Crowdfunding- The Good, The Bad & The (really) Ugly Part II –The Bad

By Shane Liddell is the CEO and chief Crowdfundologist at Smart Crowdfunding LLC,. Crowdfund Beat Guest post,

Introduction

In Part 1 I covered all of the good things that we have seen as crowdfunding continuously gathers momentum across the world. The future looks bright indeed!

However, as with any new industry forging ahead and desperate for acceptance, the surrounding hype that comes with it often blurs reality, with any form of negativity simply  ‘brushed under the carpet’ so to speak. Naturally, those fully vested in the industry (including yours truly) have a lot on the line, as everyone charges ahead in full promotion mode. The ‘painted picture’ is a rosy one and for a very good reason, but there is a dark and sometimes sinister side to the industry as well.

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Part 2-The Bad

 The Industry Evolves

 

 

Let’s rewind a little. In an interview with Film Threat back in October 2010, Indiegogo co-founder, Slava Rubin said “… what we are now and what we are for the future is we’re all about allowing anybody to raise money for any idea” Although this may have been true at the time, it’s certainly not applicable today. Reality is that not ‘anybody ’can raise money through crowdfunding unless they are a) extremely lucky, or b) have a substantial amount of money to begin with. Let me explain a little further.

My own entry into the crowdfunding space happened by default during June of 2012 when confronted with a desperate plea for funding from a lady by the name of Louise Joubert of the Sanwild Wildlife Sanctuary. Louise put out a post on the Sanwild Facebook page saying that sponsors had pulled up to 70% of the funding for Sanwild due to the recession, so she was unable to feed the 16 lions she rescued from the ‘canned hunting’ industry, and she was getting to the point of desperation and was seriously considering euthanizing them. Louise saw this as the kind way to put an end to any potential suffering. This sad story really pulled at my heartstrings and after a phone call or two to South Africa, I volunteered to see if I could help by using this new fundraising method called Crowdfunding. To cut a long story short, we did manage to raise over $20,000 through an Indiegogo campaign and in turn bring a happy ending to this story with the 16 lions being saved. It was an exhausting process, especially with little to no budget to market the campaign; but through teamwork, perseverance and leveraging off of our social contacts, we made it. The point here is that with almost no campaign budget (but instead 100’s of hours invested) we were able to do what we set out to achieve – Save Our Lions.

During 2012 we saw on average 30-50 campaigns launching on the Indiegogo platform each week and probably around 60-70 per week on Kickstarter. These low numbers made things much easier for anyone crowdfunding their ideas, as competition for ‘eyeballs’ was almost non-existent, the media was receptive to any crowdfunding news at all, and the public was in a state of confusion as to what they were really doing when contributing to these campaigns, with many thinking they were simply making an online purchase just as they would do on Amazon.

How things have changed.

Fast forward to 2016 and with approximately 300-400 campaigns launching per week on the Indiegogo platform and up to 600 per week launching on Kickstarter, the competition is fierce. Add to this that there are now well over 1000 (and counting) crowdfunding platforms globally and you’ll begin to see the real picture.

The corporate world is now waking up to this new, low cost way of validating and funding projects and products. Big names such as Sony and GE’s entry into crowdfunding gives the small guy very little chance of competing with them.

In a recent article published by The Verge earlier this year titled “Indiegogo wants huge companies to crowdfund their next big products” and a sub heading which reads “Indiegogo wants big brands to start crowdfunding” we see how they have changed for the worse. Their “Enterprise Crowdfunding” clearly showing that they are not in any way ‘democratizing access to funding’ but instead are an entity solely in the business of making a profit at all costs (more on this particular story in Part 3 –The Ugly).

I guess the most disturbing words I read in that article are these:

“Large companies can also pay for special placement on Indiegogo’s site, making them more discoverable than other campaigns.”

So, Indiegogo now earns revenue from advertising placements only available to corporates? Shocking to say the least!

This whole scenario stinks and reminds me of a certain politician, who now as president elect, has already made several ‘about turns’, continuously going against the words he used to gain popularity.

I hope you all now realize why the small guy has little to no chance of success, especially now that the heavyweights enter with the resources to squeeze them out. In fact, a well know marketing agency recommends a campaign budget today of a whopping $40,000. I don’t know too many ‘little guys’ with that kind of cash to spend on an upcoming crowdfunding attempt, do you? Wasn’t the whole point of crowdfunding to raise money and not spend it?

Although crowdfunding was originally pitched as democratizing access to funding for the small guys, this is no longer true. Without a good chunk of capital to start with, their campaigns are doomed before they begin.

 

Equity Crowdfunding – The SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission)

Background

On April 5th 2012 president Obama signed the Jump Start Our Business Act (commonly referred to as “The JOBS Act”) giving the SEC 274 days to write up the necessary rules and regulations. The main purpose in the implementation of the JOBS Act was to stimulate the creation of jobs through small business access to capital.

