Friday, March 16, 2012

In Defense of Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding legislation is tantalizingly close to becoming reality—the Senate is expected to pass a version of a bipartisan House bill within days. But a rash of negative publicity threatens to derail this important update to antiquated securities laws that hamper small business capital raising.

The problems stem from the Jump-Start Our Business Start-Ups act—JOBS, for short—a House package that rolled together a number of largely uncontroversial bills aimed at spurring small business capital raising, and added some new ones. JOBS has provoked a fierce outcry from consumer protection groups, regulators and pundits, who evoke alarming images of coke-snorting boiler room operators, Nigerian scammers and pump-and-dump research analysts. It seems this bill will make "Muppets" of all of us.

Let's all take a deep breathe and consider this.

The elements of JOBS sparking the most backlash are provisions that loosen regulations on public and pre-IPO companies, including exempting publicly traded "emerging growth companies" from certain reporting requirements, and letting issuers and financial firms peddle securities to accredited (aka wealthy) investors. Fair criticism. I don't see anyone taking issue with other elements of the bill, like raising the ceiling for Reg A offerings and increasing the number of shareholders (from 500 to 1,000) a private company can have before it is considered public.

The other key element of the package is a crowdfunding bill that had previously passed the House with near unanimous support. Crowdfunding has its share of detractors, for sure. But much of the recent criticism seems to be unfairly tarring crowdfunding and other good elements of JOBS with the same broad brush. In the Times, Floyd Norris declared crowdfunding "a major victory for Wall Street." 

That couldn't be farther from the truth.

Crowdfunding, as most people by now know, is a fundraising model where lots of small sums are aggregated from lots of people. Think,, and President Obama's initial presidential campaign. Crowdfunding legislation would move that model into the investment sphere, so  entrepreneurs could tap into their social networks to raise capital, and allow those investors to share in the profits. It's Kickstarter with a financial return. 

Under existing rules—rules that were crafted in the 1930s, in the age of ticker tape and telegraphs—that is illegal. Private companies may only raise money from accredited investors. If they want to reach out to their customers, their friends and family, their neighbors or social networks—a perfectly natural impulse—they must hire lawyers and accountants to guide them through a registration process and produce a bulky prospectus that hardly anyone reads. This process can easily cost $1 million or more—making it a non-starter for small firms that only need $10,000 or $100,000 or even a million.

These small firms are shut off from a huge pool of potential capital, at a time when bank lending and seed funding is down dramatically. And ordinary Americans are unable to invest in companies that they know and love and support.

Having spent the past two years talking to small businesses and investors, I can tell you that people want to invest this way. They would like to put their money in companies that they know, that are part of their community, or doing things they believe in. Just look at the success of Kickstarter, which has raised tens of millions of dollars in contributions for creative ventures. The site logged $1.6 million in pledges in a single day this week.

Before it shut down last month under pressure from regulators,—a crowdfunding platform cofounded by a founder of Kiva—helped dozens of small businesses raise money from friends and family. This kind of capital is supportive, nurturing capital. It's the antithesis of vulture capital or "ripping the eyeballs out" of Muppets.   

In fact, crowdfunding presents a badly needed alternative to Wall Street-style investing. Just as Kickstarter allows independent artists to bypass the traditional gatekeepers like record studios and publishers to get their works produced, crowdfunding can help entrepreneurs with good ideas or promising growth potential get funding that is not forthcoming from banks or VCs. Millions of Americans have moved their money out of big banks to credit unions and community banks; many may want to do the same with some of their investment dollars.  

Yes, there is risk. Investors could lose money or be victims of fraud—just as they can in the stock market. Most of the proposed crowdfunding bills limit the amount that individuals can invest in a crowdfunded venture—the highest allowable amount among the bills is (the lesser of) $10,000 or 10% of their annual income—so the amount any one investor could lose would be limited. (In comparison, there is no limit to what they can lose in the stock market or at the casino, for that matter). The amount a company can raise is also limited, to $1 million (or $2 million with additional disclosure).

It is the risk of fraud that has most critics' knickers in a knot. Without a doubt, hucksters will ooze out of the ether. But there are commonsense measures included in the crowdfunding bills that can address the risk. For example, the Senate bills require companies to go through a crowdfunding intermediary to raise funds. The intermediaries (the equivalent of a Kickstarter or eBay) must register with the SEC. And they must hold funds in escrow until the money is released to the company raising it. In addition, state regulators can prosecute any offenders if someone manages to pull off a fraud.

