Cryptocurrencies: There’s Nothing New Under The Sun

Blockchain technology is revolutionary, promising to disrupt many of today’s industries. In contrast, the cryptocurrencies that live on the blockchain – to avoid confusion, I’m going to refer to cryptocurrencies as “tokens” – are really just high-tech manifestations of traditional ideas.

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of tokens today:

  • Tokens like Bitcoin that are intended to function as currencies
  • Tokens that represent economic interests in businesses, e., securities
  • Tokens that give the holder some kind of contract right in the business conducted by the issuer, g., a distributed storage network

Tokens that are intended to function as currencies are like, well, they’re like currencies. They’re secure, they’re anonymous (maybe), they’re decentralized, but fundamentally they’re like paper money. The idea of paper money was revolutionary, rendering the barter economy obsolete. A digital representation of paper money is incrementally better, but not revolutionary.

Tokens that are securities – digital stock certificates – are helpful and better than paper or Excel spreadsheets but obviously not revolutionary.

The most interesting kind of tokens are the third:  tokens that give the holder the right to participate in a business.

Imagine you’re Henry Ford designing an automobile. You need a lot of capital. Your investment banker suggests you sell stock on Wall Street, but someone else suggests a different approach. You publish design specifications for your new automobile in something you happen to call a “Whitepaper,” and you sell to the public a limited number of licenses giving the holder the right to manufacture tires (or oil filters, or whatever) based on those specifications.

You just sold tokens, even though the blockchain doesn’t exist and you keep track of the sales in a red leather book.

Financially, you’ve pre-sold licensing rights. Some pros and cons versus selling stock:

  • On the plus side, you still own 100% of your company.
  • On the minus side, you have reduced or eliminated a future revenue stream for the company, e., licensing revenue.
  • On the plus side, because the tokens weren’t a security, you didn’t incur all that time and cost.
  • On the minus side, you really, really care about the quality of your cars – the whole future of your business depends on it – but the tokens might not end up in the hands of the highest-quality suppliers. That’s especially true in a market frenzy that reminds you of Tulip Mania in 1637, where many buyers are low-information speculators.
  • On the plus side, if raising money by pre-selling licensing rights happens to be a super-cool thing, the token sale might raise a lot more money than the licensing rights are actually worth.
  • On the minus side, you didn’t get to deal with securities lawyers.

What about the pros and cons to token buyers?

  • On the minus side, you have far less legal protection, as a buyer and owner of the token, than you would as the buyer and owner of securities in a public company.
  • On the plus side, your specialized expertise as a parts designer or manufacturer might give you a unique ability to increase the value of Ford, and therefore the value of your token.
  • On the minus side, while you know a lot about your own abilities, and might know a lot about Henry Ford and his team, you know nothing at all about the other token buyers. If they turn out to be lousy parts designers and manufacturers, you lose.
  • On the plus side, if you think Ford Motor Company is going to be hugely successful and tokens are the only thing they’re selling, you have no choice.
  • On the minus side, the token probably gives you the right to benefit from only one aspect of the company’s business, g., parts for the the Model T. If the company pivots or expands, you might find yourself left behind.
  • On the plus side, if you’re in a Tulip Mania market, maybe you’ll buy the token today and next week you can double your money selling it to someone else.
  • On the minus side, if we look hard at Ford’s Whitepaper we realize it’s very ambiguous. Do I or Ford really know what I’m getting? Or is this going to end up in litigation?

Who knows where the pros and cons come out. Someday economists will explain whether and in what circumstances a token is more economically efficient than a traditional security.

I feel quite sure that tokens that are currencies and tokens that are digital stock certificates are here to stay, because while not revolutionary, each represents an undeniable, if incremental, improvement over today’s technology. I’m not so sure about tokens that represent prepaid products or services. Until we hear from the economists, the jury is still out.

Questions? Let me know.

Options Or Profits Interests For Key Employees of LLCs?

Co-Authored By: Steve Poulathas & Mark Roderick

You own an LLC and want to compensate key contributors with some kind of equity. Do you give them an equity interest in the Company today or an option acquire an equity interest in the future?

