Legalizing Equity Crowdfunding In Ontario: A Panel

Following Darren Westlake’s keynote on equity crowdfunding in the UK, Cindy Gordon of Helix Commerce moderated a panel on whether equity crowdfunding should be legal in Ontario, with panelists Peter Aceto (CEO of ING Direct Canada), Brian Koscak (Chairman of the Exempt Market Dealers Association of Canada and a partner at Cassels Brock & Blackwell), Richard Reiner (partner at CC Stratus Capital), Adam Spence (Founder of Social Venture Exchange) and Darren Westlake (CEO of CrowdCube).

Blogging panels is always difficult, and I won’t try to attribute comments to specific people, but here are some of the points covered [my comments in brackets]:

  • Crowdfunding isn’t just for startups; it can also provide significant benefits to small businesses looking to expand or take on new initiatives.
  • Crowdfunding works well as seed funding to get a startup to the stage where it can be considered for larger funding sources such as venture capital.
  • The share structure will need to be considered fair to the early crowdfunding investors and to the later venture investors, in terms of control, returns and liquidity. [This is a major issue.]
  • Social and environmental companies have difficulties with access to capital, and may benefit greatly from crowdfunding. [Many small investors will follow their conscience in crowdfunding investments, as has been seen with Kiva microfinancing.]
  • Canadians are early adopters of financial technology (ATMs, web banking, internet-only banks) and are likely to accept equity crowdfunding quickly.
  • Social media, including some aspects of crowdfunding, encourage/reward transparency. [If you’re going to be successful in raising funds through crowdfunding, be prepared to willingly expose the inner workings of your company.]
  • Crowdfunding would make it feel normal to invest in startups, and tax incentives for small business crowdfunding would support this significantly.

There are some crowdfunding approaches already being tried out in Canada, including debt/bond/co-op structures such as with ZooShare, which provides co-operative investment into a plant that turns Toronto Zoo poo into biogas. ZooShare’s scheme requires that you join the co-op as a member, then can buy community bonds that pay interest over seven years. Obviously, allowing for equity crowdfunding will greatly expand the opportunities for investment, since not everyone want to join a co-op to buy bonds in order to invest in interesting opportunities.

We’re going to be doing a table exercise on benefits and concerns of crowdfunding, then the conference wrapup, so this will probably be the last post from this Technicity conference on crowdfunding. I’m not really an entrepreneur any more – I’ve done two startups in the past, but currently just operate as an independent – but I have a lot of friends with Canadian startups that could benefit from crowdfunding, and I’m fascinated by any intersection of social and business.

Lessons From Crowdfunding In The UK With @Crowdcube

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
  • Cost-effective
  • Marketing effect
  • Crowd feedback

And for the investors:

  • Financial return
  • “Armchair dragon” for the fun of investing
  • Support friends and family
  • Participation
  • 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.

Giving Technology Back to the Community

I’m a strong believer that technology can be a way up for those in financially disadvantaged circumstances: without some computer skills, kids can’t compete in school, and don’t meet the minimum requirements for many jobs. One way that I can help – and probably many of you reading this – is to donate to programs that provide access to computers and training to people who can’t afford to buy them. There are a number of ways to do this: you can give money, you can give used computer equipment, you can give your time, and you can promote the programs to others who might do the same.

This week, I replaced my mother’s old computer, and was left with a working (although underpowered, by today’s standards) computer with keyboard and mouse. I immediately thought of Little Geeks, a program that refurbishes old computers, provides them for free to kids in need, along with 12 months of internet access and some training on how to use it. They use reBOOT Canada as their drop-off depot; reBOOT is a charitable organization that “provides computer hardware, training and technical service to other charities, non-profit organizations and individuals with limited access to technology”. I headed off to reBOOT yesterday to drop off the computer, and had a chat with Nicholas (I believe this was Nicholas Brinckman, the Executive Director). He mentioned that they’re trying to get funding from the Aviva Community Fund to build 50 learning centres across Canada, in partnership with community centres and schools.

If you support this idea, go to the reBOOT project page on the Aviva Community Fund site and vote for their project (registration required). You can vote once per day until this round of voting ends in 11 days, and I encourage you to drop in there daily to cast your vote if you believe that this is an important initiative. They make it easy to link to the page on Twitter and Facebook, so use your social network for good. You can also help out by dropping off your old computer equipment – and encouraging your employer to do the same when they sunset old computers, printers and other equipment – or volunteering some of your time to help with computer refurbishment.

