For more information, check out our series on the rise of the sharing economy.
Whether he knew it or not, President Obama created a brand new industry when he signed the JOBS act into law on April 5th. Up until now, it’s been illegal for private businesses to offer equity to anyone other than accredited investors in exchange for funding. As a result, crowdfunding sites (like Kickstarter and Indiegogo) and the investment seekers that use them have been restricted to giving gimmicky thank you gifts and pre-selling new products in exchange for donations. Although this method of fundraising has proven successful for many artists, charities, and startups, the payback for the people who are giving away their money has been limited to cheap schwag and a few new toys.
The passing of the JOBS Act is about to change all of that. Once the rules are in place early next year, private businesses and startups will be able to use crowdfunding to give equity to investors who will get an actual monetary return instead of a sticker or T-shirt. This shift is expected to attract a huge influx of capital from regular Joes looking for better ways to invest than what is currently being offered by the stock market or the meager 0.5 percent interest from savings accounts.
Fred Wilson, co-founder of the venture capital firm Union Square Ventures (which has invested in Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, and Zynga), predicts that once it gets up and running, the equity crowdfunding market will reach $300 billion and will be largely driven by families and individuals investing a small percentage of their assets via crowdfunding. As a point of comparison, a study from Crowdsourcing.org reports that about $1.5 billion was raised from 452 crowdfunding platforms in 2011.
The opportunity to cash in on this new industry by creating “next generation” equity crowdfunding platforms is substantial. Hungry tech entrepreneurs are scrambling to get out in front of this imminent boon; and the market is poised for saturation. To help you keep track of all the happenings in this space, here is a an overview of ten existing platforms that may be getting into the equity game, as well as the status of the newcomers that have been popping up daily.
Ben & Jerry’s founders Ben Cohen & Jerry Greenfield are certainly no strangers to political activism. Nor are they afraid to use their business as a platform to drive change in what they see as an unfair system that favors wealthy interests and drowns out the voices of the voters. Earlier this year, the duo launched a campaign against Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling which allows for unrestricted and undisclosed campaign spending by corporations.
“Get The Dough Out” is aimed at overturning Citizens United by passing a Constitutional Amendment that will restrict corporate spending on elections. Ben & Jerry have a page on their website pledging support for the Occupy Wall Street protesters; and their “Scoop Trucks” will be deployed around the country this summer, giving away ice cream and asking people to sign postcards in support of their campaign.
To further support these efforts, one of the founders recently announced a new tactic that may straddle the line between activism and illegal action.
The debate around the ethics and effectiveness of individuals and businesses purchasing carbon credits as a means to lower their carbon footprint has been going on for some time. Critics say that allowing carbon emitters to pay others to make reductions on their behalf reduces personal responsibility for controlling emissions. They also argue that the use of a voluntary carbon credit system gives large companies a license to conduct carbon-producing business and using the resulting profits to purchase offsets free of guilt. There are also concerns about the validity of the carbon credits that are being sold by some offset providers as well as challenges with ensuring that a given project is providing carbon benefits that would not have been realized anyway (in carbon speak this is called “additionality“).
On the other hand, there are plenty of credible organizations out there – like The Climate Action Reserve, The Gold Standard and Verified Carbon Standard – that are applying rigorous standards to the carbon offsets they certify. And, in many cases, the revenue from offset purchases is going towards projects that yield benefits which go far beyond reducing carbon. Forest projects, forest regeneration, avoided deforestation, improved ecosystem health, and increased biodiversity are just a few of the positive side effects. Other projects – like the promotion of cleaner, more efficient cookstoves in rural African communities – can also have positive social benefits such as improved local air quality.
Last week on the opening night of this year’s Los Angeles Greek Film Festival, I attended the premier of “A Green Story,” an independent film from first time writer and director Nick Agiashvili that tells the true story of Van Vlahakis, an original green entrepreneur. Vlahakis is a Greek immigrant who came to the United States in the early 1950s with $22 dollars and no place to live and eventually founded Earth Friendly Products, a green cleaning products company that is now a multi-million dollar business.
