Business development / Culture / Ecommerce / Internet

How the Army vets behind finally found their startup’s sweet spot

Building the "digital wallet" that verifies group affiliations online was a process of trial and error. Now the ecommerce startup is expanding its reach. CEO Blake Hall announced the company's acquisition of student deals website Perkla Monday. (Photo courtesy of Blake Hall)
This ambitious website was started in Harvard. Not by undergraduates, but by veterans trying to make post-deployment life just a little easier.

Identity verification platform began as an academic project at the Harvard Business School, where CEO Blake Hall and COO Matthew Thompson worked together on an earlier iteration of the company.
“We both shared a problem,” said Hall, who had served as a platoon leader in the Iraq War: the two both had a hard time getting deals online, even from companies that offered veteran discounts.
Since it was first conceived in 2009, the website has evolved rapidly, growing its customer base and gaining the trust of major corporations, associations and government agencies.
Other aspects of the company’s story might ring a bell. It started out with a clear purpose for a specific audience: veterans looking for online deals. But soon enough, its potential customer base broadened to everyday web users. also had to rescue one of its cofounders from a prestigious finance job. Thompson, a former Army Ranger, had started working at Goldman Sachs in Los Angeles after receiving his Harvard MBA. But he came back when Hall opened up shop in the D.C. area in early 2011. now seeks to solve a common headache in the online retail experience. “Digital identity is kind of broken in general,” said Hall. “In the offline world … you can take your wallet and you can present your drivers’ license.” There is no comparable system online for shoppers to prove their identities — as veterans, for instance, or as students or citizens.
“ works like a digital wallet,” said Hall.
But in its current form emerged through trial and error. Now based in Tysons Corner, Va., the company first ran TroopSwap, a daily deals site to veterans. It began providing online authentification services to veterans and, eventually to government employees and other groups. Soon enough, Hall and Thompson’s centerpiece was a beast called Because the website was built flexibly, it allowed for relatively smooth reinventions, said Hall. “We built up the backend of our platform in a very open way.”
They also ran into another common startup snag: the “classic chicken-and-egg problem.” had to find new customers to sign up for the deals, while also promising companies a sizable network of users to convince them to participate.
But now, has built partnerships with more than 500 retailers, including Kohl’s, and HP, as well as associations like the AARP. The company received $2.8 million in grants from the Department of Commerce, and it’s one of only three companies that can certify patients so they can access their medical records online. also raised $7.5 million in venture funding earlier this year. recently launched a beta version for the general public.


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