Several years ago, Simon Parker, a professor of entrepreneurship at Ivey Business School, integrated crowdfunding into his curriculum as he recognized the need to impart this skill to the next generation of business leaders.
But it hasn't been easy.
"I don't think that Canadian universities or business schools are doing a particularly good job at covering crowdfunding," Dr. Parker says, "but then again I don't think the Canadian government is doing a very good job, either."
Despite crowdfunding being the new normal in business, there is still the struggle to teach this subject because of its regulatory hang-ups in Canada. The challenges lie with the complexity of the crowdfunding environment in Canada – in particular, equity crowdfunding (when a group of people invests funds in an unlisted company in exchange for shares in that company), which is provincially regulated – unlike in the United States where it is under federal jurisdiction.
According to the National Crowdfunding Association of Canada, there are 72 crowdfunding platforms online throughout the country, including 12 for equity crowdfunding.
In January, the securities regulatory authorities in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia adopted a regulation that will provide a regulatory framework for crowdfunding platforms and allow businesses that use them greater access to capital in these five provinces. But until now, this has not existed and some feel this is just the first step to get Canada on pace with the rest of the globe.
"The provinces have a responsibility for the national regulation," explains Dr. Parker. "Some of them are working toward developing rules for crowdfunding sites. So there are crowdfunding sites in Canada, but at the moment there is still some uncertainty about equity crowdfunding."
It's this uncertainty that Dr. Parker and his colleagues find perplexing when it comes to their teachings. On the one hand, crowdfunding is part of the entrepreneurial landscape around the world. On the other, it's still a regulatory minefield in Canada.
So is it worth teaching?
Elspeth Murray, professor of strategy and new ventures at Queen's University's Smith School of Business in Kingston, insists that lessons on crowdfunding are indispensable to future business leaders as it's now a well-established part of not only the entrepreneurial world, but also the economy as a whole.
"This is a brand new, never-been-seen-before way of participating in the entrepreneurial economy," she explains.
"It's the sharing economy," adds Dr. Murray. "It's a whole bunch of things that kind of coalesce to make this a really important topic because it's here to stay. So if you're a business student, you need to understand this."
But she also acknowledges that her teachings include many cautionary tales to students who might be considering crowdfunding as a way to generate startup capital for their business venture.
"We very much talk about the [provincial] regulatory environment as a barrier," says Dr. Murray. "There have been massive lobby groups attempting to get the regulations changed because our entrepreneurs are disadvantaged, and the average citizen is ticked [off] because of our limited ways of participating in helping new ventures."
From almost the first day of class, the topic of crowdfunding is incorporated into Mia Maki's entrepreneurship course at the University of Victoria's Gustavson School of Business.
"I think it has to be talked about because it's part of the ever-changing landscape of financing available for entrepreneurs," she explains.
For Prof. Maki, crowdfunding is not just about raising capital, it's about raising one's profile. Successful crowdfunders know how to make an online splash and attract public interest in products and services. This is valuable information that entrepreneurs should absorb whether they pursue crowdfunding or not.
Interest in the topic among her students is broad, admits Prof. Maki, but as a whole this is a topic that has been talked about since most of her students started considering business as a career.
"When you consider their age, it's been around since their eyes were open to this type of business information," says Prof. Maki. "I think nominally they are interested in the topic, so they have it in their tool kit."
Craig Asano, executive director of the National Crowdfunding Association of Canada, agrees that crowdfunding is definitely part of the business conversation these days and says that while it should be taught in business schools, today's students shouldn't have to wait that long.
"It should be looked at as early as high school because students have more choices in participating in the economy," says Mr. Asano. "It's easier to become a startup than ever before. Not that everyone should just run up and create a business, but for those that are looking to do so, there's a lot more resources and kind of incubators and accelerators and support and we think that that kind of education should start early."
For Dr. Parker at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey School in London, Ont., he acknowledges the hurdles he faces teaching this subject to his current and future students, but says crowdfunding has its place – if maybe not as the cash cow some may consider it.
"I think for the very early stages of generating awareness and buzz and excitement and a little bit of seed money to develop a new gadget or a new prototype or whatever, it definitely has a place," says Dr. Parker. "I think what the instructor needs to make clear to students, though, is that it's not a proper vehicle if they're raising serious capital for an ongoing business. It's really a one-off."