What Is Crowdfunding? Definition & Examples

By Rebecca Lake · July 28, 2023 · 9 minute read

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What Is Crowdfunding? Definition & Examples

Crowdfunding allows businesses to raise capital by pooling together small amounts of money from many investors. This can include private investors, institutional investors, friends, and family. There are different types of crowdfunding, but they tend to share a common goal: helping entrepreneurs raise money for their business.

Entrepreneurs may raise money from the public through social media platforms or crowdfunding websites. This is an alternate take on the traditional methods of financing a business through equity or debt. Crowdfunding offers some advantages to business owners who may not qualify for traditional loans or would prefer to avoid them. There are, however, some potential downsides to know if you’re interested in exploring crowdfunding for business.

What Is Crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding is more or less exactly what it sounds like: funding that comes from the crowd. Note, though, that regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have their own definition of crowdfunding — but for our purposes, a broad definition will do the trick. Generally, crowdfunding for business is subject to federal securities laws. That means any efforts to raise capital through the crowd require SEC registration.


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History of Crowdfunding

The concept of raising capital as a collective effort is not a new one.

For example, Ireland launched several loan funds in the 1700s and 1800s to help less-advantaged people gain access to credit. A group of wealthier citizens pooled their money together to provide the funding for those loans.

More recently, online crowdfunding began at the start of this century. In 2003, ArtistShare became the first crowdfunding website, allowing people to collectively fund the efforts of artists. At the time, the platform used the term “fan-funding” rather than crowdfunding to describe its mission.

In 2006, entrepreneur Michael Sullivan coined the term “crowdfunding,” using it to describe an ultimately failed video-blog project for which he was seeking backers.

Crowdfunding began to move into the mainstream in 2008 and 2009, with the launch of companies such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter, respectively. Those websites allow supporters to help people build projects or businesses, but they do not receive equity in return.

In 2012, President Barack Obama signed into law the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, which included a provision allowing equity crowdfunding. This permitted early-stage businesses to sell securities to raise funds via online platforms. The SEC followed up with the adoption of Regulation Crowdfunding to oversee the crowdfunding provisions included in the JOBS Act.

How Does Crowdfunding Work?

In general, crowdfunding works by allowing multiple people to contribute money to a common cause. To launch a campaign, an entrepreneur will set up an account on an online crowdfunding platform.

Instead of presenting their product or service and their business plan to professional investors like venture capital firms, they’ll share it with the public and appeal for funds from them. The entrepreneurs will typically select a time period during which the investors can put money into the campaign to help it achieve its crowdfunding goal.

Crowdfunding is not a loan, in the traditional sense. The entrepreneur does not get the money they need to launch or scale your business from a lender. Instead, they tap into capital markets sourced from a group of people, which can include people they know as well as strangers.

With crowdfunding, anyone can invest but there are limits on the amount that can be invested in Regulation Crowdfunding during a 12-month period. These limits reflect their net worth and income.

Here’s a brief look at how crowdfunding works:

•   If either your annual income or net worth is less than $107,000 you can invest up to the greater of either $2,200 or 5% of the lesser of your annual income or net worth during any 12-month period.

•   If both your annual income and net worth are equal to or more than $107,000 you can invest up to 10% of your income or net worth, whichever is less but not more than $107,000 during any 12-month period.

If you’re an accredited investor, there are no limits on how much you can invest. An accredited investor has earned income of at least $200,000 ($300,000 for married couples) in each of the two prior years and a net worth of over $1 million. Individuals who hold certain financial professional certifications can also get accredited investor status.

Crowdfunding vs IPO

It’s important to note that crowdfunding is not the same as launching an Initial Public Offering (IPO). IPOs involve taking a company public and offering shares to investors through a new stock issuance. This is another way businesses can raise capital.

The IPO process begins with getting an accurate business valuation. Once a company goes public, an IPO lock-up period prevents insiders who already own shares from selling them for a certain time period. This period may last anywhere from 90 to 180 days. When it’s over, investors can buy and sell shares of the company on public exchanges.

For businesses, an IPO could be an effective way to raise capital if there’s sufficient demand among investors who are interested in buying stock at IPO price. Meanwhile, IPO investing may be attractive to investors who are interested in getting on the ground floor of start-ups and early-stage companies.

How Many Types of Crowdfunding Are There?

There are different types of crowdfunding you can use to raise capital for your business. Each one works differently, though entrepreneurs may choose to use one or all of them for business fundraising. Here’s a closer look at how the various types of crowdfunding work.

Rewards-Based Crowdfunding

Rewards-based crowdfunding allows you to raise capital from the crowd in exchange for some type of reward. For example, say you’re launching a start-up that produces eco-friendly water bottles. In exchange for funding your campaign, you may choose to offer your backers samples of your product.

