Democratization of Finance – The Story of Peak Design
Changing the Game in Raising Capital
The 2010s will be remembered for many trends, most fueled by the stark reality of the post-Great Recession recovery. Others will be known from the birth of new technologies and business models. The democratization of finance is perhaps the biggest sleeper story of them all. Historically, raising capital meant asking friends and family to contribute equity, applying for difficult to qualify for loans at national and community banks, and/or draining personal savings and retirement funds while running up balances on high interest rate credit cards. For those with “change the world” ambitions, angel investors and venture capital funds offered access to potentially limitless funds, but the costs were near and complete total loss of control and even ownership. In short, raising capital was risky and very costly. These avenues are still viable options, and are still risky and costly, but they are no longer the only means of accessing vast sources of capital.
Modernization of Security Laws in the US
Following the Great Depression (yes the one from the 1930s), the US enacted tough regulation on the securities industry to combat fraud and abuse; the notable laws include the Securities Act of 1933, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and the Investment Company Act of 1940. These laws are still in effect and are commonly referred to as the ‘33/’34 Act and the ’40 Act by those in the industry. In 2012, a piece of legislation deemed so boring given its near universal bipartisan support passed with little press attention or fanfare, that being the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (or JOBS) Act. The new ’12 Act (or JOBS Act) makes raising small, and even large, amounts of capital radically easier. In allows crowdfunding, advertising of private security offerings, and makes other adjustments that make raising equity, big and small amounts, much easier and less costly than before. Not surprisingly, one industry that has embraced the JOBS Act is real estate. With ventures such as Fundrise and RealtyMogul leading the charge into online based investing into real estate securities. Still, as of 2019, mass adoption is far from a reality, this may change in the 2020s; especially for the real estate industry.
A New Business Model – Crowdfunding
Before the JOBS Act could get passed, entrepreneurs were building platforms to use the internet to raise seed capital under the “old rules.” Essentially, if you raised money in exchange for a share of future profits or other expectation of financial gain via the efforts of others, you were deemed to be selling securities and thus under the regulation of those old laws discussed above. However, if you accepted monies in exchange for the promise of a good or service to be delivered at a future date, you were simply engaged in normal commerce. Enter the now famous crowdfunding websites Kickstarter and Indiegogo founded in ’09 and ’07 respectively. These sites let founders of companies raise money via “campaigns” where ordinary people gave money to the startup in hopes of getting some product in the future. This was a radical change in the capital raising landscape. A startup, with potentially zero track record, could raise millions of dollars with few strings attached to launch a new product, movie, book, or other creative project. No more personal guarantees, high interest rates, or loss of control/ownership, just a community of “backers” hoping the firm will come through as promised. Many laughed and found this ridiculous, but some saw the game changing opportunity it represented.
Peak Design – The Most Impressive Startup of the Decade
During a period of 75 days that ended in July, 2011, an entrepreneur named Peter Dering raised $364,698 from 5,258 unique backers who pledged an average of $69 dollars to receive a Capture camera clip; a small device Mr. Dering designed to attach a professional camera to any belt or strap. With these funds, Mr. Dering built the device and started his company, Peak Design, to build and sell more camera accessories. As of 2019, Peak Design has at least 34 full-time employees (not counting the vast teams that manufacture their products in Asia), over 100 unique products, and has raised approximately $20.9 million over the span of 8 crowdfunding campaigns. Their 9th, a new travel tripod, is currently active on Kickstarter and is on track to be the firm’s largest as it has raised over $5.8 million (at time of writing) in less than two weeks and 45 days remain in the campaign. Why is this the most impressive startup of the decade? Because this firm likely makes annual sales between $10 and $20 million (inclusive of Kickstarter, online, and retail partners) globally and has never raised or sold equity and only uses short term lines of credit to fund production (per interviews of the founder). The firm still operates like a small start up hosting live, interactive “hangouts” online with backers where they actually listen to feedback and incorporate it into the designs of the product before final production. Further, speaking as a photographer, their products are amazing and have greatly helped me get shots I otherwise would not (read this old post for details, its also why this awesome shot of Chicago is featured for this post). It is my sincere belief that this firm could not continue to make such innovative, high quality (and admittingly not cheap) products if subject to the normal dictates of corporate financing and equity raising. The founders agree and have pledged to keep going via the Kickstarter pre-sales method along with internal funding; as a consumer of their products, I hope they stay true to the promise. To sum, it is the most impressive startup by right of not raising any equity or incurring large debts!
Raising money has historically been expensive, risky, and regulatorily challenging for all types of ventures including those in commercial real estate. The 2010s saw the birth of a whole new realm of funding methods, driven by a mixture of technology and deregulation. I believe this trend will become mainstream by the end of 2020 and this will be game changing for the entrepreneurial economy and investment management industry. The financial services industry is both investing in and threatened by FinTech startups that may change mutual funds, retirement investing, and banking. The 2010s also saw the rise of crypto currencies and the “Initial Coin Offering”, this may also be game changing, but much further down the road in my opinion. For now, let’s focus on what works as these are exciting times.