For a small film from a new writer and director, “A Green Story” boasts an impressive cast of well-known actors who were all walking the red carpet at the premier. The stars of the film include Hollywood veteran Ed O’Ross who portrays Vlahakis and Shannon Elizabeth of American Pie fame who plays his daughter, Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks. The film also stars Billy Zane (Titanic) as the antagonist of the film, a corporate representative trying to convince Vlahakis to sell out to the competition; and the lovely Annabella Sciorra (The Sopranos) who plays Vlahakis’ love interest.
At it’s core, “A Green Story” is the inspiring tale of the American Dream coming true, but with a powerful green twist.
Call it whatever you like – the sharing economy, collaborative consumption, the peer-to-peer marketplace, the access economy – but there is no denying that the idea of renting other people’s stuff or loaning out your own for cash is catching on. Fast Company predicted that 2012 would be the year for explosion in the peer-to-peer accommodation market pioneered by Airbnb. And it seems that this growth is expanding to include other renting arrangements as well, with dozens of online services popping up to capitalize on the trend.
Sites like Getaround, Spinlister, and Loosecubes have opened up the sharing market for other types of goods. Whether you need to borrow an apartment, car, leaf blower, or even a cubicle, there are multiple websites out there that will connect you to someone that’s willing to rent you one (although maybe not in the city you’re looking for). Getable helps businesses rent out their products and Zilok, NeighborGoods, and SnapGoods are designed for listing all different types of items. Still others – like Skillshare and Taskrabbit - are moving into services. And Uniiverse is attempting to combine service and rental offerings with social activities, all on a single platform.
These websites are creating a new kind of economy where regular Joes can make extra cash by loaning out possessions they don’t need and people save money by renting instead of buying. Skilled individuals that may not have the time or resources to launch and market their own business also have a platform for offering their services and expertise. In addition to these economic benefits, this new sharing model also reduces resource use and consumption by decreasing the production of new goods.
This all sounds great, but a recent incident is bringing attention to some of the liability issues associated with these borrowing arrangements. An article in the New York Times details the complicated liability situation resulting from a fatal accident that occurred when someone who rented a car through RelayRides crashed into another vehicle and was killed. RelayRides is a popular car sharing company that has gotten backing from GM and Google. The driver injured four people that were in the other car, and although RelayRides provides $1,000,000 in liability coverage to renters, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be enough to cover their medical claims.
Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood will soon be home to a 100,000 square foot, multi-acre rooftop farm that will produce a million pounds of produce per year – enough to feed 5,000 people – without using any dirt. The farm will be built by BrightFarms, a new company with a unique business model that finances, builds, and operates hydroponic greenhouse farms for supermarkets and other retailers who purchase the produce.
The Brooklyn farm will be located on top of an eight-story, 1.1 million square foot building that was built in 1916 as a Navy warehouse and is now part of the city’s plans to redevelop the Brooklyn industrial waterfront. Construction is slated to start in the fall with the first harvest of tomatoes, lettuces and herbs expected next spring. Company officials say that once the farm is built, it will be the largest of its kind in the world.
In an interview with the New York Times, BrightFarms’ CEO Paul Lightfoot said that the company was in talks with nearby supermarkets to potentially commit to purchasing the produce from the farm. “Brooklyn was an agricultural powerhouse in the 19th century, and it has now become a local food scene second to none,” said Paul Lightfoot, the chief executive of Bright Farms. “We’re bringing a business model where food is grown and sold right in the community.”
As water stewardship moves increasingly into the business spotlight, companies are looking for information and resources to help them understand water issues and respond to them effectively. WWF has teamed up with German development finance organization DEG to create the Water Risk Filter, a tool that helps companies identify their water-related risks and provides support for them to develop ways to address those risks. The system has been piloted by companies that include brewery SABMiller and clothing retailer H&M.
