Crowdfunding continues to change
Once upon a time, crowdfunding was done by begging friends and family to invest in your company, then formalized online with sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo where anyone can chip in smaller amounts to get you on your way. But with so many companies launched to help you crowdfund, and so many new strategies in a rapidly growing ecosystem, what does your company need to know about the future of crowdfunding?
To answer that very question, we tapped the expertise of Kaitlyn Houk is a crowdfunding Campaign Manager at RainFactory Inc., and uses platforms such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter to launch and run some of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns to date, most notably JIBO (the world’s first family robot which raised $2.29M), SKULLY AR-1 (the world’s smartest motorcycle helmet, $2.45M), Luna (the mattress cover to make any bed smart, $1.1M), and Snap Judgment (the NPR radio show that tells stories with a beat, $209k). Her expertise is marketing and fundraising, and Houk spends her days sitting side-by-side with entrepreneurs every day to advise and execute on crowdfunding campaign strategy, inciting thousands to bring each new product vision to life. She has a BA in Political Science and Economics from the University of Virginia.
In other words, she doesn’t bleed red or blue, she bleeds green.
“Crowdfunding platforms have both flattened and broadened the fundraising landscape,” Houk opined. “Anyone with an internet connection can tap into this great fabric for raising support and acquiring customers. Even though crowdfunding is an open door for both product inventors and supporting users, it still takes agility and skill to succeed in a campaign.”
Houk works daily with clients who are “makers” and tells us that the top advancement she’s seen of late is “how these inventors and innovators progress from blueprint to finished product is in taking ideas directly to the online community for validation. This gives them the ability to use community feedback to shape their products. The low barrier to entry, the speed and ease of communication, and the wide range of channels through which we can reach out to all contributors in a campaign, combine to form a tight feedback loop that campaigners can tap into to flesh out, fund, and adapt their product or idea.”
So what is the current state of crowdfunding? Houk offers her three-point overview below:
1. Power to the crowd
This tight communication loop empowers smaller groups who usually don’t have a voice within large companies to be able to demonstrate the potential success of an idea or product. Take our client, Jibo, for example: Jibo Robot, one of the highest-funded technology campaigns on Indiegogo, came out of some of the best and brightest researchers from the MIT Social Robotics Lab. They then took their product directly to the masses and quickly found the buzz-worthy demand they needed to move forward. Jibo could then take their tidy sum of 4,800 pre-orders and $2.3 Million raised and raise another $25.3 million in a Series A round to build their business.
2. Build it together
Early-stage crowdfunding means makers can tailor their product to meet demand. There’s a discovery process that goes on when companies decide to crowdfund. Customers ask tons and tons of questions; often questions that makers have never considered before. For instance, the creators behind the SKULLY AR-1 Motorcycle Helmet have spent a long time discussing the feature sets that they believed would add the most value for potential customers. After the launch of their campaign, and the communication loop tightened, they suddenly had a large pool of motorcycle enthusiasts wanting to know about more features. Backers have a direct line of communication to the maker of the product and real input on feature sets. The SKULLY team released videos, diagrams, and performed demonstrations of other possible features, and got very valuable feedback on which features to focus on.
3. Naked in public
Many of these products fail, and when they do, they fail in a very public way. Products that fail early in their crowdfunding campaigns walk away without any funding and a very bad scorch on their egos. It is even worse if they fail AFTER receiving funding, which is the specter that hangs over any successful campaign. Communication has sped up, but not in lockstep with fulfillment, or the speed to produce and ship products. There is a time crunch within the company itself to live up to its promises.
Every crowdfunding team wants to meet their goal to launch their product. But not every crowdfunded product is able to launch. Angry investors are one thing; angry customers are another. There are innumerable campaigns that don’t launch simply by self-selection: campaigners who are remotely timid about fulfillment sometimes back out or pivot their product before coming to the spotlight. One of our clients even told me, “If I’m opening the kimono, I better look ripped.”
So what’s next? Four predictions for the future
So what will be the next advancements? How will funding be innovated in the future? In her own words below, Houk offers four predictions every brand must pay attention to:
- Building Trust – More new digital marketing firms like RainFactory are entering the space to help campaigners hone their vision, and build confidence in the product as well as the ability of the team to bring the product to life. Customers and backers are needy: constant feedback, profuse thanks, and social validation are an imperative.
