Scalability In Crowdfunding

Growing plant stepThe Crowdfunding market continues to grow rapidly, increasing in deal size, deal volume, and sophistication. The rapid growth will likely continue for the foreseeable future, as more investors and entrepreneurs learn about the opportunities. And the growth will accelerate if and when:

  • The SEC finalizes regulations under Title IV
  • Congress refurbishes Title III
  • Portals move toward pooled assets
  • Portals are created in more vertical markets
  • Deals become standardized across portals
  • Formally or informally, we get a secondary market for Crowdfunded investments

All those things will move the dial toward a larger, more robust Crowdfunding market. But to penetrate the mass market – to truly scale – Crowdfunding needs something more, and that thing is coming.

Like a telescope, a Crowdfunding portal has two ends: an investor end and a deal flow end. Today, the investor end of the telescope is almost infinitely scalable while the deal flow end has proven much more difficult. Even given the best technology and the best people, how do you push more deals through the narrow opening? More exactly, how do you perform effective due diligence on all those deals?

Look at the P2P sites, Lending Club and Prosper. They’re doing Crowdfunding, too, and they pushed more than $5 billion of consumer loans through their due diligence processes during 2014. They did it mainly by reducing due diligence to a series of algorithms. In fact, they perform so little due diligence of the old- fashioned variety that some states don’t allow them to sell securities.

Three factors have allowed Lending Club and Prosper to streamline due diligence and scale up:

  • They started with a built-in technology for determining a consumer’s creditworthiness: namely, a FICO score.
  • Starting with FICO scores, they created their own proprietary scoring systems using their own data. The more data they accumulate the better their scoring systems become, in a virtuous cycle.
  • They have educated their investors. Rather than allocate their entire investment to a single loan, investors diversify, trusting the averages.

In some respects what Lending Club and Prosper have done with consumer debt is no different than what Billy Beane did with baseball players: replacing a traditional process that relied on human expertise (scouts) with a new process that relies on data (sabermetrics).

At first glance, the typical Title II Crowdfunding site, whether real estate sites like Patch of Land and iFunding or venture capital sites like FundersClub, look a lot different than a P2P site. Fundamentally, however, they are in the same business. The question is not whether Title II (and Title III and IV) sites will move toward the P2P model, the question is is how quickly and in what ways.

I believe the convergence will happen from both ends.

First, portals are going to create the equivalent of FICO scores and the scoring systems of Prosper and Lending Club, even for complex real estate projects and hi-tech startups. Living in a world of big data, I believe this is not only possible but inevitable. As we speak, lots of smart people are looking at lots of data and trying to draw meaningful correlations between data and outcomes.

Is there a correlation between the FICO score of a real estate developer and the success of his next two projects? If an entrepreneur has had one successful exit is she more likely to have a second? If an angel has invested in three successful deals is he likely to have a fourth?

The world is flooded with data and fast computers. I believe Crowdfunding portals will crack the code, a little bit at a time, moving from a traditional, hands-on due diligence process to a data-driven, algorithmic process. Like old-time baseball scouts, those comfortable with the traditional processes are likely to cry foul, pointing out the inevitable gaps in statistics. They’ll be right in a narrow sense, but the world will move on nonetheless.

Second, because of the pressure to scale, portals will gravitate toward products that lend themselves to being scaled. It’s not a coincidence that Lending Club and Prosper sell consumer debt! The market suggests that real estate debt is likely to be the next product to scale, with real estate equity going to the back of the line. Going a step further, I’m guessing that the more difficult to crack the code in a given product, the higher the margin and the lower the volume.

If I knew exactly how the market will play out I wouldn’t be a lawyer! Nevertheless, it’s an incredibly exciting time.

Questions? Let me know.

Wells Fargo Withdraws From Crowdfunding Space

takeoffWells Fargo has been an active player in the Crowdfunding space, serving as the indenture Trustee for both Lending Club and Prosper and owning a chunk of Lending Club through its venture capital arm, Norwest Venture Partners X. Recently, however, Wells Fargo decided it is no longer comfortable with the “risk profile” of retail Crowdfunding. Wells Fargo has been replaced by CSC Trust Company of Delaware as indenture Trustee for both P2P lenders.

To me it’s an interesting move, coming just as institutional investors begin pouring into the space.

Its possible Wells Fargo views the P2P lenders as competitors and isn’t interested in helping cannibalize its own consumer lending business, but that horse is out of the barn. Or maybe, with all its experience in the space, Wells Fargo is planning a more significant move.

I’ve contacted a few large institutional trustees recently and haven’t found a huge appetite for exposure to the Crowdfunding space, so I’m happy to see CSC step up to the plate.

Questions? Let me know.

Crowdfunding Meets P2P Lending in San Francisco

Golden Gate_purchased

For me, the CFGE Crowdfund Banking and Lending Summit in San Francisco was both eye-opening and provocative.

Andrea Downs and her team assembled a terrific group of speakers, including:

  • Richard Swart of Berkeley, who described the past, present, and future of equity Crowdfunding around the world with his normal clarity and depth of data.
  • Ron Suber of Prosper, who demonstrated in 45 minutes how he’s brought Prosper back from a near-death experience to create a $1+ billion business.
  • Nikul Patel of Lending Tree, who described the business model behind P2P lending better than I’ve ever heard it described.
  • John Berlau of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who put modern Crowdfunding into a historical framework reaching back to Henry Ford and beyond, asking “Why doesn’t government just get the hell out of the way?”

To say I was honored to be among that group of speakers is an understatement.

I spend a lot of time thinking where equity Crowdfunding is headed. You couldn’t sit through this conference without wondering where equity Crowdfunding and P2P lending are going to intersect. We’ll explore that further in future posts, maybe even get some experts to chime in, but if you’re a Title II portal it sure does seem there are lessons in the P2P model.

I was thinking about that in a bar on Thursday evening when Travis Ishikawa crushed a three run shot to send the Giants to the World Series, and again on Saturday, while I pedaled a bicycle in blazing sunlight across the Golden Gate bridge and through Sausalito, Mill Valley, and Tiburon. There are worse places to think.

Thanks to Andrea Downs and her CFGE team for a great event.

Questions? Let me know.