Before the rules finally allowed just about anyone in the crowd to invest over the internet in a start-up company, the founders of a research firm called Stratifund realized this emerging market really needed something like Morningstar to guide investors through it.

That just may be a great big business idea — if equity crowdfunding really takes off. Of course, one of the things that improves the odds of equity crowdfunding taking off is having a company like Stratifund giving the straight story to the market, the same way Morningstar evaluates mutual funds.

Stratifund is a new company because equity crowdfunding for regular folks is a 2-month-old market. Federal rules only changed as of May to allow a business looking to the crowd for money, describing itself on a crowdfunding “platform” such as SeedInvest, to sell “non-accredited,” ordinary investors stock, convertible notes or some other form of ownership.

Some excitable financial writers greeted news of equity crowdfunding for the masses with the message that finally regular folks can become Silicon Valley venture capitalists and find their own Amazon.com or Facebook.

It’s far more likely that investors will find a collection of potential rat holes, but let’s be charitable and acknowledge that another Google could be waiting to be discovered. But how is a novice going to be able to tell just by scrolling through business pitches on a website?

“Our thinking is that investors … are going to have no idea how to invest in a start-up company,” said Marc Snover, a founder and co-CEO of Stratifund, based in Minneapolis. “People without a business background probably can’t do it. And if people can’t do it, how is the industry going to take off?”

That’s a lot like the insight that led to Morningstar. Its founder in the 1980s had spent two years collecting fund prospectuses and annual reports and wondering how anyone who wasn’t a broker or portfolio manager could make any sense of them. He thought all this information needed to be in one spot, with the mutual funds sorted with ratings to make them easier to compare.

Much like at Morningstar, the Stratifund founders didn’t want to tell investors whether to buy a deal or not. Their reports instead rate start-ups on five categories they think any investor should always fully understand, as a great business idea isn’t nearly enough to make for a great deal.

One example of a problem they’d find, provided by Stratifund co-founder and principal investor Jeff Julkowski, was of a company that said it was going to use some of the money raised in an offering to pay a $200,000 debt to the Internal Revenue Service.

How can a new company already owe $200,000 to the IRS? Score that one a zero for finances.

One of the reports Snover shared seemed representative of his work, examining a little company called BeerFit Running Series that’s seeking up to $1 million from investors to add to the number of amateur races it holds.

Stratifund scored the management team a four out of five, as the CEO and his colleagues had managed a lot of races. BeerFit scored a three for its industry, as running is still a growing activity. Stratifund was more cautious in the category of competition, noting that there are lots of other options for runners, and BeerFit didn’t seem to offer runners much that was really different. That got scored a one.

But BeerFit also had two years of sales and made money on most of its events. Altogether enough good things outweighed the bad for Stratifund to give the BeerFit offering a final rating of 3 ½.

In applying that kind of thinking to Stratifund, it would score high in most of these five categories, starting with the founders.

Snover worked as a research analyst at Piper Jaffray and then worked on acquisitions for Target. His co-CEO’s background includes the Boston Consulting Group, and his CFO has experience with both global accounting firms and start-ups. Julkowski had also once worked as an investment analyst, and board chairman Dean Banks formerly invested venture capital and is now with Google’s skunkworks.

As for Stratifund’s main product, it’s about as easy to read as things get in investments, and a subscription costs only $9.99 per month. Stratifund scores well for competition too, as there appears to be nothing else like it.

The only low score to apply here is for the industry, as there isn’t much of one yet. The founders said equity crowdfunding is “going slow,” as Julkowski put it. Stratifund itself has raised little on its own crowdfunded offering.

“The industry is going to be big,” Snover said. “We just don’t know when.”

One reason the market has started slowly since it recently opened up broadly to the public is that the Securities and Exchange Commission took years after equity crowdfunding was enabled by law to put out final regulations it could abide.

The regulators clearly feared that a lot of naive investors would be separated forever from their savings by promoters pitching nothing but blue sky on some crowdfunding site.

That’s why champions of equity crowdfunding should cheer for Stratifund, if it’s what keeps middle-class investors from tossing their money away.

For example, one company Stratifund examined hopes to become a social network for video gamers.

But the company, California-based GameTree, doesn’t yet have a product. It even put a document on its crowdfunding site called “anticipated business plan,” implying that if it ever becomes a business the founders will have a plan.

There’s no reason to suspect GameTree’s founders of anything other than entrepreneurial enthusiasm, yet they also put a valuation range on the company of up to $248 million and said it had the potential to be a “highly profitable unicorn investment,” meaning worth at least $1 billion.

Stratifund took this deal apart and gave it a rating of zero.

Is that kind of information worth $9.99 a month to an aspiring crowdfunding investor? Sure seems like it should be.

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302