CircleUp isn’t a household name. But the three-year-old, San Francisco-based crowdfunding site has become well-known to consumer and retail companies that are too small to interest private equity firms yet growing too fast for a bank loan. So far, 70 businesses with yearly revenue of between $1 million and $10 million have raised an average of $1 million from CircleUp investors, all of whom are “accredited,” and who, on average, write checks in the neighborhood of $30,000.
Many of those backers — and there are more than 10,000 of them — are high-net-worth entrepreneurs or executives who’ve been in or around the consumer space, says CircleUp cofounder Rory Eakin. But the next largest group isn’t wealthy dentists looking to play venture capitalist, he says. It’s financial services pros. “We’re seeing hedge fund [investors], VCs, and other investment professionals who like making direct investments without the typical fund structure,” he says. “More family offices and [registered investment advisors] are coming on to the platform, too.”
It’s a little like AngelList — though less risky, suggests Eakin, citing Kauffman Foundation findings that smaller consumer and retail product companies return 3.5x within four-and-a-half years on average. Eakin, whose company now employs 40 people, told us more last week in a conversation that’s been edited for length.
You work with companies with at least $1 million in revenue. Why is that threshold meaningful?
It means these companies have an established product in the market, with suppliers, distribution and customers — data [that] can help put CircleUp’s investors in a position to succeed.
The companies offer investors equity in return for their capital. How much, typically?
A company typically sells 10 to 30 percent in a round on CircleUp. Investors can own all or a portion of that amount based on how much they invest.
How do you assess the companies that are applying for funding on your platform?
We [pore over] proprietary data about the more than 6,000 companies that have applied, as well as look at third party data, to score a company on how it has performed relative to its category. For example, if your natural shampoo is growing at 100 percent a year, that’s interesting, but if the category is growing at 200 percent per year, you’re losing market share.
If more than 6,000 companies have applied for funding on the platform, yet 70 have completed a round, you must be turning away most applicants. Why?
We’ll pass for two or three reasons. The first is valuation. Consumer goods tend to be valued off revenue multiples, so it’s a cleaner metric than you see in tech, and it gives us [information] to pass on to companies that aren’t priced appropriately based on risk. We also look at the experience and background of the management team, as well as the brand itself. Assessing the latter is more art than science, but we’re doing things with data now that helps us screen for it more efficiently.
Are you actively seeking out companies or is your deal flow mostly inbound?
A lot of great companies apply, but we’ve also done a lot of work to expand our partnerships. We get a lot of companies from PE firms with nowhere to send smaller companies. We’re also networking actively with bankers, brokers, and lawyers to ensure that we have quality companies.
We’ve also announced partnerships with General Mills, Proctor & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson that are designed to help companies thrive after they raise money.
Largely, they meet with founders in an informal mentorship program where they talk about distribution and key functions of helping companies scale. It’s a win-win, because these strategics get to see what’s happening in the early stage of the market and they get exposure to these new products, while the [smaller] companies form relationships with [these potential investors, who might also acquire them].
CircleUp is a broker-dealer, meaning you accept a commission for facilitating the transactions on your platform. Do you share publicly what that percentage is?
It’s a small amount that’s competitively priced.
What about fundraising? CircleUp announced its last round nearly a year ago. Are you talking with investors again?
A [new round] isn’t on the roadmap. Our focus right now is on continuing to see opportunities and to reduce friction in the market. We knew the market wasn’t functioning as well as it could, but we didn’t appreciate just how painful things had been for these companies and investors.
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