Category Archives: Investing

Will Someone Please Offer Investment Advice For Crowdfunding?

business handshake

Very few retail investors have the skill to pick a great deal from a mediocre deal. I know I don’t, and I’ve been representing real estate developers and entrepreneurs my whole career.

Taking a cue from the public stock market, one way to address the retail market is to create the equivalent of a mutual fund for Crowdfunding investments. You would create a limited liability company to act as the fund, raise money from investors using Crowdfunding, and the manager would select investments from Crowdfunding portals.

Great idea conceptually, but it doesn’t work legally:

  • The LLC would, by definition, be an “investment company” under the Investment Company Act of 1940. As such, you would be prohibited from using Title III or Title IV to raise money for the fund.
  • You could use Title II to raise money for the fund, but as an investment company the fund would be subject to extremely onerous and costly regulation, e., the same regulation that applies to mutual funds. To avoid the regulation, you would have to limit the fund to either (1) no more than 100 accredited investors, or (2) only investors with at least $5 million of investments. In either case, you defeat the purpose.

But there is another way! A licensed investment adviser could offer investment advice with respect to investments in Crowdfunding projects and, for that matter, make the investments on behalf of his or her retail customers, charging an annual fee based on the amount invested. The adviser would allow each retail investor to effectively create his or her own “mutual fund” of projects based on individual preferences.

Not only would the investment adviser make money, the availability of unbiased advice would draw retail investors into the space – a win for the industry.

To quote Pink Floyd, is there anybody out there?

Questions? Let me know.

How to Present Investor Disclosures in Crowdfunding Offerings (And How Not To)

Title II Crowdfunding is often referred to, more or less accurately, as “online private placements.” It’s time the industry turned the online, digital, aspect of the offerings more to its advantage.

Remember when newspapers first came online? Remember how interesting they were visually? I’m being sarcastic. They were nothing more than photographs of the paper version, failing to take advantage of the digital platform and its unique capabilities.

Too many (not all) Crowdfunding portals take the same approach to providing investor disclosures. You click through the process and suddenly see an enormous PDF document that is nothing more or less than a paper private placement memorandum, complete with Schedules and Exhibits. You’reOnline document supposed to scroll down and “sign” at the bottom. On some platforms the investor actually has to click I’m Ready to Invest before he sees the disclosures!

There are at least three things wrong with this approach:

• Investors can’t be happy with it.

• It doesn’t convey information effectively.

• The disclosure might be legally ineffective. I think about a plaintiff’s lawyer cross-examining the portal operator, pointing to a disclosure on page 67 and asking “Did you really expect my client to read all that at the end of the click-through process?”

It doesn’t have to be that way! There are much better ways to provide information online. Take a look at today’s online version of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal to see how far we’ve come.

Crowdfunding portals can do the same thing. The first step is to move the mental image of that paper PPM into Trash or the Recycle Bin (depending on whether you’re Mac or PC) and start from scratch. What are we trying to accomplish here? What are the tools at our disposal? Pose that question to some creative people and you’ll get a whole range of possibilities, all of them better for investor, sponsor, and portal.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick.

How Much of My Company Should I Give Away?

Entrepreneurs and investors alike are often puzzled by this basic question: How much of the company should the investor get?

One approach is through financial analysis and calculations. If you like numbers you will definitely find this approach satisfying.

Suppose you’re raising $500,000. To calculate how much your investor should receive:

  • Step 1: Look at your business plan and see how much annual EBITDA (earnings) your business will be generating in five years from now. Let’s say $800,000 per year.
  • Step 2: Look at the market and see at what multiples companies in your industry sell for. Say the right multiple is 8x earnings.
  • Step 3: Look at the market and see what annual returns investors expect to receive for a company like yours. Say the required rate of return is 30% per year.
  • Step 4: Based on Step 2, your company can be sold at the end of Year 5 for $6,400,000 (eight times $800,000).
  • Step 5: Based on Step 3, your investor will expect to receive $1,856,465 at the end of Year 5 ($500,000 compounded at 30% per year for five years).
  • Step 6: This means your investor should own about 29% of your company ($1,856,465 divided by $6,400,000).

