Is it possible that investors will second guess putting their cash into Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) in favour of Crowdfunding? Why hasn’t South Africa got a Real Estate Crowdfunding platform? Shouldn’t someone be considering it?
It may seem unlikely that anyone will waver in favour of Crowdfundings whilst pondering investing in REITs right now, especially in South Africa since no such option exists, but already in the US, Real Estate Crowdfunding platforms have emerged. For instance, Fundrise was founded by Ben and Dan Miller, who spent the last few years building up a booming commercial real estate business. Frustrated with Wall Street investors, the brothers decided to build Fundrise to democratize the process of investing in commercial real estate.
Given the novelty of Crowdfunding many remain in the dark. According to Wikipedia Crowdfunding, or hyper funding “describes the collective effort of individuals who network and pool their resources, usually via the Internet, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations.” Crowdfunding is utilised widely to fund blogs, political campaigns, scientific research, start-up companies, music, the arts, as well as so called Angel Investing and now even real estate.
Ben Miller of Fundrise: “We felt that the private equity funds we looked to raise money from typically had no natural connection to the neighbourhood buildings we were developing,” So the brothers cut out the traditional middlemen and created the opportunity for direct investment. Now Ben says they believe that Fundrise “provides a platform that can revolutionize who influences neighbourhood development by giving the general public the opportunity to invest in and own local real estate and businesses.”
Forbes estimates that annual Crowdfunding transactions go as high as $500 billion annually compared to 2011’s $1.5 billion (anticipated to be $3 billion in 2012). If Crowdfunding even begins to approach that scale, it will completely change the landscape for start-up financing.
To get one’s head around the concept of Crowdfunding a trip back in time may be required. Wiki describes Crowdfunding as having an historical antecedent in the 18th century idea of subscription. Back in the day many artists and writers found it difficult to find publishers for their books, and instead persuaded large numbers of wealthy benefactors to ‘subscribe’ in advance to their production.
Today Rock groups like Marillion and Electric Eel shock have funded tours and albums using Crowdfunding platforms. Independent films are booming thanks to raising funds with Crowdfunding.
In essence Crowdfunding is a form of “Micro patronage”, a system in which the public directly supports the work of others, donating via the Internet. This is as opposed to traditional patronage now many “patrons” can donate small amounts, rather than a small number of patrons making larger contributions.
Sticking with our example, how does Fundrise work? The first offering on the site allows users to buy shares in 1351 H Street NE , a restaurant location on the booming H Street Corridor in Washington DC. The building is leased to Maketto that combines a Japanese-themed culinary “night market” with a clothing boutique for DURKL, a popular DC-based street-wear company. By investing in the project, you get a portion of the 10 year lease proceeds (projected to be 8.4% year), a portion of the profits of Maketto, and a portion of the future appreciation of the building.
Allen Gannett of TNW explains about Fundrise thus: a $100 share qualifies you for Kick-starter-style rewards, as well as access to shareholder events and parties. For $1000, you get a 10% discount on all food purchases and DURKL clothes and for $10,000, you get an annual dinner prepared by their chef. By combining economic rewards with Kick-starter-style benefits, Maketto gains a population of customers who are literally invested in its success. Ben explained that “by giving the neighbourhood and potential customers the opportunity to become your partner, Fundrise creates a whole new form of brand loyalty.
Other African countries are emerging as if Crowdfunding was designed for Africa. Countries long considered on the periphery of the world economy are benefiting. “We want to get Africans into the crowdfunding space to invest in Africa’s own start-ups,” said Munyaradzi Chiura, head of GrowVC’s Africa operations in Harare, Zimbabwe to Crowdsourcing.org. “Crowdfunding is particularly suited to the African context because the amounts are small, thereby reducing the risk, and investors are not going it alone.” Projects in which “anyone can invest” could receive backing from outside Africa.
South Africa’s has an important Crowdfunding platform in Crowdinvest. Investing with the businesses it backs may allow unusual rewards: investors in a film, for example, would get walk-on roles or on-screen credits. On the other hand, it also offers more conventional schemes, with investors in small firms and start-ups getting a share of the profits or of the company’s ownership. It runs checks on any business wanting to register: “It’s not open to anyone to upload a pitch,” said CEO and founder Anton Breytenbach. Crowdinvest returns the funds to users if the full amount sought isn’t raised, after which the project will shut down.
Considering that the US leads the way in so much, it’s worth noting that this year, President Barack Obama signed the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Start-ups) Act; this piece of legislation effectively lifted a previous ban against public solicitation for private companies raising funds. As of August 13, 2012, the Securities Exchange Commission has yet to set rules in place regarding equity Crowdfunding campaigns involving unaccredited investors for private companies; however, rules are expected to be set by January 1, 2013. Currently, the JOBS Act allows accredited investors to invest in equity Crowdfunding campaigns. In South Africa no such legal framework has been ventured and so far no one has challenged existing legislation that may impede the growth of Crowdfunding.
Considering the ups and downs, one has to look favourably on Crowdfunding in that it allows good ideas which do not fit the pattern required by conventional financiers to break through and attract funds through the ‘wisdom’ of the crowd. Proponents also identify a potential outcome of Crowdfunding as an exponential increase in available venture capital. On the down side, business is required to disclose the idea for which funding is sought in public at a very early stage. This exposes the marketer of the idea to the risk of the idea being copied and developed ahead of them by better-financed competitors.
So is there someone in South Africa ready to take on Crowdfunded real estate? It may not hold the lofty promise of creating high growth tech companies, but it does offer people the chance to own a piece of their neighbourhood. “Its social innovation meets investing” says Ben Miller of Fundrise. He believes that Crowdfunded real estate is providing a means for community member’s access to collaborative investment, while becoming part owners of the spaces and people they support. We could do with some of that in South Africa. Right?