The tool, which is intended for use by non-experts, is designed to be easy to use, but provides detailed results by pulling data collected from 235 different countries and territories. By entering information about facility locations, industry, and operations, the filter can provide companies and investors with a relative risk score for individual facilities as well as a risk profile for the company as a whole. The interactive mapping feature also provides a geographical analysis of water risk issues. According to WWF, the risk indicators cover all elements of water-related risks that can have a financial impact on the organization.
With it’s decision to air a melodic, tear jerker of an ad showing the pitfalls of factory farming, and commitment to serving locally produced, humanely raised meat, Chipotle Mexican Grill has been getting a lot of positive buzz recently. But lurking in the background are a few issues that run counter to the company’s widespread claims that it’s serving “Food with Integrity.”
In addition to concerns about the high caloric content of its food that is marketed as fresh and healthy, Chipotle is now receiving criticism for its refusal to sign on to an agreement aimed at protecting farm workers on Florida farms where the company purchases tomatoes. The Campaign for Fair Food, which was started by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), has won the support of several major brands including Whole Foods, Taco Bell, Trader Joe’s and McDonalds. The campaign asks the major purchasers of Florida tomatoes to take a few seemingly straightforward actions that, according to the CIW, will go a long way toward improving working conditions and protecting workers at Florida’s tomato farms. These include:
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate approved legislation that will legalize crowdfunding and allow the general public to make equity investments in start-up companies and small businesses. By a 73-26 vote, the bipartisan CROWDFUND Act (Capital Raising Online While Deterring Fraud and Unethical Non-Disclosure) was passed as part of the JOBS Act or Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (Is it just me or are they really good at coming up with these acronyms?).
The legislation will lift SEC restrictions on soliciting investors through advertising and allow companies to use crowdfunding platforms to raise up to $1 million per year from a larger pool of small, unaccredited investors. Small private businesses will also be able to sell up to $50 million in shares through a public offering before having to register with the SEC. With both parties clamoring to be perceived as supporting the growth of business, the bill sailed through the House two weeks ago and has the backing of the President. It will likely be one of the few bipartisan bills to easily pass congress this year.
At the Green Energy Summit that took place earlier this month in its home city of Milwaukee, Harley-Davidson President Matt Levatich publicly touted the company’s sustainable business initiatives, calling them a core part of its business strategy. Although Harley-Davidson released Sustainability Strategy Reports in 2009 and 2010, and has been tracking greenhouse gas emissions since 2004, sustainability has not typically been a strategic focus for the company.
However, attention to sustainability has been ramping up at Harley over the last 18 months and some progress has been made. The creation of a sustainability subcommittee within the board of directors is partially responsible for this new strategic focus. According to the 2010 report, the company cut carbon emissions from its manufacturing operations by 42 percent from 79,232 metric tons in 2004 to 46,184 metric tons in 2010. Harley is also evaluating several different waste reduction projects and efficiency investments in its York, Pennsylvania factory. “We’re planting a lot of seeds. None of them are heroic by themselves,” Levatich said. “Collectively, we think it’s going to make a big difference.”
In the realm of corporate sustainability and social responsibility, employee engagement has become a very popular topic. Companies are looking for ways to leverage the knowledge and ingenuity of their employees in efforts to integrate smarter decision-making around sustainability issues more deeply into their businesses. At the same time, they are also trying to create better work environments and more fulfilled employees. There are several companies that have created employee engagement programs that achieve these goals. However, as I discussed in a previous article on the subject, many organizations are still struggling to design successful programs that go beyond recycling and ride sharing.
The Environmental Defense Fund, which is well known for its Climate Corp Program, has been working with GE on an approach to employee engagement that’s been proven to provide a significant return while also creating opportunities for employees to gain a stake in sustainability efforts. As Beth Trask, EDF’s Deputy Director of Innovation Exchange explains on their blog, these Treasure Hunts are “dynamic, hands-on events that resemble a cross between an energy audit and a scavenger hunt.”
You know those days that are just so bad you wish you hadn’t even bothered to get out of bed? Well, the folks at Fisker Automotive had one of those recently when their sexy, expensive, award-winning, new sports car died in the parking lot of Consumer Reports before any quality tests could be conducted on it. The Fisker Karma, which is one of the first luxury electric vehicles to come on the market, is a high performance plug-in hybrid. Late last year it was awarded the Luxury Car of the Year Award by the British TV show Top Gear.
