This Saturday, April 5, marked the two-year anniversary of the signing of the Jumpstart Our Business Startup Act (JOBS Act), which paved the way for “equity crowdfunding” in the United States.
This year, the crowdfunding community celebrated that anniversary as Global Crowdfunding Day. While rules are still being drafted to make equity crowdfunding a reality in U.S., the broader crowdfunding world has already grown by leaps and bounds since that act was signed into law.
Simply put, crowdfunding allows anyone to invest in making an idea a reality — whether it’s a new product, a business, a book, movie, album, or video game, or a charitable project. By harnessing the power of the Internet and social media, crowdfunding platforms let people with innovative ideas harness donations as small as $1 from thousands or tens of thousands of people around the world who share their enthusiasm.
Facebook made headlines on Tuesday when it announced it would acquire Oculus Rift, a maker of virtual reality headsets, for $2 billion. Such acquisitions are not unusual in Silicon Valley — just last month, Facebook bought chat service WhatsApp for $19 billion. What’s unique about Oculus Rift is that it started as a project on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.
Under the Kickstarter model, backers contribute to projects because they want to see them made. The most they can expect to receive is a copy of the finished product and a token of appreciation. The more than 2,000 backers who gave less than $275 to the Oculus project received only items like T-shirts and posters, along with the hope of one day being able to buy the VR headset in stores.
Last year Leen Sadder of Beruit, Lebanon had an idea to create an organic and biodegradable alternative to Western-style teeth cleansing. Called Miswak, this twig of the Salvadora persica tree has been used for teeth cleaning throughout the Middle East and Asia for millennia. Leen recognized the sustainability of eliminating both the toothbrush and paste and its application for the developing world. She created a crowdfunding campaign on Lebanon-based crowdfunding platform Zoomaal and within weeks raised over $18,000 from 301 backers — 104 percent of her target — along with 4,400 likes on Facebook and 573 tweets. This bought her money, market validation, and media attention. She is now in production. This idea that would never have seen “likes” or funding from banks or venture capitalists. Enter the alternative world of startup and small business financing, called crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding is a simple but transformative concept. An entrepreneur proposes a business, charitable, or creative project on a crowdfunding website. If convinced, tens, hundreds or even thousands of individuals commit relatively small amounts of capital to support the idea. Taken together, these contributions may be significant enough to turn the idea into a commercial reality. This industry is still in its infancy, but it topped $3 billion in transactions in 2012 and may top $5 billion by the end of this year.
Samriddhi Foundation, a Kathmandu based think tank, ran a crowdfunding campaign from April 30 to May 30, 2013, on Indiegogo to support a research and advocacy campaign that would conduct a study on Kirana Pasals – small mom and pop shops selling groceries and fast moving consumer goods, which are typical to Nepal and few other South Asian nations. Atlas Network agreed to match all donations dollar-for-dollar. Watch the video that Samriddhi created for this campaign here.
People who have lived in Nepal long enough have often noticed that these small enterprises, Kirana Pasals, rarely grow to become medium or large operations, like department stores or supermarkets. The study was designed to find out what prevented the growth of these independent businesses, which are run by entrepreneurial and hardworking people, and to conduct advocacy focused on recommendations formulated on the basis of this research.
By the end of May 30, 2013, the campaign had become successful and we were able to raise the target amount of $7,500 (matched with an additional $7,500 from Atlas Network). And during the month-long period, we learned a lot about this great tool that enabled us to take another step in promoting entrepreneurship and economic development in Nepal.
The great thing about a crowdfunding campaign is the easy interaction between the supporters and the organization which allows greater transparency for the supporters to see where their money is going and who will it benefit directly. The communication process is simple and flexible and promises more accountability. However, crowdfunding is not necessarily as easy as it seems. Some of the lessons we recall from the experience are:
Earlier this month, in an attempt to escape the heat wave afflicting Washington DC, I sought refuge on a bus awkwardly packed with well-dressed commuters. Almost all of the commuters were looking down, their palms glued to their gadgets, and their thumbs tapping into their virtual realities. I thought to myself: If only they would unplug themselves for a few minutes, pay attention to their immediate surroundings, and make room for more commuters entering the bus. What if there was an app for bus drivers to communicate with plugged-in commuters to move to the back of the bus?