Very elegant and simple.

But also very inexact. At virtually every step, you’re really making educated guesses: how much you will be earning five years (an eternity) from now, the right sales multiple, the return your investor expects to receive. Change any of the inputs and you can get a very different output.

money treeThat’s why in the real world the investor’s ownership percentage is more often the subject of negotiation. The investor wants X, the entrepreneur wants Y, and you try to reach a compromise, depending who has more negotiating power.

The process doesn’t have to involve just horse-trading. For example, if the investor wants 30% because she thinks the company will be worth $5 million in Year 5 and the entrepreneur is willing to give up only 20% because he thinks the company will be worth $7.5 million, there’s an obvious compromise: the investor gets 30% up front, but the entrepreneur can “claw back” part or all of the extra 10% if the company turns out to worth more than $5 million.

In practice, determining how much stock the investor receives is a function of both art and science, although probably more of the former than the latter.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick at Flaster/Greenberg PC.

CFGE CROWDFUND BANKING AND LENDING SUMMIT IN SAN FRANCISCO

Roderick CFGE

Since Labor Day, I’ve spoken at half a dozen events: for entrepreneurs, for intellectual property lawyers, for finance professionals, for digital marketing groups. This week I’ll be speaking at one of the premier Crowdfunding events in country, the CFGE Crowdfund Banking and Lending Summit on the 16th and 17th in San Francisco.

The conference features some of the leaders in the industry, including:

  • Richard Swart, Director of Research for Innovation in Entrepreneur and Social Finance, Colman Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership at UC Berkeley.
  • Ron Suber, the President of Prosper.
  • Jason Fritton, the Founder and CEO of Patch of Land.
  • Tom Lockard, the Vice President for Real Estate Investment and Institutional Sales of Fundrise.
  • Nikul Patel, the Chief Lending Officer of LendingTree.
  • Jesse Clem, the Co-Founder of LOQUIDITY, LLC.
  • Joy Schoffler, the CEO of Leverage PR.

Whether you’re new to Crowdfunding or an industry veteran, I’d strongly suggest you attend. I’m always amazed how much more there is to learn.

To register, click here. Make sure to use my promo code and receive a 25% discount! Promo code: Roderick

And while you’re there, please stop by and say hello. Crowdfunding and skiing – those are my two favorite topics.

ENCOURAGING LOCAL INVESTMENT IN CROWDFUNDING

Crowdfunding provides deep pools of capital to entrepreneurs and makes high-quality investments available to individuals for the first time. Those things are great, transformative.

But Crowdfunding achieves its greatest potential at the local level, where communities invest in themselves. An entrepreneur needs capital to start a local business. Her customers are her neighbors. They help design her business to respond to their needs, and they invest in her business to share in the financial rewards and to improve their own neighborhood. There’s a lot more going on there than finance.

I once served on a panel with David Paterson, the former Governor of New York. Governor Paterson spoke about the usefulness of Crowdfunding for community development and community redevelopment, and now works as the Director of Community for iFunding, one of the leading portals.

I have spoken with and represent others thinking along the same lines, putting local money back into local economies.

We should think about ways to encourage localized Crowdfunding investment. When we’re talking about revising Title III, or crafting better state Crowdfunding laws, we should include community development folks in the conversation. They’re going to have better ideas than I have, but I can think of one small step in the right direction.

Why not provide some economic incentive? For example, suppose State X allows a $5,000 maximum investment from non-accredited investors. Why not raise that limit to $7,500 or $10,000 if the project is in the same county as the investor?

That works for two reasons. One, it encourages investing locally. Two, the investor is likely to know more about the project in his neighborhood than he knows about a project on the other side of the state, so he can make a more informed decision. For that matter, as a consumer he might be in a position to help the project after it’s built.

