Crowdfunding small businesses and startups: An appraisal of theoretical insights and future research directions

This is an excerpt from one of my latest contributions on crowdfunding (and crowd investing). Its content was adapted for this blogpost.

Suggested citation: Camilleri, M.A. & Bresciani, S. (2022). Crowdfunding small businesses and startups: A systematic review, an appraisal of theoretical insights and future research directions, European Journal of Innovation Management, https://doi.org/10.1108/EJIM-02-2022-0060

Crowdfunding is an alternative method of raising funds that is independent from financial institutions. Individual entrepreneurs, startups and established businesses can utilize online crowdfunding platforms like Indigogo, SeedInvest and GoFundMe, among others, to access finance for new ventures or existing projects, from a large number of investors, in return for products or equity stakes.

Project initiators would usually specify their financing goals and set time frames with deadlines, for their crowdfunding campaigns. If the pre-set funding goal is not met, they will not be in a position to garner any funds for their project.

The fund-raising campaigns have to appeal to as many investors as possible. Hence, initiators ought to feature engaging content, including texts, images, photos, videos, and the like, to lure investors to support their innovative ideas, startups or business ventures. They launch fundraising campaigns through various crowdfunding platforms, in different markets, to connect with online users, thereby circumventing traditional financial institutions like banks, venture capitalists and business angels.

Therefore, the crowdfunding websites curate the offerings they receive and disintermediate traditional distribution channels by connecting online users directly with project initiators.

More individuals and organizations are turning to crowdfunding sources to raise funds for business ventures, artistic or creative projects and for medical expenses, among other purposes. Alternatively, they use them to donate financial resources to cause-related, socially and environmentally responsible projects.

The crowd-investors would usually put their money in those projects in which they believe will hold lucrative potential. They may be considered as shareholders if they provide capital finance, and contribute to the development and growth of crowdfunded projects.

There are various motivations that could attract individual or group investors to pledge their support to equity crowdfunding campaigns, peer-to-peer (P2P) lending/lending crowdfunding, and to debt-securities crowdfunding, among other crowdfunding products.

Prospective investors might be willing to be involved in the development and success of entrepreneurial projects including startups. They may be seeking a return on investment for their monetary contributions, particularly if they believe that project initiators could deliver exceptional service quality and/or are in a position to develop new technological innovations and cutting-edge products. Hence, they will usually trust and have faith in the investees’ knowledge and capabilities to foster positive change in business and society.

The following sections critically appraise two sides of the same coin. The researchers elaborate on (i) the demand for crowdfunding products, and on (ii) the supply of crowdfunding finance.

The use of crowdfunding platforms to raise capital requirements

Small businesses and startups experience difficulties in raising modest amounts of capital. External threats from the marketing environment including the state of the economy, government regulations, tax laws, labor legislation and fluctuations in interest rates, among other issues, could have devastating effects on such entities.

As a result, they may find themselves in an equity gap, if they cannot raise finance to foster innovation for their business. Their access to equity or debt financing through traditional institutions like banks and/or other financial service providers is usually very limited. Typically, they are required to provide a collateral to obtain finance, even though, young enterprises and startups with promising opportunities for potential investment may usually prefer having a lower debt/equity ratio.

In the past decade, a number of individuals, groups, organizations as well as entrepreneurs and startups resorted to crowdfunding, to finance their ideas, ventures or projects. The most popular crowdfunding products include donation-based crowdfunding, rewards-based crowdfunding, equity crowdfunding, peer-to-peer (P2P) lending/lending crowdfunding, and debt-securities crowdfunding, among others.

⚫The peer-to-peer lending is very similar to traditional borrowing from a bank as crowd investors lend money to a company with the understanding that they will be repaid with interest.  

⚫Equity crowdfunding projects may usually involve the sale of a stake of a business to a number of investors. This type of crowdfunding is very similar to venture capital finance.

⚫Investors may be drawn to rewards-based crowdfunding to receive non-financial rewards, such as goods or services, in exchange of their contributions.

⚫Alternatively, individuals may be willing to donate their funds for charitable, humanitarian or philanthropic purposes, without expecting any financial returns

Project initiators of successful crowdfunding campaigns are capable of communicating their business propositions and solutions, as they raise awareness on disruptive innovations among large audiences through digital media.

The diffusion of innovations theory suggests that there are five key elements that could influence the diffusion of a new idea (through crowdfunding platforms), including the innovation itself, adopters/users, communication/media channels, time, as well as social systems. Crowdfunding platforms allow creators to promote their projects to generate interest and to ultimately lure investors. Notwithstanding, project initiators as well as the crowdfunding investors are affected by various communication channels, including by competing organizations and regulatory institutions.

The subjective norms in society can influence the individuals’ intentions to use innovations like crowdfunding platforms. The crowdfunding projects could attract the attention of competitors, who may be quicker to develop technological innovations or substitute products, as they could have access to financial capital, economies of scale and scope, to mimic small businesses and start-ups’ ideas.

