Crowdfunding Benefits More Than Just Startup Businesses

Various forms of crowdfunding enable startup businesses to inexpensively test market new products, and for private companies to trade equity in exchange for an investment from new shareholders. However, perhaps it’s my time spent sailing at Greenwich Yacht Club, as well as my work as an independent crowdfunding advisor, that recently drew my attention to two very well established businesses that are currently using crowdfunding to pursue a range of objectives.

Rewards Crowdfunding

Raconteur is a US family-owned and run business that has been making handmade moccasin-style shoes, popular with “yachties,” since 1967. They subsequently expanded their range to include boots, dress shoes and leather sneakers. Today, like many other businesses the world over, and despite its good reputation, Raconteur is suffering under Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

Crowdfunding isn’t just for startup businesses

Through their own website, they have started offering shoes in a limited number of styles on a rewards crowdfunding basis at wholesale prices. They will collect orders to a threshold of around 150 pairs per style, then make shoes in batches of 300. This will ensure they don’t produce an over-supply of stock that will tie up their stretched cash resources and then simply gather dust.

There are several benefits to trying to generate business even if it will not make them much immediate profit.

  • It will keep their artisan workforce employed
  • It will generate business for their supply chain
  • It gives new customers an opportunity to experience their premium products at an advantageous price
  • The cash income will contribute to central overheads
  • They will avoid producing unwanted stock

In crowdfunding terms this is known as the “All or Nothing” model. A crowdfunding project can ask people to pre-order, while also setting a minimum total order figure. That figure will be calculated to cover the raw materials, ‘tooling up’ and all other costs of a first production run, plus delivery of the finished goods.

If the stated minimum target is reached, production goes ahead on a de-risked basis. If it isn’t reached, any pre-payments are returned to customers and the product creators can have a rethink without having incurred costs of producing unwanted goods, hiring storage space or servicing a debt.

In the UK, crowdfunding operates outside the Sale of Goods Act. Due to the time it could take to reach the minimum order total, and produce and deliver the goods, some of the earliest ‘purchasers’ may have to expect to wait longer than 28 days to receive their orders.

Equity Crowdfunding

The second sailing-related project I noticed is being run by a Swedish engineering company, GreenStar Marine International. They have been in business almost 20 years and make a range of inboard and outboard electric motors for all types of recreational boats.

They have no protected intellectual property in their motors, and now that sustainability and safeguarding waterways is a higher priority for many boat owners and users, GreenStar want to expand their silent-running and fume-free product range and dealer network faster than they would be able to through organic growth.

They are offering equity in the business to investors who will become shareholders, and thus share the risks and rewards of company ownership. Crowdfunding has democratised the business fundraising process, that was previously available mainly to people with access to “old boy networks” of VC investors or high net worth individuals.

At the time of writing GreenStar Marine International had raised 131% of their target with 69 days still to run.

With almost two decades’ experience of running their business, they are confident of a high rate of return for investors when they go ahead with an IPO planned for late 2021. Though capital is always at risk, and nothing can be guaranteed.

To learn more about Crowdfunding, registration is now open for free tickets to an all-day webinar on August 27 featuring a range of international speakers. The link gives further information.

In the meantime, feel free to contact me if you are considering crowdfunding to test a new product, to launch a new business or expand an existing one. I am an independent crowdfunding advisor, uninfluenced by formal ties to any specific crowdfunding platforms. Email me at [email protected]

Why Do Many Startups Still Fail After Reaching A Crowdfunding Target?

I have looked at this topic because I help small businesses and startups raise money through crowdfunding. There are plenty of times when an influx of investment allows them to scale up, which can often mean introducing new procedures and “control levers” to steer colleagues/employees, and maybe suppliers and customers, in new directions. It doesn’t always run smoothly.

Unfortunately for these plans, most people are naturally and inherently change resistant. It’s in our DNA to want to keep things around us they way they are. It’s a fundamental part of our defence mechanism as it helps us to spot anything out of the ordinary or unexpected that could be a threat. “Human beings are programmed to fear the unknown,” says a recruitment tv commercial for the Royal Marines.

Many change initiatives fail because they are decided by a management minority and then foisted on to the majority, employees or other stakeholders, who are suddenly supposed to adopt new ways of working that are unknown to them. Without adequate pre-selling or involvement in a process to bring them on-side from an early stage, a change initiative can be sunk by a majority of people simply sticking to doing what they previously did in the ways they previously did it.

