Last August, TechCrunch broke the story of Shirley Hornstein, a Photoshopping fabricator who ingratiated herself into Silicon Valley circles by name-dropping nonexistent connections. Her behavior eventually prompted Founders Fund to file a complaint to stop her from claiming she worked for them.
Following that report, Betabeat published claims that Ms. Hornstein, a former roommate of TechCrunch community manager Elin Blesener, was also guilty of credit card fraud, duping at least one former employer (Giftiki) as well as personal friends. Billing statements–provided by a friend who urged Ms. Hornstein to seek help–showed that “Shirls” used a stolen credit card to buy a plane ticket twice.
This week, the world was introduced to Shirley Hornstein: an ersatz entrepreneur who Photoshopped and name-dropped her way through Silicon Valley. For at least a year and a half, Ms. Hornstein has been trading on flimsily fabricated connections to powerful tech investors, startups, and celebrities–always depending, as TechCrunch first reported, on the optimism of strangers.
“She told people she had the authority to approve up to a $1 million investment from Founders Fund. That was her line,” an investor from Los Angeles who recently moved to San Francisco told Betabeat, recounting the time Ms. Hornstein cajoled a pair of young entrepreneurs into pitching her on a Saturday, convincing them on Sunday that she had already heard back from the board with good news.
The fact that Ms. Hornstein’s roommate was TechCrunch community manager Elin Blesener also helped “legitimize her,” the same investor added.
I Want to Live Forever
The situation on Alyssa Vance’s couch would have been best described as a cuddle puddle—a tangle of hair-petting and belly-stroking and neck-nuzzling, seven people deep. It was Friday night in late June in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment at The Caroline, a “white-glove service” building in Chelsea. Ms. Vance, a transgender former Google intern with the lips of a Renaissance statue, sat somewhere near the middle next to her girlfriend, Alice. Snuggling up on either end were a neuroscience Ph.D. from Columbia, a Yale grad student in applied mathematics, and a redhead in from Berkeley who “sells drugs on the Internet.” Across the room, a row of white chairs laid out expressly for Ms. Vance’s 21st birthday party stood abandoned in favor of the handsy human octopus.
The Observer hovered near the drinks table. Next to us, a ponytailed programmer from Morgan Stanley nibbled on a family-sized Trader Joe’s chocolate bar as we both stole glances at the pile-on.
Topguest, a loyalty program that relies on social media check-ins, was acquired by Switchfly in December. It took about six months before the two companies were fully integrated, which is when Topguest founder Geoff Lewis waved goodbye. Mr. Lewis, a New Yorker by way of Canada and San Francisco, joined Founders Fund—one of Topguest’s investors—as a principal last month.
The Third Degree
Yesterday Knewton, the Union Square-based online education startup, announced a $33 million Series D round led by Founder’s Fund, the VC firm co-founded by Peter Thiel. That might explain why Betabeat heard Mr. Thiel’s fellow co-founders Ken Howery and Luke Nosek were throwing a pre-game party Friday night in New York.
Existing investors Accel, Bessemer and FirstMark also participated in the round, along with Pearson, an education publisher, putting Knewton’s valuation higher than $150 million, according to TechCrunch. Another New York City-based education startup, 2Tor (get it??), raised $32.5 million earlier this year. But what sets Knewton apart is the adaptive learning algorithm the company developed, which figures out student’s weakness and can be applied to any type of curriculum.
Indeed, after trying its platform out in test prep, Knewton is now being used by all 10,000 incoming freshman at Arizona State for an online math readiness course.
Betabeat talked to COO David Liu about why Knewton isn’t making teachers obsolete, how its adaptive learning algorithm works, why Mr. Thiel would invest in an education startup and why Mr. Liu thinks Knewton is, basically, going to take over the world of personalized education.