Cross-posted at Business Law Prof Blog.
My co-blogger Stefan Padfield [at Business Law Prof Blog] passed along this article from The New York Times Dealbook on the social network Ello.
Ello is a Delaware public benefit corporation. The social enterprise terminology is proving difficult, even for sophisticated authors at the New York Times Dealbook. The article calls Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s public benefit corporations. Patagonia, however, is a California benefit corporation. I wrote about the differences between public benefit corporations and benefit corporations here. Ben & Jerry’s is a certified B corporation, but, as far as I know, Ben & Jerry’s has not yet made the legal change to convert to any of the social enterprise forms. I wrote about the differences between benefit corporations and certified B corporations here and here. Just as my co-blogger Joshua Fershee remains vigilant at pointing out the differences between LLCs and corporations, so I will remain vigilant on the social enterprise distinctions.
Besides my nitpicking on the use of social enterprise terminology, there are a few other things I want to say about this article.
First, Ello raised $5.5 million dollars, which is not that much money in the financial world, but puts Ello in pretty rare company in the U.S. social enterprise world. The vast majority of U.S. social enterprises are owned by a single individual or family; some social enterprises have raised outside capital, but not many. The increasing presence of outside investors in social enterprise means two main things to me: (1) the social enterprise concept is starting to gain some traction with previously skeptical investors, and (2) we may see a shareholder derivative lawsuit in the near future, which would give us all more to write about.
Second, Ello included a clause in its charter that “forbids the company from using ads or selling user data to make money.” This provision seems a direct response to the eBay v. Newmark case. The business judgment rule provides significant protection to directors and, at least theoretically, should calm many of the fears of social entrepreneurs. But risk adverse individuals may seek additional layers of protection.
Third, Ello claims that their charter provision “basically means no investor can force us to take a really good financial deal if it forces us to take advertising.” This seems overstated. Charters can be amended, but at least the charter puts outside investors on notice. This provision in the charter does not, however, protect against a change of heart by the founders and a selling of the company (such as in the case of Ben & Jerry’s sale to Unilever).
Fourth, this October 4, 2014 article claims that Ello is pre-revenue. The NYT Dealbook article notes that “[u]sers will eventually be able to download widgets and modifications, paying a few dollars for each purchase.” (emphasis added). Ello seems to be one of the growing number of technology companies that are being valued by number of users rather than by revenues or profits. Ello “grew from an initial 90 users on Aug. 7 to over a million now, with a waiting list of about 3 million.”
Fifth, even if traditional investors are (somewhat) warming up to social enterprises, social entrepreneurs still seem to be a bit skeptical of traditional investors. When raising money, Ello “drew the attention of the usual giants in the venture capital world. . . . But Mr. Budnitz said he instead turned to investors whom he could trust to back the start-up’s mission, including the Foundry Group, whom he came to know when he lived in the firm’s hometown, Boulder, Colo.” There are increasing sources of capital for social enterprises from investors who also have a stated social goal (See, e.g., JP Morgan’s May 2014 survey of impact investors).
Some in the academic world have wondered if social enterprise is just a fad. While I am confident that the space will and must continue to evolve, if it is a fad, it has already been a long-running one. The names and details of the statutes may change, but I see a growing interest in marrying profit and social purpose, and I think that interest is likely to continue in some form.