Before we get to that question:

  • Make sure that equity is the right answer for this particular employee. It’s great for key contributors to have a stake in the company, but if this particular employee is your CMO, a cash commission on sales might make more sense because it provides a more targeted incentive.
  • Make sure you’re giving the employee equity in the right business unit. If you operate a Crowdfunding platform, for example, and want to incentivize an IT guy, maybe the IT should be held in a separate entity and licensed to the operating company.
  • To dispel some confusion, a limited liability company can issue options. In fact, here’s a Stock Incentive Plan drafted for a limited liability company. The only thing a limited liability company can’t do is offer “incentive stock options,” otherwise known as ISOs, which provide special tax benefits to employees but are also subject to lots of rules.

Okay, equity is the right answer for this particular employee and you’re giving her equity in the right company. Now, what kind of equity?

There are lots of flavors of equity. These are the three you’re most likely to consider:

  • Outright Grant of Equity: Your employee will become a full owner right away, sharing in the current value of the business, possibly subject to a vesting period.
  • Profits Interest: Your employee will become a full owner right away, but economically will share only in the future appreciation of the Company, not the current value.
  • Option: Your employee won’t become an owner right away, but will have the right to buy an interest in the future based on today’s value – again allowing her to share in future appreciation but not current value.

In making your choice, there are three primary factors:

  • Economics: How much value are you trying to transfer to your employee, and when?
  • Messiness of Ownership Interests: If your employee becomes an owner of the business, even an owner subject to vesting and/or an owner whose economic rights are limited to future appreciation, you have to treat her as an owner. You have to give her information, you have to return her email when she asks (as an owner) why your salary is so high and why your husband is on the payroll, you have to send her a K-1 every year, and so forth.
  • Taxes: For better or worse (mostly worse), tax considerations are the principal driver behind many executive compensation decisions, a great example of the tail wagging the dog. If you thought the JOBS Act was hard to follow, take a look at section 409A of the Internal Revenue Code!

So here’s where we come out.

An outright grant of equity might be a good choice for a real startup assembling a team to get off the ground, as long as there is little or no value. By definition the founder isn’t giving up much economically, and the outright grant achieves a great tax result for the employee, namely capital gain rates on exit. The main downside is that the employee is a real owner, entitled to information, etc. But that’s not the end of the world, especially if the employee is in the nature of a co-founder.

(If your company already has value, then you’re giving something away, by definition, and your employee has to pay tax.)

A profits interest is just like an outright grant except for the economics:  there is no immediate transfer of value. But the tax treatment is the same (no deduction for the company, capital gain at exit for the employee) and the employee is a full owner right away.

An option is economically very similar to a profits interest, because the employee shares only in future appreciation, not current value (for tax reasons, the option exercise price can’t be lower than the current value). But otherwise they’re the opposite. The employee isn’t treated as an owner until she exercises the option. And upon exercise, she recognizes ordinary income, not capital gain, while the company gets a deduction.

For a company with just a few key contributors a profits interest isn’t bad. You give your employees a great tax result and what the heck, what are a few more owners among close friends? But for a company with more than a few key contributors the option is better only because it’s so much easier to keep a tighter cap table. And while the tax treatment of the employee isn’t as favorable, I’ve never seen an employee refuse an option for that reason.

Non-Compete Covenants In Crowdfunding And Fintech

Co-Authored By: Adam Gersh & Mark Roderick

Taking a break from securities laws, we’ll take a look at using non-compete covenants in the Crowdfunding and Fintech world.

By “non-compete agreement,” we mean a contract that prohibits an employee from being employed by, or engaging in, a competitive business after she leaves.

EXAMPLE:  Real estate Crowdfunding company ABC requires its non-clerical employees to sign an agreement promising not to work for any other real estate Crowdfunding business for two years after termination of employment.

To be clear, when we say “non-compete agreement” in this post we don’t mean (1) a confidentiality agreement (a contract that prohibits the employee or contractor from using trade secrets or other confidential information), or (2) a non-solicitation agreement (a contract that prohibits the employee or contractor from soliciting customers or employees after she leaves). Confidentiality agreements and non-solicitation agreements are often used in conjunction with non-compete agreements but generally don’t raise the same legal and ethical questions.

