Microfinancing: Finance Or Retail?

Microlending is the concept of lending a small amount of money to a borrower either through debt lending or equity lending.  On the surface this sounds like banking and finance. But are peer to peer lending communities strictly about finance?  Or is attracting investors to this new type of lending about something else altogether? 

Traditional banking relationships involve a borrower and a lender. Sometimes there are a handful of lenders involved. But it is usually a pretty constrained relationship, the type we call a one-to-one relationship with one borrower and one lender. With peer t0 peer lending there are many investors involved in funding a project. Likewise in consumer retail, where the relationship is between one brand and many consumers forming a many-to-one relationship. For this reason a borrower looking to microfinance has to employ completely different tactics than a borrower looking for traditional bank financing.

Microlending portals are essentially communities where a product (in this case, a project that requires financing) is matched with a set of customers, known as investors. Offering the right product to the right customer is Consumer Marketing 101.  But since banks haven’t traditionally treated their clients like customers, at least not in the same ways that direct-to-consumer companies have, this is a opportunity.  Just as traditional lending has started making room for microfinance or ‘crowdfunding’, the marketing folks for microlending communities need to embrace the tactics that consumer brands have been using for decades. Having to acquire a customer – or in this case an investor – one person at a time is a completely different beast. So as much as crowdfunding marketplaces fall into the finance category, they are much more similar to a marketing platform that matches customers to products. Digital marketing techniques like email marketing, social media engagement and advertising, hyper-local relationship management, link building, and paid search all need to be used.  Traditional offline promotions can also be integrated with a call to action to drive offline traffic to the online marketplace. 

So back to my original question: Is peer to peer microfinancing about only finance? Clearly the answer is NO. Rather it’s about building a community and shaping it into a marketplace, drawing in investors to match with borrowers (customers paired with product).  It’s non-traditional for finance and the ways in which projects are marketed, promoted and subsequently funded are new.  And there is good news here as we see many solid ways to use consumer marketing tactics that have been successful.

I’d love to hear from others who work on the marketing side of peer to peer financing marketplaces. What traditional tactics have worked for you? Are you focused mostly on digital marketing? What approaches have really resonated with your lending community? 

Please comment below or email me directly: nicole@groundfloor.us.


Peer-to-Peer Microlending And What’s Important

As the concept of being the bank for another person via peer-to-peer microlending comes into its own we are noticing some developing trends in the deciding factors driving our investor base. In our previous post we reviewed a recent survey that was put forth to our community. We wondered –  What are the important pieces of information that influence an investment decision? So instead of wondering, we decided to ask.  Check out the interesting findings!

So What IS important

Affinity For A Project.

As humans, we are drawn to things that we can connect with. Whether that means connecting with another person in a relationship or connecting with an object that we have affinity for.  Investors have shown the need to take a personal interest in a project before committing to a loan. It may be the architecture of the home or the type of project – for example a community rehabilitation. Regardless of the reason, a connection is usually made before a pledge is entered on a project.

Knowing The Neighborhood.

There are several reasons this is important. First, a local investment has appeal because it is a known entity to the investor. A project in a nearby neighborhood can be easily accessed by simply driving by and taking a look.  This provides confidence to the investor that the project is tangible and supports their number one purpose for lending: to make a return. The second reason knowledge of the area is important is because of a sense of community and doing good. Many investors see this as icing on the cake when a healthy return can be made AND a neighbor can be helped to reach their goals. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Making At Least 8% Return.

Of course no one at GROUNDFLOOR was surprised by this one! Providing a return is the whole point in microfinancing. The mission and the circle of investor lending and repayment is what the business cycles around.

Just Plain Curiosity.

Some folks are simply curious about the industry and the opportunity and they are willing to give it a try. Understandably, some investors start small to build confidence before working their way up to larger commitments and multiple projects. And for someone new to the concept of microlending that makes a lot of sense.

Consistent and Persistent Returns.

Volatility in the market can be exciting and it may be important for some investors to have high-risk investments in their portfolio.  Our lenders have chosen to participate in peer-to peer, debt-based microlending because of the consistent flow of returns and the security of debt investing.  The majority of our investors tell us that they will roll over into another project once their current loan is repaid. That’s a true testament to the confidence in peer to peer lending!

Low Investment Minimum.

