These days, whurley commutes one week each month, from his home in Austin to the New York offices of Goldman Sachs (GS), the global investment banking, securities and investment management firm. He is overseeing the burgeoning development of Honest Dollar at GS, the web- and mobile-based startup he founded in 2014. It enables small- and medium-sized businesses to set up simple, affordable retirement saving programs for employees. Whurley sold Honest Dollar in 2016 to GS, and he is now a managing director. He can’t disclose how much GS paid him, but says he is “extremely happy with the deal.”
Few would dispute that he is one of the most entrepreneurial IEEE members in the United States – and, quite possibly, the world. Between July 2015 and March 2016, this IEEE Senior Member and serial entrepreneur also sold two other technology-based companies that he either founded or co-founded. Besides Honest Dollar, he sold Chaotic Moon, an advanced digital studio that he started in 2010 to Accenture, and Team Chaos, a digital games development company, launched in 2012, to Zynga. But whurley is proudest of Honest Dollar; it’s the one that eventually could become a “unicorn” – venture capitalist-speak for a tech startup valued at $1-billion or more.
In April, IEEE-USA presented whurley with the 2016 Entrepreneur Achievement Award for Leadership in Entrepreneurial Spirit. The presentation took place at the IEEE-USA Awards & Recognition Ceremony during IEEE Region 3 SoutheastCon 2017 in Charlotte.
“Whurley doesn’t see the boundaries,” says Michael Andrews, IEEE Senior Member, and one of the endorsers for the award. “He sees the challenge – and makes it a reality.”
IEEE Senior Member Scott Tamashiro adds that whurley’s talk at the inaugural IEEE-USA Future Leaders Forum in 2016 “excited everyone with his frankness about his entrepreneurial experiences.” In addition, Tamashiro says whurley’s know-how about combining ideas and enthusiasm to create products inspired the students and young professionals who attended.
For whurley – who uses his lowercase Unix username as his professional moniker – the journey from community-college dropout to successful serial entrepreneur has followed a path of fairly remarkable events. However, it started with one that was nearly disastrous. In 1991, his music career halted, after he was badly injured in an automobile accident, while touring with the band. During his nearly year-long recovery, he started toying with sound synchronization on CDs. This tech play led to scoring music for CDs, but he ran into timing issues. “I started having to correct the MID SEMPTE timing, so that required me to learn the tools used to create the CDs,” he recalls.
Whurley’s interest in sound synchronization stemmed from his attraction to music, but since he could now match sound and action he soon expanded to movies and games. Apple needed such skills, so he joined the company’s Austin location in 1994, settling into research and development. A few years later, he moved to IBM as a principal engineer in the newly formed Internet Business Unit. By the time he left IBM in 2000, he had been named one of the company’s prestigious Master Inventors. Today, whurley holds 11 patents from his IBM years, all in internet technologies.
In the 2000s, he worked for several startups – and also co-founded Symbiot, a security management company. But in 2007, intrigued by the possibilities for the new iPhone with its multi-touch screen that interacted with a computer, whurley began imagining potential apps for the smartphone. He and his founding partners purposely waited until 2010 – after the smoke had cleared from the initial phase of the mobile apps market – to launch Chaotic Moon.
“Waiting three years was hard,” he says. “It’s always been easy for me to envision advanced technology that could be a reality now. But the technology isn’t quite there, or people aren’t ready for it – yet so they won’t buy it.”
The wait paid off. Among many lucrative clients, Chaotic Moon worked with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to develop the first iPad-only digital newspaper, The Daily, and also created apps for Microsoft, CBS Sports and other major companies. Two years later, in 2012, whurley and other partners launched Team Chaos, to develop online games for internet, social networking and mobile platforms.
But his next startup, Honest Dollar, proved to be a “first” in several respects. For starters, the business tackles a pressing need: the ability of people working for smaller businesses, and for themselves, to save for retirement.
“We set out to revolutionize the retirement savings industry and reach individuals who historically have been underserved,” he states. “Some 45 million Americans do not have access to employee-sponsored retirement plans, because they’re too complex and too costly for a small- or medium-sized business to provide. Honest Dollar eliminates the hassle – employers can sign up easily, and offer retirement benefits plans for as little as $8 an employee per month.
Whurley explains that once employees are set up, they answer questions to determine their investing goals, and one of six portfolios is recommended to them. These are composed of four different Vanguard exchange-traded funds.”
The second reason that Honest Dollar is a “first,” is that it was the first of whurley’s ventures for which he needed to obtain startup money.
“We live in the greatest time to build a business because entrepreneurs can buy everything they need off the internet for pennies,” he maintains. “Raising money doesn’t make you a successful CEO, because it’s like having credit card debt. You owe someone else for that money. It’s a convertible note, and you’re putting up your company as collateral.”
But Honest Dollar needed financing – because the nature of its business required dealing with regulatory and compliance issues – before doing anything else. Whurley raised $3 million, much of it going toward what he describes as “a suite of lawyers.”
“It was an eye opening process for me as an entrepreneur – I like to build stuff, and the other ventures were started out of hard work, including nights and weekends. This time, we had to do the legal and regulatory work up front, instead of developing the business.”
He initially contacted GS about additional potential funding; and soon, to his surprise, the company made him an offer to acquire Honest Dollar. The current emphasis, in addition to continuing to sign up more small- and medium-sized businesses, is to reach the self-employed. “Overall, the potential for Honest Dollar is tremendous,” says whurley. “Most people have never had access to GS’ enormous resources, and adding them to a consumer product is like adding a giant rocket backpack to it.”
What’s next for whurley?
“Once you sell the company, the real work begins,” he says. “It’s a new moment in time for the entrepreneur, because he or she needs to deliver on the value.”
Given this entrepreneur-innovator’s amazing track record, that’s a sure thing.
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.