- Streamlined Operations – New services are cropping up to offer accessible and affordable fulfillment systems for crowdfunding campaigns, such as BackerKit. Even the crowdfunding platform Tilt has begun to offer fulfillment services. I wouldn’t be surprised if more platforms began to do the same.
- Vocal Backers – Backers will become more comfortable with this “buy and wait” model, as long as the crowdfunding community of trust is maintained. There are even backers who feel compelled to defend the product against critics. On the other side of the same coin, backers will have better “lie detectors” to call out any crowdfunding schemes that look suspicious and vocally demand more answers.
- Simplified Legalities – The legal system will catch up. The hybrid donate-presale model will reach a level of maturity and there will be mutually agreed-upon sets of terms and conditions for launching and running a crowdfunding campaign. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are the biggest requirement enforcers right now and they will continue to be the leaders in this arena. Their Trust and Safety teams are some of the best I’ve ever worked with.
Okay, so there is actually a fifth prediction:
- Fostering Growth & Imagination – The technologies that are being created via this direct-to-consumer method are truly awe-inspiring. I am excited each day I get to go to work and help these people make products that have a meaningful impact. More exciting technologies are developed, more dreams come true, and more jobs are created: one campaign at a time.
Houk concludes, “Case in point: Go fund somebody today and you’ll have an extra skip in your step. I promise.”
What this Gamestop stock upheaval could mean for the future of finance
(BUSINESS FINANCE) Yay America! We’ve witnessed our first populist uprising in finance, all thanks to the Gamestop drama unfolding in the last week.
If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last week, chances are you’ve heard about the drama surrounding the GameStop stock. Essentially, GameStop – or that spot I used to frequent in middle school to search through bins for used N64 games – has become the epicenter for what’s being called the first populist uprising in finance. We love to hear it.
For some background, GameStop became one of the most shorted stocks on the market. Groups within Wall Street’s hedge funds, known as the short sellers, have been colluding with each other and using the media to manipulate the market – and in doing so, were able to drive down the value of specific stocks (i.e., GameStop, which was essentially put on-course for bankruptcy) and, in turn, collect billions. This is common, legal practice on Wall Street. Just in case you were wondering.
Enter Reddit’s r/WallStreetBets page; another key player in this drama. With just shy of 2 million users last week (and now with over 7.4 million), WallStreetBets is a place where amateur day traders can exchange tips on penny stocks and rake in the “tendies”. Recently, one user popularized the fact that over 100% of GameStop’s stock was being shorted for no valid reason, so many from the group decided to take action – they began buying up cheap shares of the stock and demanding that their brokers not lend their stocks to short sellers, which in turn exploded the market value of GameStop as the short sellers attempted to “cover their shorts”.
Long story short (ha!), the entire GameStop drama has resulted in at least $3.3 billion disappearing from hedge fund balance sheets. One of the Wall Street hedge funds targeted by the Redditors, Melvin Capital, had to take a $2.75 billion bailout from other industry insiders. GameStop’s stock skyrocketed from $17.25 at the beginning of the year to $325 by this past Friday – reportedly the largest gains the company has seen in 18 years.
What you should consider
- GameStop is brick-and-mortar. They sell the clunky, physical versions of games, which can be bought online with less hassle. Let’s face it; outside of the few nerds who still enjoy the experience of standing in line to be the first to buy the new game, the retailer is essentially becoming obsolete. COVID, of all things, has only expedited this process. Even with the release of new gaming consoles, such as the PS5, the likelihood of GameStop bouncing back to its former heyday is highly unlikely. Hence the term “meme stock”. With a meme stock, users chose to invest in the name of an allegiance, based on a feeling, or just “for the lulz”, not because of perceived value. Wall Street elites do this all the time (Tesla, anybody?), but with the complicity of the media so we all buy into it as well. When people say: “The stock market is just a graph of rich people’s feelings”, they’re not kidding.
- Many of the involved Redditors are likely unemployed millennials, disenfranchised by the economic fallout from the pandemic, who have sat by and watched as the rich have gotten richer. Like, so much richer. According to some, this movement is less about the financial gains (though they must be sweet) and more about screwing the shorters – it’s about pointing out how corrupt a minimally-regulated free market is when it is only truly serving the elite inner circles of Wall Street at the expense of everyone else. So why can shorters short with mainstream backing just because they’re wearing suits?
