2020 Best Invention

Understanding Upsolve

April 2021

Our long-term goal is to fundamentally and permanently improve the American legal system to be more just, equitable, and open, and we have a concrete plan for how leaving that kind of mark on history is possible.

In the near term, we employ scalable direct services, namely education, community, and tech products that helps low-income families overcome financial hardship. However, the evolution of Upsolve's impact and brand encompasses policy advocacy to achieve systemic change. A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal called Upsolve "an online platform to help low-income families navigate financial distress." This was a big milestone for us when it comes to this evolution: Upsolve is no longer solely a "free TurboTax for bankruptcy," as other media outlets – and we – have referred to it in the past.

There are deep synergies between scalable direct services and policy advocacy. Our education, community, and technology have allowed us to build a 150,000+ membership within just the last two years. This membership has started to turn Upsolve into a powerful advocacy organization. 

This approach means that Upsolve has an asymmetric risk profile. In our base case, we'll help millions of low-income families access their legal rights and improve their financial situation. We're already on track to relieve over $1 billion in debt in the near term with our bankruptcy app alone. The potential upside of Upsolve is having a historic impact on America at the scale of Gideon v. Wainwright.

Today, these are our main core competencies: 

  1. Creating educational content about legal and financial topics. This serves the dual purpose of (1) having a positive impact on millions of low-income and working-class families who learn from our content every year, and (2) scalable, affordable user acquisition. Currently, about 200,000/month consume our free education, and that’s just from content about bankruptcy that we’ve created. 

  2. Building self-service products that empower low-income families to navigate legal and financial complexity to access their legal/financial rights and improve their financial situation. To date, we've relieved over $350 million in debt with our products.

  3. Creating online community around overcoming financial distress and legal barriers. Last year, our online community had 35,000+ user-generated posts and comments. 

  4. Connecting Upsolve members with third-party services that can improve their financial situation and/or help them access their legal rights when we’re not able to provide what they need. 

  5. Civil rights advocacy, specifically: (1) fighting against anti-civil rights policies in every state, known as “unauthorized practice of the law” (UPL) rules, that prevent millions of diverse and qualified professionals already embedded in communities across America – social workers, librarians, frontline nonprofit staff, community organizers – from providing routine legal advice to families in poverty who cannot afford lawyers and for whom it’s not financially viable for lawyers to serve; and (2) fighting against legal complexity – many legal forms in poverty law are modern-day literacy tests. Legal fees that we make low-income people pay to access their basic rights are modern-day poll taxes.

While we’ve applied (1) - (4) mostly in helping low-income and working-class families navigate bankruptcy over the last 2.5 years, we now aim to evolve into a broader brand, empowering low-income and working-class families to overcome financial distress. This will include meeting deeper user needs in navigating alternatives to bankruptcy, student loans, wage garnishment, foreclosures, repossessions, rebuilding credit, creditor harassment, etc. 

When you have a K-12 education problem, you know to go to Khan Academy. When you have a health issue, Mayo Clinic is the leading destination. We believe there’s a missing nonprofit brand to be built in financial distress. From our experience in bankruptcy, we know that the brand will require a combination of education, community, self-service tech products, and connecting folks with third-party resources. We’ve set out to build that missing brand. Our goal is for Upsolve to be the best place on the internet for any family in financial distress. 

And by becoming that brand, we hope to become a leading civil rights advocacy group in America, given our ability to attract a membership at scale through the concrete benefits we’re able to provide them. Some of the most powerful advocacy groups in America – the AARP, Planned Parenthood, the NRA – are able to attract millions of members because of the concrete services they provide. They then mobilize their membership around policy reform. They also use the credibility that comes with their direct impact in the field and their powerful access to individual stories and data to be effective advocates for their members. This strategy, where an organization provides concrete services to grow a very large membership that, in turn, empowers the organization to mobilize its members around policy reform is known as “functional organizing.” This is our guiding mental model.  

To really understand Upsolve, it’s important to understand how we think about how our core competencies relate to each other and compound over time. A few examples: 

  • Our multi-year investment in building a great product in bankruptcy – an extremely complicated paperwork process with 20+ separate forms – gives us the technology infrastructure and experience to easily create additional consumer-facing legal products with diminishing marginal costs. 

  • The more content around financial and legal topics we create, the more we’re able to meet the educational needs of families facing financial distress, but also the more users we’re able to acquire users for our online community and technology products. 

  • The more content we create and self-service technology products we launch, the more our membership at Upsolve grows, and the more powerful we become as an advocacy group that can mobilize our members around policy reform. 

  • The more successful we are at advocacy, the more earned media Upsolve receives, which means more links from highly credible domains back to our domain, which then means higher ranking educational content that drives traffic to our website and allows us to serve more users with our technology products. More earned media also provides us with the opportunity to talk about our free education and services to the general public. 

  • New content we create is much more likely to rank highly and drive web traffic due to our existing high domain authority and link profile. The cost of driving traffic to our website in new topic areas decreases over time given how our domain authority increases over time. 

  • We’re able to develop an online community only because of the search traffic and brand that we already have due to our education. If we wanted to develop an online content community from scratch to empower families to overcome financial distress, it would be extremely difficult due to the “cold start problem.”  

  • The more people who join our online community, the more value existing community members get, which means we’re more likely to develop a deeper relationship with our users until they’re ready to step into a deeper level of care in the form of our technology products. It also means Upsolve members are more likely to develop a shared identity that is important to organize them around advocacy efforts. 

  • More people visiting our website for our free education, community, and technology products means more opportunities for earned revenue by connecting folks with mission-aligned services that we’re not able to provide. And more earned revenue means more resources to invest in improving our free education, community, and technology products that can drive more people to our site. This flywheel also reduces our reliance on philanthropy.   

  • Our growing membership allows us to quickly acquire users for new services that we launch in a way that would be much harder starting from scratch. By having access to a large existing base, we can also learn and iterate on new ideas at a much faster pace. 

If you have any ideas, questions, or comments, please feel free to reach out: rohan@upsolve.org

- Rohan Pavuluri, CEO and Co-Founder

Upsolve is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that started in 2016. Our mission is to help low-income families who cannot afford lawyers file bankruptcy for free, using an online web app. Spun out of Harvard Law School, our team includes lawyers, engineers, and judges. We have world-class funders that include the U.S. government, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and leading foundations. It's one of the greatest civil rights injustices of our time that low-income families can’t access their basic rights when they can’t afford to pay for help. Combining direct services and advocacy, we’re fighting this injustice.

To learn more, read why we started Upsolve in 2016, our reviews from past users, and our press coverage from places like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.