scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Crowdfunding sites are letting you get something new: slice of profits

Donors who helped Oculus raise cash on Kickstarter could not have known others would later reap millions when Facebook decided to buy the virtual reality company. Jeff Chiu /Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook’s $2.3 billion deal for Oculus VR left the 9,522 backers of the startup’s online fund-raising campaign with T-shirts and trial products.

Initially, Oculus raised cash on Kickstarter, a service that rewards donors with test versions of its wares and other token compensation.

But newer crowdfunding sites are giving investors the chance to earn something else: money.

CircleUp Network, for example, offers equity in private companies, while Funding Circle lets investors buy company debt. And recent college graduates can turn to Social Finance to refinance their loans with help from alumni.

The crowdfunding market is taking off, altering how capital gets deployed. Projects, companies, and individuals are flocking to the Web in search of funds — instead of tapping banks and big financial companies.


And regulators are hopping on board, at a measured pace, by loosening restrictions on how companies raise money and on requirements for investors.

‘‘It’s going to be a big market, and it’s going to change how a lot of small businesses finance themselves,’’ said Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business.

In all, online crowdfunding jumped 89 percent to about $5.1 billion last year, according to Massolution, a research firm.

The appeal goes well beyond the United States. In developing markets, where smartphones and high-speed Internet services are being rapidly adopted, crowdfunding may attract as much as $96 billion a year by 2025, with China representing about half that amount, according to a 2013 report from the World Bank.

A crowdfunding pioneer is New York-based Kickstarter, which lets filmmakers, hardware manufacturers, and skate-park designers — to name just a few — raise money from supporters.

More than 59,000 projects have raised a total of over $1 billion on Kickstarter since the site debuted five years ago. A rival, Indiegogo Inc., has brought in millions of dollars for thousands of campaigns worldwide since 2008, according to its website.


Oculus raised $2.4 million on Kickstarter in 2012 for the development of its virtual-reality gaming goggles, with donations ranging from $10 to more than $5,000. Low-end supporters received a special thanks or a poster, while at the $300 level donors got a developer kit.

‘‘Nobody thought when they donated . . . that there was a stock certificate coming in the envelope,’’ said Kendall Almerico, the chief executive of FundHub, which provides compliance services for crowdfunded companies.

Facebook Inc. agreed to buy Irvine, Calif.-based Oculus for more than $2 billion last month, 18 months after the Kickstarter campaign. The deal will line the pockets of founders and venture investors with hundreds of millions of dollars.

CircleUp represents a different model, encouraging crowdfunders to partake of the profits. On March 26, the day after the Facebook-Oculus deal was announced, San Francisco-based CircleUp said it had raised $14 million in venture funding to expand its service for letting online contributors buy stock in startups.

Since opening its site in April 2012, CircleUp has helped more than 30 companies raise over $30 million, mostly in the consumer goods and retail markets.

More than 60 companies are currently seeking capital on the site, which connects startups with investors.

‘‘When you have someone who’s an equity investor, they go to greater lengths to grow the business,’’ said Matt Clifford, cofounder of San Diego-based Barnana, which turned to CircleUp for financing late last year. ‘‘We look at investors as partners; we’re in this together.’’


Barnana, a seller of organic banana-based snacks, used CircleUp to link up with investors whom it would not otherwise find. The company raised $1 million, with some of that money coming via CircleUp, to fund its supply chain and inventory.

Barnana’s plain chewy banana bites sell for $3.99 a bag, and chocolate-covered bites sell for $1 more at retailers including Whole Foods Market Inc. and Wegmans Food Markets Inc.

Under current laws, only accredited investors — such as large institutions and individuals with a net worth higher than $1 million — are eligible to purchase equity in startups. That’s poised to change when the Securities and Exchange Commission institutes rules from the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act.

The JOBS Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2012, allows nonaccredited investors to put a small part of their net worth into crowdfunded startups, and companies will be able to raise as much as $1 million a year through such campaigns.

The proposed rules would require crowdfunding to take place online through an entity that provides a forum for investors to ask questions and find information about a deal.

While the SEC plans to issue its final rule in October, the JOBS Act has already reduced restrictions on so-called general solicitation, allowing companies such as Barnana to publicly promote their fund-raising.

Crowdfunding is also shaking up the debt markets.

LendingClub Corp. and Prosper Marketplace Inc. have grown by giving individuals the ability to buy pieces of consumer loans online. And Social Finance, or SoFi, is letting college graduates refinance debt at lower rates by turning alumni from 2,200 schools into lenders. The investors make money as loans are repaid.


Sam Hodges graduated from Stanford University in 2011 with two master’s degrees — along with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, payable to the government and private institutions.

With SoFi, Hodges’s interest rate was cut by a quarter to about 6 percent, and the number of payments he made each month was reduced from five to one.

As important as the money, SoFi gets involved with customers on both sides of the transaction, planning dinners and networking events to connect lenders and borrowers.

‘‘It’s a community of like-minded people at your career stage and further along, who value education and helping each other succeed professionally,’’ Hodges said. ‘‘People who succeed professionally can pay off their student debt.’’

SoFi, of San Francisco, said April 3 that it had raised $80 million from investors, including Discovery Capital Management and Facebook backer Peter Thiel.

Hodges’s role in crowdfunding is more than just as a borrower. He cofounded the US arm of Funding Circle, a provider of business loans to companies so small that most banks aren’t interested in lending to them. Funding Circle, started in the United Kingdom in 2010, has funded more than $420 million in loans.

For Hodges, it’s all part of the same theme: New Web-based platforms are, in a growing number of cases, displacing traditional financial institutions.


‘‘There’s been a structural pullback by banks and other existing lenders from many credit opportunities,’’ Hodges said. ‘‘And there’s investor appetite for direct investment opportunities, particularly ones with yield.’’