This type of crowdfunding can be helpful for testing the waters, so to speak, to gauge interest in your product. If your campaign succeeds, that could be a sign that there’s sufficient consumer interest in your offerings. But if your efforts to raise capital fizzle, it could mean your idea needs some tweaking.

Donation-Based Crowdfunding

Donation-based crowdfunding allows you to raise funds on a donation basis, with no rewards offered. With this type of crowdfunding, you’re asking people to give money to your cause. Succeeding with this type of crowdfunding campaign may depend less on the product or service you’re trying to launch than on the story behind your business.

Equity Crowdfunding

Equity crowdfunding allows you to raise capital for your business by offering unlisted shares or equity in your business to investors. This is the type of crowdfunding that falls under the Regulation Crowdfunding heading.

Equity crowdfunding can be better than rewards-based or donation-based crowdfunding if you need to raise large amounts of money for your business. The tradeoff, however, is that you have to be sure that you’re observing SEC regulations for launching this type of campaign and you’ll need to spend time carefully determining the value of your business.

Peer-to-Peer Lending

Peer-to-peer (P2P) lending is another type of crowdfunding that allows businesses to raise capital through pooled loans. With this kind of crowdfunding, you borrow money from a group of investors. You then pay that money back over time with interest.

Getting a peer-to-peer loan may be preferable if you’d rather not give up equity shares in the business or deal with regulatory issues. And a P2P loan may be easier to qualify for compared to traditional business loans.

There is, however, the cost to consider. If you have a lower credit score, you could end up with a higher interest rate which would make this type of loan more expensive.

Pros and Cons of Crowdfunding

Relying on different crowdfunding methods can benefit businesses in a number of ways. Companies may lean toward crowdfunding in lieu of other financing methods, including debt financing with loans or equity financing through angel investors or venture capitalists. There are, however, some potential drawbacks associated with crowdfunding for business. Here’s a quick rundown of how both sides compare.

Crowdfunding Pros

•   Raise capital without trading equity. Venture capital and angel investments require businesses to trade equity or ownership shares for capital. Depending on the types of crowdfunding you’re using, you may not have to give up any ownership to get the capital you need.

•   Increased visibility. Launching a crowdfunding campaign online through a funding platform and/or social media could help attract attention from investors and potential clients or customers alike, increasing brand awareness.

•   Get funding when you can’t qualify for loans. If you’re having trouble getting approved for a business loan or start-up loan, crowdfunding could help you access the capital you need without having to meet a lender’s strict standards.

Crowdfunding Cons

•   Requires time and effort. Launching a successful crowdfunding campaign means doing your research to understand who your campaign is likely to reach and what kind of response it’s likely to get. In that sense, it can seem more complicated than filling out a loan application.

•   No guarantees. Using crowdfunding to raise capital for your business is risky because there’s no guarantee that your campaign will attract the type or number of investors you need. It’s possible that you may put in a lot of work to promote a campaign only to come up short with funding.

•   Fees. Crowdfunding platforms typically charge fees to launch and run a campaign. The fees can vary from platform to platform but it’s important to factor the costs in if you’re considering this fundraising method.

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How to Decide If Crowdfunding Is Right for Your Business

If you look at some of the most successful crowdfunding examples, you’ll see that it’s possible for companies to raise large amounts of capital this way. Some of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns, in terms of outpacing their original funding goals, include:

•   The Micro, a 3D printer that raised $3.4 million in 11 minutes, easily surpassing its original $50,000 fundraising goal

•   Reading Rainbow, which raised over $5 million and broke the Kickstarter record for having the most backers of any project

•   Pono, which met its $800,000 goal within a day of campaign launch and went on to raise more than $6 million

•   Pebble smartwatch, which with more than $10 million raised is the most funded Kickstarter campaign of all time

Whether crowdfunding, an IPO, or some other source of capital is right for your business depends on how much capital you need to raise, whether you’re interested in or able to qualify for loans, and what types of crowdfunding you’re interested in. Weighing the pros and cons and comparing crowdfunding to other types of equity and debt financing can help you decide what may work best for your business.

The Takeaway

Crowdfunding involves raising capital for a business venture by soliciting a large number of small investors. Crowdfunding can also have appeal for investors as well, though it’s important to understand how SEC regulations work. It has pros and cons for both entrepreneurs and investors.

If you’re interested in funding up-and-coming companies without having to observe net worth and income requirements, IPO investing could make more sense. But that also comes with its pros and cons, and some significant risks.

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Photo credit: iStock/oatawa

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