Lucas Duplan, who founded Clinkle and made it into an object lesson in Silicon Valley overhype, is plotting a return. He has raised money from his family and outside investors for a venture fund focused on backing enterprise-software startups, WIRED has learned. The fund will operate out of New York and has backed at least two companies in which Duplan is involved.
One of those companies is a cryptocurrency project focused on employee rewards called Universal Recognition Token (URT). People familiar with the matter say Duplan has referred to himself as the project’s founder, CEO, and CIO at various times in its development. In a statement, Duplan denied having founded the company. He said he’s been involved with URT but is not employed by the company and is not involved in day-to-day operations.
The project, which counts Scribd CEO Trip Adler and seasoned HR execs Vivian Vitale and Stan Dunlop as advisers, recently began selling tokens to accredited investors in a “presale,” with plans to sell the tokens more broadly in the third quarter. Self-described “crypto enthusiast” and “serial entrepreneur” Brendan Ward has been URT’s CEO since November 2017.
Duplan has kept his involvement with the crypto project under wraps. But if any place in tech would welcome an operator with a rocky track record, it’s the fledgling, often lawless world of digital currencies. It used to be that, after a career meltdown, executives and public figures had to go through image rehab to get a new job. But recently a simpler solution has emerged: They can go crypto.
The digital currency world’s lack of gatekeepers and regulators makes it an attractive place for failed, disgraced, or otherwise shunned executives to start over. Halsey Minor, the founder of CNET who later became embroiled in numerous lawsuits and filed for personal bankruptcy in 2013, recently raised $35 million for a crypto project called VideoCoin. Jason Goldberg, cofounder of Fab.com, a once-hyped ecommerce flop that burned $336 million in venture funding in three years, raised $21 million for a blockchain software company called OST. Even Steve Bannon, the fired Trump adviser who was also fired from far-right website Breitbart, has considered creating a “deplorables coin.”
Duplan, a Stanford graduate, gained notoriety in 2013 when he raised $25 million from Silicon Valley A-list investors for Clinkle, a mysterious startup that had not yet launched a product. Duplan mismanaged the digital-payments company, according to reports, and Clinkle’s dysfunction was widely mocked in the tech press through the company’s ugly implosion. Clinkle is now a cautionary tale and a punchline on HBO’s Silicon Valley.
Post-Clinkle, Duplan created a product called Treats, which aimed to help businesses reward their employees with random, variable gifts. Variable rewards are a popular psychological trick used by Silicon Valley product architects who aim to make their apps as addictive as possible.
Duplan has operated under the radar since. In October, tech executive Bryan Adams tweeted about a frustrating exchange in which Duplan emailed with a vague request for startup advice. On their scheduled call, Duplan was not present; instead, an associate played a recording of an investment pitch for a startup over the phone. “Do not hack the be-generous-to-startups reflex and do dumb shit like tricking people into listening to your RECORDED pitch,” Adams tweeted.
That pitch was for Surprise HR, the Raleigh, North Carolina–based human-resources software startup that sells the Treats product. Surprise HR boasts 50 clients, including two Fortune 500 companies. The company does not list Duplan on its website, though reviews on Glassdoor mention Duplan and Clinkle’s involvement. Duplan says he is not currently employed by or involved with Surprise HR. Albert Eloyan, CEO of Surprise HR, confirmed that Duplan is an investor in the company but no longer has a role in its operations. Regarding the recorded pitch, Eloyan says the sales team was using Duplan’s name in email campaigns, but the practice was discontinued last fall.
Eloyan also had a hand in the drafting of Universal Recognition Token’s white paper and is listed on URT’s website as a member of the team. “I helped Brendan and his team refine some of their ideas on what they’re building, hence the white paper,” Eloyan says, noting that Ward had previously done consulting work for Surprise HR.
There is plenty of overlap between Surprise HR and URT, which share a common goal of changing how companies reward their employees. Surprise HR provides a system to give employees variable rewards, while URT plans to offer a marketplace for employees to auction off those rewards. Naturally, URT will use blockchain technology to do so. The project promises to eliminate unappreciated employee rewards with a distributed ledger that tracks how many employees actually use the rewards and which ones are the most desirable. A blog post from URT declares that blockchain technology will “profoundly disrupt human resources and HR-tech.”
In May, Surprise HR and URT announced a partnership, positioning the deal as a win for URT and not mentioning their common investor, Duplan. “With Surprise HR, the URT engineering team will now have a real-life use case to develop our partner components for, like the “Auction it” button and external APIs,” the announcement declared.