Are Non-Compete Agreements Ethical?

Over the last year, I’ve seen a lot of press arguing that non-compete agreements are unethical — a form of human bondage. It’s more complicated, in my opinion.

When the U.S. economy was based on manufacturing, no one thought it was okay for an employee to haul away his employer’s tools when he quit. In today’s knowledge-based economy, where a $65 billion taxi company called Uber owns no taxis, the assets of most companies are intangible, i.e., knowledge and information. If employees can haul away those assets when they leave, there’s a problem.

Most of the time, employers are trying to protect two things:  confidential information and contacts/relationships. If confidentiality agreements and non-solicitation agreements were easy to prove and enforce, we probably wouldn’t need non-compete agreements. The problem is that they’re very difficult to enforce because violations are very difficult to prove – did the former employee solicit the customer, or did the customer solicit her? So, companies use non-compete agreements as a sort of “backstop.”

Here are a few hypotheticals that illustrate the ethical dilemma:

  • Real estate Crowdfunding company ABC hires Jean Smith, who knows nothing about real estate or Crowdfunding. After three years she leaves and starts her own real estate Crowdfunding company, competing with ABC for deals and investors based on the relationships and reputation she developed while on ABC’s payroll.
  • The same facts as above except Jean was fired for embezzlement.
  • The same facts as above except Jean was laid off because her job was replaced by an algorithm.
  • The same facts as above except Jean brought her own personal contacts to ABC as investors.

Are Restrictive Covenants Enforceable?

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked “Non-competes aren’t enforceable, right?”

In general, that’s wrong. Properly-drafted non-compete agreements are as enforceable as any other contract in most American jurisdictions. The giant exception to that rule is California, where non-competes for employees are per se unenforceable (with limited exceptions).

Almost everywhere else, a non-compete agreement is enforceable as long as the agreement is “reasonable” to enforce the legitimate interests of the employer. Whether a given non-compete agreement is “reasonable” depends on lots of factors, including the duties of the employee in question (e.g., business development vs. clerical duties), the duration of the restriction, and the geographical limitation. Despite their name, non-compete agreements can’t be used to prohibit competition per se. They can be used only to prohibit competition that is unfair based on the facts and circumstances.

The geographical limitation in particular creates hard questions in Crowdfunding and Fintech, where many businesses are either national or international in scope.

EXAMPLE:  A dental practice in Chicago attracts 80% of its patients from a seven mile radius. It would be unreasonable for the practice to prohibit its employees from working in Texas. But a real estate Crowdfunding business in Chicago, with projects from California to Texas to New York, is a different story. Can that business prohibit its employees from working anywhere?

Then there’s the question of what the company’s business really is. Is it a general dentistry practice or a specialist orthodontic practice? Does the company do all kinds of real estate Crowdfunding or only residential fix-and-flips? With about eight and a half million accredited investors in the U.S. alone, but only a small fraction having signed up at Crowdfunding sites, are Crowdfunding companies – real estate or otherwise – even competing with one another in the traditional sense?

Things are even more complicated in the blockchain world. Are all companies issuing tokens competitors? No. But two companies issuing tokens based on distributed digital storage are probably competitors, even if one is based on New York and the other in Silicon Valley.

Do Non-Compete Agreements Apply Only to Employees?

No, non-compete agreements can be used for contractors and vendors as well as for employees.

Do Non-Compete Agreements Inhibit Innovation and Economic Growth?

We’ll leave that to the economists.

Are Non-Compete Agreements Effective?

In general, yes, they are very effective. Meaning:  an employee who is subject to non-compete agreements generally doesn’t compete.

For one thing, the employee generally wants to comply with her contract, even if the contract seems a little overbearing and a lawyer says it might not be enforceable. So she chooses a new job that doesn’t violate the non-compete agreement, if she can.

But most important, a company that hires an employee subject to a non-compete agreement can also be liable. Once it learns about the non-compete, the new employer usually withdraws its offer, effectively “enforcing” the non-compete on behalf of the former employer and forcing the employee to look for a job elsewhere. Every now and then a new employer wants the employee so much that it takes the risk, but very seldom.