The JOBS Act substantially changed a number of laws and regulations making it easier for companies to both go public and to raise capital privately and stay private longer. Changes include exemptions for crowdfunding, a more useful version of Regulation A, generally solicited Regulation D Rule 506 offerings, and an easier path to registration of an initial public offering (IPO) for emerging growth companies.

The titles of the bill that make equity crowdfunding work are:

  • TITLE II – Access to capital for job creators (REG D)
  • TITLE III – Crowdfunding (REG CF)
  • TITLE IV – Small company capital formation (REG A+ or mini IPO)

What’s with all this jargon you may ask? Good question, and the answer is one which I hope many academics will learn to answer in their writings. Effective communication is always better crafted to suit a broader audience. Within crowdfunding, I feel it is important for all – lawyers, accountants, broker dealers etc. – to understand that in our attempt to educate the market, we need to simplify the language used so as to be better understood by the majority.

Back in the 70’s the KISS acronym and methodology – “Keep It Simple Stupid” was very popular for good reason. The simplicity of this methodology should be more applicable today than it ever has been.

For clarification:
REG D allows the issuer to raise funds from accredited investors only meaning in essence from a select few rich people.

REG CF allows issuers to raise funds from both accredited investors and non-accredited investors (the general public) but is subject to limitations.

REG A+ allows the raising of up to $20M through Tier 1 and up to $50M through Tier 2.

Titles I, V, and VI of the JOBS Act became effective immediately upon enactment. Understanding these within the context of this article is not really important so I won’t bother explaining.

The SEC approved the lifting of the general solicitation ban on July 10, 2013, paving the way for the adoption of REG D which went into effect in September 2013. Following this was REG A+ which went live during June 2014 – 2 years after the signing of the Jobs Act – and finally the long anticipated (and most beneficial to small business) REG CF on May 16th 2016 – more than 4 years since the signing of the Jobs Act!

Yes, you read that right – 4 years later. A whole 4 years of lost opportunity. Why 4 years you may ask? Well, through a series of meetings, mountains of paperwork, a change of chair, commenting periods, rewriting this and rewriting that and a whole heap of other hurdles to jump through in between, a whopping 685 pages of regulations was created. Certainly no KISS methodology involved there!

During this period, how many small businesses have folded because they had no access to much needed capital? How many could have been saved from collapse? How many precious jobs were lost during this lengthy and tedious process? The answers should be fairly obvious to fathom.

Based on current information from successfully funded campaigns, we see that so far around $175M has been raised under REG A+ crowdfunding and about $15M over the past 6 months through REG CF. Imagine what these numbers would look like had the SEC been more efficient in the role they played during the entire rulemaking process.

On the other hand, the United Kingdom took a fairly relaxed approach to rulemaking which has led to the creation of the most dynamic alternative finance market in the world. In real terms they are 5 years ahead in the game and are seen as the leaders in this space. The United States is seen as a failure.

Were the SEC attempting to break records as the slowest crowdfunding rulemakers in the world? Maybe not, but it appears they are well positioned to claim this shameful accolade!

 

The Pretenders – Self –Promoters and the Charlatans

Before I begin, let me just say that there are many among us who have ‘earned their stripes’ in this industry. I hold these people in the highest regard for their dedication and commitment to the cause. Far too many to mention of course, but you know who you are, so thank you for doing what you do! Through the many long days of hard work, dedication, countless hours of research, and in some cases, hands on experience with crowdfunding projects of all shapes and sizes, they stay true to their objectives of making the crowdfunding industry one to admire. These people gain respect naturally through their words and actions alone. They generally keep a fairly low profile too, with little need to go on the self-promotion bandwagon, as people naturally migrate to them anyway.

Let’s briefly return back to 2012, when crowdfunding was really still in its infancy and there were very few players involved. To put things into perspective, at the time of launching my own crowdfunding marketing agency Smart Crowdfunding under the crowdfunders.us domain, there were only four other active crowdfunding marketing agencies globally. The industry was tiny and it was very easy to know who was who.

This leads me to a telephone conversation I had one day during early 2013 with one of the other agency founders who had taken issue with the fact that I was now actively competing with him. After listening to his concerns, I politely brushed them aside and ended the call saying “If you are concerned about competition now, then wait to see what’s coming over the next few years”. He grumped and the call ended. Move on to 2016 and we see a whole load of entrants into this space.

Back to the point:
There are those who clearly try to take shortcuts in an attempt to get to the top, with integrity thrown right out the window in their pursuit of money and stardom. Many of these types have little care for the health of the industry as a whole, but instead their own greed drives them forward. They are quite easy to spot though. Lies are abundant and a little due diligence goes a long way in discovering the truth about them. The wonderful world of the Whois lookup is a great tool to confirm some claims of “we’ve been doing this for the past 5 years” as domain registration dates tell the truth. Some have woken up to hiding these details and hide behind a proxy registration service. In fact, a little while ago I had discovered exactly this with a crowdfunding marketing agency who made such claims (and still do) of having been around for the past 6 years. I did a Whois search many months ago to only find that their domain was registered in 2013 – and not 6 years ago as claimed. Further investigation confirmed this. Today their domain registration information is now hidden via a proxy.