Windows 7 launch Toronto #CDNwin7

I was invited to the Windows 7 launch in Toronto today, where Steve Ballmer is here in person. Instead of being in the live presentation, I’m hanging in the press Tweet Lounge with my torcamp peeps @davidcrow and @AccordionGuy, watching it on a big screen; this gives a lot more flexibility in terms of walking around, chatting and getting coffee during the presentation. So far, I’ve had an offer from a Microsoftie to upgrade my HP Mini to Windows 7 on the spot, and I’ve heard that it will extend the battery life by another couple of hours, which is definitely of interest to me.

Ballmer is talking about the need for efficiency in the new economy; I’m thinking that this is a veiled reference to getting past the Vista bloat, especially when he quotes users who claim that it’s simpler and more responsive without actually stating the point of comparison for simplicity and response time. These issues are key for end user efficiency, along with the improvements in handling wireless, but there are also improvements in desktop security that make it more efficient for the IT people who have to manage large installed bases of PCs. There are new versions of the Windows Server (2008 R2) and Exchange Server (2010) products, too, particularly with respect to virtualization, although I try to make everything beyond my own keyboard as virtual as possible so don’t have a lot of interest in the server products: my mail, files and backup are in the cloud, not on a server in my office. That being said, Microsoft is launching a number of cloud-based tools, including the web-based Office suite (still very early and barely functional) and SharePoint Online to complement their Exchange Online offering; although they have some significant clients here, likely the biggest impact is that they are validating the cloud model for email and collaboration, which will benefit their competitors as much or more than themselves.

Windows 7 has had about 8 million beta testers since they released it for download several months ago, and have collected a huge amount of feedback from the early adopters: some are estimating a savings of $100-200 per person per year in reduced support and maintenance costs, although YMMV.

After a brief speech, Ballmer opened it up for questions, and the first one was about upgrading existing hardware to run Windows 7; he responded that any machine that runs Vista well will run Windows 7 (although I thought that the problem was the Vista didn’t run all that well on any platform, hence the crappy adoption rates), but those running XP may require upgrades or replacement. I think that it’s fair to say that a huge part of my customer base – the rather conservative financial services and insurance industries – haven’t even touched Vista, so that could mean some significant hardware investment to support Windows 7; Microsoft can expect to see widespread Windows 7 adoption rates in these industries only when XP support is cut off. Ballmer’s betting on people being excitedly motivated to move to Windows 7, not forced through XP end of life; I think that’s a bit delusional given that he admits that they’re still supporting Windows 2000 for some customers. In the last question, he stated that Windows 7 will not be the last 32-bit OS from Microsoft because of the recent popularity of the Atom processor.

They’ve moved on to the customer videos now, so I’ll wrap this up and wander around the demo stations (and the tea table). In the spirit of full disclosure, Microsoft fed me breakfast this morning but did not otherwise compensate me to be here. I’m still hoping for a free copy of Windows 7.

Update: Scored my free copy of Windows 7 Ultimate on the way out the door. Headed home to install on the netbook.

Size does matter: travelling light with netbook and iPhone

I love technology more as it gets smaller. I haven’t been travelling much this year, but the next two months will change that. For the first time in years, however, I’ll be carrying only my suitcase (a roll-aboard that fits in the overhead bin) and my handbag: no computer bag. That’s because I am the proud owner of an HP Mini netbook, which slides right into the back compartment of my smallish purse with room to spare. The screen is a bit small, but adequate – in fact for widescreen video viewing, it’s great – and the keyboard is large enough for comfortable touch typing. Battery life is 6 hours, which rocks. Disk is 160GB, leaving space for me to load it up with e-books and video to entertain me while away from home.

It runs XP, and I’ve loaded the following software:

  • Chrome as my primary browser – much cleaner and takes up less screen real estate, so good for the smaller screen.
  • Google mail/calendar with offline synchronization, since my email accounts are all Gmail or Google Apps; this means that my mail and calendar will stay synchronized between this computer, my office computer (which uses Outlook and Google Apps Sync), my iPhone and the web.
  • It has a trial version of MS-Office included, but I’ve also loaded Open Office and will see if that works for the relatively light editing needs that I’ll have on the road. If so, then I won’t bother to buy the license for Office when the trial expires.
  • Live Writer for blogging, since I do a lot of that while at conferences.
  • Dropbox for synchronizing working files to the web for backup, and back to my home machine (use this link to sign up for Dropbox if you’re interested, and we’ll both get an extra 250MB storage).
  • Tweetdeck for Twittering.
  • Flickr Uploader for uploading photos.
  • iTunes, since it’s required in order to use my iPhone for USB cable-based internet tethering.

