In one week, the University of Michigan’s campus will be flooded with startups from across the country. From our very own hoMe in Ann Arbor to the startup hub in San Francisco, some of the country’s most innovative ventures are coming to A2 to meet students, hiring both interns and employees, at our Startup Career Fair. Want a sneak peak at the talent that CFE is bringing to recruit you? Well, here’s your chance.

Meet PawnGuru, the Ann Arbor, tech startup that’s taking the pawn scene by storm. Last week we sat down with PawnGuru Co-Founder- Jordan Birnholtz- to get the scoop on helping pawn shop regulars make ends meet.

Q: Give us the lowdown on PawnGuru.

Jordan Birnholtz: Over 30M under-banked Americans rely on pawn shops to make ends meet. Millions more use them as a convenient, local alternative to Craigslist and eBay. But these consumers face a problem: while pawn shop offers on the same item vary by an average of more than 300%, the people who need pawn shops don’t have the time or resources to go comparison shopping. For someone who needs a pawn shop, that difference can translate to
hundreds of dollars. That’s the difference between paying the rent and getting evicted.


PawnGuru solved that problem by building a website where consumers can post items they’d like to sell, pawn, or buy, to and from local pawn shops. This lets them receive offers online from multiple pawn shops, and gives them the opportunity to get the best possible deal. Nearly 250K consumers have submitted an item on PawnGuru, and we’ve signed up over 1 in 6 pawn shops – delivering more than $25MM in offers.

Of course, pawn shops are just one part of how America’s 30M underbanked negotiate their financial lives. Our knowledge of their needs grows every day. We plan to use that information to keep building new tools that help low-income and underbanked people improve their financial lives by giving them more transparency, more convenience, and ultimately, more cash in their pocket.


Q: How did PawnGuru get started?

JB: A little over 2 years ago, co-founder Jonathan Polter went door-to-door between pawn shops in Detroit. He found that offers varied by as much as $1000 on some items, and that getting the offers took him all day. This suggested to him an opportunity – what if you could pawn your items online? Pawn shops are an old and traditional industry, so persuading them to make offers online was initially a challenge. But when pawn shops saw how internet traffic could grow their business, they became eager to use PawnGuru. Since we built the first version of the website, we’ve served hundreds of thousands of consumers for tens of millions worth of offers.


Q: What does a day at PawnGuru look like?

JB: Eric Ries once described startups as a “human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” To resolve that uncertainty, we do three things: build leanly, debate often, and draw conclusions from empirical results, not rhetorical claims. We debate, we build, and we pitch every day. In concrete terms, that means spending one half a day per week in a lively debate, charting a course, and then giving our team autonomy to get work done. PawnGuru employees usually work 1-2 days a week from home, to focus on hard, conceptual tasks, spend 2-3 days in our Ann Arbor office, and then spend one day in Southfield with our sales office, making collaborative decisions.


Q: What is the PawnGuru definition of “entrepreneur”?_d6h8474-attachment

JB: Entrepreneur is a marketing word that has been beat death, resurrected, and then re-murdered and re-resurrected again. To many, it conjures images of
Randian heroism and go-it-alone attitudes. That’s not our view of it. Entrepreneurism, for PawnGuru, means a willingness to fail, comfort with autonomy, and – most importantly – the ability to critically empathize. Many of our users are low-income, and having empathy for their needs is critical to our success.


Q: What do you look for in an ideal employee or intern for the PawnGuru team?

JB: You have to be willing to ask for help. You have to be confident in your capacity to learn new things, and to improve your understanding of what you think you already know. And you have to be motivated by empathy. Empathy gives you the ability to collaborate in uncertainty, the essential condition of a startup, and gives you the fire you need to build better tools to serve people who struggle to benefit from our complex banking and financial systems.


If you’re interested in meeting PawnGuru, and other startups from around the country, make sure to join us at the Startup Career Fair from January 9-12. See you there!


By Kate Toporski, CFE Content Development Intern

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