Recommendations

If you’re a company and aren’t located in California, you should have your employees sign non-compete agreements, period. Think about what you’re trying to protect and draft the agreements accordingly.

If you’re an employee think hard before you sign one. It’s probably enforceable, and it might affect your ability to find another job if you leave.

Form of Agreement

Here is a form of an Invention, Non-Disclosure, And Non-Competition Agreement. In addition to a non-compete agreement, this contract includes a confidentiality agreement, a non-solicitation agreement, and a provision that makes the company the owner of any inventions of the employee, useful in most tech companies.

CAUTIONS:

  • Don’t assume this agreement will be right for your company or that it will be enforced as written in your state.
  • This contract was written for a real estate Crowdfunding portal. It can be modified for other Crowdfunding or Fintech companies.

Simultaneous Offerings Under Rule 506(c) And Regulation S

Co-Authored By: Bernard Devieux & Mark Roderick

If you ask one of my partners whether he wants beer or hard liquor, he says “Yes.” That’s the same answer most entrepreneurs give when asked whether they want to raise money from U.S. investors or investors who live somewhere else. Fortunately, if you’re reasonably careful, you can raise money from U.S. investors under Rule 506(c) – otherwise known as Title II Crowdfunding – while simultaneously raising money from non-U.S. investors under Regulation S.

You don’t have to use Regulation S to raise money from non-U.S. investors. You can use Rule 506(c) instead, as long as you take reasonable steps to verify that they’re accredited, just as with U.S. investors. But verification can be difficult with non-U.S. investors. You use Regulation S either because you want to include non-U.S. investors who are non-accredited or because you just don’t want the hassle of verification.

The concept behind Regulation S is simple:  the U.S. government doesn’t care about protecting non-U.S. people. That sounds harsh but think about it this way. If an American citizen is taken hostage in Albania, boom, the U.S. military comes to the rescue. But if a Russian citizen is taken hostage in Albania. . . .well, maybe that’s a bad example these days, but you get the picture.

To implement this concept, Regulation S provides that:

For purposes of section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933 [the law that usually requires the registration of securities offerings], the terms offer, offer to sell, sell, sale, and offer to buy shall be deemed . . . not to include offers and sales that occur outside the United States.

An offer or sale by an issuer of securities will be treated as occurring “outside the United States” only if all of the following requirements are satisfied:

  • The buyer is a non-U.S. person.
  • The issuer follows designated guidelines with legends on the securities, restrictions on resales, etc.
  • The offer is not made to a person in the United States.
  • No “directed selling efforts” are made in the United States.

The first two are relatively easy:  you make sure the investor isn’t a U.S. resident and you put the right words on stock certificates, promissory notes, and other legal documents.

The second two become tricky in Crowdfunding, where everything is done on the Internet.

For example, suppose an issuer maintains a single website advertising its offering of common stock, equally accessible to prospective investors in Iowa and in Spain. The website undoubtedly constitutes an “offer” to investors in Iowa, and is undoubtedly part of a “directed selling effort” in Iowa, no less than if the offering had been advertised in the Des Moines Gazette. Does this ruin the Regulation S offering?

The SEC’s definition of “directed selling efforts,” written in the early 1990s, doesn’t address this situation. And other than confirming that issuers are legally permitted to conduct simultaneous offerings under Rule 506(c) (to U.S. investors) and Regulation S (to non-U.S. persons) so long as each offering complies with its applicable rules, the SEC has not provided specific guidance on how to avoid the “cross-contamination” issue involving websites.

Fortunately, the SEC addressed a very similar issue with intrastate Crowdfunding just last year. Technically, an intrastate offering is allowed only if “offers” are limited to the citizens of one state. Does posting an offering on a website violate that rule, given that the website is visible to everyone? The SEC chose the position more favorable to Crowdfunding (as it almost always does), announcing that an intrastate offering could be advertised on a website as long as the issuer accepts investments only from residents of the state in question.