This can even be the cause of friction between business founders if they didn’t all agree on the scaleup measures to begin with. In a business’s early days, it might all be about taking risks. As a business develops and goes through successive funding rounds, whether it’s money from a crowd or institutional investors, or even sales, the emphasis – and perhaps pressure from new shareholders – can change to “let’s not start to muck it up now that we’re nearly there.”

Perhaps high risk-taking mavericks that were the company’s early spearhead are still in the team, but may be less disposed to a more cautious approach – and the new people who will now help implement it. This is one example of how friction can develop, distracting effort away from building the business before it’s even standing on its own two feet.

This is what’s meant by “company culture eats strategy.” Company culture is an emotional element that binds colleagues together with shared expectations of each other, and it has to be tackled alongside procedural ones to initiate change. A startup team will have often developed a strong culture, meddling with it can be tricky.

For more on the topic, take a look at this article (which is nothing to do with me, I just liked the look of it from the ones I found in a Google search): Culture eats strategy for breakfast – The Management Centre. It also has a five point plan to initiate change successfully.

Tips on Making an Effective Crowdfunding Video

In my role as an independent crowdfunding adviser I’m often involved in matters to do with making videos as part of a pitch to investors, backers or donors. And where a client wants me to work on the basis of payment based on results of a successful project, it would be irresponsible of me not to ask for involvement with such a crucial aspect of a pitch. So I’ve built up a list of some tips that I thought I’d share.

Video production companies don’t have all the answers

The first tip is do not assume that a video production company knows what should be in your crowdfunding video. Some do, though not all of them. Even if they say they do, they might not.

This week the founder of a video production company asked to connect with me via LinkedIn. I confirmed with him he had worked making crowdfunding videos, and he sent me a link to one he had shot for an equity crowdfunding project.

Throughout the five minutes of the video I was waiting for the company founder to tell me why he was raising money, how much was needed, what it would be used for, the current company valuation, what the new value could be when the latest investment had been secured and the developments implemented, what their potential exit strategy might be, and a possible Return On Investment. None of it was ever mentioned. The video might encourage a few new customers to make a purchase, but there was nothing in it to convince anyone to invest in a share of the business.

It turned out that the video team had simply followed the client’s brief, didn’t offer any ideas on the content, and made their usual sort of company video in their usual sort of way.

How to start thinking about your crowdfunding video

Whether your project is to sell equity in your business or generate donations, maybe for rewards, there are common aspects of a good video. These tips from rewards platform Indiegogo are well worth a look, they’ve certainly had enough videos to look at to spot the common ingredients of what works: https://learn.indiegogo.com/making-your-video-great-campaign-video-creation-guide/. This link takes you to some tips gathered from four sources by the equity crowdfunding platform Seedrs: https://www.seedrs.com/academy/how-to-perfect-your-crowdfunding-video-pitch/

Also, spend time watching the videos of successful projects yourself to identify what they have in common, and to spot anything different that makes any of them stand out to you in a positive way.

Spontaneity or a well-rehearsed script?

As much as you should not rely on spontaneous inspiration of what to say, writing a tight script and saying it word-for-word can sometimes lose too much spontaneity and make you sound flat, unengaging and uninspiring. On the other hand, don’t employ a video company and only start thinking about what to say when they turn up, or you arrive at their studio.

I once saw a good video that had been expensive to make because the video team had been with the project leaders all day and they hadn’t been able to shoot the right content to put together an effective three minute film. At the end of the day, almost in exasperation, the three founders sat round a table to talk it through once again, and the camera stayed rolling. This footage is what was finally edited to produce a very naturally flowing video in which they said all the right things to convince enough backers.

So do some concentrated brain storming and throw some ideas around with people who know inside out what you’re doing with your business or new product idea, film yourselves on your smartphones to get comfortable with talking to camera, and reach a point where you pretty much know what’s going to be in your video. Then get a video team with a decent camera and sound equipment to film it and use a good editing suite to pull it together.

Prepare storyboards

Do you know about preparing storyboards? Storyboards will keep you on track while shooting and give the video team a good idea of the intended end result before they start doing anything.

Maybe share the storyboards with them at a pre-production meeting so they can think about how to stage and light some of the shots you want. It gives them an opportunity for technical input (rather than asking them for creative input) and thus plays to their strengths.

Overall, the more you do, the more the video team can just get on with it and it will be more affordable for you. It will make the process less open-ended, and you’ll be more certain they’ve shot the right content.

