Toronto is a hotbed of tech startups – ranked 4th best in the world (not sure what “best” really means in this context) – and innovative startups need innovative investment methods. Today’s half-day Technicity conference, sponsored by IT World Canada, is focused on the topic of innovating investment with crowdfunding, specifically looking at legalizing equity crowdfunding in Canada. The room is full of small business owners and entrepreneurs, crowdfunding platform companies, politicians and lawyers. And me. The day was moderated by Cindy Gordon of Helix Commerce International, who also chairs Invest CrowdFund Canada, an industry body helping to support the regulatory changes required to legalize investment crowdfunding.
We started with a brief address by the Ontario minister of economic development and innovation, the Honourable Brad Duguid, who sees equity crowdfunding as an essential measure to remain competitive. In an interesting coincidence (or maybe not), the Globe & Mail published an article this morning on how Ontario is looking to loosen crowdfunding rules, especially around allowing for companies to offer equity in exchange for crowdfunding, as opposed to treating those funds as donations as they must do currently. We also heard from Fawn Annan, president of IT World Canada, on some of the other international efforts on crowdfunding: earlier this year, the US opened up equity crowdfunding via the JOBS Act; Italy (through the Decreto Crescita) and Australia (through the Australian Small Scale Offerings Board) have recently put similar rules in place. In Canada, securities are regulated at the provincial level, not federal, meaning that each province needs to change the rules independently.
We had a keynote from Darren Westlake, CEO of Crowdcube, a UK equity crowdfunding platform. He discussed some examples of crowdfunding, including Kiva (debt-based micro-financing) and Kickstarter (donation-based crowdfunding, usually with some sort of perq offered in exchange if the project is successful). As he pointed out, the UK isn’t short on innovation: it’s short on commercialization due to restrictive securities regulations and lack of innovative funding methodologies. He developed Crowdcube to bring together investors and small businesses looking to raise funds, and they have raised over £4.2M ($C6.7M) in 31 deals, with over 24,000 registered investors since their launch in early 2011. The average investment is £1,800, with the largest single investment of £100,000 and the biggest overall deal at £1M.
Crowdcube vets the businesses that apply (rejecting about 75%), requiring them to have a business plan including financial projections, a video explaining their business and other information that will make them attractive and credible to investors. They do identity, money laundering and other checks, but don’t provide any guarantee that the company is going to do what they say they are: this limits their liability as a crowdfunding platform. They have an all-or- nothing funding model, where all funds are returned to the investors if the target is not met, and Crowdcube takes 5% of successful deals. They’re definitely not restricted to tech startups: their first deal was Bubble & Balm, a fair trade bodycare products company, and escape the city, a network . They’ve even raised money for themselves, raising £300,000 to expand their business.
Westlake went through the advantages of crowdfunding to both entrepreneurs and investors. For entrepreneurs:
- New way to raise finance
- Wider investor reach
- Easier to promote
- Marketing effect
- Crowd feedback
And for the investors:
- Financial return
- “Armchair dragon” for the fun of investing
- Support friends and family
- Lower/spread risk versus angel investing
- Simple to invest
He discussed crowdfunding efforts in other EU countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany; the EU has a number of regulatory challenges to equity crowdfunding including the Prespectus Rule (European Directive), financial promotions (laws regarding what can be said to prospective investors), and public company limitations. He finished with his vision of the ideal environment for crowdfunding success:
- Anyone can invest with relatively low barriers (mixture of high net worth and crowd)
- Low investment level
- Allow wide promotion via online or offline
- Low/no imposed minimum document standards
- Convenient, secure payment method
- Authorization required for crowdfunding platforms
Definitely some guidelines for Ontario, and the rest of Canada, to take to heart as we open up our equity investment landscape.