Crowdfunding is another one of those things that went, seemingly overnight, from esoteric idea to huge industry. It was actually nine years from when, strictly speaking, crowdfunding was not illegal to when it actually became possible for people of ordinary means to invest in startups they believe in, as Jonny Price, VP of Fundraising at Wefunder, explains below.
Wefunder is now the largest platform for community round fundraising. Since March 2021, when the SEC released updated rules on crowdfunding, Wefunder has quadrupled the amount of fundraising on the platform and 2022 will be the biggest year yet. More than $5 billion has been raised by more than 1,800 founders on Wefunder, of which one-third was raised in 2021, and the fundraising is increasing this year.
We asked Jonny Price some questions about the origins and future of equity crowdfunding, and how Wefunder figures in.
Grit Daily: The ability for every day investors to be able to invest in startups they love has only been in existence for a few years. Can you give us a short regulatory history and tell us how those changes have affected Wefunder?
Jonny Price: Back in 2010, Wefunder’s co-founders were keen to invest in their friends’ startups, but were frustrated that this opportunity was only available to accredited investors (i.e. the richest 5% of the population). They could “invest” $10,000 on a roulette table in Vegas, but they couldn’t invest $10,000 in their smart friend’s startup.
So they lobbied Congress to change the law, and in 2012 the JOBS Act was passed. It took the SEC four years to roll out the Regulation Crowdfunding rules, but in May 2016, for the first time in 80 years, non-accredited investors were allowed to invest in startups they loved.
But the laws that went into effect in 2016 had some significant challenges. It took five more (long!) years for the SEC to update the rules, but in March 2021 new Regulation Crowdfunding guidelines were unveiled. These new laws were much more favorable to both founders and investors. And so over the last year, many more (and increasingly prestigious) startups have been comfortable and excited to raise a Community Round from their customers and fans, alongside traditional VCs and angels.
We’re over a decade into the journey. But in many respects, we’re just now getting started.
Grit Daily: About half the money ever raised on Wefunder was raised in 2021, and about a third of all the founders you’ve worked with, you worked with in 2021. Was that a pandemic perturbation or a sign of what lays ahead for Wefunder generally?
Jonny Price: Wefunder investment volume grew significantly (around 4x) in the last year and our market share increased to 40% of the Regulation Crowdfunding sector so far in 2022. This growth was driven less by the pandemic, and more by the law changes referenced above. Since March 2021, startups have been able to raise $5 million per year on Wefunder (previously $1.07 million). We can now also roll investors up to one SPV on the cap table, and launch Community Rounds much more quickly. As this new concept of Community Rounds becomes more and more normalized, and a mark of prestige for companies, we expect this growth to continue rapidly.
Grit Daily: What is the difference between crowdfunding and a Community Round?
Jonny Price: When most people say “crowdfunding,” they think of Kickstarter. But investors in a Community Round are getting equity in the companies they’re investing in through the Wefunder platform. You can call Wefunder rounds “equity crowdfunding” or “investment crowdfunding.” And the SEC exemption is called “Regulation Crowdfunding.” But since we helped create the space, we feel like we can rename it, and we like “Community Rounds” – both because founders are going to be most likely (and excited to) raise capital from their existing community of users, customers and supporters, and because Community Rounds enable founders to build stronger ties among new and existing members of their communities.
Wefunder is leading the movement to rebrand equity crowdfunding as Community Rounds, and mainstream the concept for any startup that is intent on building a stronger community of customers and evangelists. A Community Round is a funding round where anyone—including customers, users, community members, friends, and family—can invest in a startup for as little as $100.
We are in the middle of trying to orchestrate a repositioning of the entire industry, which is a lot of fun. We just launched communityround.com, a place to showcase the venture funded startups that have decided to do a Community Round and have successfully raised from their community.
Grit Daily: At what point in the development of a company does it turn to Wefunder?
Jonny Price: We are an open platform — local coffee shops are raising $50,000 from their friends and family on Wefunder and venture-backed YC startups are raising $5 million in a few hours. Mercury is a great example of a later-stage company that raised a $120 million Series B, and then opened up a $5 million allocation for their customers to invest.
We would love founders to run Community Rounds on Wefunder, through Pre-Seed, Seed, Series A, B, C, etc. From our perspective, every time a startup raises capital, they should reserve some allocation for their users and fans. Both because it will accelerate their growth (generally delighting your customers is a good thing to do), and because it’s a good thing to do.
Grit Daily: What does Wefunder look for in companies when it is deciding who to work with?
Jonny Price: We are a pretty open platform, but companies with communities or audiences that really love them will find it easier to raise capital on Wefunder. Currently, we can only work with companies legally incorporated in the U.S., although we will be expanding into the European Union in the coming weeks.
Every company must share high-level financial information on their Wefunder profile (a legal requirement for Regulation Crowdfunding), and have a Lead Investor who helps to negotiate the terms of the round. Typically, Wefunder Lead Investors are investing around 5% of the Wefunder round.
Grit Daily: What motivates people to participate in investing in a particular company or a company to raise on Wefunder?
Jonny Price: One of the cool things about democracy is that investors can have a kaleidoscope of motivations. Most VC firms are pretty narrowly focused on maximizing financial returns for their LPs. But while many Wefunder investors are similarly motivated by financial returns, many more are motivated by other factors. Maybe they believe in the founder and want to show their support, maybe they really want this restaurant to open up in their neighborhood. If you read the messages that investors send to the founders they’re investing in – for companies like Lil Libros, LEAH Labs or Atom Limbs – it’s pretty inspiring.
For founders, there are two main reasons to raise on Wefunder. Firstly, many founders appreciate that we make it easier for them to raise capital – by allowing them to raise from 100% of the population vs. just the wealthiest 5%; by enabling them to publicly promote the offering (e.g. on social media, email, in the media, etc.); and by putting them in front of 1.4 million Wefunder investors. But secondly, founders that don’t really need the money see a lot of value in bringing on their customers and community as investors in their company. Like us, they believe this will make them more loyal customers, and more passionate brand ambassadors.
Plus, some founders think it’s cool that – if they are going to work for a decade to build an awesome company – they get to make their earliest supporters and champions money, as well as some rich people.
Grit Daily: Any last points you want to address that I haven’t asked about?
Jonny Price: Wefunder is a Public Benefit Corporation with a goal to fund 20,000 more founders by 2029. You can read our Charter here, and our Impact Report here. One of the things we’re excited about is using a more democratic approach to startup investing to level the playing field for founders raising capital. Less than 3% of VC funding currently goes to female-only founding teams, vs. over 80% to male-only founding teams. 1% goes to black founders, and 77% is concentrated in just three states (California, New York and Massachusetts). By enabling women of color in Tennessee (where I live) to invest in companies they love, we hope to make it easier for historically-underrepresented founders to raise capital.
If you’re passionate about startups, it’s easy to become an angel investor in a startup you love for as little as $100 on Wefunder.
And if you’re a founder looking to raise capital, we can’t think of a better way to delight your customers, and build stronger ties among your community, than by letting them invest in your startup, alongside VCs and conventional angels.
We have a big goal at Wefunder. To fix capitalism. We hope to have you join us in doing that!