Investors appreciate the idea of getting in on a secured loan at a low level of  commitment.  With GROUNDFLOOR we afford the ability to participate in an offering with as little as $100.

Peer to peer microlending has gotten it’s fair share of attention over the last year and as the industry grows and evolves it will be exciting to watch what the future will bring!

Tell us what you think!  How did you decide to get involved in peer-to-peer microlending?  Did you have hesitations? Where do you think the industry is headed?
Source:  GROUNDFLOOR Investor Survey, 2014


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We Asked, You Answered

Hello from Nicole. I am thrilled to have recently joined the GROUNDFLOOR team as our VP, Marketing. I have a 15 year background in technology start-ups focused in the areas of product development, go-to-market planning and customer acquisition strategies. My specific experience has been with business-to-consumer offerings and SaaS platforms, including Art.com, Cafepress, Buildlinks and Motricity. I am honored to be joining the brilliant and hilarious team at GROUNDFLOOR. If you want to learn more, check out my LinkedIn Profile, and to get in touch directly you can find me at nicole at groundfloor.us.

Enough of that and on to the good stuff.  Here are GROUNDFLOOR we always have a lot of balls in the air.  As a typical startup company, it’s a juggling act for sure.  Two things that never waiver are our commitment and genuine interest in our investors (yes, you!).  We want to know what interests you, concerns you and what may even keep you up at night.  We will never assume that we know what community needs when is comes to investing in microloans – which is why we will ask you. In fact, it’s our intention to ask you fairly often if your needs and opinions have changes.

Recently we sent out an Investor Survey to ask and learn your most recent viewpoints. Our intention was to gather your thoughts on microlending in general:  Your level of comfort with the concept and how you plan to make it a part of your investment strategy in the future.

We also asked more specific questions about enhancements you would like to see within the GROUNDFLOOR community as we connect investors to builders.  The feedback we received was generous and extremely helpful in guiding our team in some new directions and to reinforce decisions already in motion.  It will take some time to digest all the details of the survey results but we wanted to share some of the highlights with you immediately.  Here are some very notable trends gathered from the data.

A smart and passionate community  GROUNDFLOOR has an educated and passionate community of investors. Our investors understand why microlending is important and how it will help you to meet your financial goals.

Commitment to microlending  Of those investors who have already invested in one project, 75% of you expressed a high likelihood of investing again in subsequent or additional projects.  

We can do more  At GROUNDFLOOR can (and will) do a better job at explaining some of the nuances behind a particular project. Examples include: What is ‘loan to value’ (LTV) and how is it calculated? How does LTV mean for a specific project? How is the project valued? Is there an appraisal done and how do I see it? Some of you want to know more about our builders. It was all great feedback that we have taken to heart.

Project volume!  We overwhelmingly heard that our investors WANT to invest. But you are asking for more diversity and volume in our projects – including new neighborhoods and new states.  And we have heard you loud and clear that many more projects are needed to support our fast growing community of investors.  This is exciting for us because we have BIG things coming in the next few months that will greatly expand the project offerings from builder to investor.

Over the coming weeks we will be sharing more details of the feedback you provided. A huge thanks to everyone who participated. 


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Your Investor Dashboard

This week we wanted to briefly highlight the investor dashboard – a tool that many of our investors find helpful. We’d love to hear what other things you would like to see in your dashboard in addition to what can already be viewed there. It’s easy to get to your dashboard, it can be accessed by clicking “My Account” and selecting “Investment Activity” as seen here:

My Account

 

Once you are into your investor dashboard, you will see:

InvestmentActivity2

 

First and foremost your investor dashboard provides a complete view of each of the individual investments that you’ve made (see A above in the image). You can view a transaction receipt for each of these investments by clicking on the blue “Receipt” text and icon (see B above). The map shows you the states where you have investment activity. The top green bar (above) shows your total projected return (for your investments only) based on the total you have invested (the large blue bar) and the blended rate of your investments (the small blue bar). Your projected net return, in dollars, is seen in the small green bar.

There are three different types of transactions that an investor can make:

  1. Pledge - indicates that you are interested in making an investment in the deal for a certain amount of money. It does not actually save your spot in the deal.
  2. Pre-order – a pledge with a specified payment method and your permission for us to process the pledge (using your specified payment method) as soon as the deal is live for funding. This does save you a spot in the deal.
  3. Investment – means you are actually in the deal.

