Apr 21, 2015
Originally published on April 10, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-digital/innovation/is-crowdfunding-the-new-tech-bubble-or-just-a-good-old-fashioned-junk-bond/article23823686/
Despite the headline, I’m a proponent of crowdfunding and believe it can bring innovative ideas to market. Fundamentally, I feel that new forms of financing provide additional access to much-needed capital and bring healthy competition to the lender market, benefits that all entrepreneurs and inventors can appreciate.
So why the negative headline? It’s not meant to be sensational. I have real worries about the mania that seems to strike the markets with every shiny new opportunity. Some would call it systemic greed. Others may be more forgiving, and call it the cost of innovation. Whichever camp you choose, it’ impossible to deny that there’s extreme pressure on everyone in business to return continuous, increasing profits to shareholders – whether the shareholders are ourselves, our families or the public markets.
Crowdfunding, of course, is the rapidly growing practice of funding creative projects or startup ventures by raising small amounts of money from a large number of people, usually via specialty websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Maybe the early days of crowdfunding were the best, when early adopters and other hipsters invested in new projects to receive finished products, T-shirts and other promotional, non-financial “perks.” But that’s the past, not the future.
My fears started to heighten at a recent panel discussion I attended on the emergence of equity crowdfunding – the practice of “mass” funding of opportunities in return for equity. One panelist urged the quick adoption of this new financing frontier because he didn’t want Canadian businesses and investors to fall behind or lose out on this incredible opportunity.
While the parallels are not exact, this rhetoric struck me as reminiscent of the rise of junk bonds, the 1999 Tech Bubble, and yes, the subprime mortgage scandals that drove us into the Great Recession, the economic slough from which many individuals, companies and countries are still just emerging.
I want to remind would-be investors that, on average, about 80 per cent of business startups fail. Even successful companies have a success rate of about 15 per cent on new product ideas. More often than not, new business initiatives just don’t work out the way that we want them to.
If you’re taking fun money from your cookie jar to support a cause you believe in or a new product you love, then crowdfunding provides you a new way to back your convictions that has never existed before. But you should understand the odds.
As securities regulators approve equity crowdfunding – probably by restricting how much investors can invest per year, and how much companies can raise – it seems likely that today’s low-stakes “pin money” culture is going to change. Investors, by definition, want a return on their money. If crowdfunding truly expands beyond the hobbyist market, it will only be because a consistent percentage of issuers actually create incredible value for their shareholders. But how likely is that to happen?
You can say this for “old-school” backers. The professionals, whether they’re banks, venture capitalists or experienced angel investors, push you to truly understand and articulate your project and its potential market. They pressure you to justify the risk and return involved. Without that initial and ongoing demand for due diligence, crowdfunding will likely create a less disciplined marketplace in which success becomes even harder to attain, and failures increase in number.
On the other side of the deal, if you are successful in seeking capital, understand that you will now have to report to “the many.” You’re the custodian of the hopes and dreams and expectations of people whose motivations you don’t know. You have an obligation to keep them in the loop – and can only hope to keep them happy.
Never underestimate the impact of the mob, the Web or social media on your company and its reputation if something goes wrong. Face-to-face funding may have been harder to get, but that was not necessarily a bad thing – for you or the markets.
Bottom-line: Crowdfunding is an exciting new wrinkle in innovation funding. But it won’t change the rules of the marketplace: investors expect value for their money. Nothing comes free. The more expectations you create, the more your crowds will expect you to deliver.
I am a huge proponent of new financing mechanisms, including crowdfunding. I simply don’t believe in the tooth fairy.
I do believe in the notion of ‘buyer beware, seller take care.’ With a little more common sense, and less frenzy, I believe crowdfunding will help to bring a lot of remarkable innovation to market. Without that discipline, I fear we’ll see a speedy series of failures, losses and resentment that will burst crowdfunding’s balloon faster than you can say “count me in”.