Crowdfunding is widely seen as a revolutionary idea. A 2012 federal law known as the JOBS Act opens the door to allowing small, privately owned businesses to market ownership stakes in their ventures to people over the Internet.
Companies will be able to sell up to $1 million in equity a year to ordinary investors without having to register the offering with the Securities and Exchange Commission or state regulators.
Before the average person can use crowd funding to stake a claim in a startup, the SEC still must draft rules that the Obama administration hopes will result in U.S. businesses growing and adding jobs. At the same time, the securities cop needs to include safeguards that protect less sophisticated individual investors drawn to inherently risky startups.
That's why equity crowd funding under JOBS, or Jumpstart our Business Startups, has some longtime regulators and securities lawyers squirming.
"It can be an invitation for fraudsters to steal money," Matthew Brown, a Katten Muchin Rosenman lawyer, said last month at a CFA Society of Chicago event at 1871, a center for digital startups in Chicago.
But Brown also noted that equity crowd funding also democratizes small-business financing, a process that historically has given access mostly to wealthier -- or, as they're known in high-finance circles, "accredited" -- investors.
"The world has changed dramatically, and who's to say who is smarter than anyone else?" Brown added.
Many existing crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter don't sell equity stakes in businesses to average investors. Rather, they give consumers the chance to donate money to an enterprise or to get an early or discounted crack at a new product. Since Kickstarter's launch in April 2009, more than $450 million has been pledged by more than 3 million people funding more than 35,000 projects, the New York-based company's website says.
Their acceptance suggests that consumers are willing to engage with companies on a deeper level. As such, enabling unaccredited consumers to invest in companies in small increments online has promise and could become part of the fundraising "ecosystem," says one Chicago entrepreneur.
Abe's Market, a Chicago-based e-commerce site selling natural and organic products from more than 1,000 suppliers, said it would consider crowd funding under the JOBS Act, saying it and its vendors have "die-hard fans" and "a core group of customers" who might like to invest in their vision.
Last month, Abe's raised $5 million from Carmel Ventures, Index Ventures, Beringea and Accel Partners, a Groupon backer. New backers include OurCrowd, a crowd-funding site for accredited investors.
"If you can get passionate people to invest in your business, you're not just gaining investors, you're gaining evangelists," Abe's Chief Executive Richard Demb said. "The challenge for any consumer brand is: How do you find not just customers, but the right customers who are going to tell their friends?"
But there would also be potential headaches for companies raising equity financing through crowd funding, he said.
"You have to make sure that expectations would be set fairly, that no one is putting their life savings into the investment, and that they don't also come back and become a challenge to manage as the business grows," Demb said. "You don't want someone who invested $250 to come back and say, 'I don't think we should expand to the West Coast.'"
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