U-M alums bring better finance tech to entertainment

CS alums Akanksha Singh and Caitlin Short have launched Backdrop, a financial management startup for the entertainment industry, earning them wide recognition, including a nod for Singh in the Forbes 30 Under 30.
Akanksha Singh and Caitlin Short stand smiling at the camera. They are both wearing University of Michigan gear.
Akanksha Singh (left) and Caitlin Short

Two of University of Michigan’s own, CS alums Akanksha Singh (BSE CS 2018) and Caitlin Short (BS CS, Econ 2017), are leveraging their technical skills and entrepreneurial spirit to forge ahead in a highly competitive and challenging frontier—the entertainment industry. Their startup Backdrop, a financial management tool targeted toward the film, television, and event production sector, brings much-needed innovation to an industry known for the size and complexity of its projects.

Their efforts in designing this all-in-one financial solution have not gone unnoticed. Launched with support from leading startup accelerator Y Combinator, Backdrop is already attracting clients and has been highlighted in several media sources, including TechCrunch. Most recently, Singh’s contributions at Backdrop have led to her inclusion in the Hollywood & Entertainment category of the 2024 Forbes 30 Under 30.

Backdrop has garnered praise for its streamlined design, seamless user interface, and the innovative approach it brings to a trenchant issue that has plagued the industry since its inception. With multi-million dollar projects and hundred-person crews, movies and TV shows are incredibly complex projects with numerous moving pieces and an intricate web of expenses that can be difficult to track and manage.

“With projects in the entertainment industry, hundreds of purchases are made every week,” Short described. “And currently, the process is very manual. Every time someone makes a purchase, they have to keep track of their receipts, and then that information has to be entered manually into their production accounting system. We saw a lot of inefficiencies there.”

This process of receipt-tracking and manual entry makes it easy for details to slip through the cracks. Expenses can get lost, and entire budgets can get thrown off, a high-stakes problem on projects of such magnitude.

Backdrop overcomes these challenges by automating the expense tracking and accounting process, leveraging the latest technology to glean information from receipts, track expenses, and generate financial reports with minimal input from users.

“With Backdrop, crew members can easily scan and upload a receipt, the program parses all the details, and we handle all the report generation for accounting,” Short described. “Backdrop is equipped to manage all the expenses and purchase orders on productions of any size, from feature films to commercials.”

To do this, Backdrop relies on a thorough and innovative software stack to collect and analyze data. It uses optical character recognition (OCR) to scan and glean information from receipts as well as AI tools to validate this data. The program also utilizes financial connectors that allow users to integrate several different financial accounts and cards. Backdrop is tailored to the specific needs of the entertainment industry, with specially designed workflows to accommodate the large, multifaceted, and fast-paced projects that characterize the sector. 

An example of the Backdrop interface. Backdrop uses AI tools to parse scanned receipts, and allows users to easily track and approve expenses.

The goal is not just to automate the purchasing process, a tremendous asset in itself; the Backdrop team also hopes to build a holistic tool that can serve as a backbone for the production process from start to finish. 

“Our larger vision is to build a tool to support the full infrastructure of production,” said Singh. “We are marrying our experience building modern, innovative software with our insider knowledge of the entertainment industry to provide a service that can power the entire production ecosystem.”

Singh and Short’s unique backgrounds and training at U-M put them in a special position to design and deliver a tool that enhances the expense management process in this industry.

Having spent much of her childhood in Los Angeles and worked on a number of film and TV sets, Short is no stranger to the entertainment industry and the unique challenges it faces.

“I grew up around film and entertainment, so I have firsthand knowledge of the difficulties in that space,” she said.

Short has always been a self-starter and someone who doesn’t shy away from a challenge. From the wardrobe department of film and TV sets, Short found her way to fashion school and soon after launched her own clothing line.

Looking for more technical training to back up her entrepreneurial vision, she came to U-M planning to major in economics or math. She credits an introductory computer science course with changing her trajectory.

“U-M is where I found my passion,” Short described. “I really enjoyed the ability to take a problem, break it down, and build a solution that computing allows.”

It was at U-M that Singh and Short met and connected over their shared interest in computing and their kindred ambition to make a mark in the industry.

Like Short, Singh has always felt inspired to reach higher and push herself. After growing up in rural India, she came to U-M and discovered a newfound enthusiasm for computer science.

It was the emphasis on firsthand skill-building and experiential learning at U-M that gave her the foundation for her future work. She cites numerous courses where she and her fellow students were tasked with building an app or another technical solution to address a real-world problem. Also essential to her experience at U-M were the number of leadership opportunities, the entrepreneurial skills she gained, and the network she developed.

“We wouldn’t have a product without U-M, that’s for sure,” said Singh. “The people you meet at Michigan are so much more valuable than you might think. They aren’t just your classmates and teachers—they are a huge global network and community.”

Singh and Short briefly went their separate ways after graduating. Short joined a financial startup called Honey that was eventually acquired by PayPal. Singh also went into the tech industry, working at Microsoft and then Uber before setting out on her own.

When the chance to launch a startup with support from Y Combinator came, they both leapt at the opportunity and were keen to collaborate once again.

“I saw Backdrop as an opportunity to combine my experience in film and TV with the technical skills I gained at Michigan to address inefficiencies in the entertainment industry and hopefully make everyone’s lives a little bit better,” said Short.

Going forward, Singh and Short hope their efforts will help transform how finances operate in project-based work by helping productions get set up and running smoothly, in the process saving creatives from needing to worry about back-office processes. Backdrop, innovation fueled by the Michigan difference, is setting the stage for a new financial era in entertainment.