The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset raised $2.4 million on Kickstarter, no strings attached. Those donors weren’t looking for a payout; they wanted to support something they believed in, and maybe get a pair of virtual reality goggles to play with. But when Facebook bought Oculus a year and a half later for $2 billion in cash and stock, backers wondered: what if I’d asked for equity instead of a poster? "I would have rather bought a few shares of Oculus rather than my now-worthless $300 obsolete VR headset," backer Carlos Schulte wrote.
If Schulte’s donation had been an investment, he could have earned around $43,500, estimates Greg Belote, the co-founder of equity crowdfunding platform Wefunder — a stunning 145x return.
Kickstarter doesn’t allow creators to offer equity, and the company has said it never will. But a bunch of other crowdfunding sites will soon be launching to fill that gap.
"I would have rather bought a few shares of Oculus rather than my now-worthless $300 obsolete VR headset."
Previously, investing for equity was restricted to an elite, wealthy group of so-called "accredited investors." But under Title III of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, companies will be allowed to issue stock to the public exchange for small investments, just like Kickstarter campaigns reward backers with T-shirts and other goodies. There are already scores of equity-based crowdfunding sites at the starting line — Wefunder, SeedInvest, and Crowdfunder are just a few — waiting for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to issue final rules later this year.
Kickstarter has said it’s not a place to buy things, and it’s not a place to invest in things — it’s a place where fans can support and connect with artists they love. "Kickstarter won't switch to an equity-based model," CEO Yancey Strickler told Popular Science last year. "We believe the real disruption comes from people supporting things because they like them, rather than finding things that produce a good return on investment."
That attitude suggests companies on track for a mega-exit may seem increasingly out of place on Kickstarter as competitors go after backers who want to make a buck. "I think [the Oculus acquisition] will change how people look at Kickstarter," Belote says. "If there’s this track record of companies doing really cool things getting acquired early on, it’s sort of like a failure." Kickstarter declined to comment on the Oculus acquisition.
Kickstarter has said it’s not a place to buy things, and it’s not a place to invest in things
By contrast, companies getting acquired early on would be winners on equity crowdfunding sites. These sites say they democratize investing, letting the little guy in on the action. Slava Rubin, the CEO of Kickstarter rival Indiegogo, has said he wants to disrupt "the gatekeeper who decided who gets money." Indiegogo lobbied for equity crowdfunding and says it will likely be introduced in some form.
But the idea that Kickstarter backers could have or should have made money off of the Oculus acquisition is ridiculous, says Mo Koyfman, a partner at Spark Capital, which led Oculus’s first round of investment. Oculus raised money on Kickstarter because it wanted to see if people wanted and would buy the product, and whether developers wanted it and would build games for it. The wildly successful campaign validated that premise, and made it much easier for Oculus to raise money from venture capitalists, he says — but there was no incentive for them to offer equity at that time.
"Just because people say, ‘Well I want equity in this company’ doesn’t mean it’s available," Koyfman says. "I don’t think the Kickstarter backers were backing it because they wanted a financial win … they wanted to try it, wanted to experience it, wanted to see it. They got exactly what they bargained for."
And if Oculus did another Kickstarter campaign for a new headset, it would have no trouble getting funded again, he says.
If Oculus did another Kickstarter today for a new headset, it would have no trouble getting funded again
In the future, we’re likely to see companies continue to crowdfund for pre-sales the way Oculus did, without offering equity. We will also see companies with less tangible products crowdfund for equity in order to prove out their product before raising serious cash. And we’re likely to see companies do a mix of both — running one campaign on Kickstarter for rewards, and another one on an equity crowdfunding site for stock. The existence of equity crowdfunding doesn’t mean Oculus-style acquisitions will necessarily rain riches on early backers. Some riches are still reserved for the rich.