners, meet with Duplan, and funding talks spiraled from there.
Because so many people are invested in Clinkle, no one firm had to write a gigantic check. Having a lot of investors is also good for Duplan; as a first-time founder, he’s smart to surround himself with industry leaders for guidance.
Also, the payments space is a huge industry to take on. Duplan is going to need a lot of money to make a dent.
“Even if you captured a small fraction of it, that’s a very large endeavor,” Wennmachers told Business Insider.
“Money is the cornerstone of society,” Duplan agrees. “If we couldn’t trade it, we’d all be farmers. It’s a really, really important area and we’ve seen how tech has made so many things better. … But still we’re stuck with a piece of plastic and 16 digits and pieces of paper. The margin for error here is zero. That’s why you need so much money to do [this kind of startup]. There are fraud and security issues, and we’re obsessive about creating the best product possible.”
Wennmacher says Duplan’s app is brilliantly simple. His team has spent two years perfecting the technology and protecting it from a legal standpoint. The one screen shot Clinkle sent over looks just like a wallet with the option to select a credit card, cash or gift card as payment on the screen (see photo above).
A16Z was also impressed by Duplan’s go-to market strategy. Rather than going after merchants (Square’s approach), Clinkle is launching on college campuses and targeting early adopters there: the students.
College campuses are where apps such as Lulu and Snapchat are finding success and it’s where Facebook famously took off in 2004. There are also fewer merchants to onboard if you stick to smaller communities like universities instead of entire cities.
“Clinkle is very, very different from everything else out there,” Duplan insists. “I think we’ve seen all approaches to date be very niche. Peer-to-peer payments online [like Dwolla and Stripe]. Others let you accept credit card [payments] from phones [Square and Simple]. The really big deal here is just a consumer downloading an app and having that app replace current cash and cards. I don’t think there’s anything else that will let you do that.”
We’ll have to wait and see.