Consumer Reports had owned the car, which had less than 200 miles on it, for a few days when they tried to take it out on their test track to begin conducting tests. When they did so, the car flashed an error message and stopped working:
The dashboard flashed a message and sounded a “bing“ showing a major fault. Our technician got the car off the track and put it into Park to go through the owner’s manual to interpret the warning. At that point, the transmission went into Neutral and wouldn’t engage any gear through its electronic shifter except Park and Neutral.
The Consumer Reports people tried a few more things to get the car working but to no avail. It had to be hauled away on a flat bed back to the dealer. As noted on the Consumer Reports blog, “Our Fisker Karma cost us $107,850. It is super sleek, high-tech – and now it’s broken.”
In its monthly trend briefing for March, the consumer trend tracking firm Trendwatching is covering a new trend that demonstrates why businesses who truly embrace their flaws will come out on top, and why those who don’t are likely to suffer from consumer indifference and maybe even disdain.
As a result of the steady streams of available reviews, ratings, articles, Facebook and Twitter recommendations, consumers are awash in information about the best and the worst of what companies are doing. Consumers are smart. They know that companies aren’t perfect – just like people aren’t perfect. And now that they’re finding out about corporate missteps at every turn, consumers are embracing the companies that are brave enough to openly share their mistakes and engage with consumers about their challenges. In its catchy yet cringeworthy way of naming trends, Trendwatching has dubbed this one “Flawsome.”
Consumers want to see brands eliciting more human-like traits by showing empathy and humility, and by demonstrating that they’ve got the character to improve and learn from their mistakes. It makes sense. These are qualities that we admire in people, and they are admirable qualities in companies as well. Flaws give people character, and they give brands character too. “Flawsome” brands – those that can own this kind of vulnerability and use it to their advantage – stand to benefit from this trend.
Here are a few more reasons why companies need to embrace this kind of transparency and get on board with the “flawsome” trend.
Just days before BP was set to go to trial with a group of more than 100,000 plaintiffs, the company announced over the weekend that it would agree to a settlement of $7.8 billion dollars. The funds will go to fisherman, local residents, and clean-up workers that were affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that happened in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. The group is the largest that is suing BP over the spill.
The outcome is good news for BP. The settlement is about half the worst case scenario amount some industry analysts predicted the company might have to pay. And the amount is significantly less than the $20 billion BP already set aside in a fund to pay for the spill. So far BP has paid out $7.5 billion in clean-up costs and compensation. Lawyers for the Plaintiff’s Steering Committee commented that the settlement “does the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.”
For a company that is trying to move on from a disaster of such grand proportions, the decision to settle was a smart one. It puts the money in the hands of the plaintiffs much more quickly than if the company were to have gone to trial, which certainly helps their perception of the company. And by avoiding a lengthy, dramatic trial, BP can protect it’s image and keep damaging headlines off the front page.
Despite the settlement, the trial will still have to continue in order to apportion blame for the spill among the defendants in the case which include BP, Halliburton, and Transocean who owned the oil rig. According to U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is an expert in maritime law and has consolidated the hundreds of spill-related lawsuits into a single case, it will now be delayed to allow for the parties to “reassess their respective positions.”
A six month investigation conducted by Bloomberg Businessweek found evidence of debt bondage on a South Korean fishing vessel called the Melilla 203 and at least nine others operating in New Zealand’s waters. The report reveals human rights abuses committed against ship workers from Indonesia and other countries that involve false contracts, unsafe working conditions, daily physical and sexual abuse, withholding of pay, intimidation, and threats to their families if they walked away.
Fish from the Melilla 203 and other suspect vessels were bought and processed by New Zealand’s eighth largest seafood company, United Fisheries, as recently as November 2011. In that same period, those same kinds of fish were sold to U.S. distributors who provide seafood to many major U.S. companies, including some of the country’s largest grocery retailers and restaurants.