NEW YORK – Begun two years ago with some big hopes, the option for small businesses to court investors through crowdfunding hasn’t turned into the windfall that its supporters predicted.
“A lot of dollars have been raised in crowdfunding, but it has not been the bonanza people have been expecting,” said David Lavan, a former Securities and Exchange Commission attorney who’s now with Dinsmore & Shohl in Washington, D.C.
Some 438 companies have raised $105 million since May 16, 2016, when the first websites where companies’ shares are sold began operating, according to the consulting firm Crowdfund Capital Advisors. There are now 41 sites. On one, Wefunder, businesses have raised $15 million in the past 18 months, but that’s about half the amount hoped for.
Another disappointment: About half the investors are customers of the companies and want to support their favorite brewer or app maker or back a movie project — they are not the average small investors crowdfunding was supposed to appeal to.
“There’s not a lot of people out there saying, ‘Gee, we want to invest in startups,’ ” said Nick Tommarello, CEO of Wefunder.
Some of what’s held crowdfunding back are legal limitations and requirements, designed to protect investors who may be unfamiliar with the risks of committing money to young companies without proven track records.
Companies can raise as much as $1 million, and individuals with income or net worth under $100,000 can invest a total of $2,000 in one or more businesses in a 12-month period. Businesses must comply with Securities and Exchange Commission requirements including financial and disclosure documents, although the paperwork is far less than what companies complete when they are going public.
Daplie, a maker of computer servers that’s based in Provo, Utah, has done two successful crowdfunding campaigns that have helped the company avoid traditional venture capital investors and be more independent, President Brian Bourgerie said.
“If we can crowdfund our way to an IPO (initial public offering) or whatever success, that’s the way we’d like to do it,” he said.
But people involved in crowdfunding say the regulations prevent it from becoming a windfall for young companies. Businesses still need legal and accounting help to prepare documents and financial statements. The tens of thousands of dollars that may cost can eat into the money they raise, said Ryan Feit, CEO of SeedInvest, another crowdfunding website.
“It’s a significant regulatory burden imposed on very small companies,” he said.
Preparing for an offering is also a lot of work on top of already running a company, Bourgerie said.
Another issue is an SEC rule that requires companies to register their securities with the government — essentially going public — if they have $25 million or more in assets and more than 2,000 investors or more than 500 who are not “accredited” to specific standards of expertise.
Many small companies bypass crowdfund investing and raise money instead on sites like Indiegogo and GoFundMe that don’t require paperwork and that have no limits. But having investors is appealing to Justin Shelby, CEO of Artichoke, which sells an app to help business owners manage their companies. Investors who are excited about the company, including those who are customers, become ambassadors for its brand, he said.
Artichoke’s first campaign attracted 81 investors and $51,885, nearly half its $107,000 goal; Shelby was satisfied with the amount raised.
The company is in Baltimore, far from the technology investor hubs of Silicon Valley and New York, but crowdfunding isn’t dependent on geography. “Because it potentially deregionalizes access to capital, it could be a game-changer for a lot of companies,” Shelby said.
The crowdfunding industry is hoping that Congress and the SEC change some of the rules. Tommarello expects the SEC will review its regulations after several years of assessing their impact. And bills have been proposed in Congress to modify some of the requirements and allow companies to raise more than $1 million, but the legislation hasn’t had support in both houses and doesn’t look to become law anytime soon.
“It’s very challenging to get changes in Washington right now,” Feit said.