Kickstarter rocks in the modern economy. It allows regular people to lend financial support to cash-strapped inventors, entrepreneurs, and artists.
Kickstarter watchers and backers may think that the service is nothing like regular investing. Yet if you think about "returns" as going beyond simple dollars and cents, then you can see that whether you're talking about a Kickstarter project or a publicly traded company, there are always multiple groups of stakeholders interested in the results of a venture.
When buying into a great idea is really investing
In a recent issue of Wired, "Mr. Know-It-All" was asked if there was any recourse for a bad Kickstarter experience. The question related to development funding for a role-playing game; the financial backer described the end product as "absolute garbage."
Interestingly, Mr. Know-It-All's answer described the Kickstarter donation as parallel to investing, so you can't go asking for your money back.
"Don't be fooled," he wrote. "You're just an investor, not a member of the family. And that means you need to accept a certain amount of risk."
The piece also warned Kickstarter backers to avoid feeling like customers instead of investors. The customer may always be right, but the investor is often very, very wrong. That's the risk the investor takes.
The "return" most Kickstarter backers expect is a finished product they believe in or will personally enjoy, or perhaps it's a successful venture started by a friend or family member, or the rewards that have been offered.
However, as Mr. Know-It-All outlined, some backers might in effect be throwing that money to the wind; the only thing they're really owed is an explanation for what happened.
There are many ways this kind of "investing" can backfire. The product simply may not turn out to be as good as expected, or its creators may never manage to produce through no fault of their own. There's no shortage of good ideas that simply can't be executed. Entrepreneurship includes risk of failure, and backers assume that risk when they contribute.
Obviously, though, most people put money toward Kickstarter projects not as a financial investment but simply for the emotional gratification of having supported, say, great art or an awesome new product. Many Kickstarter campaigns promise delivery of products or services to backers, as well as special goodies to the extremely generous, once funded projects are completed. Much like stock investors, Kickstarter backers are expecting to get something -- it just may not be monetary in nature.
Different ways to "invest" your cash
Mr. Know-It-All was right to compare Kickstarter backers with traditional stock investors. With for-profit ventures, investors put capital into companies they expect to grow, and sometimes even support start-ups. In return, investors receive ownership interests.
Furthermore, shareholders of public companies can vote their annual proxy ballots, voicing opinions on CEO pay packages and director nominations and even shareholder resolutions that can have to do with everything from corporate governance to environmental policies and animal welfare issues.
When you invest in public companies, you actually have a bit more say, and if you invest well, you could get a real financial return as your companies continue to innovate, grow, and succeed.
It's hard to compare a powerhouse like Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN ) to a Kickstarter project, but at one time Amazon.com was simply a "cool idea," with absolutely no guarantee of long-term success as a company. E-commerce was in its infancy and even simply distributing books and music over the Internet seemed neat-o but maybe not as absolutely transformative as it turned out to be.
Anyone who bought Amazon shares when it cratered after the Internet bubble burst has made quite a financial return if they've held for the long haul. But I'd argue that they've also contributed to and gotten the satisfaction of having helped further a very, very big idea: that e-commerce was going to transform the way commerce was conducted on a massive scale.
Big ideas sometimes yield big returns
Investors like me also believe that investing in stocks can have just as many emotional returns on investment as financial ones. Here are a few examples of companies where you can go beyond your own bottom-line financial return in feeling like a part of something important that the company is trying to accomplish:
- Google's (NASDAQ: GOOGL ) major aim has been to make information accessible, searchable, and free.
- Facebook's (NASDAQ: FB ) huge strength is the power of its users in driving thought, information, discussion, and communication.
- Solazyme (NASDAQ: SZYM ) is creating oils beyond fossil fuels; its oils, produced using sugars and algae, could transform the ingredients we use for transportation, cosmetics, and even food.
- Companies like Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS ) are creating three-dimensional objects on demand; did 3-D "printing" even occur to anyone 10 years ago? There's mind-blowing transformative potential there.
This isn't an invitation to invest in any of the aforementioned companies right this second. The point is that there are plenty of big-idea companies to invest in.
Still, unlike Kickstarter, you can not only get the money you invest in stocks back, but also see it grow by leaps and bounds over the long term. If you pick a transformative technology that results in a good outcome and the company in question succeeds, you get not only the satisfaction of having gotten in early on a useful concept but also reaped financial rewards from it.
Kickstart your investing dollars, but carefully
Kickstarter is fabulous. I've kicked in a few times for artistic efforts that would have a hard time finding funding if Kickstarter didn't exist.
However, because of the potential to grow your money and help you achieve your personal financial goals, investing in public companies is also important. Fortunately, you don't have to give up the same sort of emotional gratification that Kickstarter projects can give you in order to get a financial return. If you choose your stocks carefully, you could end up reaping both types of rewards.
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Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.