The SEC’s position on intrastate offerings suggests that it would take a similar position on Regulation S, finding that the use of a single website would not violate either (1) the requirement that no “offers” be made in the U.S., and (2) the requirement that “no directed selling efforts” be made in the U.S. But we don’t know for sure.

To be on the safe(er) side, an issuer would create separate websites, one for the Rule 506(c) offering and the other for the Regulation S offering, and use IP addresses to ensure that the Regulation S website is not visible within the United States. On the Regulation S website, you would also:

  • Have each visitor (and potential investor) verify his, her, or its legal residence before being permitted to see the details of the offering; and
  • Feature prominent disclaimers that U.S. persons are not welcome.

Finally, bear in mind that Regulation S is an exemption from U.S. securities laws. If you’re offering and selling securities to the citizens of another country, you should think about the laws of that country, too.

REALCROWD Webinar: An Attorney’s Take on Real Estate Crowdfunding

Listen as Adam Hooper and Mark Roderick discuss crowdfunding for real estate and the legal documents investors sign when investing in a real estate deal.

Mark Roderick is one of the leading attorneys in the Crowdfunding/Fintech industry and speaks at conferences and other events all over the world. If you’re interested in having Mark speak at an event, please contact Molly Grimm,Communications Manager at Flaster Greenberg PC, at 856.382.2211 or via email: molly.grimm@flastergreenberg.com.

CROWDFUNDING AND CRYPTOCURRENCIES

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Cryptocurrencies are hot. And often the sale of cryptocurrencies is referred to as Crowdfunding. Unfortunately, the use of “cryptocurrencies” and “Crowdfunding” together creates confusion about both, along with some pretty serious legal risks.

We use “Crowdfunding” to mean raising money for a business or other venture online. We say “donation-based Crowdfunding” when we’re talking about Kickstarter, where people ask for donations. We say “equity-based Crowdfunding” when we’re talking about raising money from investors, who receive a stock certificate or some other security.

A cryptocurrency is, well, hard to pin down. It’s a transaction registered in a distributed, secure database. Because it exists in limited quantities and is secure, it has value. Like anything of value, it can be used as a currency. For purposes of this post, the key feature of a true cryptocurrency is that is has value of itself, like a nugget of gold.

You use Crowdfunding to sell shares of stock. Obviously, the paper certificates representing the shares of stock have no value by themselves, they have value only to evidence ownership in the business that issued the certificates or, more exactly, in the cash flow the business is expected to generate. So it wouldn’t make sense to say “I’m selling nuggets of gold using Crowdfunding.” The nuggets of gold have an intrinsic value without reference to the cash flow of anything else, or at least you hope they do. I can go shopping with a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Ethereum, just as I can shop with US dollars or, historically, with gold.

This is where things get tricky and words matter. The blockchain – the technology underlying all cryptocurrencies – can be used for a lot of things other than cryptocurrencies. As it happens, one of the things the blockchain can be used for is to keep track of stock certificates. In fact, the blockchain works so well keeping track of stock certificates that it will undoubtedly be used by (or replace) all public stock transfer agents within the next five years.

What’s happening today is that companies are selling what they call “cryptocurrencies” that are really just interests in the future operations of a business, i.e., really just hi-tech stock certificates. Cool, they’re using blockchain technology to keep track of who owns the company! But that doesn’t mean what you’re buying is really a cryptocurrency and that you’re going to get rich like the early buyers of Ethereum.

Words are powerful, and the confusion around cryptocurrencies is deepened by the nomenclature. Sales of cryptocurrencies are often referred to as “initial coin offerings,” or ICOs, which implies a similarity to “initial public offerings,” or IPOs. Yet if we’re being careful, the two have nothing in common. In an IPO a company sells its own securities, which have value only based on the success of the company. In an ICO somebody sells a product that has intrinsic value of itself.

Ignoring the difference is going to land someone in hot water, probably sooner rather than later. A company that sells something it calls a cryptocurrency but is really just a share of stock is selling a security, even if that company has an address near Palo Alto. And a company that sells a security is subject to all those pesky laws from the 1930s. If you sell a cryptocurrency that is really just a hi-tech stock certificate, then not only do you risk penalties from the SEC and state securities regulators, you’ll also face lawsuits from your investors if things don’t go as planned.

