Raising Capital Online: An Introduction For Real Estate Developers

If you’re a real estate developer accustomed to raising capital through traditional channels, you’re probably wondering about Crowdfunding. In this post, I’m going to provide some basic information, then try to answer the questions I hear most.

Basics of Crowdfunding

  • It’s Not Kickstarter. On Kickstarter, people make gifts, often to strangers. You’re not going to ask for gifts. Instead, you’re looking for investors, and in exchange for their money you’re going to give them the same kinds of legal instruments you’d give an investor in the offline world: an interest in an LLC, a convertible note, or something else.
  • It’s Just the Internet. For better or worse, a certain mystique has developed around Crowdfunding, if only because it’s so new. But Crowdfunding is just the Internet, finally come to the capital formation industry. We buy airline tickets online, we call a cab online, we search for significant others online, now we can search for capital online. If you’re comfortable buying socks on Amazon, you’ll be comfortable raising money using Crowdfunding.
  • Why Crowdfunding? How many investors do you know? Twelve? Seventy-two? With Crowdfunding, you can put your project in front of every investor in the world. And you’ll probably get better terms.
  • The Market Is Small But Growing Quickly. Title II Crowdfunding became legal in September 2013, Title IV in June 2015, and Title III in May 2016. The amounts being raised are in the billions of dollars per year, small in terms of the overall U.S. capital markets but growing quickly.
  • There Are Three Flavors of Crowdfunding. Crowdfunding was created by the JOBS Act of 2012. The three flavors of Crowdfunding are named for three of the sections, or “Titles,” of the JOBS Act:
    • Title II, which allows only accredited investors (in general, those with $200,000 of income or $1 million of net worth, not counting a principal residence) but is otherwise largely unregulated.
    • Title III, which allows issuers to raise up to $1 million per year, through a highly-regulated online process.
    • Title IV, which allows issuers to raise up to $50 million per year in what amounts to a mini-public offering.

For more information, take a look at this chart. But first, read the next bullet point.

  • You Don’t Have to Learn the Legal Rules. You’re a real estate developer, not a lawyer. You don’t have to become a lawyer to raise money using Crowdfunding, and in terms of lifestyle I wouldn’t recommend it.
  • You Don’t Have to Write Computer Code. You’re a real estate developer, not an IT professional. You don’t have to know or learn anything about technology to raise money through Crowdfunding.
  • Crowdfunding is About Marketing. It’s not a technology business, it’s not even a real estate business. Crowdfunding is all about marketing. You create a product that investors will want, and you market both the product and your track record. Just as you rely on your lawyer for legal advice and your IT folks for technology, you rely on marketing professionals to sell yourself and the product.

Common Questions

  • Will I Have More Liability? Here’s a long and technical blog post, listing all the ways that an issuer of securities in Crowdfunding can be liable. By all means share this with your regular lawyer and ask for his or her opinion. But the bottom line is that if you do it right, raising money through Crowdfunding creates no more liability than raising money through traditional channels. It’s just the Internet.
  • Will Banks Lend Money for Crowdfunded Deals? In the earliest stages of Crowdfunding, some lenders balked at deals that involved a bunch of passive investors. But we crossed that bridge long ago. Today, banks and other institutional lenders routinely finance Crowdfunding deals.
  • Isn’t It a Hassle Dealing with All Those Investors? It can be, but doesn’t have to be. For one thing, investors in the Crowdfunding world get no voting or management rights. If you’re used to the private equity guys looking over your shoulder, you’ll be thrilled with Crowdfunding. For another thing, if you use one of the existing Crowdfunding portals (see below), you can outsource a large part of the initial investor relations.
  • I’ve Heard That Investors Must Be Verified – How Does That Work? In Title II Crowdfunding, the issuer – you – must verify that every investor is accredited. In theoretical terms that could mean asking for tax returns, brokerage statements, and other confidential information. But in practical terms it just means engaging a third party like VerifyInvestor. Most verification is done with a simple letter from the investor’s lawyer or accountant.
  • How Much Money Can I Raise? In a typical Title II offering, developers typically raise $1M to $3M of equity.
  • If Crowdfunding is Still Small, Why Start Now? One, you can raise capital for smaller deals. Two, it’s about building a brand in the online market. In a few years, when developers are raising $30M rather than $3M, the developer who built his brand early is more likely to be funded.
  • Is Crowdfunding All or Nothing? No, not at all. You can raise part of the capital stack through Crowdfunding and the balance through traditional channels.
  • Will I Need a PPM? You’ll generally provide the same information to prospective investors in the online world as you’re accustomed to providing in the offline world.
  • Why Am I Seeing All These REITs in Crowdfunding? Three reasons:
    • Most retail investors have neither the skill nor the desire to select individual real estate projects. Just as retail investors prefer mutual funds to picking individual stocks, retail investors will prefer to invest in pools of assets that have been chosen by a professional.
    • Theoretically, thousands of retail investors could invest in a traditional limited liability company. But when you own equity in an LLC you receive a K-1 each year. For someone who’s invested $1,000, the cost of adding a K-1 to her tax return at H&R Block could be prohibitive. In a REIT you receive a 1099, not a K-1.
    • Privately-traded REITs have a very bad reputation, plagued by high fees and sales commissions. But if light is the best disinfectant, the Internet is like a spotlight, relentlessly driving down costs and providing investors with instantly-accessible information.
  • What Kind of Yields Do Investors Expect? That’s a tough question, obviously. But here are two data points. For an equity investment in a high-quality, cash-flowing garden apartment complex, investors might expect a 7% preferred return and 70% on the back end (e., a 30% promote for you). For a debt investment in a single-family fix-and-flip, with a 65% LTV, they might expect a 9% interest rate on a one-year investment.
  • Should I Use Rule 506(b) or Rule 506(c)? If you’re asking that question, you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog post. Try this one.
  • Do I Need a Broker-Dealer? Two answers:
    • As a general rule, you are not legally required to be registered as a broker-dealer, or to be affiliated with a broker-dealer, if you’re offering your own deals. For a more technical legal answer, you can read this blog post.
    • To sell your deal, you might want to use a broker-dealer, or a broker-dealer network.
  • How Can I Get Started? You have two choices:
    • You can establish your own website and list your own deals. But there are millions of websites in the world, many featuring photographs of naked people. Against that competition you might find it difficult to attract eyeballs.
    • You can get your feet wet by listing projects on an existing real estate Crowdfunding portal, one with a good reputation and a large pool of registered investors. If that goes well, you can think about establishing your own website later. The portal will take the mystery out of the online process, making it look and feel like any other offering from your perspective.

Questions? Let me know.

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