One of the most common things I see today is those with very little industry experience becoming self-proclaimed “Experts”. Let’s elaborate on this for a moment.

During 2014 I attended a crowdfunding industry conference, and as I sat in the audience while the proceeding began, the moderator allowed the panel give a brief introduction of themselves. There were 4 on this particular panel, 3 of whom I knew of. To my amazement, one particular character was introduced as a crowdfunding marketing expert. I listened intently to this persons ‘pitch’ and also the advice they gave to the audience when confronted with questions such as “What’s the single most important tool to use when crowdfunding? Their answer? PPC (Pay per click). Wrong! In disbelief, there were a few shaking heads in the audience, mine included. Had this person’s earlier claim of “I’ve worked on 80 Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns” during their introductory pitch been true, they would clearly know this was incorrect information. Following up from this and after checking out the real facts it turns out that today, this person has run a single Indiegogo campaign of which struggled to get to $10,000 funded. I suspect a fair share of self-funding activity there too. This example is one of many we see as the industry powers forward. Being able to spot these “experts” is fairly easy when you know what to look for.

You see, I have followed Indiegogo campaigns in particular like a hawk. My early career in crowdfunding was built around this platform so it’s rare that even a single campaign that’s raised more than $5,000 gets by me without notice.

The biggest telltale sign of those who attempt to take shortcuts to stardom is the lack of consistency in their pitch. Many appear to have short memories! The character I reference above has since spoken at numerous industry events and their pitch varies from “I have 8 staff and have worked on over 100 Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns” to “I have 25 staff and have worked on 80 Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns” In reality, as of today they’ve worked on a handful at most and only 1 on the Indiegogo platform can be confirmed under deeper investigation.

I have major concerns! Besides ‘the blind leading the blind”, the entire industry is at stake here, and addressing the real issues now can only bode well for a healthy and prosperous industry for all.

As a colleague recently said “….the integrity of the entire industry is on the line, and if the charlatans are allowed to run roughshod it’ll soon turn into a house of cards.” No truer words have ever been spoken.

Scampaigns – Yes and No

Now this section will be fairly short.

Let me start by saying that intentional scams are really very rare. During my time in the industry I have seen no more than 3 or 4 which were clearly scams from the very beginning ( I’ll elaborate more on this in Part 3 – The Ugly).

What I have seen, however, even from some of my earlier clients may surprise you. They begin the crowdfunding process with good intentions but unrealistic expectations (a common trait among those crowdfunding today).This is their real downfall.

Many are young, inexperienced men and women whose entire focus is on how great their product is. They are emotionally invested and in some cases spend lengthy periods developing their concept or prototype. When the time comes to go crowdfunding, in many cases they lay everything on the line. Some win. Some lose.

Even after running a successful campaign, for many the process of handling large amounts of cash and developing their idea into a real manufactured product, leads to failure due to lack of experience. A weak team adds to their woes and they burn through cash at an alarming rate. In time, they sit in disbelief that they no longer have enough cash to actually finish the product. At other times their concept was flawed from the very beginning but they only discover this when attempting to go to the prototype stage. Facing the inevitable truth is hard for them, and with the angry abuse from their supporters awaiting, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Many come to the conclusion that their only route of escape is a disappearing act.

What do the backers, journalist and millions of other disgruntled people call these people? Scammers. Many of their backers didn’t know at the time they were backing a concept in the first place and shout to the high heavens in disgust when they don’t get what they thought they “ordered’ a year prior.

A very recent case of the scam label being attached to something that was not a crowdfunding scam from the very beginning is Healbe GoBe – “the first and only wearable device that automatically measures the calories you consume and burn, through your skin” which raised over $1M. Despite being slammed by all and sundry – including backers, engineers, scientists, and journalists – they eventually brought their product to market, albeit with many ‘teething problems’ still to be ironed out.

Conclusion

My biggest challenge when writing  part 2 of my article, was in trying to condense as much as possible, but to still get the message(s) across. I hope I have achieved this even though we still ended up with over 3,000 words.  I promise a much shorter part 3. Thank you for reading and I hope this has been helpful.

Look out for Part 3 – The (really) Ugly, where I delve deeper into the real scams of the crowdfunding world, as well as extortion and blackmail attempts and the platforms that seemingly turn a blind eye to it all.

About The Author

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Shane Liddell is the CEO and chief Crowdfundologist at Smart Crowdfunding LLC, the crowdfunding marketing agency. He became active within the crowdfunding industry early in 2012, seizing the opportunity to offer help to crowdfunders from all corners of the world. He has delivered successful campaigns for entrepreneurs, startups, corporations and filmmakers and has assisted over 500 crowdfunders with campaign development, consulting, marketing and promotion services, some of whom have raised millions of dollars in the process. He has attended numerous equity crowdfunding industry events, including the SEC Small Business Forum and the CfPA Summit in Washington DC. Shane holds the position of Executive Director of the Crowdfunding Professional Association (CfPA).

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