Get the most value from the video team

After shooting the main video content, record some other short pieces to use later while the crowdfunding is running, messages like: “Hey, we’ve reached 30% or 40%,” or “we’re half way there” or “we’ve reached the first £50,000 – thank you all so much. But there’s still a way to go. Please let your friends know about us…..”

Have these clips ready to use via your social media before they are actually needed, so anyone can just lift them down from the proverbial shelf.

Consider changing some clothes for these other mesages as they will go out at different times during your crowdfunding project.

Other crowdfunding video tips

There are more crowdsourced tips from various other people here: https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-most-important-points-to-remember-while-making-a-crowdfunding-pitch-video

Like anything else, perfect preparation prevents pathetic performance.

Equity Crowdfunding Works for B2B Businesses

There is a common misconception that crowdfunding is only applicabe to B2C businesses. On recently seeing a question posed on Quora, asking if anyone had got some examples of B2B startups that had used crowdfunding, there were three that immediately came to mind.

Energytech
A crowdfunded B2B business I have invested in is Pavegen. They generate sustainable electricity from people walking on their floor tiles which are installed in high-traffic places like shopping malls and sports stadia.

Their customers include transport system operators, and owners of shopping centres and sports and entertainment venues: Pavegen – Global leader in harvesting energy and data from footfall.

Transport infrastructure

Another B2B company that has used equity crowdfunding in the UK is MacRebur. They reinforce asphalt with recycled plastic to create a more resilient road surface, and help reduce the amount of plastic waste.

They have also resurfaced some airport runways, and recently announced a pothole repair material that will be available in 20kg bags: macrebur.com. Their customers include airport owners, local councils and highway authorities.

Agritech

To give a third example, I made an equity crowdfunding investment not long ago in an agritech business called Hectare. Traditional farmers’ markets in the UK are closing down at a rapid rate, meaning more and more farmers have to make long and arduous journeys to take livestock to market. And sometimes it means driving their fit and healthy animals through areas where there is a higher risk of disease.

Hectare provides online marketplaces for farmers to check current prices and sell animals at SellMyLivestock and crops at Grainindex. Their B2B customers are farmers and agricultural produce buyers: Hectare Agritech | Reinventing Farm Trading

Online shopping is hurting the high street, but new tech can also help bricks-and-mortar retailers

Many well-known retail brands have shut down in the past few years. We’re no longer dropping in to Maplins, Toys R Us, Oddbins, LK Bennet, Karen Millen, British Home Stores or Mothercare. And that’s just a fraction of the list.

Many others have already re-negotiated their rent costs, or are planning to do so, through CVAs (Company Voluntary Arrangements) to buy time to develop a new business plan that will cope with current pressures of reduced customer footfall, sales figures and profits that are largely held to be attributable to online shopping.

CVAs spread retailers’ challenges – ok, risks – to a wider community of corporate owners of retail space and their shareholders, such as British Land, Hammerson and the Intu Group. Those shareholders, indirectly, include millions of us through pension schemes and government investments. So when media headlines declare “the high street is dying” we ought to take note.

Though is it really dying, or is it a case of transforming to the new reality of a business landscape that now has to include a share of online shopping? Latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show 19% of all UK retailing is done online, and the figure is still growing.

Online shopping is hurting the high street, but new tech can help bricks-and-mortar retailers

It’s not the only factor that bricks-and-mortar retailers are having to deal with. The level of business being lost to online retailers is enough to tip many shop owners in to a danger zone, and other factors are under scrutiny. Many local council traffic and parking policies, for example, are based on deterring people from going to their local shops and high street, rather than encouraging them to make a visit.

Changes to the way independent retailers do business are clearly needed, though many people are instinctively resistant to change. Even those that do grasp the nettle, who are willing to change and face up to the costs of doing so, may not be able to work out the best options to choose. But they are on borrowed time if they just sit still.

At a recent “Future of the High Street” meeting organised by the non-profit Smiley Movement, Lucy Stainton of the Local Data Company confirmed a very healthy 64% of UK retail outlets are independently owned. When asked which types of retailer are most commonly going out of business she replied “The boring ones!”

Online shopping is hurting the high street, but new tech can help bricks-and-mortar retailers
L to R: Lucy Stainton, Local Data Company; Enedina Columbano, TRAID; Neil Duffy, Retail TRUST; Andrew Goodacre, British Independent Retailers Association; Robin Osterley, Charity Retail Association

Despite the fact that it’s new technology that has created the new challenges, there are many enterprising tech startups that can help physical retailers. Here are five of them.