- While I wish GameStop-gate was a simple populist win, it’s important to note that the rich own most of the market shares. Though some Wall Street wealth is undoubtedly being redistributed into the pockets of Main Street right now, let us not forget that a byproduct of the Redditors’ rebellion is that the already rich stockholders are now even richer. This poses the question of if you can have a real populist financial uprising if you’re working within the current market systems in place, which are designed to feed the few and deregulated to insure it.
What does the future hold?
Good question. As of now, everyone is scrambling to make sense of what has happened; Redditors are celebrating with a sleuth of victorious memes while politicians (*cough* Janet Yellen), the hedge funds, and the media gatekeepers are calling foul play, collusion and even meddling from the Russians (LOL).
Also, can we talk about the fact that the politicians (on both sides!) who reacted so urgently to the GameStop mania were the same ones dragging their feet to come up with a stimulus checks agreement?
In addition, Robinhood — the now infamous commission-free investing tool — put a pause on GameStop and other meme stocks, like AMC, Nokia, BlackBerry, and American Airlines. Others want the FCC to get involved. The pot WOULD call the kettle black.
All this being said, I think that GameStop-gate has, in a lot of ways, opened Pandora’s box, exposing the possibility of power-shifts and new financial realities to many who might feel powerless and financially vulnerable, especially right now. That the average Reddit day trader, when properly rallied alongside her fellow troops, could give such a massive middle finger to the hedge funds and make a little extra cash along the way is truly inspiring.
I think we’re going to see more meme stock shenanigans (AMC’s stock had quadrupled at one point!), and the weeding out of greedy short sellers with the methodical drole-ness that only a subreddit could conjure. Unfortunately, I do also see an eventual crash, a bubble bursting, that will leave many investors who didn’t get out in time at a loss. And many plan on riding out the storm, when she comes, in solidarity.
My two cents
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think short selling as it stands now should be legal, nor do I think speculative buying is a good idea. It’s gambling. And it’s dangerous.
But the Government would never enforce a blanket policy against all speculative buying, not when the billionaires who reap the majority of the benefits are buddy-buddy with the media and lawmakers. Plus, how would the right, in all its free-trade glory, react to increased market regulations? Could this mania uncover the elusive partisan glue we’ve all been looking for? Oh, how the turn tables.
My take? Beyond everything else, I see this as an opportunity for something even larger. We’ve learned that everyday people like you and me can be a part of something greater; something that shakes our market’s foundations. GameStop (sorry nerds!) is a random company that doesn’t have too much appeal beyond the games they sell (the same ones you can get online).
But what if we could drive up the market price on other companies that are being shorted for the wrong reasons? Companies that we could all get behind, such as ones that pay their workers well or that share equity with their employees. What we’ve learned from this all is that with collective action directed towards the corrupt “cartel” of Wall Street’s inner circle, you can take key players down and make waves.
And, at the end of the day, isn’t that the best way to approach a free market — to make it serve the people?
6 questions to ask when considering a startup accelerator
(BUSINESS FINANCE) Accelerators can help change startups from unknowns to leaders in the industry, but does your startup need one? And if so, which one?
When I’m advising startups, I often hear the question: “which accelerator is the best fit for me?” (Besides the obvious YC or Techstars.)
First off, I’ll ask if your company would benefit from an accelerator, or if you need to pursue something for early early stage companies before you achieve more market validation, like an incubator. (Side note: If you’re curious about incubators, here is a comparison of the two.)
If you’re new to these terms, here’s a brief recap on startup accelerators:
Startup accelerators are for companies with established co-founders and market validation – companies can be anywhere from pre-revenue/self-funded, or even have raised at least $1M.
Most programs can last anywhere from 10 weeks to 3-4 months. With many top accelerators like YC and Techstars, you’ll be expected to move to the city where it’s hosted and spend 40+ hours a week minimum in their dedicated coworking space, and several accelerators will often offer housing stipends to make the move easier. These programs typically conclude with a demo day to pitch your product to a variety of community leaders, angel, and institutional investors.
If your product has achieved market validation and is in a place where you’re ready to scale, congrats!
Before you commit to an accelerator, ask yourself and the program these six questions:
1. What kind of mentorship is available?
By and large, one of the most valuable portions of an accelerator is the networking with peers and mentors. Ask what kind of mentors are available to you as a part of a program, and ask their specific involvement and the opportunities to connect. These mentors will be crucial in guiding your company’s growth. Even if they aren’t in the same industry or have solved a similar problem that your company is trying to achieve, their advice and connections could prove to be invaluable.
