Bloomberg --via Getty Images
By Jeremy Quittner
July 5, 2016

Later this year, Indiegogo will take a giant leap into the new world of equity crowdfunding. And though it has yet to reveal its exact plan, the popular fundraising site could instantly become one of the largest platforms for such offerings.

Equity crowdfunding is an evolving sector of fundraising that has only been accessible to the general public since May, when Title III of the Jumpstart our Business Startups Act (JOBS) took effect. In a nutshell, the law lets small-time investors purchase a small equity stake in startups, which can raise up to $1 million a year through such events. Previously, only investors who had either $1 million or more in assets or an annual income of at least $200,000 could participate.

To date, crowdfunding sites such as Indiegogo have only allowed companies to raise money from customers in exchange for “perks”–early or discounted products, or other services. Title III lets companies sell actual equity. Regulators stipulate that such sales must be handled through a registered online portal, through a broker-dealer, or through a partnership with such entities. Indiegogo would not reveal whether the platform will partner with a broker-dealer, but said it is “exploring ways to implement the regulations.”

While Title III is potentially a big deal for any small business looking for alternative ways to raise cash, entrepreneurs haven’t exactly risen to the occasion. Since May, about three-dozen companies have sought to raise just over $3 million, by the calculations of Wefunder, one of the 10 funding portals authorized by federal regulators to conduct such offerings.

Yet Indiegogo has the potential to become the 800-pound gorilla when it officially launches its own equity crowdfunding service. For one thing, it comes pre-loaded with 7 million backers of 650,000 campaigns, who have collectively raised close to $1 billion over the past eight years. (About 350,000 of those campaigns have been for small business ventures, Indiegogo says.) What’s more, 15 million people who are curious about the company’s campaigns visit the site every month, according to Indiegogo.

It also won’t face competition from rival Kickstarter, which has clearly stated that it has no interest in offering equity crowdfunding to its users. “You won’t see equity investment on Kickstarter,” said Justin Kazmark, a company spokesman, in an emailed statement. “The investment model is powerful and there’s a need for it, but it’s also limiting. Our mission is to help bring creative projects to life. Not all creative ideas are meant to be investment vehicles.”

 

For the past two years, Indiegogo has been quietly adding products and services for entrepreneurs that help them build complete businesses, from their initial concept all the way through to manufacturing the finished product. Equity crowdfunding should round out the process.

“We’ve been developing products and forming partnerships to help entrepreneurs at all stages of their journey,” says David Mandelbrot, who took over as CEO from co-founder Slava Rubin in January.

Two years ago, for example, Indiegogo rolled out its InDemand service, which lets entrepreneurs continue raising money even after their campaigns have closed. The product works as a critical order management tool that lets fledgling companies keep track of sales and customers. InDemand is also not exclusive to Indiegogo campaigns, Mandelbrot says. Kickstarter users, for example, can move their completed campaigns over to the service, he says.

At the beginning of 2016, Indiegogo waded into so-called intrapreneurship, launching an enterprise platform that makes it easier for innovation teams, or simply aspiring entrepreneurs, within large companies, to test products with consumers. Whirlpool, for example, tested its Vessi home brewing kit with consumers before launching it in May. Similarly, GE frequently tests products from its product incubator FirstBuild on Indiegogo.

Indiegogo has also partnered with retailers to help them identify and invest in product ideas from budding entrepreneurs. Consumer electronics seller Brookstone, for example, has a program called Brookstone Launch that assists Indiegogo makers with product development, manufacturing, and distribution. And electronic components maker Arrow Electronics offers select tech entrepreneurs on Indiegogo free access to its planning tools, engineers, prototyping services and other resources.

“In a world of 3D printing, the Internet of Things, and just-in-time manufacturing, you can manufacture on a really small scale,” Mandelbrot says. “For a company like Arrow that has worked with really big electronics manufacturers, it’s important for them to have access to this new class of entrepreneurs who are on Indiegogo.”

Such manufacturing help is key to many crowdfunding campaigns, as up to 10% of them fail to deliver their promised products to backers, says Richard Swart, chief strategy officer for Nextgen Crowdfunding, an education and advocacy site for the crowdfunding industry.

All of the ancillary services Indiegogo now offers are particularly useful for any company building up to the phase where they want to sell equity to investors, Swart says. And when it comes to that, he expects Indiegogo to have an advantage as well.

“Clearly any platform or portal with an extensive database of users has a competitive advantage…over a smaller one,” he says.

Related: Is This the Proposal That Could Save Crowdfunding?

Mike Norman, president and co-founder of online crowdfunding portal Wefunder, says Indiegogo’s move will bring more attention to the nascent equity fundraising space. However, he argues that Wefunder has a first-mover’s advantage, as it specializes in helping companies work through what can often be a complicated process of preparing to sell equity, which includes filing forms with the SEC and making disclosures to potential investors.

“At the end of the day, it will be about the company with the best tools, that provides the best experiences to the [fundraising] companies and the investors,” he says.

Mandelbrot doesn’t necessarily disagree. He says, however, that equity crowdfunding had always been part of the plan for Indiegogo from its earliest days; former CEO Rubin lobbied hard for the passage of the JOBS Act in 2012. And now, with its millions of backers and thousands of entrepreneurs, and the passage of Title III, it’s ready to get involved.

“We know there is a strong desire on the part of Indiegogo’s entrepreneurs to raise money through investment, rather than through perk-based financing,” Mandelbrot says. “We can make it easy for them to market [an equity fundraising opportunity] to their backers, and the 15 million people who visit Indiegogo on a monthly basis.”

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