Debatably, this argumentation is synonymous with the resource-based view theory (RBV). New businesses like startups, as well as small businesses may usually possess fewer resources including liquidity, than established businesses. They may also have access to limited competences and capabilities. Notwithstanding, they may not be considered as legitimate as their larger counterparts by their stakeholders, including by the government, creditors, venture capitalists and other investors.

However, in the past decade, a number of regulatory institutions have introduced legislation in various contexts (like the U.S.’s Jumpstart Our Business Startups – JOBS Act). These laws and the revisions that followed, were intended to support early-stage companies and startups to raise their financial requirements through crowdfunding avenues.

Crowdfunding allows for the democratization of funding, as it is essentially borderless and not geographically constrained. Businesses, enterprises and startups can use crowdfunding platforms to raise funds for on their projects. They can appeal to larger audiences through the digital media.

Project initiators are encouraged to engage with online investors through crowdfunding platforms, to provide feedback relating to products or services, in order to increase their chances of reaching their financial goals. Ultimately, it is in their interest to disseminate relevant content to project backers for transparency purposes, and to improve their credentials with stakeholders.

Investments in crowd funding products

Generally, crowdfunding links the creators/proponents of projects with potential investors. The latter ones could avail of crowdfunding digital platforms to reduce their search and transaction costs. These online users hope to identify lucrative investment opportunities that could yield them attractive returns. Such investors may be drawn by high-quality, market-oriented (commercial) projects and by their rewards, as opposed to community-oriented, not-for-profit projects with social or environmental purposes, that may be promoted via low minimum prices, to appeal to sponsors.

Project initiators of commercial entities may be wary of providing details of their intellectual properties (particularly during the early stages of their crowdfunding campaigns), as they may be concerned that someone could steal their ideas, innovations and projects. They could (willingly or unwillingly) decide not to disclose material information like historic defaults or hidden costs, even after the investor becomes a member of the crowdfunding platform.

As a result, investors of crowdfunded projects may not always have adequate and sufficient information on the borrowers of finance, as crowdfunding platforms may not exercise thorough due diligence on their users. This argument is related to the reasoning behind the signaling theory. In fact, many researchers relied on this theory to explore the signals that are communicated by project creators to lure investments from crowd funders.

Notwithstanding, the most popular crowdfunding platforms may or may not operate from the same jurisdiction of the crowd-investors. Hence, they are not always offering complete protection according to local legislation and regulations. Thus, they could not guarantee the same level of comprehensive appraisals that are provided by local financial service providers. This contentious issue could lead to problems related to information asymmetry. In some circumstances, the failure to disclose material information to crowd-investors may result in near-fraudulent consequences.

Investors may usually try to find a tradeoff between potential rewards and risks from crowdfunding opportunities. They could be attracted by (higher than normal) potential returns that certain crowd-funding activities claim to offer. Therefore, they ought to be cautious and vigilant on their possible risks of default.

If equity crowdfunded projects fail, investors could not be in a position to pay back capitals and to provide any returns to their investors. Similarly, the investors of P2P crowdfunding/lending may also risk losing their funds through unsecured loans, especially if the borrowers did not require any collateral. The investors of equity financing may encounter certain difficulties, other than default. They can find out that there is no lucrative secondary market for their shares. As a result, they might find themselves liquidating them at a significant loss, or of diluting their stock value.

Conclusions

This contribution discusses about the benefits and costs of using crowdfunding platforms to raise finance, or as plausible investment options. The authors elaborate about various challenges and identify opportunities for project initiators (like small business and startups), as well as for crowd-investors.

Currently, there are just a few articles that are linking this timely topic with key theoretical underpinnings relating to technology adoption and/or innovation management (e.g. Diffusion of Innovations Theory, Technology Acceptance Model (TAM), Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB), Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA) or the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology (UTAUT), strategic management (e.g. Decision-making Theory; Goal Attainment Theory or RBV), accounting and financial reporting (E.g. Signaling Theory or Venture Quality Theory), and normative/business ethics research (e.g. Social Capital Theory, Social Responsibility Theory and Stakeholder Theory), among others.

For the time being, there are limited discursive contributions on crowdfunding of small businesses and startups. This research sought to address this gap in the academic literature. It clearly outlines the facilitators and barriers of using crowdfunding platforms for crowd sourcing and/or for crowd investing purposes, to better understand the demand / supply for crowdfunding.

In future, other researchers may explore the crowd sourcing possibilities of different types of businesses including sole proprietorships, partnerships, limited partnerships, limited liability companies (LLCs), nonprofits, and cooperatives (co-ops), among other entities. They may categorize enterprises, according to their staff count. Prospective authors could investigate the financing of micro enterprises, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), intermediate-sized enterprises and/or large-sized enterprises. Moreover, they could even distinguish among various start-ups like small business startups, scalable startups, buyable startups and/or off-shoot startups, et cetera.

A pre-publication version of this this research is available here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/362223573_Crowdfunding_small_businesses_and_startups_A_systematic_review_an_appraisal_of_theoretical_insights_and_future_research_directions

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Filed under Business, crowd investing, Crowd sourcing, Crowdfunding, Finance, Marketing, Small Business, SMEs, startups

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