Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Future of Crowdfunding

This past weekend, crowdfunding pioneer shut down. Hopes has been high for ProFounder, which set out to help entrepreneurs and small businesses raise money from their friends, family, customers and community. One of its founders, Jessica Jackley, was a cofounder of, the wildly popular microfinance site that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for micro-entrepreneurs throughout the world since it launched in 2004. Could ProFounder do the same for the many entrepreneurs and small businesses held back by a lack of capital in the U.S.?

In its first six months, ProFounder raised more than half a million dollars from 302 investors for 18 companies, including a Hawaiian "shave ice" shop and an electric motorcycle maker. Sadly, Jackley and cofounder Dana Mauriello, who met at Stanford Business School, found that U.S. securities laws made it difficult for them to proceed. Despite their best efforts to comply with state and federal regulations, they drew the ire of the California regulators, who issued a cease & desist order in August. A message on their web site explains:

Despite our progress, the current regulatory environment prevents us from pursuing the innovations we feel would be most valuable to our customers, and we’ve made the decision to shut down the company.

Observers pointed out the irony that, just a week before ProFounder's demise, the crowdfunding world hit a major milestone: two separate deals raised more than $1 million each. In a Kickstarter campaign ended on Feb. 11th, Elevation Lab raised just under $1.5 million for a new docking device for the iPhone, while Double Fine Adventure, an adventure game, is poised to blow past $2 million with more than two weeks to go.

Uncle Clay's House of Pure Aloha raised money on ProFounder 

Crowdfunding is clearly striking a chord. On Kickstarter, people are pledging more than $2 million a week to projects they support—a figure approaching the entire annual operating budget for the National Endowment for the Arts!

But ProFounder was different. Site such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo raise money mainly for artsy projects like documentary films, music CDs, and computer games. Small businesses have been turning to these sites more and more with some success—La Casa Azul, a bookstore in East Harlem, raised nearly $40,000 on Indiegogo to open a bookstore that would cater to the Latino community there. But it's not always a good fit.

ProFounder, in contrast, was designed for small business entrepreneurs.

The other main difference is that Kickstarter, Indiegogo and their ilk raise money from supporters with no expectation of a financial return. In other words, people donate money to projects they want to support in return for an in-kind reward, like a CD, a t-shirt or a credit in a film. It's arts patronage in the digital age.

Meanwhile, on, the microfinance site Jackley co-founded, loans are paid back (the site has a 99% repayment rate), but without interest.

There's more than altruism going on. If a financial return were introduced, these transactions would become securities subject to federal and state securities regulations. And those regulations make it illegal for privately-owned businesses to seek money from ordinary investors without first spending a massive amount of time and money to hire lawyers and accountants to register the offering with the SEC and relevant state agencies. The cost of registration typically swamps the small sums being sought, so it is not a viable option for most small businesses.

Yet that is the realm that Jackley and Mauriello bravely entered with ProFounder (this kind of fundraising is often called Crowdfund Investing to differentiate it from donation-style crowdfunding). Their vision was to help entrepreneurs reach out to their social networks—friends, family, neighbors, fellow students or loyal customers—to raise money in return for a small share of the revenue.

They called their brand of crowdfunding "community-funding," since it is a much more intimate form of investing than tapping an anonymous crowd. Although regulators are rightly concerned about protecting small investors, this kind of community-funding is much less vulnerable to the charlatans that troll the Internet, precisely because of the social bonds and accountability that exist in these networks.

Like many crowdfunding advocates, Jackley and Mauriello were hoping that legislation working its way through Congress that would make it legal for ordinary Americans to invest in small, private businesses would pass, opening up new opportunities. Yet, despite strong bipartisan support, the legislation is currently hung up in the Senate and is facing strong resistance from state regulators.

(To learn more about these bills and voice your support for crowdfunding, see and WeFunder)

The result is that innovation in a vital area—the intersection of social media and finance—that could create jobs and rebuild local economies and Main Streets is being stifled.

While we dither, Crowdfund Investing is taking off in other areas. In England, for example, securities laws are more accommodating and crowdfunding sites have been operating for more than two years now with no fraud, scams or wiped-out investors. Funding Circle, a two-year old London-based website, has rased more than £25 million in loans for British small businesses, earning investors average gross yields of 8%. Crowdcube, an equity-based crowdfunding site also based in London, just marked its one-year anniversary with £2.7 million raised in equity for 11 companies, including Kammerling's, the maker of a ginseng-based artisanal spirit, and The Rushmore Group, which owns three clubs in London. It even crowdfunded itself to the tune of £300,000.

