Crowd investing: Could you be backing the next Google?
Investing often used to seem like a closed shop - the preserve of a wealthy, privileged elite keeping business opportunities all to itself.
Now technology has blown open the doors and given everyone - not just the professional investors and big institutions - a chance to get a piece of the action.
Would-be Warren Buffetts can go online and buy shares in start-ups and early stage companies for as little as £10.
But while there's a chance you could be backing the next Google, Apple, or Facebook, there's also a strong risk you could end up losing all your money.
Online Dragon's Den
This is the world of crowd investing, also known as equity crowdfunding.
The difference with other forms of crowdfunding is that you're not lending money in return for interest on the loan, or donating money in return for rewards and perks, you're actually buying a slice of the company.
Typically, firms seeking a cash injection upload their business plans, including how much they're hoping to raise and how much of their business they're prepared to sell and at what price.
Think of it like an online Dragons' Den involving hundreds of investors rather than a handful of Dragons.
If the companies don't reach their funding targets, they get nothing.
It has been increasing in popularity as confidence in online financial transactions has grown and financial regulators around the world have begun to relax rules governing who can invest.
Online platforms such as Crowdcube, Seedrs, InvestingZone and SyndicateRoom in the UK, and Crowdfunder and CircleUp in the US, have been successfully matching investors with companies looking for funding.
According to innovation charity Nesta, nearly 30 UK equity crowdfunding platforms have raised approaching £100m so far, but this young market is experiencing "a 201% year-on-year growth rate".
In the US, where investment is still restricted to high-net-worth individuals or "accredited investors", research company Massolution estimates the crowdfunding market as a whole to be worth more than $5bn (£3bn).
Wealthy "angel" investors are also taking their networks online - AngelsDen, for example - and encouraging smaller investors to join in.
"We felt passionate about the democratisation of investment," says Luke Lang, co-founder of Crowdcube, an equity crowdfunding platform launched in 2011.
"We wanted to open things up to ordinary people - investing was too elitist."
Crowdcube's 100,000-plus registered investors have successfully invested £45m in 160 businesses so far. While the typical investment is £3,000, amounts committed range from £10 to £400,000, he says.
"We tapped into a real appetite from the great British public to back and support British businesses. We've been able to make investing more accessible and affordable."
It's a sentiment shared by InvestingZone chief executive Jean Miller. "You can do almost everything online these days, but unlisted equities is one of the last areas that has been overly mystified and kept out of reach of the ordinary investor," she says.
'Virtual pressing of the flesh'
Crowd investing enables people to be much more hands-on with their investments, argues Ms Miller.
"Once you've registered and downloaded our app you can browse the list of investments, download business plans, ask questions, talk to the founders directly through webinars, and share ideas with other investors through the online forums," she says.
"It's like a virtual pressing of the flesh - you have much more of a say and your shares come with voting rights."
Private investors tend to be less short-termist than venture capitalists, she argues, and perfectly capable of making their own investment decisions.
And while traditional forms of investment, such as funds, investment trusts and listed shares bought through stockbrokers, attract management and dealing charges, "buying shares through our platform doesn't cost the investor anything," she says.
Instead, InvestingZone charges 5% of the amount raised by the company, and crowd investing companies generally charge between 5% and 7.5%.
Since its launch in 2013, InvestingZone has listed nine businesses and raised £10m, but hopes to double these numbers in 2015.
Money to grow
Firms benefit because they get access to funding they may not have been able to get elsewhere.
For example, London-based salad dressing company Righteous could not get a loan from the banks but managed to raise £75,000 on Crowdcube to pay for a TV ad campaign.
This generated a lot of interest from the US, so the company raised another £150,000 to help it expand production and fulfil these new orders.
NearDesk, a desk space rental company, raised £1m through Seedrs, offering 22.56% of its equity to investors, while Fruitful, a peer-to-peer commercial mortgage lender launching on 24 November, raised £140,000 on Crowdcube for 10% of the company.
High risk venture
But the UK's Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is stark in its warnings about equity crowdfunding.
"We regard investment-based crowdfunding in particular to be a high-risk investment activity," its website says.
"It is very likely that you will lose all your money. Most investments are in shares or debt securities in start-up companies and will result in a 100% loss of capital as most start-up businesses fail."
There is also the risk that your initial investment could be heavily diluted if the company issues lots of new shares in subsequent rounds of fundraising.
But Nesta's research suggests the FCA's view may be overly bleak.
"Since securing funding, 47% of fundraisers have increased profits, 70% grew turnover and 60% have taken on new employees," its report says.
One big problem is that if you need to sell your shares to get some money back, you may not be able to. Shares in unlisted companies are not traded on a stock market so there isn't a pool of potential buyers to call upon.
"We've always been clear about the risks involved," says Crowdcube's Mr Lang, "and one of those is that you might not be able to sell your shares in a hurry. There isn't a market to trade in these shares so you are locked in to some extent."
Investors only tend to book a profit if the company is sold or floats on a stock market, and that can take years, if it happens at all.
This is where a company like Asset Match comes in.
It provides an online marketplace where investors in unlisted companies can find buyers for their shares through an auction process.
Sellers indicate the price they'd like to get for their shares and buyers indicate the price they're prepared to pay. An algorithm crunches all that data and works out the price it thinks most shares will trade at come the end of the auction.
Founder and co-chief executive Stuart Lucas says: "We think there is £300bn of equity locked up in these unlisted companies. Our technology allows investors to cash in and take some profit without the need for an intermediary."
Asset Match, which has been going two years and currently has 21 companies on its books, charges buyers and sellers 3% of the investment amount.
But such marketplaces will have to get a lot more companies on their books to create a truly liquid market in unlisted shares that's of real use to the equity crowdfunding sector.