Launched in 2014 by a husband and wife team who began their retail careers with a market stall, Down Your High Street enables local independent retailers to have an online presence in a digital marketplace. Shoppers can source out-of-the-ordinary products from 530 independent shops based all over the country, and also opt for a deferred payment plan if they wish through collaboration with the fintech payment platform Clearpay.

Dotty Directory provides advertising for small and medium size retailers on a number of websites that have a local focus on areas around the UK. In return, their details are passed on to service providers such as insurance companies who will try to sell to them.

MaybeTech offers courses on using social media for local retailers to raise their profile and attract more customers. Their platform uses AI (Artificial Intelligence) to help larger organisations listen and engage with their customers through social media, benchmark their results, and optimise the ROI of their activity.

LoLo (short for Local Loyalty) has started rolling out a mobile app that enables shoppers to benefit from using tokens that represent cash price reductions in local stores. It aims to increase customer loyalty to local independent shops.

The retailers can in turn use the tokens they accept to enjoy savings on goods and services they require for their business, and receive customer data feedback in order to improve future decision-making. The scheme is networked so that wherever tokens are earned they can be used with any other retailer or service provider that is signed up to LoLo.

Near Street is a search engine that shows the availability of items in nearby physical stores alongside the regular online options. Any stores that maintain online records of stock levels can participate. The system also helps product manufacturers and brand owners check where their goods are after they have been delivered to distribution centres.

To close, I should declare an interest, as I manage social media for LoLo.


Despite Extinction Rebellion’s Efforts, Will Weaponized Robots Give Us Enough Time To Tackle Climate Change?

In October 2019, the activist movement Extinction Rebellion disrupted daily routines in major cities around the world to highlight the dangers from man-made climate change, and that time is running out to do anything meaningful about it. In London, demonstrators glued themselves to office building doors, the pavement, trains and cars – even to the top of an aircraft about to take off!

They also ran a UK crowdfunding project with a target of £1 million to fund their activities, maybe even to pay some of the fines their members picked up – just a guess. As at October 29 the crowdfunding is still running and they’ve reached nearly £965,000, they’re almost there.

Though within the 30-50 year time frame we are usually told is going to be decisive, some people believe there are other threats that ought to be taken just as seriously, if not more, from artificial intelligence and robotics.

Robot threat to jobs

Many of us have become accustomed to doom-mongers’ comments about the threats to livelihoods from robots doing repetitive and menial work. Inevitable consequences usually list mass unemployment, with non-working people subsidized by far higher taxes levied on those still in work. How would norms of social inclusion and the rule of law cope with an ever more divisive and polarized world of haves and have nots? And that includes having a sense of purpose as much as anything else.

Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at Berkeley, California, and one of the world’s leading experts in AI, has weighed in with his own opinions in a new book published this month titled “Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control.”

He asks readers to imagine a scenario in which a comparable risk is external, one in which advanced aliens from another world email the United Nations and say “we’re coming, we’ll be with you in 30 to 50 years.” Would our planet’s best minds be mobilized to prepare for this extra-terrestrial incursion more than we are preparing for the creation of our own super-humanly intelligent machines? 

Pace of technology leaves controls behind

Technology continues to develop at a faster and faster pace. Machine learning-powered artificial intelligence is increasingly likely to enable automation to take on more complex tasks thought were once thought to be ‘machine-proof.’

Flying aircraft, as an example, is a highly skilled profession, not one of the highly repetitive jobs that are supposedly under most threat from robots. Airline pilots can earn substantial incomes and generally receive public admiration. How close are we to that changing, with their role totally automated?

The Probability of Job Automation By Occupation

Source: Office of National Statistics

Lockheed Martin, the US global aerospace corporation, is currently sponsoring an open innovation challenge to combine AI, machine learning and fully autonomous flight. The goal is to create an AI framework that could pilot racing drones through high-speed aerial courses without any GPS, data relay or human intervention. 

420 teams from 81 countries have been whittled down to nine finalists who will compete in four races in the coming months. The winning team will win $1 million plus an extra $250,000 if their AI drone can beat a human-piloted drone: the challenge-winning drone will race the fastest 2019 DRL Allianz World Champion pilot at the end of the season. 

