Monday, November 10, 2014

Crowd-Funding Success Usually Brings New Challenges

Pebble_smartwatch_size Many entrepreneurs seems to be convinced that the “crowd” of regular people using the Internet will somehow solve their startup funding needs, when they sense a lack of interest from accredited investors. Professionals maintain that there is plenty of money and equity for qualified startups, and funding marginal startups via any source will only make more people unhappy.

Well-known crowd-funding platforms on the Internet, led by Kickstarter and Indiegogo, have worked for years to provide non-equity “funding” for many startups, as outlined in my previous article Don’t Be Fooled By All The Hype For Crowd Funding. But safely seeking equity investments from the crowd via the Jobs Act of 2012 is problematic and has still not been defined.

A lesser variation, called crowd-pitching, by organizations like Funding Universe, is an offline event, which give several candidates an opportunity to pitch to a crowd of interested people for a couple of minutes, after which the crowd “votes” with some play-money to pick the best candidate, who then wins introductions and guidance in getting loan approvals or equity funding.

Certainly both of these crowd-sourcing approaches provide the entrepreneur with an opportunity to hone their pitch, get some free consumer feedback on the idea, and maybe some introductions to funding sources. But from my perspective in really helping entrepreneurs, both fall short on several counts:

  1. Focus too much on the product, not enough on the business model. When pitching to consumers, online or offline, the feedback will likely be on features and design. The key success factors of the business model (how a business survives and grows), management expertise, and financial projections will likely get overlooked.

  2. Amount of funding provided is usually not enough. The amount of time and money required for publicity and promotion of any crowd-funding activities may be more than the return. In reality, a few thousand dollars to a few winners, is tantalizing but probably not a return on the investment. Many fail spectacularly after exceeding their funding objectives.

  3. Multiple micro-investments are not manageable. Investors know how tough it is to get a set of terms accepted by even two investors, much less hundreds. The administration of legal conditions, signatures, disclosures, and distributions is a nightmare. In my opinion, that’s why micro-finance has rarely worked, even for loans.

  4. Proposal content is too short to be meaningful. In all cases, to keep non-professionals attention, the content of the offer online, or pitch presented, is very limited. No one contemplates including a business plan, investor presentation, or even the equivalent of an executive summary.

  5. Crowd sample size and makeup not representative of market. If the pitch is offline, the audience is likely to small and mostly budding entrepreneurs. Even online, the type of people who may respond to social media requests may bear very little relationship to the intended market.

  6. Investors are not prepared for the high risk of startups. Crowd-funding investors are not constrained to be accredited professional investors. They may not understand that nine out of ten startup investments provide minimal to no return, and the risk of securities law violations is very high.

  7. Intellectual property is jeopardized. Non-disclosure agreements can’t be done in these environments. In an environment populated by entrepreneurs rather than investors, when you are new to the game, you are exposing your plan to your biggest potential competitors.

Crowd-pitching groups are making an effort to mitigate these problems by pre-screening the candidates, and providing an experienced panel of investors to do the judging. This helps by making sure the feedback is realistic, and the presenters have a rational business opportunity to present. I’m already working with a couple of organizations along these lines.

Overall, there is no question that crowd-funding makes sense for non-profits soliciting donations, artists seeking support from fans, and many small entrepreneurial efforts. But in the competitive world of “the next big thing,” with millions of dollars at stake to be lost, counting on these mechanisms when professional investors decline is usually ignoring the real problem.

Marty Zwilling



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