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 Kickstarter.com, Kiva.org, 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, ProFounder.com—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 Crowdcube.com, 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 Circle.com, 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.