Standing Out From The Crowd(fund)

This week I’ve written another two stories about agencies seeking investment for expansion through crowdfunding. Those stories are not the first, nor will they be the last.

But they have set me thinking: is crowdfunding a genuinely useful source of finance for the estate agency business?

I may be neither an investment analyst nor an agent, but it seems clear that the successful crowdfunding attempts (and you tend only to hear about the successful ones) have two common denominators.

Firstly, they have a level of ‘celebrity’ attached to them.

For example, easyProperty used the crowdfunding platform Crowdcube to seek £1m to fund expansion of its (so far lettings-only) online agency; making much use of the name Sir Stelios Haji-Loannou, who actually has little real involvement in the business, some £1.4m has been raised from 392 investors and exceeding the original target by 40 per cent.

Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs fame was similarly very successful at raising money via crowdfunding when he set up his property development firm. Ex-Poundland founder Steve Smith may be less well known to the wider public but he has a significant media profile and used this to help publicise two attempts at seeking funds for his agency.

The same applies outside of property. Right now TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has just secured a target £1m in only 36 hours via 285 crowdfunding investors. The Caterham Formula 1 team last autumn raised well over £2m on a crowdfunding site - enough to fund their involvement in one final race of the season, even though they folded thereafter.

You get the point: a well-known name or the ability to generate publicity seems key to successful crowdfunding. That might be achievable for a few property businesses (big or small), but will be difficult for the majority - even if their business case is first class.

The second common denominator for a successful crowdfund appears to be a ‘clever’ idea - even if it may not be, in business terms, the best.

For example, a former pub has just been purchased in Tunbridge Wells by a concern called CrowdProperty which has secured £360,000 from 40 crowdfunding investors. The building will be converted operated as a buy to let with the investors getting their share of rental return and, ultimately, the capital when or if the property is sold.

A good idea? Undeniably. The best way of investing? Not necessarily, although those behind CrowdProperty can justifiably cite at least 40 happy investors.

But although those investors may not have been able to afford their own individual property investments - and advocates of crowdfunding often defend it by saying it is a ‘democratic’ process - this route is long and tortuous to get just one low-cost building.

And after the novelty wears off of one or two investments being secured this way, what then? It seems unlikely that this is a sustainable way of achieving funding.

There are others risks attached to crowdfunding.

For the moment at least, crowdfunding still generates stories and interest - it is still new, still of interest. So if your bid fails to attract enough interest and enough funds, you not only have to return the individual investments but also have egg on your face with the longer-term reputational damage that may involve.

And crowdfunding is, for the reasons stated above, very ‘public’.

What if your good idea (that unique agency business model or that never-before-tried buy to let scheme) simply gets hijacked by a better resourced, higher profile body? It may even go on to use crowdfunding, too - and you do often see ‘the same idea’ popping up in quick succession on crowdfunding sites, as one firm effectively steals the idea of another.

I am being pessimistic, of course.

A low cost accessible way of securing funds, offering an equally low cost accessible way of becoming an investor, is a good thing in principle.

But it’s horses for courses....and it appears that unless you have a high profile, a known brand and a budget for publicity, crowdfunding may not be right for you.

This blog first appeared on the Industry Views section of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today.

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