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Born in the USA, Perfected in the UK - Why Crowdfunding Is Becoming a Great Export for UK Plc

29/09/2015 15:39 | Updated 28 September 2016

The UK is rarely seen as a hotbed of rebellion. Yet the crowdfunding 'revolution' is very much Made in Britain.

In just a few years, crowdfunding - in which people, rather than banks, provide finance to individuals and companies - has grown from nothing into a multi-billion pound industry in the UK. And the rest of the world has noticed.

Almost without realising it, Britain has become the world leader in this new field. Other countries are now trying to learn from our example.

Barely a week goes by in which I don't get calls from overseas entrepreneurs keen to launch crowdfunding businesses of their own, and find out how UK Plc became so good at crowdfunding.

This is as flattering as it is ironic. Because modern crowdfunding was born in the USA, not the UK.

Tables turned

From television to the World Wide Web, history is littered with brilliant British inventions that Americans have gone on to commercialise - and turn into global phenomena.

But sometimes the trend is reversed. One evening in 1964, an estimated 40% of the US population tuned in their TVs to watch four Liverpudlians with pudding bowl haircuts playing rock 'n' roll - a musical style invented a decade before, in America.

Every now and again, British innovators take an American idea, develop it, perfect it, and then market it around the world.

This time, it's crowdfunding

OK, so crowdfunding doesn't induce the same levels of screaming hysteria as Beatlemania. Well not yet, anyway.

But it is an American concept that has been embraced, improved and finally exported by British entrepreneurs.

While the principle behind it is not new - London's Albert Memorial was paid for by public subscription - its modern genesis came a decade ago when US tech entrepreneurs began using the power of the internet to connect inventors with a bright idea to a big pool of donors.

Those first crowdfunding sites proved hugely popular, and together they have helped many imaginative products get to market. But behind the hype they were more about pride than profit.

People handing over their cash did so in return for "rewards" - merchandise or freebies - rather than a stake in the business they helped fund.

By contrast when crowdfunding arrived in Britain it quickly evolved into a form of investment rather than donation.

British investors were motivated by twin desires; to help exciting young business, and to get a return on their cash.

Two speeds

Crowdfunding in the UK quickly branched off into many different varieties, including equity - in which investors are given shares in the business they fund, and debt - in which they lend money to the business in return for interest.

While in the US equity crowdfunding has largely remained the preserve of the wealthy, in the UK it quickly attracted a much wider range of investors - who last year provided a whopping £833million of funding to businesses.

In part this divergence can be explained by the US's more restrictive levels of regulation than the progressive approach favoured by Britain's Financial Conduct Authority.

Until this summer, Americans wanting to make an equity crowdfunding investment needed to have at least $1million in the bank.

By contrast the minimum investment on Funding Tree - for either debt or equity - is just £50, though FCA rules limit people to investing no more than 10% of their available assets in crowdfunding.

Another theory for why the US has made slower progress with crowdfunding is the gulf - both geographical and cultural - between its financial and technology hubs, New York and Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile in London the "fintech" sector - a fusion of the City's financial clout with Silicon Roundabout's world-class technological innovation - has emerged as a whole new industry, with crowdfunding at its vanguard.

London is also an incubator of hundreds of promising young entrepreneurs who increasingly see crowdfunding - rather than conventional banks - as the natural way to raise funds for their business.

The UK's melting pot of close-knit entrepreneurs, sophisticated fintech sector and a growing pool of amateur investors keen to invest in young companies has created the perfect conditions for crowdfunding to thrive.

Politicians have been quick to recognise the value that crowdfunding represents to the UK economy too, with the Treasury Select Committee recently describing it as a "credible alternative to bank lending" for small businesses.

The Summer Budget also confirmed that from next April, people will even be able to hold debt crowdfunding investments in an ISA - and earn interest tax-free.

While other countries have different regulatory regimes that may prevent a direct copy of the UK crowdfunding model, the international interest it has sparked is extraordinary.

An export for UK Plc

Britain's crowdfunding expertise is now ripe for exporting.

America is finally catching up. At the end of June, the US relaxed its rules limiting equity crowdfunding to the rich and well-connected.

But the law behind the American liberalisation - the Jumpstart our Business Startups (JOBS) Act - draws heavily on the British crowdfunding model.

Modern crowdfunding may have been born in the USA, but its development has been a truly British success story. As it stands on the verge of going global, it is set to be a great export for UK Plc.

And that is a fantastic endorsement both of the prowess of our fintech sector, and the open-mindedness of British investors.

Dillen Iyavoo is CEO of Funding Tree