However, there are often unintended consequences. In a less sporting context, weaponization of drone technology has already been achieved. In 2016, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) carried out its first successful drone attack, killing two ‘opponents’ in northern Iraq. Terrorist groups are increasingly using drones and elementary artificial intelligence in attacks. Improved AI could prove a formidable threat, allowing non-state actors to automate killing on a massive scale, creating incidents of mass destruction.

A former Google software engineer and member of the International Committee for Robot Arms ControlLaura Nolan, has warned that autonomous killer robots could accidentally start a war in the future. She has called for automated weaponry to be outlawed by international treaties. Which ones? What treaties do terrorist organizations sign up to? 

Terrorist groups aren’t the only parties involved. Stuart Russell’s book  points out Israel has developed an autonomous “loitering munition” called Harop, which can hunt and destroy objects it classes as hostile. Anti-personnel microdrones equipped with facial-recognition systems and explosive weaponry might already exist. Slaughterbots, they are called.

At the time when Extinction Rebellion were disrupting major cities around the world, and targeting hubs of finance, media and transport, Russell put forward the notion that the leading tech firms in Silicon Valley and China must learn to accept regulation in the area of weaponry. “Let’s hope it doesn’t require a Chernobyl-sized disaster (or worse),” he warns, “to overcome the industry’s resistance.” 

But whilst authors and activists can point and warn of the dangers, I have to ask the question again about “who can introduce enforceable regulation, and act with whose authority?” Any suggestions or comments out there?

Maximising the Impact of B2B Social Media

Maximising the Impact of B2B Social Media
Responsibility for executing an organisation’s Marketing has changed drastically. Back when digital multi-channel television and colour photographs in newspapers were becoming the new normal, I was planning where and when international clients and household brand names should run their media advertising campaigns, and convincing their heads of marketing to sign off eight-figure annual budgets.

Today, just as importantly for the businesses involved, I handle social media accounts and write articles for B2B clients to post on their websites and elsewhere as part of a Content Marketing strategy.  In terms I learned at school in GCSE Economics classes, Marketing for many organisations, particularly smaller ones, has transitioned from a capital intensive activity (needs a lot of money) to a more labour intensive one (less cash outlay, though needs more time spent on it). Whose time should it be?

Old School Marketing

Maximising the Impact of B2B Social MediaImagine standing at a podium in front of a large crowd of people, telling them things about your business. Some of them are your customers, some of them are people you’d like to be your customers, and some of them are people who could be asked for advice on whether they think you’re any good. You have the only microphone, you are standing on an elevated stage. You know where your audience is to face them, though you can’t see them very well through the stage lights.

This is how much of marketing communications used to be done – broadcasting. Whilst there is some element of audience interaction – you can hear if you make them laugh, or when they didn’t at a point you hoped they would – it is fundamentally a one-way experience to deliver a controlled, scripted message to an audience switched on to politely sit and ‘receive.’

To ensure the advertising and PR message(s) being put out were the correct ones, and that they were delivered professionally and effectively, you would have hired an advertising agency and a PR company. The messages would be relayed through media owners – the press, radio and tv companies – that controlled the gateways to reach their readers, listeners and viewers. Or you could use direct mail, or some leaflets delivered door-to-door.

Whatever a business chose to do, it was almost totally handled externally, and managed by an internal Marketing team or person. By far the majority of any organisations’ employees had nothing at all to do with it.

Today’s Reality

Now think about sitting at a table with a group of eight or ten people from that theatre audience, who have been selected to discuss your business and its ‘brand values’ – the reputational values and core skills you want your business to be associated with. You can all see each other on the same level, there are no microphones, no stage lights. The process of communicating is very different, and the biggest difference is now that you will have to spend a lot of time listening.

Maximising the Impact of B2B Social MediaAs you begin to talk there will be interruptions, of agreement and disagreement, it will be a true iterative process. The people round the table will start talking to each other, maybe some to defend you, others to pile on the pressure of what they think your business lacks or is failing to do (or say) properly, or even chip in with personal poor experiences. You will be debating, advocating, persuading and interacting. You might find it can be a bit like this when you’re networking at events.

Then add to the table a couple of your employees. The other people at the table are likely to make judgements based on what they say as much as what you say. Do they support or deviate from your own core messages; how enthusiastic are they; do they project a ‘united front’ of consistent values, knowledge and skills? Or maybe they sit there absent-mindedly gazing out of the window while ignoring the conversation, your customers, influencers and other stakeholders who are present.

