Crowdfunding platform ships product samples to potential investors

When a crowdfunding site offers free samples to potential investors, is it an enticement to get someone to risk their money, or a service to help people assess their bets?

CircleUp, a site connecting accredited investors to consumer product companies, argues it is the latter. The San Francisco firm recently started providing samples from its companies to potential investors, through a partnership with Swaggable, an online company that distributes free product samples in exchange for written reviews.

The new service won a fan in Arlington-based entrepreneur William Pellinen, who with partners Aaron Seekford and Shane Sowards, likes to buy stakes in promising consumer products companies through crowdfunding platforms.

Pellinen, who was considering investing in a dried fruit snack company, requested a free sample before investing. He got the shipment in a week — he tasted it, approved, and invested his money. In another case, he received a snack about which he was much less enthusiastic, and chose not to invest.

Though Pellinen said sampling the product isn’t the only factor in his decisions — he also analyzes the company’s finances, record for proven success, and its potential for growth in the industry — in the case of the fruit snack, it tipped him in favor of investing.

Especially when dealing with consumer products, “you’re going to want to get a sample to see if you believe in the company,” he said.

Exposing investors to product samples isn’t a new practice, but until now it has not been offered by investment marketplaces specializing in crowdfunding, a practice that allows companies to raise relatively small amounts of money from a large number of investors.

Companies cannot currently solicit those small investments from the public in exchange for a stake in their business until the Securities and Exchange Commission issues rules to regulate the practice. But CircleUp operates under an exemption allowing crowdfunding among accredited investors on platforms partnering with registered broker-dealers.

SEC regulations strictly prohibit funding portals like CircleUp from giving out investment advice or recommendations. Simply providing samples, said CircleUp chief operations officer Rory Eakin, helps an investor carry out due diligence and make the decision to invest themselves.

But this is largely uncharted territory, said Daniel Gorfine, legal counsel and director of special projects for the Milken Institute, an economic think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif.

“Anytime they go beyond just providing the platform, they would have to be very careful,” he said. If a platform were to subtly encourage investors by sending them gifts, for example, it might constitute investment advice, depending on the SEC’s interpretation, he said.

Crowdfunding platforms are currently operating in “the wild west,” Gorfine said, frequently experimenting with new features until the SEC draws up clearer regulations. Features like CircleUp’s “show the potential of using these kinds of online platforms to marry [crowdfunding] with a more traditional marketing campaign,” he said.

Eakin said said he doesn’t foresee SEC regulations affecting CircleUp’s distribution of samples. “One of the key goals is providing information to investors, and transparency,” he said.

As an investor, Pellinen said he doesn’t feel influenced by the availability of samples, but understands that CircleUp, which takes a cut of each venture’s investment, has an incentive to encourage investors across the site.

“They’re looking out for their earnings the same way I look out for mine. I’m under no illusion that there isn’t a vested interest from CircleUp’s side,” he said.

Follow On Small Business on Twitter at @onsmallbiz.

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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