And herein may lie the ultimate irony. As Americans, we pride ourselves on being innovators, the home of companies like Apple, Google and Facebook that are admired around the world. Yet when a Facebook for Finance emerges, it is not likely to be in California or New York or any other U.S. city. As one British crowdfunding entrepreneur told me: "It used to be that you came up with a good idea over here and the first thing you did was hop on a plane to the U.S. to get it funded." In fact, when developing, a soon-to-be launched equity crowdfunding site, he considered the U.S. but concluded that securities laws made it impossible to operate there. Now London and other European cities, he says, are becoming new centers of innovation.

I hope our leaders are listening.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Paradise at a Crossroads

I didn't have to think very long when I was asked to be a presenter at TEDx Maui. Hawaii in January? Are you kidding me? Beyond escaping New York in the depths of winter, I was truly excited about this event, Maui's first TEDx. And in doing some research for my talk, I began to appreciate just how fragile these majestic islands are.

Despite being blessed with an abundance of natural resources—volcanic soils, a year-round growing season, plenty of sunshine and cooling breezes—Hawaii imports roughly 90 percent of its food and energy. The lush land that conjures up visions of pineapples, coconuts and mangoes even imports 65 percent of its fruit! And Hawaiians pay the highest prices for gasoline and electricity in the country.

This dependency on imports is, in many ways, a legacy of Hawaii's colorful, controversial history, starting with the missionaries who came to the islands in the early 1800s. Their mission was to convert Hawaiians to Christianity, but they eventually became wealthy businessmen controlling huge tracts of land on which laborers toiled to produce sugarcane and pineapples for export. Today many of those plantations are idle, since sugarcane and pineapples can be produced more cheaply in Central America and elsewhere. The question—like the one faced by George Clooney's character in the movie The Descendants—is what to do with that land. The all-too-easy option is to turn it over to deep-pocketed developers eager to build more houses, resorts and shopping malls, which create more demand for food, energy and water.

A smarter approach would be to preserve the land for small farms, renewable energy projects and other ventures that can help make Hawaii more self sufficient and sustainable. I met many smart, committed and passionate people in Maui who are working towards those goals, from fellow TEDx speakers including Vincent Mina, an organic farmer and organizer, and Arthur Medeiros, a biologist working to restore Hawaiian ecosystems. Others, such as Dr. Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele and musician Paula Fuga, are at the forefront of a renewal of native Hawaiian culture and wisdom.

One challenge in creating a more robust local economy is capital: where does the funding come from? Here again, Hawaii is blessed with abundance: there is a lot of wealth on the islands. Yet much of it is invested on the mainland. That's why one of the most exciting initiatives underway is an effort to create a local stock exchange that would bring together Hawaiian investors and entrepreneurs. A local exchange would allow Hawaiians to keep more capital local, where it could be put to use funding homegrown companies that can lessen their dependence on imports—companies such as Pacific BioDiesel, which makes biofuel from local restaurant refuse (and powered the Jetta I rented from Maui's;Bio-Beetle), and the HaliiMaille Pineapple Co., a newly formed, locally owned venture that grows pineapples for the local market.  

A legislative working group recently concluded a several-month study on the viability of a Hawaii stock exchange. The working group has given a green light to the Friends of Hawaii Local Stock Exchange to create an "alternative trading system" for accredited investors (people with a net worth of $1 million or more, not including primary residence, or over $250,000 in annual income for each of the prior three years). Of course, the real value in a local exchange is when everyone, rich or poor, is able to have a stake in the local economy and be part of its growth. And that's the ultimate goal for the Friends of Hawaii Stock Exchange. But many regulators are wary of local exchanges and other new funding platforms and want to see them tested in a low risk environment first.

The old Honolulu Stock Exchange
Ironically, the concept is not new: Hawaii, like dozens of regions  across the country, had its own stock exchange for decades. The Honolulu Stock Exchange was instrumental in establishing the local economy and infrastructure, financing companies including Maui Telephone, the Bank of Hawaii, and Honolulu Rapid Transit Co. before it closed its doors in 1977 amid financial market consolidation.

As one of the most geographically isolated places on earth, Hawaii may be an extreme example. But in this age of globalization, climate change and scarcity, many communities across the country, and indeed the world, can relate to the need to become more self sufficient, to keep more capital local, and to rebuild their local economies. If Hawaii can do it, we all can. And I'm rooting for Hawaii.