When Hamilton felt she had learned everything the could on her own, she set her sights on attending a two-week pilot course at Stanford University organized by early-stage venture fund and seed accelerator 500 Startups.
Still, she had no way to afford the tuition, fees or travel associated with taking the course. She was living with her mom, and at one point in time she remembers looking in her bank account and seeing just $12. That, she says, "was a good day. A positive bank account was rare."
To cover the cost of taking the course at Stanford, Hamilton spoke out on social media and was nominated for scholarship. Her vocal presence on Twitter caught the attention of people like Twitter, Uber and Instagram investor Chris Sacca, who helped her raise the rest of the funds she needed to get to California.
At Stanford she'd meet classmates and mentors who were millionaires and return each night to an Airbnb, unable to afford dinner. But the connections she made through the course would prove to be invaluable.
For months following the Stanford course, Hamilton stayed in San Francisco. Her savings dried up quickly, and when they did, she slept at the airport. "My mom actually would send me money like $10 at a time when she could put it together," Hamilton says of the days she spent sleeping at the airport. "She didn't have anything for me. And you know that probably the worst part was having her, you know, see me like that."
Hamilton would travel across Silicon Valley each day to meet with investors, founders and experts to talk about her vision, learn about the industry and build relationships with entrepreneurs she hoped to one day invest in. "I'd wake up every day and take a train either to Silicon Valley for meetings or up to San Francisco for meetings, and people were none the wiser."
Occasionally, Hamilton would borrow money from a family member in order to get a hotel room to "pull myself together for a night and feel human." One Silicon Valley connection she made was with Sam Altman, president of seed accelerator Y Combinator. Hamilton used LinkedIn to connect with his brother, Jack Altman, who forwarded her pitch along. Sam Altman didn't invest in Backstage, but he did give Hamilton a loan. She says that Altman sent her a text that said, "The world needs what you're doing and we've got to make it work for you."
"He actually gave me a loan and made it possible for me to live in Austin for a few weeks, so that I could just progress a little bit and not be so much in dire straits," she recalls. "He did that without anyone knowing or wanting anything in return, except to have the loan paid back at some point whenever I could."
Those funds bought Hamilton more time to pursue potential investors. She found her first one in tech-insider and angel investor Susan Kimberlain. "I met her at the Stanford course, because she was there to learn how to invest her family dollars in an impactful way," says Hamilton. "We spoke for a few months and September 15th, 2015, she said she was in."
Kimberlain wrote Hamilton a check for $25,000 and became Backstage's first investor.