Ron Miller is taking advantage of a big opportunity.
Miller is a venture capitalist and investor who has spent years in the financial services field. His new company, StartEngine Crowdfunding, is an online platform designed to meet the financing needs of companies looking for crowdfunded equity and debt from the public. StartEngine is joined by platforms like Wefunder Advisors and 1000 Angels and a handful of firms currently licensed to do this. The field will grow. And this week is the start of all that.
That’s because today, new crowdfunding rules finally go into effect. For the first time ever, businesses can accept money (up to $1 million in a 12-month period) from individual, unaccredited investors through crowdfunding platforms like Miller’s. Onerous filings in each state – known as Blue Sky filings – are relaxed. Audits will not be required. And the crowdfunding platforms themselves may not be held liable if a financing goes bad. All of these things are designed to make it easier for small companies to raise money from the general public without having to go public. And many, including Miller, are hoping that this legislation will give a boost to a whole new industry of experts, financiers, portals and other services like the ones that StartEngine provides.
People are excited. And they should be. The more options a company has to raise capital the better. But unfortunately, crowdfunding isn’t as great as it seems for companies like mine. Or for most of my clients.
My firm sells sales and marketing database software to businesses around the country. Ho-hum. My firm’s 600-plus clients are generally established companies that are providing products and services to their customers. Important, but not that exciting. They are manufacturers of equipment, resellers of parts and fabricators of materials. They are landscapers, roofers, pizza shops, gas stations, healthcare staffing agencies and logistics firms. They are mostly family-owned businesses or partnerships. Their customers are primarily other businesses. They are located in industrial parks and corporate centers outside of major cities. You drive by them all the time and you rarely take notice. But they are there and they are providing critical materials to this country’s economy.
And none of them are likely to benefit from the new crowdfunding rules. Why? They are just too boring.
They are not jazzy tech start-ups based in Silicon Valley. Their founders aren’t 20-something-year-old kids who recently graduated from Stanford or MIT. Their offices aren’t those sleekly designed, open air, high-windowed spaces with ping-pong tables, nap pods and all-you-can-eat food stands located in the lobby. In fact, most don’t even have lobbies. They have reception areas that are at best dimly lit with a few recent issues of Forbes and Golf Digest. They are owned mostly by tired adults in their 50’s and 60’s whose 20-something-year-old kids graduated from State College a few years back and are now learning the ropes selling or humping boxes in the warehouse. Their offices still bear the same look and feel from the last big internal redesign back in the ‘90’s and reflect the wear and tear of two difficult economic decades.
“The best companies will be consumer facing and have a mission about the change they bring to the world.” Miller told me. “These companies will be building a community of fans and customers who have a passion about what they do. These investors will want to be connected to the companies they like.”
My clients distribute steel pipes and sell underground water pumps. Let’s be real: crowdfunded money will not go to them. Crowdfunded money will come from the “the crowd.” And, as Miller suggests, the crowd wants to put their money into fun, exciting and cool companies. They’ll be looking for the start-up of fresh faced geniuses who are creating the next great thing – the new Uber, the next Google, the new app that will appeal to millions. People aren’t interested in boring stuff. They want to be “fans.” And, other than project managers at utilities and construction firms there are not many “fans” of companies who make underground water pumps.
As for me and my clients? You know – those of us boring, tedious, established companies who make up the infrastructure of the American economy? We are not those exciting start-ups. And we’re not looking to raise just a million bucks. We need to raise more working capital, buy more equipment, hire more people, invest in real estate, expand our warehouses and bring on more materials. And when we need financing we’ll be doing things the boring old way. We’ll be getting expensive loans from banks, assuming we can meet their more odious requirements and more stringent financial covenants. We’ll be fighting to extend our payment terms with suppliers who face their own cash-flow challenges. We’ll be seeking out investments from partners or considering that cousin who has a few extra bucks and wants to buy into the business. We’ll be scrounging together enough cash from our operations for as big a down payment as we can afford.
Crowdfunding could very well be a great thing for businesses such as Miller’s and a handful of start-ups. Good for them. Unfortunately, it may have zero impact on those companies who really need it the most.