Throughout my conversations about Fund I/O over the past couple of weeks, one thing has become clear: Fund I/O implies a radically different way of thinking about business.
What is the Fund I/O business model? Fund I/O is a business model for the production of goods with substantial economies of scale. In a nutshell:
- Financing is provided through presales made during a crowdfunding campaign.
- The producer commits in advance to a pricing scheme that passes savings due to economies of scale on to customers directly, by lowering prices as fast as possible.
- Early buyers are guaranteed to get a refund when the price drops, so that they have no incentive to wait with their purchase.
What makes Fund I/O different from the conventional way of doing business? Suppose you run a company and want to produce a product that benefits from economies of scale. Here is what Fund I/O means to you:
- You finance your product entirely through presales. You do not have take on a loan, you do not have to pay interest, and you do not have to maximize profit for your investors. This drastically reduces your risk and your cost of capital. The presales appear as a non-interest bearing liability on your balance sheet, and the primary interest of your financiers is to receive a great product, not to get paid.
- You place an absolute limit on the profit you can make off a product. This limit can be chosen arbitrarily, but by choosing a refund scheme you are committing to an absolute limit on your profits. Note that because you used presales from customers to finance production you are making a profit without having invested any capital yourself, so from that point of view your return on investment is infinite, even if your maximum profits are not!
- You obtain a tremendous amount of market information: By committing to a refund scheme, you give your customers an incentive to reveal exactly how much they are willing to pay for your product. This translates into higher sales, more revenue and faster growth.
Through the combination of crowdfunding, a clear price reduction scheme with a limit on profits and a refund mechanism, Fund I/O manages to align the interests of key stakeholders and it provides them with a mechnism to communicate truthfully about value: It resolves the fundamental conflict of interest between investors who want to maximize their profits and customers who want to minimize what they have to pay.
What makes Fund I/O different from other crowdfunding schemes? There are basically two different crowdfunding models out there: reward-based crowdfunding and equity crowdfunding.
Equity crowdfunding is not that different from the conventional business model. Financiers are still interested in return on investment. The key difference is that investors often have another stake in the business in addition to their profit interests. For example, they may be not only investors but customers at the same time, or they may have an interest in the social impact of the business. But still the business is obliged to maximize profits on behalf of its investors, which gives customers incentives to understate their valuation of the products the business is offering.
Reward-based crowdfunding makes customers the financiers of a product, aligning the interests of two key stakeholders. But it still does not provide a mechanism to communicate about value. In reward-based crowdfunding, creators have to fix the price a priori and often a majority of backers pledge just this price and no more. The success of reward-based crowdfunding hinges on the generosity of backers who self-select for price targeting by willingly paying a large premium for the product. This type of altruism (whether motivated by appreciation of the project, the thrill of being part of something great or the enjoyment of receiving secondary merchandise) is great, if it suffices to finance the project. Fund I/O can be tweaked to captialize on this type of gift economy as well, but the main contribution of Fund I/O lies elsewhere: Fund I/O makes crowdfunding work in cases where the capital requirements of a project are large or where the potential customers are price sensitive. Fund I/O provides the mechanism that allows producers and customers to join forces in order to create great products, even if all parties involved need to avoid paying more than they have to.
What problem does Fund I/O solve? From the point of view of a business, Fund I/O reduces risk, aligns interests of stakeholders, provides a wealth of market information and generates more sales. Moreover Fund I/O provides financing alternatives to debt and equity and conventional crowdfunding. This is particularly useful in cases where debt and equity are too expensive, too risky or simply unavailable and when altruistic contributions made through a rewards-based crowdfunding campaign do not suffice.
However, this is just one angle on the question: “What problem does Fund I/O solve?” Over the next days, I will post other answers, taking the point of view of a customer, or examining the applicability of Fund I/O to non-profit projects aimed at social impact. One very technical answer is already written up: Fund I/O provides a practical implementation of an incentive compatible, individually rational mechanism for the private provision of excludable public goods that is asymptotically optimal.