Any open pledges can be viewed in your dashboard as well (see E above). If you want to save a spot in the deal, you can convert your pledge to a pre-order by clicking the blue “Pre-order” text and icon as seen in D above. You can also cancel your pledge or view a receipt of your pledge (see D above). Similarly you can view your open pre-orders as well as cancel them or view the receipt (see E above).

Lastly, you can review and edit your linked bank account (see F above).

With your continued input we plan to evolve not only this tool, but many others to come. So please let us know what you like/dislike and help us to make this tool and the overall GROUNDFLOOR experience better for everyone by writing us (support@groundfloor.us) or commenting on this post.


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Senior Loans vs. Junior Loans

This post briefly considers the two main types of loans that borrowers currently offer GROUNDFLOOR investors–senior loans and junior loans–and examines some of the important differences between them and the implications for investors.

A lender will almost certainly put a lien on the property when providing a borrower with a loan. A lien simply means that the lender is establishing a claim on the property and, therefore, the property becomes collateral for the loan. So if the borrower defaults (i.e. in any way violates the terms of his loan agreement), then the lender can foreclose and force the sale of the property in order to recoup her investment.

There are often multiple loans on a single real estate deal, and each of these loans has a different lien priority or repayment priority. Senior loans (or “senior mortgages” or “first mortgage” or “first-lien” debt holders) are in first position (i.e. they have a first lien priority). Junior loans (or “junior mortgages” or “second-lien” debt holders or mezzanine capital) have a lower priority than a first or prior (senior) lender.

In addition to missing a payment, a borrower can trigger a default on the loan if they violate any of the terms of the loan agreement.  In the event that a borrower defaults, the lien priority determines the order in which lenders are repaid. In general, senior lenders are always repaid first. It is possible that a borrower could default on a junior loan without defaulting on a senior loan. However, if the value of the property is less than (or equal to) the value of the senior loan, the junior lender will not likely choose to foreclosure since they wouldn’t recover any of their investment–the senior lenders would be paid from the proceeds first and there would be nothing left for the junior lenders.

Needless to say if a borrower defaults and the property is less than the senior loan, then any junior lenders are wiped out (i.e. they lose their investment). Even if the value of the property is more than the senior loan, junior lenders will often lose their investment since senior lenders only need to recover their investment in the case of a foreclosure.

Two other minor notes to consider. The government always gets paid first, so, for example, if there are any tax liens on the property due to unpaid property taxes, then the IRS would get automatic first position over all prior liens. Although junior debt holders may lose their security (or lien) on the property due to a foreclosure, the debt is still owed to these lenders who can take other legal actions in an attempt to recover their investment.

Ultimately, junior loans are, in general, far more risky than senior loans. As we’ve discussed in prior posts, investors should be paid more as an investment’s risk increases. One of the primary benefits of investing in real estate is the ability for your investment to be secured by the property (also see our FAQs on secured lending). In the event of a default and a foreclosure, junior loans can become unsecured loans whereas senior lenders are always secured by the property and paid first (except in rare instances where the government has an unpaid claim). Consequently, investors should be compensated for this greater risk when investing in junior loans by requiring a higher interest rate (relative to a senior loan). How much higher? That may be a good topic for a later post, but for now we’d love to hear your thoughts.


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Is There Actually Any Value Investing Like This?

“October: This is one of the particularly dangerous months to invest in stocks. Other dangerous months are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February”.

-Mark Twain

 

This post continues with the next installment in our series about how GROUNDFLOOR can fit with your savings and investment strategy. Last time, we took on the topic of Diversification. Today, we address one way to think about whether investing in real estate loans through GROUNDFLOOR is a “good” investment. We put that word in quotes because many factors influence whether an investment is good or bad. Different individuals’ needs, goals and life stages will make the same investment a good investment for one individual and a bad investment for another.

Ultimately, regardless of fit, it’s always a question of value. In general, an asset’s value is determined by the cash flows it produces and the risk and timing of those cash flows (which impacts the risk). One of the most practical ways to determine an asset’s value is to find an identical or comparable asset, in terms of risk, and see whether that asset offers a larger return (i.e. greater cash flows) than your asset. Alternatively, you could find an asset that is priced similarly to yours and see how the risk compares.