Imagine a society in which citizens are as obsessed with their public spaces as they are with their smart phones. Instead of spending the five-minute bus ride going through friends’ Instagram uploads, commuters are checking the latest fundraising updates on the city’s bike-share system. Rather than liking someone’s photo on Facebook, commuters are donating $5 to a neighborhood association-backed project that renovates the sidewalks. In Kansas City, the online start-up Neighbor.ly is trying to turn this idea into a reality.
Neighbor.ly is a website that employs the business model known as crowdfunding – pooling money from the public – to obtain financial support for civic projects. Kickstarter and Indiegogo first popularized the idea by allowing musicians, engineers, designers, and artists to solicit money from the public for their creative works.
On Neighbor.ly, local governments and non-profit organizations have solicited tax deductible donations to build a playground, a website to help entrepreneurs navigate the application process to start new businesses, and a free Wi-Fi network for low-income houses. Donors’ credit cards will be charged only when the fundraising goal has been reached before the end of the campaign. In return for backing a project, the donors get small perks like free T-shirts and commemorative posters.
Civic crowdfunding is an innovative way to use technology to increase the efficiency, capacity, transparency, and accountability of governance. By engaging civic-minded individuals, websites like Neighbor.ly and Citizinvestor offer governments a helping hand from the people: money, expertise, and creative energy. They also allow the public to take ownership of civic projects and monitor the progress and delivery of local officials’ promises.
A pedestrian walkway in Holland that might have taken city hall two decades to complete got off the ground in three months. In the Middle East, where citizens face low taxes but rely on the bloated public sector for food and fuel subsidies, civic crowdfunding websites can serve as innovative mechanisms for accountable governance. Imagine if the millions of politically-engaged Egyptians used crowdfunding sites to improve their neighborhoods, pressure the government to be more transparent, and monitor the delivery of public services.
CIPE’s long time partner Samriddhi, the Prosperity Foundation in Nepal is seeking to better understand why so many of their independent and small businesses never grow. What is preventing these mom-and-pop shops in Nepal from engaging in the formal economy, accessing credit, and growing their operations? What barriers do these entrepreneurs face?
Samriddhi wants to document and help tell the stories about what challenges these entrepreneurs face every day. But Samriddhi needs your help first. Using crowd funding, Samriddhi partnered with the Atlas Network: for up to $7,500 that Samriddhi raises through its crowd funding campaign, the Atlas Network will match dollar-to-dollar.
There’s only 16 days left to help them out! So read about Samriddhi’s crowd funding campaign and watch their video to help understand how you can help empower Nepali entrepreneurs.
Crowdfunding has taken the cyberspace by storm. Through platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, innovators can pitch their ideas and like-minded individuals around the world are able to come together to pool their resources toward a specific goal. Crowdfunding advocates say it is an entirely new model that goes beyond traditional types of investment — but regulators do not always agree.
From non-profit causes to art projects, crowdfunding has been a powerful force. But in the U.S., and in many other countries, it encountered a serious barrier when it comes to supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs: 80-year-old securities laws which made it illegal to publicly solicit money from unaccredited investors. As a result, Americans could use their money to help entrepreneurs in developing countries through platforms such as Kiva.org but were unable to invest in their local restaurant or gym.
Even though there are, in theory, many sources of funding available to such small businesses, in practice banks are often reluctant to lend to them and angel and venture capital options are also limited outside of fast growing sectors such as IT. This made changing the antiquated law an imperative. But how to do it? The story of how crowdfunding became legalized in the U.S. is the story of how 3 guys changed the rules of the game in 460 days.
The CIPE Development Blog provides coverage of the Center for International Private Enterprise and its partner network at work -- highlighting successes, drawing out lessons from failure, and exploring the broader issues of political and economic development. For more information visit CIPE.org.