I got an e-mail from a friend asking if I had watched any of the episodes of the online TV style show, Going Public. My friend knows that I use crowdfunding to help companies raise capital. He also knows that I have referred to Shark Tank as entertainment, not finance.
Going Public is an interesting variant of the Shark Tank genre’. It streams on the Entrepreneur.com platform. It follows the founders of small companies as they look for funding. Going Public featured four different companies that were looking for investors in its first season.
In total, the four companies hoped to raise more than $200 million. The total that was actually raised for all four companies was closer to $15 million. As a capital raiser, Going Public laid an egg.
I found the production to be professional and the founders sufficiently engaging. I would have thought that they would have raised more money.
Oh, well. That’s show biz.
Each of these four companies apparently paid $250,000 for the privilege of being featured on Going Public. The legal, accounting, and other costs likely added another $150,000 so each of these four companies spent approximately $400,000. None got the funds they were looking for to expand their business in the way that they had hoped.
I help companies raise capital. I know that you can raise a lot of money with a budget of $400,000. Direct-to-investor funding was the whole point of the JOBS Act. Several crowdfunding platforms have raised more than $1 billion each for 3rd party issuers.
Crowdfunding has proven itself a legitimate method for companies to raise significant amounts of capital. It is easier and less expensive than virtually any other method. It is available to millions of companies. That is why I counsel most companies that are looking for capital to consider crowdfunding first.
Like everything else in life, if you want to succeed at crowdfunding, you have to do it right.
Where did Going Public go wrong?
What interested me about Going Public was that it allows viewers to ‘click-to-invest’ in the featured companies in real-time, live, while they watch the show. Had Going Public been successful, it would have identified and reached out to a new type of investor, one that invests on impulse rather than analysis.
Our entire system of finance is based upon the disclosure of financial information about the company seeking investors. We believe that investment decisions are generally made after some amount of thought and deliberation.
Going Public does provide investors with the information to which they are entitled. Each company provides a standard prospectus containing financial and other information. Most of the time a prospectus is more than 100 pages of fine print, and often, confusing details.
Going Public is suggesting that people will invest while the show is in progress. That implies that people will invest without actually reading that information. That implies impulse or emotion as the primary motivator that would turn a viewer into an investor.
I am not certain that people will invest on impulse, in the middle of the presentation, the way they do when shopping on the Home Shopping Network. At the same time, if investors are not really paying attention to the facts, you can sell some of them almost anything.
If Going Public can identify the story lines that cause people to invest impulsively, it might be on to something. Perhaps it is the next step in the evolution of the capital markets where Don Draper stars as the Wolf of Wall Street.
What do investors get?
I looked at one of the offerings just to see what was being offered. The company, Hammitt, Inc. sells luxury handbags and accessories. It was trying to raise up to $25 million by offering public investors up to 22,727,273 Class B common shares are $1.10 each. The minimum investment was $550.
The company has 3 classes of common stock outstanding and two classes of preferred shares. Each comes with specific “rights” that the shareholders receive.
If 5 years down the road the company is purchased for $5 billion, who gets what is a problem that I might have included on the mid-term exam of one of my Finance classes. It is not something potential investors are likely to calculate or consider while watching the video.
As with many of these small offerings, Hammitt is offering to entice investors by giving them a handbag in return for their investment. Some of the handbags Hammitt sells cost more than $550 each. In a situation like this, when Hammitt asks for a minimum investment that is less than the price of one of their products, it cheapens the value of both.
From an investor’s point of view, the best thing about selling luxury goods is the high mark-up. Hammitt has sold over $30 million worth of goods in the prior two years, with a gross mark-up of close to 100%. The central question that any investor should ask is, “how much of that mark-up does the company keep?”
The prospectus says that the company has an online, direct-to-consumer focus. If it is selling its products online all the company needs are a warehouse and a healthy advertising budget.
Despite its online focus, the company has opened two retail stores and intends to open more. Obviously, the cost of operating retail stores cuts into the profits. So too, does selling its product wholesale, to other luxury retailers. That too is part of the business plan. Exactly what the management intends to do is unclear.
A large part of the problem with Hammitt’s attempt to raise capital is the fact that it wanted to be “public”. By doing so, it set itself up to fail.
If each investor purchased the minimum amount of $550, Hammitt would have needed to have sold shares to more than 45,000 people. If the minimum had been $1000 per investor it would have needed to accept investments from only 25,000 investors. Obviously, it costs less to reach fewer people to sell out your offering.
If they had asked me, I would have advised Hammitt to stay private for this round. Given that most of its customers are wealthier and its financials suggest that it is on the cusp of profitability, I would have counseled a minimum investment of between $10,000 and $25,000 which would have required no more than 1000 to 2500 distinct investors.
Given that Hammitt spent $250,000 to be on Going Public and raised very little, those funds would have been better spent by reaching out to accredited investors who rarely need a video to convince them to invest. A properly funded crowdfunding campaign if correctly targeted can be successful 100% of the time.
If you read through the prospectus, the reason that Hammitt opted for a public offering becomes obvious. One of its founders included $1 million of his own stock in the offering. That sends the wrong message to seasoned investors. It is something that rarely finds its way into a private placement targeted at institutional investors.
From an investment banking standpoint, the offering poses a lot of questions. That is not a sleight on the investment bankers who put this offering together. It does not appear that there were any.
Even police dramas have technical advisors to advise the writers about proper police procedures. Going Public, if it is going to succeed, is going to need an investment banker or two to construct the offerings that it is trying to sell to the public.
One thing that stood out to me was that these $1 per share offerings were reminiscent of the “penny stocks” touted by Blinder, Robinson in the 1980s and Stratton, Oakmont in the 1990s. Both Meyer Blinder and Jordan Belfort the head of Stratton went to jail for securities fraud. The people behind Going Public should take notice.
I know some of the people who work at Going Public. They are smart enough to figure out a way to entertain potential investors and also get them to invest. If they had called me I would have been happy to have suggested ways that might have helped them not flush their first season down the toilet.
I do not see any reason for a TV style show to follow founders who are looking for financing and don’t get it.
I prefer happy endings where the guy gets the girl, Lassie comes home, or the founders get their funding. Its the romantic in me.
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