After decades of trudging through the barren landscape of love money, bank loans and venture capital, Canadian entrepreneurs now can tap a funding source that lets them leverage their creativity in business and product design instead of financial projections. This makes crowdfunding a genuine game-changer. Many scowling cynics dismiss it as a financial flea market—and it’s true that’s how the movement started. But entrepreneurs aren’t supposed to see things as they are. They must see them as they will be. Crowdfunding could be a catalyst for capital, community building and business growth in every industry. While the significance of this fundraising method is largely limited today to businesses in IT and the creative arts, the phenomenon is quickly spreading to other niches.
Crowdfunding connects people and projects that need funding with a natural community of sympathizers. Tech-savvy early adopters flock to Kickstarter, Indiegogo and similar sites to help to finance cutting-edge health monitors, smartwatches and 3D printers. Culture vultures ante up to support their favourite musicians, video artists and gourmet cooks. A few local crowdfunding sites, such as iFundWaterloo.ca, even leverage existing constituencies to promote municipal projects that taxpayers can’t afford.
You can currently find niche crowdfunding sites for board-game development (MyWittyGames.com), manufactured goods (crowdsupply.com), real estate investment (realtymogul.com) and natural resources exploration (explorationfunder.com, with industry experts “curating” each opportunity). Your industry may be next.
So far, most mainstream businesses have been shut out because their natural fan bases—customers, suppliers and partners— don’t think of themselves as communities. But once entrepreneurs figure out how to connect their audiences around their firms, everyone from B2B service providers to manufacturers and transportation companies can start drawing cash from the crowd.
Crowdfunding currently is associated with startups—but that will change, too. Scores of unknown filmmakers regularly raise $10,000 to get new projects off the ground, but when the cast and crew of cult favourite TV show Veronica Mars launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a reunion movie, they raised US$5.7 million—well above their goal of US$2 million—from more than 91,000 backers. In the crowdfunding sphere, ventures with built-in communities will leave startups in their dust.
For now, most backers receive “rewards” for their investments (usually product samples and exclusive perks). Securities laws designed to protect investors have largely prevented the crowd from getting equity for their financial contributions. But this past autumn, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission gave equity crowd funding the green light for up to US$1 million a year for U.S. issuers. The Ontario Securities Commission (along with its other provincial counterparts) is deliberating how to follow suit.
In a way, crowdfunding lowers the bar for companies looking to raise money. Instead of targeting flinty-eyed investors interested only in finding the best growth opportunities among a range of industries, vertical crowdfunding attracts people who specifically care about your organization and what it does. “With more than 800 crowdfunding platforms worldwide, and more being announced each week, we are certainly seeing increasing specialization,” says Christopher Charlesworth, co-founder of Toronto-based crowdfunding platform developer Hivewire Inc. Hivewire’s own crowdfunding business, Catalyst, focuses on social innovation, and Charlesworth has seen other highly specialized platforms gain market traction, such as New York–based Medstartr.com, which drives innovation in health care. “Provided that regulators allow for a broad base of market participants,” says Charlesworth, “we will increasingly see crowdfunding platforms find new niches and communities to support.”