How to know whether you’re selling a true cryptocurrency or a hi-tech stock certificate? Here are some tips:

  • If the value of the cryptocurrency depends on the success of the business, it’s a security.
  • If the value of the cryptocurrency depends on, or is backed by, real estate or other property, it’s a security.
  • If the cryptocurrency is marketed as an investment, it’s probably a security.
  • If the value of the cryptocurrency depends what the buyer does with it, rather than the success of the business, it’s probably not a security.
  • If the cryptocurrency merely gives the holder the right to participate in a group effort (g., the development of software), it’s probably not a security.
  • If you’re selling the cryptocurrency in lieu of issuing stock, it’s probably a security.

What is a REIT, Anyway?

Real Estate Investment Trusts, or REITs, are the shiny new object in Regulation A. What is a REIT and what good are they?

A REIT is just a tax concept. A REIT is an entity that is treated as a corporation for Federal income tax purposes and satisfies a long list of requirements listed in section 856 of the Internal Revenue Code. These requirements include:

  • The kinds of assets it owns
  • The kind of income it generates
  • Who owns it
  • How much of its income it distributes to its owners

Conversely a REIT is not a function of securities laws, contrary to what many people believe. Thus, many REITs have “gone public” by offering their securities in offerings that are registered under the Securities Act of 1933, while many other REITs are still private. Some “public” REITs have registered their shares on a national securities exchange, allowing the shares to be publicly traded, while the shares of other “public” REITs are traded privately. There are very large REITs and very small REITs, and everything in between. Some REITs invest in one class of real estate assets, others invest in completely different classes of real estate assets (e.g., only mortgages), and still others invest in multiple classes of real estate assets. The only thing all these companies have in common, being REITs, is that they all satisfy the requirement in section 856 of the Code.

A REIT may raise capital the same way any other company may raise capital. It may raise capital from accredited investors under Rule 506(c), or from accredited and non-accredited investors under Rule 506(b), or in a quasi-public offering under Regulation A, or in a fully-registered public offering, or in an intrastate offering, or in an offering under Rule 504.

A REIT may offer any kind of financial instrument to its investors:  common stock, preferred stock, straight debt, convertible debt, etc.

So if a REIT is just a tax label, rather than a securities label, why bother to use a REIT for real estate Crowdfunding? The answer is, again, just taxes.

If we’re going to create a fund of real estate assets, we have three choices:  a REIT; a corporation that is not a REIT; and a regular limited liability company or limited partnership. Here’s the logic:

  • If we use a corporation that does not qualify as a REIT, it will be subject to tax on its income at the corporate level, and investors would then be subject to tax again when the corporation distributes its income, resulting in two levels of tax on the same income. Forget that.
  • If we use a regular limited liability company or limited partnership, it will send each equity investor an IRS Form K-1 each year, reporting all of its categories of income, gains, deductions, and distributions.
  • If we use a REIT, it will send each equity investor a simple IRS Form 1099.

Now, if all your investors are wealthy, sophisticated Republicans, they don’t care about receiving another K-1. But if you’re trying to market your fund to simple Democrats, it’s a different story. Say your typical simple Democrat can afford only a $1,000 investment, and a tax filing service charges $49.95 to add the K-1 to her Form 1040 (assuming she files a Form 1040). That’s a 5% annual cost of investing in your fund! A 1099, in contrast, is free.

That’s why we never saw REITs in Title II Crowdfunding, which allows only accredited investors to participate, while we’re seeing a lot of them in Title IV, which allows everyone. The REIT has to spend money complying with Code section 856, but has an easier time attracting non-accredited investors simply as a matter of tax reporting.

Finally, perceptive readers might ask “If REITs are corporations, why do I see REITs on the market with ‘LLC’ after their names?” The answer is that REITs don’t have to be corporations, they have to be taxed as corporations for Federal income tax purposes. A limited liability company that elects to be taxed as a corporation (yep, that’s possible) can qualify as a REIT.

Questions? Let me know.

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