2. What are the perks?
You’re giving up a lot of equity to be in a program, but it doesn’t come without its perks. Many programs offer not only a cash investment or stipend for housing or other growth costs, but programs like Techstars offer free services such as web hosting costs (an upwards of ~250k), legal and accounting services, and other credits and perks that can be worth 6-7 figures. Make sure you know what you’re getting before you say yes to a program.
3. Do I want an industry-specific or industry-agnostic program?
This one is important and is directly related to #2. If your company sells CPG products, web hosting credits may not be valuable to your business, but a CPG-specific accelerator like SKU or The Brandery with direct connections to Sephora, Target, and Whole Foods may make more sense.
4. How much equity am I willing to give up?
Try not to make this a guessing game and make as many data-driven decisions on this as you can. Create a revenue and valuation model and see how much your company would benefit from the networking, fundraising opportunities, and perks offered, and see what the ROI would potentially be.
5. What are the funding and exit numbers?
This is an objective way to view the success of an accelerator: # of funding raised and exits. Of course, younger accelerators will have smaller numbers, but it’s worth looking to see if a company has raised $ after. Seed-DB is a great resource to view these numbers for hundreds of accelerators globally.
6. What do alumni think?
All accelerators are going to tout the transformative experience that is their program, and program mentors will likely have a similar narrative.
The best resource to learn the real experience of an accelerator: ask its alumni, and they’ll give you the truth. Make sure to survey both recent and more experienced alumni, as they’ll be able to speak to both the short term and long term benefits.
Personal experience: the night before I was set to hear from an accelerator on my application status, two alumni stressed to me that the time and equity investment wasn’t worth it. I consider this providence!
Finally, two items to note:
Choosing an accelerator is all about finding the right fit between you and the organization. Sadly, not all accelerators are created equal, and try to view a potential relationship with an accelerator as an investor relationship, or better yet, dating. There’s a reason the phrase “no money is better than bad money” is prevalent in the startup community.
Make sure to do your due diligence and ask the right questions to make sure a specific program is worth the investment of time, energy, and equity.
And sometimes? That may not mean an accelerator is a right fit right now or at any point, and that’s okay.
Under-representation of women in fintech: Let’s talk about it
(BUSINESS FINANCE) Representation of women in fintech remains scarce despite a prevalent population of interest. Why is this the case, and what can we do about it?
Women are 50% of the population – so why are there only 9 of us on the 2020 Forbes Fintech 50?
I’m personally shocked by how underrepresented women are in such a lucrative industry. By 2022, it’s predicted that fintech, or financial tech, will be worth $26.5 trillion, and we cannot afford to miss out.
And I’m serious when I say fintech is truly taking over. This includes payment processing, online and mobile banking, person-to-person payments (think Venmo or Cash App), financial software, to name a few. For some perspective, half of consumers use digital banking services as the primary way to manage their money. That’s a big deal.
So why does it matter that women are drastically underrepresented in leading roles at these companies?
- Women CEOs receive only 2.7% of all VC funding – that is astonishingly low, considering that the remaining 97.3% is secured by their male counterparts.
- While a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review on leadership skills found that women scored higher than men in 17 out of 19 categories (I could’ve told you that), women founders make up only 17% of fintech companies. Some of the categories tested on were:
- Bold leadership
- Taking initiative
- High integrity & honesty
- Collaboration and teamwork (this is a big one!)
- Inspiring & motivating others
If you’re a woman interested in business, tech, or entrepreneurship looking to break into the big leagues, here’s some exclusive advice from lady CEOs, founders, and COOs:
- Stay Passionate
Suneera Madhani, Founder + CEO of Fattmerchant, says: “…remember why you started and hold that close to your heart when times get tough.”
- Be Open to Learning
“Never behave as the smartest person in the room because you may miss some of the best ideas.” Says Snejina, Co-founder + CEO of Insurify.
- Trust Your Intuition
As the Founder + CEO of Tala, Shivani Siroya urges us to: “Stay excited, focused on results and be incredibly optimist. It’s okay to really believe in your gut – just make sure that you see the results with it.”
2021 is a new year full of opportunity – even though the odds are (and always have been) stacked against us, let’s have this be the year where women techies and business owners capitalize on their leadership skills. We have lost time – and profit – to account for.
Author’s Note: Thank you to CreditRepair for the linked infographic!
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