I’ve been using the netbook instead of my usual computer off and on for the past two weeks, and I’m quite convinced that I’ll be fine for days at a time with this on the road. I’m missing my financial software and a whole raft of utilities, but nothing that I can’t do without for a while.

I also finally broke down and bought an iPhone 3GS, so if you saw me earlier in the year with my iPod Touch and a Nokia flip phone, those two gadgets have now been replaced by one: more room in my purse. There will probably be some short trips where I can make do with just the iPhone, and leave the netbook at home, since it has everything on there, including Dropbox to access documents. It’s not a great blogging platform, however; as a former Blackberry addict, I can authoritatively state that the iPhone keyboard sucks for any large amount of typing.

With my new technology in tow, I leave on Friday for Germany to attend BPM2009 in Ulm next week – watch for the live blogging from there – then spend another week having a bit of a vacation in locations yet to be determined, but likely a couple of days in Zurich and a trip through western Germany back up to Dusseldorf for my flight home. [For those of you who think giving this sort of information provides an opportunity for someone to break into my home and steal all my worldly belongings, rest assured that I leave behind my black belt hubby – and I don’t mean a Six Sigma black belt – and a pretty mean cat.]

Gartner’s 2009 Hype Cycle

Gartner’s hype cycle for 2009 was released this week, and there was a webinar today with Jackie Fenn to walk through it. The actual diagrams are not working on their press release right now, but ReadWriteWeb is hosting their own copy of the emerging technologies hype cycle (which was in the press release originally) if you want to take a look.

Gartner has 79 different hype cycles focused on individual technologies, rolled up in this special report that is free but doesn’t contain the meat: for that, you need to click through to the hype cycle for the technology in which you’re interested and purchase that report.

Fenn explained the concept of the hype cycle: technologies move from an innovation trigger up a steep slope of positive hype to the peak of inflated expectations, then down an equally steep slope of negative hype to the trough of disillusionment before increasing gradually along the slope of enlightenment to the plateau of productivity. She explained some of the specific indicators for each part of the cycle – which is what Gartner is analyzing to tell where on the hype cycle that a particular technology lies, along with the analysts’ subjective opinions – such as when certain rounds of venture funding kick in, and when best practices emerge. Different types of companies adopt technologies at different points in the hype cycle, depending on how conservative that they are, and how critical the particular technology is to their competitive differentiation.

By bisecting the curve at the local minimum in the trough of disillusionment, companies can ask themselves “what’s here that we could be using” for technologies to the left (considered new/cutting edge), and “what’s here that we’re not using” for those to the right (considered mainstream). There are some anomalies, such as corporate blogging and wikis already climbing the slope of enlightenment, whereas social software suites – which would likely include both of those – are just past the peak of inflated expectations.

She did a quick poll to see what technologies (from a very select subset of emerging technologies) that the attendees think will generate the most value for their organizations during the next two years, then linked the responses to where those technologies lie on the curve: not surprisingly, cloud computing topped the poll at 42%, and it’s at the peak of inflated expectations right now, where there is a proliferation of suppliers and activity beyond early adopters. Social software suites, just past the peak with negative press beginning and supplier consolidation approaching, was second at 29%.

There are several new hype cycles this year, including cloud computing, data center power and cooling, and virtualization; there are also several new technologies listed in the emerging technologies hype cycle that Fenn focused on in the webinar, such as wireless power.

Every technology on the emerging technologies hype cycle is also on a priority matrix that serves as a rough risk-benefit measure, showing the expected years to mainstream adoption (based on Gartner’s analysis of how fast that each is moving through the hype cycle) mapped against the level of expected benefits (low-moderate-high-transformational).

Gartner produced their first hype cycle in 1995, and Fenn showed the original one from back then with a few of the technologies mapped on it; some of those are still poking along, such as speech recognition that hasn’t moved much in 10 years; others, such as Bluetooth, moved through the cycle at a brisk pace and reached mainstream adoption quickly.

Gartner has published a book on Mastering the Hype Cycle: How to Choose the Right Innovation at the Right Time (Gartner), which provides a framework for understanding the hype cycle and adoption patterns that new technologies will move through, and understanding the danger zones.