So what’s a good comparable for GROUNDFLOOR investments? It doesn’t seem like the stock market is an appropriate benchmark or comparison. After all, value in the stock market is largely driven by a company’s growth potential as well as it’s earnings potential not to mention that you’re investing in equity in the stock market rather than debt. In general, equity is riskier than debt as debtholders are paid before equity investors. Many cite the fact that public equities (i.e. stocks listed on an exchange) allow you to get in and out your investments quickly. While your money is certainly liquid in the stock market, you really need to hold on to your investment for quite some time in order to systematically realize the types of returns that are typically associated with investing in equity. Indeed, stocks are by their very nature volatile–the value can change significantly in a short time period.

Are REITs a better comparable for GROUNDFLOOR investments? These investments don’t seem to be any more comparable than the stock market. The most obvious reason being that they are part of the stock market–they are publicly traded equities. Despite the fact that they are real estate, they are most typically–as mentioned above–in a very different position in the capital stack (i.e. when they are paid relative to debt) and they have a very different time horizon as well as exposure to significant volatility. Even for a REIT that invests in debt, however, it’s difficult to know the actual real estate assets that you’re investing in with a REIT. REITs are black boxes.

Part of the issue is that real estate, as an asset class has never before been available to all investors–certainly not as (1) a direct investment with (2) the senior position in the capital stack at (3) such an accessible “price point” (i.e. $100 minimum investment). At best it’s been available as an equity investment using REITs, but the comparison to a GROUNDFLOOR investment is questionable.

So, what is a good comparison of value? How about traditional savings, money market or certificates of deposit (“CDs”)?  CDs might be the most comparable of the three given that your investment is locked up for a defined period of time. Most CDs require a minimum deposit much larger than GROUNDFLOOR’s minimum investment of $100. According to Bankrate.com CDs with a comparable minimum investment and investment horizons from 3 months to 12 months offer annual returns ranging from 0.3% to 0.9% annually versus 8% to 12% annually with GROUNDFLOOR. However, a CD is backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government (up to $250,000), so without question a CD carries less risk. Given that the projected returns on a GROUNDFLOOR investment are 8-15 times greater, the risk would also need to be more than 8-15 times that of a CD for the value of a GROUNDFLOOR investment to be less than that of a CD.

So does investing in GROUNDFLOOR offer investors good value? Ultimately the question comes down to your view of the risk-reward tradeoff relative to stocks, bonds, CDs or any other investment opportunity. Do you believe that investing in GROUNDFLOOR loans, consistently, over time will be more than 8-15 times riskier than investing in a certificate of deposit? If no, then investing through GROUNDFLOOR presents good value. What about REITs? Consider, as an example, the approximate 10-year performance of the Vanguard REIT Index ETF.

Wilshire 5000 Index Invmt Fund Chart

Source: http://finance.yahoo.com/echarts?s=VNQ+Interactive#symbol=VNQ;range=my

The ETF returned 44.53% over approximately 9 years and 8 months or approximately 3.88% annually. Do you believe that investing through GROUNDFLOOR is 2-3 times riskier than this ETF? If no, then investing through GROUNDFLOOR presents good value. Finally, what about the stock market in general? For example, consider the Wilshire 5000 Index. This index is widely accepted as the broadest measure of U.S. stock performance (even broader than the S&P 500 and certainly broader the the Dow Jones Index).

Vanguard REIT ETF Chart Yahoo Finance

Source: http://quote.morningstar.com/fund/chart.aspx?t=WFIVX&region=usa&culture=en-US

By this measure U.S. equities have returned 7.41% per year over the last 10 years (as seen in the chart below). However, in order to invest in a fund that mirrors the Wilshire 5000 you will be charged a management fee resulting in annual returns of 6.86%, not the full 7.41%. Do you believe that investing through GROUNDFLOOR is 1.2-1.8 times riskier than the overall stock market? If no, then investing through GROUNDFLOOR presents good value.

What do you believe? It may help to consider what it means to have a secured investment in a GROUNDFLOOR loan.


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Georgia By The Numbers

For many, Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of summer, in attitude if not in seasonal fact. As we look ahead to an exciting summer of expansion for GROUNDFLOOR, we thought this would be a good time to update you on results of the season now passing behind us.

