If something’s involves cash, there’s a good bet it can be crowdfunded. Startups? Check. Arts projects? Check. Charity? Check. And in many of these categories, there’s multiple platforms competing to capture investor attention. This is a trend that’s likely to accelerate as regulators continue to suss out guidelines around how investments can be marketed and who is eligible to participate.
One category that has been getting increasing attention is crowdfunding for real estate investments. Real estate is more relatable to the average individual than, say, a high tech startup, the theory goes. Also, if a real estate deal goes bad, there’s typically a physical asset underlying the investment that means investors at least get some of their money back. (As always, mileage may vary).
Los Angeles-based ForeFund Capital is the latest portal to join the highly competitive space. The company differentiates itself from the competition in a number of ways. First, it doesn’t filter – or “curate” in industry parlance – the deals on its platform (other than to remove suspected fraud).
“The other platforms in this category have taken the approach of being salespersons for other people’s deals. They’re essentially picking winners and losers,” says ForeFund co-founder Todd DiPaola. “We take the opposite approach. We want to be hands off, like Yelp plus the MLS for commercial real estate. We want to be the introduction engine.”
Like Yelp, ForeFund hopes to create a reputation marketplace for those raising capital through crowdfunding. In the early stages, this will take the form of optional “verified seller” profiles, in which ForeFund collects a fee from the deal sponsor to complete a background check on each deal sponsor, including checking criminal records, tax records, and other relevant databases. The model is analogous to if Twitter decided to charge users for the blue check mark that signifies verified accounts.
Longer term, the goal is that deal participants will leave feedback on each deal sponsor and create a reputational score that future investors can consult before deciding to participate in a transaction. And ultimately, ForeFund hopes to track the financial performance of the deals on its platform, although this will take years to unfold and may suffer from transparency and standardization issues, even once multi-year deals have run their course.
“This is something that has always taken place in the shadows, as mandated by financial regulations,” DiPaola says. “Investors weren’t at liberty to publish their returns and solicit new investors based on this data. Now they can, and we think that this will democratize the industry.”
ForeFund is atypical among crowdfunding platforms in another significant way. Rather than taking the role of a broker dealer, and thus collecting a commission on capital invested through its platform, it’s essentially positioning itself as a marketing and lead generation agency. Deal sponsors can list their investment opportunities for free on the site. But they will have to pay ForeFund to drive traffic these deals, something the company’s believes it is better equipped to do than anyone else in the industry.
That’s because Todd DiPaola and his brother Mark have built two successful performance marketing startups in the past. The first, Vantage Media, was a search advertising optimization company, which the brothers exited when it merged with competitor BrokersWeb in 2011. The pair currently run inMarket, a mobile marketing startup that works with large consumer brands like Nestle, Proctor & Gamble, and Unilever to acquire customers at the point of decision. With this background in online customer acquisition Todd partnered up with his younger brother Neil DiPaola, an experienced real estate investor, in the creation of ForeFund.
“Leadgen,” short for lead generation, can be a dirty word in online advertising circles. And it’s sure to ruffle even more feathers in the notoriously conservative financial community policed by the SEC and FINRA. But thanks to the JOBS Act, ForeFund’s model is entirely legal, if done thoughtfully, and has the potential to be truly impactful for real estate entrepreneurs. But that thoughtful execution is a big “if.” Based on current regulations, ForeFund deals will only be available to accredited investors.
The site has been live for just four weeks now, meaning there is little to no data from which to draw conclusions about the viability of the ForeFund model. The company has managed to attract nearly a dozen deals willing to play the role of guinea pig. Whether they ultimately raise the desired funding will depend in part on ForeFund’s success in driving qualified investors to the site. It will also depend on the quality of the deals, which to reiterate, ForeFund doesn’t vouch for.
The DiPaolas hope to have more than 100 deals on the platform at any given time by a year from now. Given the nature of investing, some of these deals are likely to work out – however one chooses to measure it – while more are bound to fail. But this was the case before crowdfunding was legalized. ForeFund and others in its category are simply dragging things out of the shadows.
The reality is that both sides of the real estate investment marketplace could benefit from a more efficient solution for connecting willing investors with transactions in search of capital. The fact that entrepreneurs can now market their deals, and would be investors can now “search” for these deals, opens up a whole new world for those able use technology to match the two.
“Each successful company I’ve built has been tied to a new digital marketing channel,” DiPaola says. “Vantage Media was tied to the emergence of search, and inMarket to mobile. ForeFund is capitalizing on the transformation around direct solicitation. And real estate is a multi-$100 billion industry that has never been able to market in the past.”
It may be unseemly at first, and there may be growing pains, but crowdfunding is part of the new reality. Applying performance marketing to this arena is the next logical step.