“I figured I easily spend $100 a month on silly things, so why not try this?” said Lubens, 25, a project manager at a District communications firm. “I don’t have a ton of money to invest, but I’m into the food scene and this intrigued me.”
Gathering small sums of money from a large number of people online — known as “crowdfunding” — is poised to take off in the investing world, with backing from Washington policymakers who see it as a chance to involve the masses in an arena dominated by big Wall Street firms and the super-wealthy.
A law signed by President Obama a year ago enables small businesses to offer a stake in their firms via the Web to anyone who wants one, a “game changer” that gives them “access to a big, new pool of investors — namely, the American people,” as he put it. Companies can raise up to $1 million a year this way once the law is implemented.
But given its potential to upend the nation’s investment landscape, critics are worried that crowdfunding will leave unsophisticated investors vulnerable to fraud or big losses, especially since small businesses generally suffer high failure rates and the firms involved in crowdfunding will have to make only limited financial disclosures.
Those fears have played a role in delaying new regulations from the Securities and Exchange Commission, which was supposed to adopt rules nearly a year ago to put the crowdfunding law into effect. Now, all eyes are on Mary Jo White, the agency’s new chairman, who has come under pressure by lawmakers to crank out a plan. During her confirmation hearings, White suggested that the rules are high on her priority list.
Agency observers expect them to come out soon, though no timeline has been set for their consideration. Meanwhile, as the SEC hashes out the details, investors and businesses are racing to get a piece of the action.
Several state legislatures have proposed allowing this type of crowdfunding within their borders. Internet domains with “crowdfunding” in their names are getting snatched up. And businesses are moving forward with their own plans, using exemptions in existing regulations that allow for some limited crowdfunding.
Among them is WestMill Capital Partners, the developer behind the H Street Project.
The firm’s co-founders, Ben and David Miller, had bought several vacant storefronts in Northeast Washington in the past three years with plans to develop them for retail use. They dug into their own pockets, took out loans and tapped wealthy people to fund the deals.