Crowdfunding—Read the Fine Print*
*The regulations, that is. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has 270 days from the bill signing to write the regulations.
It is common knowledge that innovation and entrepreneurship are critical factors for economic growth. There is even agreement that most innovation occurs in small business and startups, but capital for this critical sector of our economy is difficult to access. For first money, startups generally rely on their own resources and what has affectionately been referred to as FFF Funding (friends, family, and fools).
The size of the funding market for these smaller investments from friends, family, or other affinity groups is estimated to be $144 billion; this is larger than the amount of venture capital funding in the market. With an unmet demand for capital for innovation plus an existing yet informal multibillion dollar resource, this begs the obvious question—What can policymakers do to ease access to capital for innovation while at the same time assuring the proper consumer protections against fraud?
Entrepreneurs and others have advanced the notion of crowdfunding as part of the solution to the dearth of capital for startups—in particular allowing solicitation over the Internet to defined communities of classmates, colleagues, or friends; and from lower dollar, “unaccredited” investors—those with less than a million dollars in assets. Recently, Congress responded with the JOBS Act (for “Jumpstart Our Business Startups,” H.R. 3606). The Act allows both these things—and more. Small businesses and entrepreneurs will be able to raise up to $1 million in equity funding over the Internet through portals and websites that will be registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The bill was signed into law by President Obama on April 5.
I recently participated in a panel discussion about crowdfunding sponsored by the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development in Portland, Maine. There were innovators and entrepreneurs in attendance who were excited about the potential to infuse significant capital and energy into the innovation economy. Many had experience with KickStarter.com and other contribution-type websites (sites that amass contributions for shared goals/projects, without actual equity participation). Participants agreed that the addition of an investment opportunity along the lines of the crowdfunding model would bring more money to the table. At the same time, there were as many voices, even among the entrepreneurs themselves, cautioning about the potential opportunities for abuse and fraud posed by loosely regulated Internet solicitations to unaccredited investors (think massive spam, for starters).
The SEC has 270 days to write the rules that will govern these practices (the clock started ticking on April 5, when President Obama signed the bill). There are myriad issues, concerns and opportunities that must be taken into account. As always, for the regulators to strike the right balance the community who will be subject to the regs must be at the table and in the discussion. Stay tuned. Read up. Keep talking. And know that the Office of Advocacy will be listening.
—Lynn Bromley, Region I Advocate
To Know More . . .
Dana Mauriello, a tireless supporter of crowdfunding and cofounder of the now defunct Profounder.com, based the $144 billion estimate on one of the GEM studies and another from Babson College/London Business School:
• “What Entrepreneurs Are Up To,” Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 2008 National Entrepreneurial Assessment for the United States of America, Executive Report.
• “For Love or Money? A Study of Financial Returns on Informal Investments in Businesses Owned by Relatives, Friends, and Strangers,” by William D. Bygrave, Babson College – Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship, and Stephen Hunt, London Business School.