When we first introduced GROUNDFLOOR, we were eager to open up a variety of Georgia projects to Georgia investors, and to see what would happen. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about the types of loans you want to fund, how you want to learn about them, and what you want to know before investing.

Including 809 Custer Ave this week, our groundbreaking group of over 1,000 Georgia investors have now funded five loans worth $250,000. Some facts and figures:

  • 145 people have made at least one investment, and one-third of them more than one
  • The most common investment was $500, and one-third of all investors started out with less than $500
  • On average, people have invested $1,100 per project
  • Those who made their first investment in May had been members of GROUNDFLOOR for almost one month on average before investing

This summer, GROUNDFLOOR begins to expand beyond Georgia to five more states reaching more than 43 million investors. Of course, we’ll continue with our offerings in Georgia. But we’ll also be able to offer a greater variety of loans in more places, to more people. Once again, we’re eager to see what will happen.

Based on the early results from our first round of funded loans, we’re encouraged and more emboldened than ever to create an investment that is truly accessible (and actually accessed) by all. While we’re sure to see growth in nearly every metric listed above, we’ll never forget where we started. We’ll always leave room for new investors who are just starting to experiment with building wealth with us in this new way, one loan at a time.

Regardless whether you’ve already invested with us or have been waiting on the sidelines, we’re glad you’re here. Please let us know what information and assistance we can provide to help you get and stay involved as we grow. We’ll respond to comments below, and you can always reach us at founders@groundfloor.us.


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Diversification in Your Investment Strategy: The Tail Wagging the Dog

In this post we’ll begin to discuss how regular investments through GROUNDFLOOR can fit within investors’ financial portfolios. Today, we’re addressing how investing through GROUNDFLOOR helps diversify your portfolio.

Diversification is one of the most widely accepted principles of a solid investment strategy. It helps minimize idiosyncratic risk (i.e. risk unique to a certain asset, company, etc.) on a macro level, as well as a micro level. For instance on a micro level, when Apple stock is down, Procter & Gamble may be up. Similarly, on a macro level, if the stock market is down, real estate or the bond market might not be. Experts agree that it is important to invest not only in different companies’ stocks but also to invest in different types of instruments and asset classes such as real estate, bonds, and so on.

According to empirical research, asset allocation is by far the most important determinant of an investor’s portfolio performance–not the individual investments that an investor selects nor the timing of those investments (both of which, ironically, tend to receive the most time from investors).

Portfolio Performance & Asset Allocation

Source: http://www6.ingretirementplans.com/SponsorExtranet/MarketTiming.pdf

 

Investing regularly over time through GROUNDFLOOR and dividing your investments amongst a variety of projects is one way to achieve diversification in real estate (as an asset class). Moreover, as we grow our offerings, you’ll be able to diversify amongst subclasses based on different project types, different developers and/or different locations.

Given that real estate is one of the largest asset classes in the economy, it seems fair to conclude that it should be a part of every investor’s portfolio. The precise extent to which one should allocate assets to real estate, and to what types of real estate, is a personal decision. Before GROUNDFLOOR, the only choices open to the vast majority of investors (i.e. the non-accredited 98%) were (1) to become a house flipper, property renovator or landlord or (2) invest in a REIT. The first option isn’t practical or even advisable for most people. The second, as any product produced by Wall Street, for the profit of Wall Street, has its own challenges. We’ll take that topic up in a future post, since people frequently ask about the difference between GROUNDFLOOR and a REIT.

GROUNDFLOOR provides investors with the first-ever affordable, practical way to diversify into real estate by creating their own REIT, using the Web to invest directly in the projects they choose. Until now, that option has only been open to financial institutions and the weathiest 2-3% of U.S. investors. It seems that investing through GROUNDFLOOR is just the thing most investor portfolios have been missing to achieve better diversification. What do you think?


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The Road to Your State

One week ago, GROUNDFLOOR announced a landmark securities filing with the federal government and five state governments. But what does this really mean? First, it is important to understand that when you invest in a project through GROUNDFLOOR, you are purchasing a security (e.g., a stock or bond; most types of investments). The sale of securities is regulated by both federal and state governments. Anyone seeking to sell securities must comply with both federal and state law.

