Fundraising during COVID: The challenges and opportunities
Johnathan Ransom, CEO & Co-founder of Square Mile Farms spoke to Startups Magazine about the challenges and opportunities that arose during the 2020 COVID crisis whilst raising from their network. Think back, post-2008 financial crisis, internet technologies and crowdsourcing both evolved to allow companies to easily raise funds from their network and community for the first time. The power and value of the crowd have only increased since then, helping businesses grow quickly and sustainably while reaching entirely new audiences.
With my business, Square Mile Farms, we are building a tribe of individual growers as well as businesses to create a sustainable community of urban farming enthusiasts.
It made sense, then, to turn to our network for financial backing via equity crowdfunding platform, Seedrs, to both raise funds and grow our network of evangelists at the same time. Not only could we use our position on the public platform to initiate conversations with businesses, but we could also rapidly increase the number of brand ambassadors who truly believe in what we are doing.
As we exit the coronavirus lockdown, this tribe will be incredibly useful at spreading the word about Square Mile Farms and will help business owners, HR teams and facilities managers to reimagine the office as more welcoming, inviting, sustainable green spaces. With an increased focus on employee wellbeing, vertical farm installations will be a quick and easy win for HR/wellbeing teams and building managers.
Overcoming coronavirus challenges
Initially, we had planned to begin raising investment in May, having spent the previous month or so preparing our video, pitch and other documentation. Then the coronavirus began sweeping the world and we were faced with a choice: adapt or wait.
Taking our lead from the natural world, we decided that the best way to keep growing was to adapt to the new challenge, not shrink away from it.
So, we went back to basics, reconsidering our purpose and subsequently our messaging, reshooting our video (which, due to lockdown, created its own challenges) and reviewing all of our other pitch materials. Fortunately, we have a very experienced team who were able to quickly adapt to this new approach.
Between my experience in real estate, our co-founder and CSO, Patrick’s, experience in business strategy, and our COO, Doug’s, vast experience working with vertical farming, we formulated a new market strategy based more on corporate wellness. We then presented this strategy to our lead investor, providing the confidence they needed to increase their stake in this round.
Ultimately, we used that experience and feedback from our lead investor to better understand why people were investing in Square Mile Farms, which then fed into our pitch.
While Covid-19 is, we hope, a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, unexpected disruptions are an inevitability in business. Being that we’ve hit our initial fundraising goal in fewer than eight hours of our campaign launching to the public, it’s reassuring to know that the crowd, our tribe and the investor community all buy into our strategy and vision.
Maintaining the momentum
Further validation of our approach and speed to adapt is the fact we’ve welcomed over 500 investors into the round so far, at time of writing.
Our aim is to keep this momentum going once the campaign is closed, using our new audience as a launchpad to reach the wider community. The idea is, by creating a loyal tribe of brand ambassadors from our investor crowd, we create a virtuous circle. Investors believe in our vision and share it with potential customers who also come on board, and pass it along to their friends and colleagues...and so on.
And this is the true value of raising investment from your network. Gaining capital is, of course, important, but emerging from a crisis like a pandemic with a tribe of enthusiastic brand ambassadors who truly believe in your vision is worth much more than money.
My suggestion: whenever you decide to launch your investment round, aim to engage with your investor audience. Update them on the business, tell them how you adapted to a crisis, and find time for one-on-one conversations. Not only will you win over your investors, but you may also just learn something about your business along the way!
The Future for Square Mile Farms
Of course, coronavirus isn’t the last challenge our business will face in its journey. In all likelihood, the world will experience a global slowdown due to the lockdown and may dip into recession.
Yet, recessions can also be a place of opportunity for new companies, especially ones that have capitalisation and a tribe of brand ambassadors. In fact, around 50% of current Fortune 500 companies were born out of a recession or declining market, showing that there is opportunity in the change that recession brings.
What’s more, we believe that offices will begin competing against the home environment in order to entice employees into the office more regularly. As Jonathon Gibson, Director and Head of Sustainability at Avison Young, nicely summarises: “[Workplaces] will polarise between ultra-efficient low cost and soulless spaces, driven by cost per head, which are there purely as a function for when people absolutely need to meet up.
“Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the high quality, experiential office, designed to be a space people want to come to and spend time in, that will help attract the best talent. People will be coming to the office for an experience, to have ideas and be creative.
“If you’re operating in the middle ground you’re in danger of being left behind or paying for something that’s never used. So, for this reason, the right companies will make the investment.”
Clearly many companies agree. Our first vertical farm project is already complete on the roof of Microsoft’s London Paddington HQ. We also boast Vodafone and Grosvenor Estates as clients and are working with British Land, one of the UK’s largest landowners, to engage their clients.
But vertical farming is a global idea whose time has come and we are keen to meet that growing global market. We may need VC investment to get us there, but with such a strong community behind us, we are now in a particularly strong position.
If you are thinking of raising investment from your network, in my very recent experience, now is an excellent time. Investment is picking up again following the mid-lockdown lull and people everywhere are beginning to envision returning to a very different world ‒ one in which your business could play a key part!