The world has caught crowdfunding fever.
Not a day goes by that I don’t get pitched to cover another niche portal or platform for crowdfunding publishing, independent TV shows, farmland investing, small business financing, or charity. The overarching idea behind all of them — providing worthy projects and businesses with otherwise unavailable access to capital — is a noble one. But, for investors and entrepreneurs alike, the landscape is bloated and overwhelming.
The movement of crowdfunding into the mainstream has been driven largely by the runaway success of Kickstarter, and a few of its publicly celebrated projects. Now, the industry association CrowdSourcing.org lists 487 global crowdfunding portals, 181 of which are in the US, not to mention the several hundred portals per category for what it calls crowdlabor, crowdcreativity, distributed knowledge, and open innovation.
Like anything else, too much of a good thing in crowdfunding is just that, too much. Before this concept can succeed, the industry is going to need a lot of contraction and even more organization.
Crowdfunding has an an enormous discovery problem. Willing investors and backers don’t know where to find the projects that appeal to their personal interests and objectives. In the same way, project creators are forced to choose among seemingly endless iterative platforms that unnecessarily silo the total available capital.
Below is just a small sample of the more obscure examples that I have been pitched recently:
- Fquare is designed to buy land from farmers and then lease it back to them
- GradSave lets parents crowdsource college savings through birthday and holiday gifts for their kids
- FitFunder lets users connect their fitness goals with charitable causes
- Unbound is kickstarter for books
- Credibles is crowdfunding services to small, sustainable food-related businesses
- Razoo helps registered nonprofit organizations crowdfund
- WorldPennyJar focuses on natural-disaster relief
- FundaGeek funds technical innovation within scientific research universities
Funding projects need to be divided into a few helpful categories, but things have gotten far too granular. Initial suggestions for categories would be: Financial Investments, Consumer Products, Content, and Social Good. Categories could also be divided along the lines of reward type, such as: Equity, Incentive, and Altruism.
The closest and most well established analog against which to compare crowdfunding portals are stock exchanges. The US, and the world for that matter, has only a handful of truly relevant exchanges. They’re divided to a certain extent by geographic region and asset class, but for the most part investors know that any investment worth their attention is going to be listed in a finite number of places.
Crowdfunding hasn’t gone through this distillation process yet, but over time it’s inevitable. The free market will ultimately select the platform winners and losers, after which the displaced projects and dollars will flow accordingly.
The next step beyond some serious contraction, needs to be an overarching discovery platform. Think of this as Google Finance (or Yahoo Finance, whichever you prefer) for crowdfunding projects. Users need to be able to search and monitor the various projects they’re most interested in, regardless of where they’re listed. Users searching for smartwatch need to find the five (or 75 depending on the week) projects that are actively raising funding, and be able to see their progress and other relevant information in a single interface.
We’re still in the early innings of the crowdfunding revolution. The laws surrounding some of the sexiest and sure to be most popular categories — like “equity crowdfunding” — are yet to be finalized. The decisions coming out of the SEC over the next six to 18 months will undoubtedly have a large influence on on how this all plays out.
The argument here isn’t explicitly for more regulation. Part of the exciting thing about crowdfunding is that it presumably offers less regulation than other financing avenues — although many will argue that playing things fast and loose introduces its own equally problematic set of issues. The fundamental problem with the current system, however, is that good projects aren’t getting funded and “good dollars” aren’t finding the projects they’re seeking.
There are a number of small improvements that will take place as this ecosystem evolves, but by far the most important of these have to do with discoverability and organization. Before things go too far, the ecosystem as a whole needs to take a step back and lay a stable foundation on which to build.
The crowdfunding ecosystem would be far better served with less “Kickstarters for Farmland” and more of this energy being put into creating a sustainable and scalable crowdfunding industry infrastructure.