These rules and regulations are designed to protect investors from unscrupulous actors. Certain exemptions from these laws exist that allow companies selling investments to avoid regulation by catering only to the wealthy. These exemptions lower the cost of compliance, but at the expense of transparency and access for retail investors like you. That is why you’ll see other platforms sell to “Accredited Investors” only. As Brian articulated last week, we will never take that path of least resistance because that’s not what we believe in. Instead, we are actively working with our regulators to bring GROUNDFLOOR to everyone.

All our investments to date have been offered only in Georgia because we have been using Georgia’s innovative crowdfunding laws to pilot and refine the way GROUNDFLOOR works. Of course, we want to service investors across the country. This means we must embark upon the long and expensive process of registering our offering with the authorities in each new state we enter. We have now begun this process in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Arizona. Investors in these states can expect to put their money to work with GROUNDFLOOR in the very near future.

As a regulated entity, GROUNDFLOOR takes pride in transparency. Our Georgia investors have access to comprehensive documents about their investments with us. Investors in our new states can expect the same. State regulators and the Securities Exchange Commission will review our documents and the features of our offering before we are allowed to take investments. These rules and regulations require hundreds of hours of legal work and many hundreds of pages of documentation. It is a very high bar. Filing an offering with both the federal and state regulators can cost as much as a small house, but we accept it as what we must do in order to realize our vision of creating a new kind of finance that is open to everyone.

As we progress with the regulatory process you will notice changes to the website. These changes are designed to accommodate investors in new states where we can solicit investments. If you are a different state, stick with us. We will be expanding to your state as fast as we can. In the meantime, we appreciate your interest and support, and will happily listen to your suggestions and comments on how you will use GROUNDFLOOR and what opportunities exist in your state. Have one now, or a question about securities regulation? Use the comments below and we’ll meet you there.


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Putting the Crowd Back Into Crowdfunding

This week, we announced a major expansion of GROUNDFLOOR (press release; coverage in USA Today). After several months piloting our concept in Georgia, we’re ready to open micro-lending in real estate to more people in more states, and to start funding projects throughout the U.S.

It’s a big moment for GROUNDFLOOR, those waiting to join us, and for the promise of crowdfinance. With a breadth that will now reach 43 million Americans, the offering we’ve now launched with six states and the SEC is the largest ever in crowdfinance. We’re proud of this achievement-in-progress. It’s an important milestone along an expensive and complex journey to build a new financial product that is accessible to all–not just those investors who are deemed “accredited” by federal regulations.

Why take on all the complexity and expense? My co-founder Nick Bhargava and I have never accepted the false notion that 2% of a population qualifies as a “crowd.” As entrepreneurs, we are passionate about equality of opportunity. That’s not only for political and social reasons, but because we also believe it’s good business. Power and insight lies in true diverse numerosity–the “wisdom of crowds.” We refuse to stand down and take the tempting shortcut of mediating big money transactions between big money interests. This, despite everything in our nation’s legal and regulatory superstructure having been optimized for the purpose of serving those interests, by those interests and with them.

At two recent industry conferences, it became obvious that even the crowdfunding industry itself has lost its way. In a desperate bid for relevance, the industry blithely heralds even a recently launched online financing platform with a million dollar minimum investment as a “crowd” funding platform. Principles of fairness and equal opportunity are losing out to how much capital can be funneled to which landmark projects, how quickly. While that development may offer much for the real estate industry, it offers nothing for the 98% of us who are not “accredited” investors. If unchecked, it risks leaving our financial prospects and voice to whatever Wall Street serves us–the status quo as it’s always been.

GROUNDFLOOR won’t stand by or join in to let that be the case. This week in Atlanta at the Crowdfunding USA Conference, we offered a more precise and normative definition of crowdfunding. That sparked a vibrant conversation about semantics, values and purpose. We’ll have more to say about that soon. Meanwhile, and more importantly, we’re leading the way in the market. Building off our success in Georgia, we’re not waiting for Title III of the JOBS Act to open a new class of investment product previously restricted to the wealthy and well-connected. We’re doing it now, using existing regulations to tread a path much less traveled by–but that is ultimately much more rewarding.

Questions, comments or have your own observations to share? Add them below and we’ll look forward to interacting with you.


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