This is more what Marketing has become in the interactive two-way street of social media, with direct and immediate person-to-person (C2C) contact without permission or approval required from gatekeepers, and with every person creating and delivering their own messages in their own style. It’s a powerful process that can easily use images and video clips. It’s also chaotic, noisy, cluttered and taking place 24/7. And it’s a process that at best you can hope to influence though never actually control. So wouldn’t it be better if there were a few more people helping out?

Marketing Is Not A Person

Inside your own business, think about the numerous people responsible for direct contact with your clients, with key decision-makers: are they all saying the right things, the same things, about the business? And with what degree of enthusiasm or lacklustre detachment?

You also have other ‘back room’ employees in contact with your clients’ counterparts, and occasionally perhaps local authorities, licensing bodies, suppliers, professional trade bodies, the taxman, local and specialist professional media – don’t think this is unimportant. Every contact point at every level influences external perception of your business and what it’s like to do business with you: how the phones are answered; how emails are worded; accuracy and timing of the response to questions; timely and accurate billing; how problems are handled – do people take responsibility or play the blame game? As a start point, it’s why you’re (usually) all smartly dressed and presentable for business meetings – to project a good image. Everything else is simply an extension of this.

Marketing’s ‘New Normal’

These days, a wider appreciation of Marketing should be part of a successful company’s DNA, woven in to its very fabric. In the new “always on” digital-era business environment, it’s more a state of mind, a company culture, not restricted to people who have the word in their job title.

Supporting the company’s digital and social media marketing doesn’t require anyone to spend large amounts of time on it, start writing their own engaging content or become a social media influencer with a multitude of followers. A fuller commitment to the company’s business aims can start with as little as a Click now and again on a LinkedIn Update ‘Share’ or ‘Like’ buttons, or a Twitter re-tweet or a ‘Like.’ To do nothing is to gaze out of the window.

The Sky Is Not The Limit….Your Mind Is!!!

The Sky Is Not The Limit….Your Mind Is!!!
It was terribly sad to hear the recent news that Mandla Maseko, a South African who had won the chance to be the first black African in space, has died in a motorbike crash before his dream trip was realised. I had met him when was a panellist at the international CSW Europe 2016 conference in Brussels, Belgium, and he impressed everyone who spoke with him with his infectious optimism and enthusiasm.

Born to a school cleaner and auto tool maker in Shoshanguve near Pretoria, South Africa, he beat a million entrants from 75 countries to win one of the 23 places to be the first “Afronaut. ” It was going to be a non-orbital 103km (64 miles) trip into space, travelling at speeds up to Mach 3 – three times the speed of sound. The Axe Apollo Space Academy competition had been organised by the US-based space academy SXC (Space Expedition Corporation) to crowdsource aspiring space travellers, and Mandla was a source of national pride in South Africa.

He also hoped to be the first African to walk on the Moon. After being accepted for space training he became a fighter pilot in the South African Air Force, and used his public persona as a role model to inspire and ignite ambition among young Africans right across the continent. The main lesson he went out with was to teach them that any dream is possible through self-belief and determination – after all, that’s all he’d had to start with.

Space exploration can be used as a metaphor for any great personal challenge and his uplifting, aspirational message at a human level was: “the sky is not the limit, your mind is.” He had poignantly said he planned to call home from space, adding: “I hope I have one line that will be used in years to come – like Neil Armstrong did”. I think he’d already said it.

Rest In Peace, Mandla.

Equity Crowdfunding and Venture Capital Working Together

Equity Crowdfunding and Venture Capital Working Together
Not so long ago it was still quite common to come across articles that tried to pitch VC investors and equity crowdfunding supporters and platforms against each other, as if every startup business entrepreneur faced a binary choice of which investment route to pursue. There are growing signs that the complementry rather than competitive nature of these sources of startup and scaleup business funding are beginning to be appreciated.

Many startup founders seek investment budgets that are beyond the resources of friends and family backers, yet are too small for VCs to normally bother getting out of bed for. And if a business is in its earliest days without a trading history or future sales orders, there’s precious little hope of securing a business loan, whether from a traditional source like a bank or from a peer-to-peer lender such as Funding Circle. So there is a true gap in the business investment market that equity crowdfunding occupies, at the same time as providing better returns for small-scale investors than they can get from high street deposit accounts or investment schemes.

