Crowdfunding is about to be approved by Congress and signed into law by the President. For those unfamiliar with the concept, you can read Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crowdfunding) or simply put it is raising money for startups, typically via the Internet, in small chunks from people who may never meet with or diligence the company. Crowdfunding has been used in some non-profits for years and has been successful in Europe for the last two or so years as well.
Most existing investors in this early-stage asset class hear of crowd funding and have the immediate reaction: “Won’t this lead to massive fraud?” Today, investments in unregistered securities require that all investors be “accredited” so that they are assumed to understand the risks in these investments and ensure that sophisticated investors carefully vet deals to ensure that there isn’t fraud.
But, times change. Some VCs and Angels have become fabulously wealthy and famous by investing in early-stage companies, and the media has made a big deal about this. Think Google, Facebook, and even Microsoft. And, in our current economic malaise, creating high-growth, innovative startups is seen as a way out of the mess. But many innovative startups fail in trying to raise money. Angels do their part (see many of my previous posts). But many believe that the need is greater than sophisticated (“accredited”) Angels can finance.
So.. the idea of Crowdfunding has gained great momentum. The current vehicle, H.R. 2930, the Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act, as amended and approved by the House Financial Services Committee on October 26, 2011, (see http://financialservices.house.gov/UploadedFiles/hr2930ai.pdf for the original). The amendments are important, since they lower the size of the amount raised. While the situation is still fluid (the House reportedly just passed its bill and the Senate is in draft), it appears that there will be a $1M annual cap on raising money through Crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is exempt from current broker-dealer rules. Other issues, like how companies handle scores or hundreds of investors or allowable fees that Crowdfunding platforms can charge, remain up in the air.
I have heard rumors about this being done in Europe for the last several years, but cannot substantiate that startup companies have been funded this way. Wikipedia reports that “One of the pioneers of crowd funding in the music industry have been the British rock group Marillion. In 1997 American fans underwrote an entire U.S. tour
to the tune of $60,000, with donations following an internet campaign ” And movies have been known to use Crowdfunding. Any readers with more data?
This is a brave new path for the US. While many (myself included) think that our current SEC regulations that limit investments in startups to “accredited investors” are too narrow and should allow other knowledgeable investors to participate, there is established law and precedent for the investment market. I worry that we might be opening Pandora’s box. Many startups fail and investors that are not willing or able to do due diligence should not be investing in them. It is one thing for sophisticated, accredited investors, like me, to invest in a company and loose their investment. We understand the risk going in. We did our due diligence on the management team, the market, and the technology and reached a positive conclusion. It is quite another thing for someone to “advertise” a deal to the Crowd and have people send them money based solely on the company’s information without any substantiation.
I believe that broadening the participation in the early-stage asset class is a good idea and Crowdfunding is one way to achieve this. I just don’t want some bad actors who use the Crowdfunding mechanism for fraudulent transactions to poison the entire asset class. I think it would behoove both the entrepreneurs that raise money with Crowdfunding and the investment community to find a way to have a trusted platform that verifies that the company is who they say they are and that some investment professional has done due diligence appropriate to the investment.
I also worry that Crowdfunding could lead to some very high priced deals. Investment professionals (including “Professional Angels) have a great deal of experience setting the price for early stage deals. This experience comes from many years of investing, forecasting companies’ success and capital needs, and understanding how exits are likely to occur. Without this discipline, prices might not reflect true value. For example, if an entrepreneur is told by the investment professionals in their community that an appropriate valuation for their company is $2M, but they go to the Crowd with a $10M valuation and raise $500k, what happens when they need to do their next round? After they have spent the $500k, they might approach either Angels or VCs who will then set the price well below $10M. The Crowd will then find that their investment is worth very little. If the Crowd understands that risk, I have no problem with Crowdfunding, but if this isn’t transparent or well-disclosed, I think we could have many disgruntled investors.
I really want Crowdfunding to work. I don’t want a bunch of “mom and pop” unsophisticated investors ripped off.