Raising money for an idea is a challenge few succeed at. At Fund Wisdom our goal is to help both entrepreneurs and investors leverage innovative financial technologies to raise capital and improve returns. We interview founders to uncover tips in the process of raising capital using equity funding portals to help you select which platform to use, build your listing, gain further traction to achieve your funding goals, and avoid any pitfalls in the process. In this piece we focus on regulated non-accredited platforms. I connected to Max Weissberg in his outreach on our site regarding his listing. I go through 7 tips he shared from his journey and offer up some commentary on each.
Max Weissberg is listing equity in a film, Karaganda, on StartEngine. The film is about Vladimir, a prisoner in a Soviet prison camp on a mission to rescue his wife, also imprisoned in the Karaganda region. The film has already won several awards and raised a round of funding. It was included in the 2014 AFI DGA showcase and won 5 festival awards. It raised $32,311 on Kickstarter across 127 backers. Their listing on Start Engine has raised $149,600 from 205 investors at the time of this being written. They still have 44 days left in the round, so we expect these numbers to grow. On top of building Luftmensch Films, a New York film and television company Max works full time at Viacom as a Producer and Editor. I respect the hustle.
1. Selecting a Platform
My team and I had never heard of Crowd Equity funding until Startngine reached out and pitched their services. Raising money online? It seemed hard to believe. Like an educated consumer, I researched the platform and others in order to make the best decision. I also spoke with other projects on Startengine. One factor that led us to ultimately to choose Startengine over the others was the fees associated with other platforms. Startengine has no required fees, but charges for rounds of compliance if they exceed three. Wefunder, like Startengine, also has no fees. Republic.co requires $1500 for the Form C compliance and another $1500 for an escrow agent. It turns out Republic didn’t want us anyway because we didn’t have enough of a following. After learning about another project’s problems installing their Facebook pixel on Wefunder, we ultimately went with Startengine.
An important consideration prior to listing is the type of security you offer whether it be debt or equity which we break out some of the pros and cons of each. We focus on equity but our discussion with Max can apply to either.
Max discusses fees being a driving factor in his selection. We share side by side view of costs associated to entrepreneurs and investors. He also covers a few regulatory requirements from the SEC which we help explain. Each platform has a different vetting process to determine which companies they allow to list their offerings which we detail in each individual listing. We also offer an independent rating of platforms.
2. Listing on the Platform
As a filmmaker, nothing I’ve encountered in my professional experience has taught me how to fill out financial forms. Thankfully Startengine has transformed the “Form C” (which is filed with the SEC to officially start a project) into a fill-in-the-text boilerplate. As part of our Form C requirements, we had to figure out what the potential risks were, what our company was worth before seeking funding, and what exactly the shareholders were getting when they invested. For a tech company this is easier to explain; for a film, less so. In some cases, we copied language word-for-word from another (approved) film project on Startengine, yet this wasn’t approved by Startengine’s compliance team. The SEC often changes its requirements, so I learned from Startengine, and we were back to figuring this out for ourselves. Somehow we managed.
Crucial, of course, was keeping the costs down. Our expenses were for a CPA to do a required review ($1200) and for the SEC background checks (Total: ~$800). In total, we avoided all of our legal costs as one of our partners is a lawyer. For the most part, as long as one has well-written articles of incorporation for their company, it’s possible to bypass hiring a lawyer in order to launch a project.
This details some of the hidden costs associated with listing that are difficult to factor in from the outset. Max is lucky to have a team member with legal expertise as that would have added on. We list a few Legal and Tax experts that specialize in equity funding portals.
3. Marketing the Offering
Within our first day, we had raised nearly $20k. But I quickly learned that finding investors was not easy. Most if not all of the campaigns use some combination of Facebook and Google ads. Startengine even supplied us with useful set of keywords for targeting on Facebook: “Angel Investors, Accredited Investors, Equity Crowdfunding, and Online Investing.” Also crucial was to have video ads with a “disruptor” – something to cause someone to slow down their scrolling to watch our video. In our case, our most successful disruptor was a mafioso pointing a gun directing at the screen. Unfortunately Facebook has not always approved this ad and others, so we are frequently left to their whims whether we can raise money or not.