It remains fair to say that equity crowdfunding is not yet a fully developed entity due to the small number of exits that have allowed investors to reap their rewards: the UK Crowdfunding Association’s website has just one solitary case study (though there have been more). Other business finance commentators harp on about the startups that still fail, sometimes within months of raising seven-figure sums through crowdfunding, as if crowdfunding ought to provide some mystical defence shield against business failure.

Despite these shortcomings, the rude health of hundreds, even thousands of startups around the world that have traded equity for an investment from a crowd of backers supports enough confidence for the practice to continue to grow and spread.

It has now reached a point where venture capital firms are not only taking notice but some also want to be involved. In the UK, for example, the startup support division – called G – of the global accountancy firm Grant Thornton works with the equity crowdfunding platform Crowdcube.

It is a symbiotic relationship: Crowdcube can offer its clients a longer business development path than just realising their earliest investment rounds, and Grant Thornton gains an entry point to build relationships with promising entrepreneurs before they are big enough to usually be worth their attention. G also offers to make introductions to some of its network of investors who have indicated they are open to the idea of making early seed-stage investments. Here is an example of this co-operation in practice.

GunnaEquity Crowdfunding and Venture Capital Working Together is a range of uniquely-flavoured, craft-made soft drinks which aims to disrupt the established carbonated drinks marketplace in a similar way that craft beer has. It retails at a competitive price for a product made with better quality ingredients, and contains less than 5% sugar to be part of a healthy lifestyle. In 2018 it was available in over 3,500 UK stores, sales were up 300% on the previous year, and their highly experienced founders wanted to raise funds to accelerate the growth rate.

Initial discussions with Grant Thronton indicated that £500,000 would be appropriate to build distribution through recruiting additional sales people and investing in trade marketing. Although this amount is below Grant Thornton’s minimum threshold, their growth finance team remained involved to get Gunna investment-ready to run equity crowdfunding via Crowdcube to raise the money.

Support from some cornerstone investors who wanted to get involved at the ground level, introduced by Grant Thronton, strongly reassured a crowd of smaller retail investors. The equity crowdfunding project generated £819,150 from a total of 245 backers. As Gunna grows it’s likely there will be a need for further, larger rounds of investment which will meet Grant Thornton’s VC-backing criteria. Gunna’s hoped-for exit strategy is acquisition by an international drinks company.

A less formalised example is that of a business founded in 2013 that recycles surplus fruit and vegetables to make traditional recipe relishes and chutneys, Rubies in the Rubble. They were able to gain investment backing from Mustard Seed, a VC fund that takes a principal investor role in world-class early-stage businesses that generate compelling financial and societal returns.  However, beyond accepting £160,000 from Mustard Seed, the founder of Rubies in the Rubble, Jenny Costa, used it as cornerstone funding to launch an equity crowdfunding project on the Seedrs platform.

A rule of thumb has evolved based on empirical evidence that successful crowdfunding projects ought to start with very early pledges of at least 30% of their financial target. This is achieved through personal pre-selling by the project leader and their team to guarantee – as far as possible – that their project starts with a bang and not a whimper. This creates momentum as it gives vital confidence to what are usually smaller retail investors who require some reassuring encouragement to take the plunge.

Equity Crowdfunding and Venture Capital Working TogetherRubies in the Rubble set a target raise of £300,000, in which Mustard Seed’s investment easily covered the 30% requirement. By 3 June 2019 the project on Seedrs has easily surpassed the initial target and wss overfunding at over £535,000.  The funds are to support the launch later in the year of a mainstream ketchup product and a vegan plant-based mayonnaise. The business aim is to capture 3% of the UK ketchup and mayo market by 2023, whilst continuing the fight against food wastage. A trade sale is the most likely exit strategy.

Please get in touch for further insights and support on how you could use crowdfunding to raise money to startup or scaleup your business, plus reap the benefit of numerous other advantages. I’m an independent crowdfunding advisor, not tied or affiliated to any particular platforms: [email protected]

A “Surveillance Capital” Market Sells Our Personal Behaviour Data

A "Surveillance Capital" Market Sells Our Personal Behaviour Data
Surveillance Capitalism is a name for the process through which the likes of Google and Facebook use their knowledge of our personal experiences as a free source of raw material. Without asking us, they convert it to behavioural data, combine it with their vast proprietary capabilities in machine learning and AI, and out of that come predictive patterns on what we are going to do and how we are going to behave under given circumstances. They sell this predicitve information in to a new kind of marketplace that trades exclusively on future predictions of our behaviour.

