Should Equity-Based Crowd Funding Be Legal?

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Funding is the lifeblood of any small business. And it’s getting tougher to find these days. Banks have become more vigilant about lending, and the vast majority of venture and angel funds are reserved for tech companies with big growth potential. The result is that far too many entrepreneurs can’t start or grow their ventures—and can’t provide jobs and new products and services to spur our economy.

Letting small companies sell equity stakes online would be a huge boost to those firms—like angel investing on steroids. The businesses would get access to tens of millions more potential investors, and could reach out to them at little or no cost through online outlets like Facebook. Then, if the companies won funding, they’d get a built-in base of customers who were strongly motivated to help the brand succeed.

Broadening the Base

Currently, equity-based crowd funding falls under strict Securities and Exchange Commission rules governing angel investing. That hinders broad-based online fund raising in a couple of ways.

First, the SEC largely limits private-equity investments to accredited investors—those with $1 million or more in net worth, among other tight standards. Only 35 nonaccredited investors are allowed to buy private equity in a company’s offering. Second, the SEC prohibits general solicitation or advertising of the equity being sold. Unless the entrepreneurs or small-business owners have a pre-existing relationship with the angel investors, they can’t try to sell them equity.

If equity-based crowd funding were legalized under the current proposal, those two limits would go away. So, entrepreneurs and small-business owners could target a much wider range of investors—say, for the sake of argument, the 51.7 million U.S. households with household income of $50,000 or above. And they could reach out to potential investors through venues like social networks that cost basically nothing and provide a global reach.

Raising money from a crowd provides other powerful advantages to companies. If a company raises crowd-funding money, it implies that there’s real demand for its offerings. If not, most likely there’s no demand, and an entrepreneur is spared the opportunity cost of starting the business (and then seeing it fail).

Likewise, equity-based crowd-funders are more likely to become loyal customers, as they have a vested interest in seeing the company succeed.

Crowd funding holds a big advantage for the funders, as well: It lets them participate in angel investing, whose returns have outpaced every other significant asset class over the past decade.

A Guiding Hand

Critics raise lots of objections to the idea. For one, they say companies need the help that seasoned investors can bring. But if companies need guidance, they can take on experienced managers or a board of directors. And raising money from a crowd initially doesn’t preclude getting angel investments down the road. Lots of companies launch with credit cards, for instance, then make a name for themselves and catch the attention of angels and venture investors.

Further, critics argue that if companies must raise funds from a crowd, there are better ways to go about it, such as soliciting donations or raising debt capital instead of equity. But there isn’t a strong enough inducement for people to donate; even if you offer them some reward, it won’t be as enticing as equity. As for debt capital, there’s a potential problem: It doesn’t allow businesses the grace period they need to start building the company. Instead, they’d have to start paying it back right away.

Critics also see red flags for the investors. Among other things, they argue that crowdfunded companies won’t be as carefully vetted or transparently documented as traditional ones. So, they say, lots of companies looking for money will be particularly risky bets for investors—if not unscrupulous operators that solicit funds and then vanish.

What’s more, critics say, equity in privately held companies is nearly impossible to sell, except when the company itself is acquired. This may take many years, or never happen at all.

These concerns have merit. The answer, as with any investment, is common sense: People need to be aware that they may very well lose their money. They should do as much research as possible and protect themselves by holding a portfolio of investments, not staking everything on one company.

That approach will become more viable as more crowd-funding platforms are built and it gets simpler to track down investment targets. Those platforms will, hopefully, also introduce safeguards against fly-by-night fraudsters, such as background checks for entrepreneurs and business owners who solicit funds.

None of those concerns are a reason to block equity-based crowd funding. Whatever the risks of the approach, the economic effect it can have on America is much more profound.

This article was written by David Lavinsky, President of Growthink, and appears in today’s Wall Street Journal.

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