The crowdfunding intermediaries will also perform a basic level of vetting of the companies they list on  their sites, such as background checks of principals and the like. And let's not underestimate the power of  hundreds or thousands of people dissecting a business plan and crowd-vetting an idea or a company. The Internet brings a new level of transparency to investing, in ways that the framers of the 1930s securities laws could never have imagined. In fact, crowdfunding has the potential to be more transparent than many other investments we can routinely make. Do you know what's in your emerging market mutual fund, or what the hidden fees are, for example? Do you really know what is going on inside that blue-chip bank whose stock you own? (Here's a hint)

Crowdfunding has been taking place for nearly two years in the UK without a hitch, funding hundreds of local businesses. Luke Lang, a cofounder of, which has raised more than £2.5 million in equity capital for more than a dozen companies since it launched a little over a year ago, fully expects some companies to fail; that comes with the territory. But so far there has not been a whiff of fraud. Likewise, on Funding, British investors have lent more than £23 million to about 600 local businesses in the less than two years, with nary a Nigerian scammer or boiler room creep. 

The bottom line is, the financial system is broken. Small businesses—which create the majority of jobs, contribute half of private GDP and provide the biggest economic boost for their communities—are going begging for capital. Investor protections are predicated on the public markets, yet those markets are closed to 80% of the companies that need them, according to a report by Grant Thornton (pdf here). Small firms are simply priced out. The median IPO size has risen from $10 million 20 years ago to roughly $140 million today. 

We need alternatives. Done sensibly, with the right precautions built in, crowdfunding could unleash a new wave of innovation and job growth. The potential rewards vastly outweigh the risks. I hope Congress and the pundits will separate this issue from some of the more problematic proposals in the JOBS package. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Starbucks Revisited

Remember Starbucks' Create Jobs for USA program?

The java giant launched the program last fall in an innovative effort to help stimulate the economy by getting money into the hands of micro-entrepreneurs and small businesses that could create jobs—if only they had access to funding. The program is sort of a "counter-to-community" model: Starbucks customers are encouraged to donate a few bucks after buying their Caramel Macchiatos. The aggregated funds are then funneled to community development loans funds, which make loans to entrepreneurs in low-to-moderate income areas that conventional lenders deem too risky. These loan funds have an impressive record of success and job creation. (See my previous post on this)

The program is off to a promising start. Since November 1, customers have donated more than $2 million. Assuming an average donation of $5, that's about 400,000 customers. Add in the $5 million that Starbucks kicked in, and we're looking at $7 million being injected into underserved communities. The money is leveraged by the community loan funds for maximum impact: every $5 from the Create Jobs for USA program translates into $35 worth of loans.

Those are the numbers, but here's what it looks like in action.

In Elkins Park, a tree-lined Philadelphia suburb, Starbucks customers are helping to fund a new food cooperative called CreekSide Co-op. The Reinvestment Fund, a Philly-based community loan fund that is one of the 63 such organizations to receive funds from Create Jobs for USA, is making a $2.2 million bridge loan to the coop. That will allow it to complete construction, after which it will qualify for a USDA loan guarantee program. In addition, CreekSide Co-op has raised $280,000 from its members, who earn up to 6% on their money, in an ongoing member loan campaign.

The CreekSide Co-op is expected to create 47 fulltime positions and 28 construction jobs. And locals hope it will help revive the area's flagging retail district, which has suffered since a popular, locally-owned grocery store sold out several years ago and foot traffic trailed off.  Jon McGoran, a Creekside Co-op board member and Elkins Park resident, notes the experience of Mount Airy, another Philadelphia neighborhood. When the Weavers Way food coop opened a few decades ago in a quiet spot there, other businesses soon followed, including a bookstore, a yoga studio, a creperie and an architectural salvage shop, creating a vibrant retail center and what is today one of the area's most coveted neighborhoods. McGoran, who works at Weavers Way, said Mt. Airy coop is also lending money and expertise to CreekSide.

In Buffalo, New York, a community health center is another recipient of a Starbucks-supported community loan. After several hospitals and primary care facilities in the area were shuttered, patients visits at the Community Health Center of Buffalo swelled. The center was able to expand to 50,000 square feet thanks to a $450,000 loan from Primary Care Development Corp., a New York-based community development financial institution (CDFI). The expansion enables the center to provide primary and preventative medical care, dental and behavioral health services more than 12,000 low-income residents, and has created jobs across a spectrum of skill levels, ranging from entry-level clerical to licensed professionals, in an area that badly needs them.

These are just a couple of examples of how the spare change donations of ordinary citizens can have a real impact on neighborhoods in need. Better yet, many community development loan funds allow individuals to invest directly in their own communities, in return for CD-like returns in the low-to-mid digits. To find a loan fund in your own area, check out the Opportunity Finance Network's CDFI locator.