Traditionally, the opportunity to make equity investments in companies has been restricted to a limited number of accredited investors who reach a minimum wealth threshold.
Unfortunately, this standard in angel and venture capital (VC) funding excludes many companies and investors from being able to participate, with data showing that the majority of investment goes to companies who are already known to the investors and who often look similar to the investors backing them. This creates significant barriers for entrepreneurs and aspiring investors alike.
“It’s been unfortunate that the majority of the population does not get to participate in investing in private companies because they don’t have enough wealth,” says ecologyst founder René Gauthier. “That’s where the biggest gains happen. It’s when you get richer, investing early on. And, yeah, it’s more risky. But the opportunity for gains is much higher.”
Enter the retail investor, someone — or even anyone — who isn’t accredited but is seeking to make equity investments in companies they believe in. The rise of equity crowdfunding, and the improvements being made as it evolves, has enabled companies to tap into a new funding marketplace that is helping to democratize investment for investors and entrepreneurs.
In June 2021 the Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA) “made targeted amendments to improve the effectiveness of start-up crowdfunding as a capital-raising tool.”
This was a game changer: it harmonized formerly disparate crowdfunding rules in the provinces, making it easier for companies to accept investment from across the country.
It also increased the maximum crowdfunding amount allowed per 12-month period, from $500,000 to $1.5 million, and increased the individual investment limit from $1,500 to up to $10,000 (with input from a registered dealer). Previously, retail investors had to contribute a minimum of $500 to participate, but now, they can get onboard many campaigns for as little as $250.
Connecting with the Crowd
One of the Canadian crowdfunding platforms leading the charge in democratizing investment is FrontFundr. Founded in 2013, it has supported over 85 campaigns that have raised more than $70 million.
“I see a strong purpose and mission here to really advance this market and make it more accessible and inclusive and exciting for everyone,” says FrontFundr CEO Peter-Paul Van Hoeken. “What we’re doing is basically unlocking the private markets and investing in startups and growth companies to the wider public as well.”
“Now equity crowdfunding is available to every Canadian,” says Lori Joyce of Betterwith Ice Cream, who is currently running a FrontFundr campaign. “Before, it only used to be available and accessible to accredited investors. Now our customers can buy into the company. So not only is this a huge marketing advantage, where you can organically grow amongst your partners, it means that it becomes affordable. And when it’s affordable, it’s accessible.”
Linda Biggs and Jayesh Vekariya, joni cofounders and crowdfunding veterans “really liked democratizing this idea that only people who hit a certain threshold in their ‘wealth’ are able to have these opportunities as accredited investors. But as a retail investor, if you have all of the information, why couldn’t you have the same opportunity?”
While many startups use equity crowdfunding to get off the ground, it can be beneficial for established companies too. Ten years into their business, Peloton Technologies is using crowdfunding as part of their overall growth plan. While they’re raising the majority of their round through traditional investment they are simultaneously raising $300,000 through retail investors.
“The obvious advantage is, it’s Canadian-based. We stay Canadian owned and that’s really important to us at this time,” says CEO and founder Craig Attiwill. “We’re going to have a very healthy investor base for networking in the future.”
Sharon Hadden took her startup, the Content Planning Company, onto IFundWomen.com to raise money. It was a smaller ask than those on FrontFundr, but the learning experience was similar.
“Just going through that entire process really reminds you that you’ve got more support than you think,” says Hadden.
That being said, it was hard to stay confident throughout the process.
“Look at other successful crowdfunding campaigns and borrow the elements that resonate.” — Sharon Hadden, Content Planning Company.
“A lot of those days where you reach out to people and no one responds, that was tough,” says Hadden. “It wasn’t a lot of hard work. It was a lot of emotional burden.”
“It feels kind of like you’re throwing a party,” says Biggs. “You’ve sent out all the invitations and then you’re at the hour … and it’s crickets, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, my God, nobody’s going to show up.’ And then slowly everyone shows up, and you’re OK, and there’s a party, and it’s happening and it’s all good. So from that perspective, it really was emotional … but it was a great experience.”
Investing in Women
While it’s not the sole means to create gender equality in investing, equity crowdfunding is one of many solutions needed to balance opportunities for entrepreneurs from all backgrounds. The State of Women’s Entrepreneurship in Canada 2020 found that “women-led businesses receive virtually none of the VC or angel investments.”
And when it comes to bank financing, “there is long-standing evidence that indicates that women are less likely to seek credit, are less [likely to] receive it and more likely to receive unfavourable terms.”
The barriers can be even higher for BIPOC women, including “Indigenous women, on reserve, who often have no ‘income’ to report and no property to use as collateral.”