As it turns out, the SEC has regulations about advertising, namely not to mix financial specifics (115% re-coupment at $100 a share…) with general statements about why the project might be a good investment. At the end of the day, it’s really up to Facebook what gets seen and what doesn’t – for reasons that are seldom consistent.
Just because you had success with your listing on Kickstarter or have seen some positive initial traction does not guarantee that people will flock to your equity offering. It is helpful to establish a network of potential investors ahead of the listing as Max states Republic and others require this. Online advertisers like search engines (Google Max's example), and social platforms (Facebook and Twitter) offer great ways to target potential investors.
4. The Competition
Generally speaking, few companies are raising money on these platforms. Roughly 60-70 companies are live on Startengine. Currently 49 companies are live on Wefunder, and a few dozen more on the smaller platforms. If you peruse these sites you will inevitably start seeing ads for the campaigns in your Facebook feed. Surprisingly few films have decided to raise money through crowd equity. Based on my own experience, I don’t think many filmmakers know about raising money through crowd equity and are content to use platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo that rely on donations instead of investments. There is also the issue with paperwork, which Kickstarter does not require. To distinguish ourselves from the competition, we decided to allow people to see our budgets and script, which few projects, if any, provide.
Personally, I think it’s only a matter of time until celebrities start raising money via portals like Startengine, just as celebrities have used Kickstarter to bring attention to their own projects. Thus, anyone who starts a project now will have an easier time than after word starts to spread.
Max browsed a few of the top regulated non-accredited platforms. We are building a dashboard to help you gain insight on that data.
5. Keeping the Energy Going
One of the hardest things for any campaign is keeping the energy up when little is happening day-to-day. Taking the advice of David Jay Willis, who successfully raised money on both Wefunder and Startengine for his Christmas movie project, we created a contest on Gleam. The prize is to be a an extra in the film and people must visit our startengine page (or follow our Twitter account) to enter. In addition to this, we are actively seeking coverage on influential blogs and beginning discussions with actors who may be in the film. Updates are essential, but because Startengine now reviews every update for compliance issues, it’s difficult to post regular updates that are delayed several days.
6. Hiring the Right Marketing Vendors
From the very beginning, we were approached by small companies willing to sell us investor lists or do a large email blast on behalf of our projects. Some quick research helped us decide this was not the correct approach. We also briefly hired a Facebook marketing firm that overcharged us and had issues running our ads with the subtitles. After seeing their many mistakes, we decided to fire them. A red flag – which I should have spotted – was the (first) company’s unwillingness to connect us to previous customers. Always do your research. At the moment we are about to hire a new marketing firm to help optimize our ads.
Finding the right marketing agency can be a challenge while trying to juggle everything else Max has on his plate. Since advertising an equity offering to non-accredited investors is somewhat new these challenges are not surprising. Have a good firm to share that specializes in this feel free to share in the comments.
7. What is on the Horizon
There’s no doubt that regulation crowd equity funding is here to stay. Startengine claims to have raised more than $100 million and funded more than 275 companies. Wefunder has also crossed the $100 million mark, having funded 312 startups. Despite the benefit the 2016 JOBS act has had on allowing companies like ours to raise money, many issues remain. One investor wanted to invest in our company outside our Startengine offering through a Reg D. But we were forced to reject the investment because he wasn’t an accredited investor, which the law requires, and had already exceeded his allowed investment based on net worth. Despite being a “free” country, our investments are still heavily regulated by the SEC. Thankfully we haven’t spent any money on lawyers to file our Form C and Reg D, but most entrepreneurs will likely not have the patience to sift through the SEC’s unfriendly website.
Data on the industry is challenging to qualify. I discuss some of the issues in our rating of top platforms as we build the dashboard. I really appreciate Max sharing so much with us. I encourage you to check out his offering: Karaganda, on StartEngine.