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In 2009, during the financial crash, banks were no longer lending money to start-up businesses. At the same time internet technologies were improving considerably. We were heading into the world of Web 2.0, where technology used network effects to connect individuals and break down traditional intermediaries. And this lead to the birth of both rewards and equity crowdfunding.
Rewards crowdfunding is the practice of giving lower cost or exclusive items to early adopters, whereas equity crowdfunding is about selling shares in your business.
Rewards crowdfunding was pioneered by Kickstarter and allowed entrepreneurs, filmmakers, musicians and other artists to bring their ideas to life by connecting directly with their target market and getting funds from their tribe rather than diluting their own ownership or needing to borrow too much money from expensive lenders.
In the early days, it was enough that you created a pitch page. Now, there are thousands of campaigns, which means you need to spend almost as much in marketing as you would do taking a traditional route to market. As such, you now need a tribe before you run a rewards campaign, where you used to be able to build your tribe by running the campaign itself.
Equity crowdfunding kicked off when Crowdcube launched in the UK seven years ago. Unlike rewards crowdfunding, you are buying shares in a private company, rather than getting ‘stuff’ in return for your pledge. This kind of crowdfunding has been slower to take off in certain parts of the world, because there are regulations governing the sale of shares or securities.
The UK has quite a liberal approach to financial regulation, coupled with some very generous tax relief schemes for investments into early stage companies. These two things combined make the UK market the most exciting for equity crowdfunding globally.
Which is best?
I have run about a dozen rewards campaigns and several dozen equity campaigns, and I would passionately argue that equity crowdfunding is almost always the better option, with a few exceptions.
Equity crowdfunding puts money directly into the business – and it only needs to be paid back once there is an exit of some kind. With equity crowdfunding, you don’t just get a one-time customer; you get someone who wants to join your company’s journey for life (or at least the next five years until you exit).
In contrast, the cost of running a rewards campaign combined with the discounts or unique items you need to create can far outweigh the benefits of receiving money upfront. Too many companies, even the iconic Pebble Time, under-price their campaign or set too low a target, and the open and unregulated nature of a rewards campaign means no one is checking up on these companies to see if they can afford to fulfil their promises.
Rewards crowdfunding has a place – but only for companies that have properly done the maths and can definitely fulfil their promises. Whichever type you’re looking to undertake, the most important thing is that you prove your ideas and capability before you go asking for money.
There are a few exceptions
If your campaign is cause-related or a project in the arts, or if you have a really passionate community and can create something unique or exclusive for them, then it’s rewards all the way. For example:
- A theatre, art, record or music project
- A technology product that’s low cost to produce but has a high perceived value to a consumer
- You have a very passionate audience that is begging you to create something new and exclusive
- You’re a big brand looking to launch a new product to market without risking too much money on an expensive product launch
- You have enough to make your widget anyway so you’re crowdfunding for validation only
I genuinely believe all good, new ideas will be incubated through crowdfunding or crowdsourcing of some kind. Whilst the industry has had its issues, I think we’ll reach a point where a VC won’t want to back a company until it’s proven it has the potential to scale. And crowdfunding provides that evidence without too much risk on the company because it is essentially the market voting with its wallet.
Both rewards and equity campaigns are an exercise in live market research, market validation, brand awareness and tribe engagement, all in one. I believe a time will come when new ideas are trusted less if they haven’t been through this process.
Until that time, it’s up to us as entrepreneurs and crowdfunding suppliers to be responsible crowdfunders to make sure we fulfil our promises. At the moment, equity crowdfunding has enhanced levels of due diligence versus rewards campaigns and generally the success rate of equity crowdfunding alumni is much higher. So, unless you’re one of the exceptions, you should seriously check your eligibility for equity crowdfunding.