The report found that some of the funding challenges female-led companies face can be due to a misalignment between the mission of their companies and the focus of VC firms.
“I would say think big. Dream big. And ask for — even though you think it’s an enormous amount of money — the money that you need to build your dream, not the amount of money that is just going to scrape by and lead to coming back asking for more.” — Linda Biggs, joni
“Women entrepreneurs are more likely to combine social with economic goals, but social enterprises are usually ignored in discussions about research, commercialization and innovation,” states the report.
This may be worsened by the pandemic, as there is a risk that “the exclusion of women from the ecosystem will be amplified by COVID as other priorities take precedence — particularly high growth, high tech businesses.”
Joyce experienced this firsthand. She anticipated that having substantial revenue from Whole Foods would make getting investment a lot easier for her sole source premium ice cream brand.
“I thought because we were growing, and we were scaling, that it would be relatively easy, especially when I got into 225 stores within six months … I actually, naively, thought I could raise capital,” says Joyce.
“I couldn’t raise a penny. So it forced me to move back home, in my mid 40s, with my parents.”
“The statistics are pretty dire,” says Biggs. “I mean, it’s fairly obvious that there is an issue in this system.”
Understanding this all too well, joni factored gender equity into their funding strategy.
“We met up with Shelley [Kuipers] from The51, which is a feminist investment group,” says Biggs. “And they were very aligned with what we’re doing for period care, and we really wanted to make sure that we had a lot of female investors.”
Together with The51 and FrontFundr, they created a funding partnership and launched their successful campaign just after International Women’s Day in March of 2021.
The result of this partnership strategy wasn’t just the investment joni needed to move forward, as the value of equity crowdfunding goes much deeper than just the dollars. Empowering customers to become investors creates an engaged team of brand advocates, who care deeply about your company and its success.
Buying Into the Brand
“What we were able to do with joni is really create a story around it and allow people to understand what we were trying to do; who we were trying to reach, what the product was,” says Biggs. “It’s not like we invented anything that new, but we were able to really leverage the story behind the brand.”
At Betterwith, Joyce receives photos from customers/investors ensuring their products are all lined up and looking their best in the freezer of local grocery stores.
“I have very, very loyal fans that believe in what Betterwith is and what we’re doing,” says Joyce.
Enabling customers who care about the issues of food security and food transparency to become investors in her company helps her create a more robust network of support for her forward-thinking brand.
Van Hoeken also promotes the value of a brand story in a successful campaign.
“The key thing that’s different to traditional channels is that it can also really work well as a combined funding and marketing effort … The more companies recognize, ‘Hey, this is a combined effort to raise funding plus marketing for my company,’ the more and the better equity crowdfunding fits for them,” says Van Hoeken.
Peloton Technologies is another big advocate for the extended value crowdfunding offers to companies.
“Doing the marketing campaigns and awareness and just getting out there and showing that you’re an organization that can take this on, you can do the marketing and the social networking around it,” says Attiwill. “Once you do that, you are going to catch the eye of private equity firms, VCs and it’s going to help you along with wherever you might need to go next.”
“Do the work to understand your investment audience. Unlike other forms of crowdfunding, investors aren’t always customers looking to be early adopters of a product or service; they could just be looking for a good investment opportunity. Your pitch and campaign messaging should explain the benefits of your business, but it should also be clear on why it’s a good investment.”
— Craig Attiwill, Peloton Technologies
In addition to the money she raised crowdfunding, Hadden also brought in more revenue during her 70-day campaign than she had during the entire previous year of business.
“I’m definitely seeing more credibility and authority around my brand … almost like, well, if 50-something people supported this business, and what they’re doing next and growing this dream, they must be a credible business,” says Hadden.
“I think that crowdfunding has to be seen as a tool in the tool belt for an entrepreneur. It’s not the only solution,” says Biggs. “Knowing that it’s there as an option is really powerful … There’s going to be more people, more diversity, more ideas being funded, because now they have a means to do it.” ′
Crowdfunding Tips for first-time investors
If you’re thinking about becoming a retail investor, it’s important to learn firsthand how equity crowdfunding works. Lori Joyce suggests these four easy steps.
- Choose an equity crowdfunding platform.
2. Find a company or product that really excites you and learn more about it.
3. Reach out to the CEO and make a connection. Make sure to have some questions ready, like: How do they plan to scale? Why is their product better? Do they have the team to execute? (Did the CEO get in touch with you and give you time to connect?)
4. If you get your questions answered and you like what you hear, proceed with an investment, usually a minimum of $250. This will help you understand the experience and the process so much better.