The author and Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff was labelled “the true prophet of the information age” by the Financial Times for her groundbreaking book, “In the Age of the Smart Machine,” a seminal work on the social, economic, and emotional consequences of computer technology published back in 1988. She is currently on an international tour to promote her latest book that took her seven years to write called “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power.” It’s a warning against unfettered manipulation and use of data we all freely, albeit sometimes unwittingly provide, and I was fortunate to catch up with her on her book tour in London.

Surveillance Capital was pioneered by Google in 2001, a time when the dotcom bubble had burst and they were under money pressures, as a way to use what they termed “digital exhaust” – their leftover data after helping advertisers to get us to click through on their online advertising. After 2001 advertisers no longer chose, they were told where their advertising would appear, scheduled by a “magic, black box of tricks.” And the advertisers must have found it was working. From 2001 to 2004 when Google went public through its IPO, their net advertising revenue grew by a staggering 3,590% (it’s on page 87 of Zuboff‘s book).

Off the back of it, future “click behaviour” has become a predictor of all behaviour. Our private and personal behaviour has been brought in to a marketplace where it is bought and sold over and over again, and we have no idea who has it or what they are doing with it.

It’s a model that was increasingly copied by tech startups as a way to speed up and maximise monetisation, and virtually everyone is doing it. Think of all your online purchases, it’s all data about you that’s packaged up and sold. And major players in other industries want to get a share of this market as well. In 2015, Ford CEO Mark Fields started speaking about how the company was thinking beyond making vehicles to being more of a transportation analytics company. They had data on 100 million Ford vehicle users around the world – where they went, what they ate, what they watched, and so much more. He wanted to combine this with financial data from Ford Credit and start to match the price/earnings ratios of Google and Facebook. 

Many of us have been dismayed and somewhat shocked, perhaps too naively, by revelations that identifying groups of key people and influencing their decisions through feeding them selected information – which may not be true – has impacted disproportionately on major political decisions. I’m particularly thinking of President Trump’s election and the UK referendum decision to leave the EU. A major theme of the best seller Homo Deus is that democracy is based on the free will of people to make up their own minds and vote accordingly, but what if that “free will” is corrupted by access to only a limited amount of the news, or even fake news?

A "Surveillance Capital" Market Sells Our Personal Behaviour DataBut what can we do? Boycotting search engines, all social media and anything else that captures personal behavioural data in an age of digital mass connectivity isn’t a viable option if we’re going to remain part of our communities. In February 2019 the German Chancellor Angela Merkel closed her Facebook account, though still uses Instagram. And the siren calls of the Internet of Things are beckoning us to go further, deeper.

Google has launched Nest Thermostats. Home temperatures can be controlled via smartphone to improve efficiency and comfort and reduce bills. It sounds good. The thermostats can also be used as a hub to connect to all other IoT devices in the home. However, all the behavioural data picked up from every device is sent to a myriad of third parties, who sell it on to even more. Zuboff reckons anyone would need to check up to a thousand privacy contracts to know what’s happening to the data the thermostat users provide for free.

And you can’t just click on “Don’t Agree” to their privacy policy, because then your thermostat won’t work. There isn’t a Nest-lite, or a Facebook-lite, or a “lite version” of any privacy policies that you can click on to say you don’t want your data used but you still want the product to function.

I’ll mention another new book, “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe” by Roger McNamee who has been a Silicon Valley investor for 35 years. A piece adapted from the book appeared recently in Time Magazine.

Tech has been McNamee’s career and passion. He had been an early adviser to Mark Zuckerberg and an early investor in Facebook. Their drive for monetisation has overwhelmed everything else and he was particularly disappointed in 2016 that Facebook only came clean when forced to, and revealed as little information as possible, “when confronted with evidence that disinformation and fake news had spread over Facebook and may have influenced a British referendum or an election in the U.S.”

Monopolistic dominance of the tech markets by Facebook, Amazon and Google has enabled them to build no-go zones around their core operations, he says, by simply buying up any competitors before they can have an impact on their bottom lines. He suggests government protection and even subsidies for tech startups, limits on the markets in which these Big Three are allowed to operate, and that individuals should be allowed to own their own data and decide for themselves who’ else is allowed to use it.

Will any of that happen? There was a public movement against the worst capitalist excesses of the Industrial Revolution, with the formation of trade unions and the development of workers’ rights that became enshrined in law. The time has come, believes Zuboff, for a similar response by people who share privacy, political and psychological interests regarding the negative aspects of the Information Revolution before it becomes too late.