It’s a small step. Crowdfunding is global, but it works even better when it’s local.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick at Flaster/Greenberg PC.

THE iFUNDING MOBILE APP: AN INTERVIEW WITH SOHIN SHAH

Sohin at desk croppedSohin Shah is the COO and co-founder of iFunding, and created iFunding’s mobile app, the first in the Crowdfunding market. Sohin also created Valuation App, which allows finance professionals to analyze businesses and start-ups. His prior experience is at New York investment banks and he holds a Masters in Finance & Risk Engineering from NYU.

Q:        Before getting to the iFunding mobile app, what’s your sense of technology innovation in real estate overall?

A:        Impressive but uneven. There is a lot of technology for the consumer looking for a home or apartment – the Zillow/Trulia merger is an example of scale in that segment. Also, developers looking to purchase properties wholesale have sites like Auction.com, and larger institutions are increasing their data and automation for deal assessment through services like Compstak and Reonomy. But there’s been surprisingly little innovation available to the individual investor who wants to participate in real estate projects and profits.

Q:        What can an individual investor do with your mobile app?

A:        Anything she could do on our website, from browse opportunities to review documents to actually invest. We can also send an alert to your app to let you know when deals are available.

Q:        Can I switch back and forth from mobile to website?

A:        Absolutely. We made it as seamless as possible going both ways.

Q:        I have to ask you: was the mobile app really necessary? Do your investors log in from mobile devices? Or is this a gimmick?

A:        You would be amazed. Already, about 25% of the visits to ifunding.co come from mobile devices, roughly two-thirds of these from smart phones and one-third from tablets. We realized our customers want to get information and make investments when it is convenient to them, from the couch to the hair stylist.

Q:        But are people really moving tens of thousands of dollars into investments via smartphone?

A:        Yes, definitely. Although we don’t have hard data, those completing the entire investment process by mobile device have probably invested with us before. They know what they want and are looking to roll their money into the next deal before someone else fills that slot. Keep in mind that some of our deals fund with a day or hours, so mobile access at any time is valuable to top investors.

Q:        Why do you think people might be skeptical investing significant dollars by phone?

A:        Sometimes people have a tendency to underestimate the individual investor and what they become comfortable with. Think about banking by phone, or sending funds by PayPal. What we’re learning in Crowdfunding is that individuals really do want the power to control their own destinies. Our mobile app is just one more tool helping them do that.

Q:        Can you use the app to just browse properties and learn about investing?

A:        You sure can. Many people do. We provide a lot of educational content and try to help investors make smart decisions. When you’re traveling or have idle time, instead of playing a game on your phone, why not learn more about real estate and empower yourself financially?

Q:        Did you build the app yourselves?

A:        Yes, our technology team built it. I had the experience of building Valuation App and we had all the industry knowledge in house, so that made sense for us to design and program it.

Q:        Is the mobile app secure? As secure as your website?

A:        Yes, definitely. In fact, no user information is stored on the mobile device – you could drop your phone in Grand Central Station and have no worry about compromised information. All information is on our secure servers and downloaded to the mobile device through an encrypted connection only when you use the app, then erased when you quit.

Q:        Do you plan to add more functionality in the future?

A:        We update the app several times a month based mainly on customer suggestions. The future will see more eye-catching features, though you can imagine we haven’t planned an “Apple Watch” version just yet.

Q:        So what’s it called and where can I get it?

A:        It’s called “iFunding – Real Estate Investing through Crowdfunding.” It’s available on iOS and Android devices. You can download it for free at bitly.com/ifundappios and bitly.com/ifundappandroid.

CHOOSING AND PROTECTING A NAME FOR YOUR CROWDFUNDING BUSINESS

Names matter, even for a local business, but they matter a great deal for a Crowdfunding business, where your customers know you only from a distance.

Generally speaking you can choose three kinds of names:

  • A name that describes what you do, e.g., Real Estate Crowdfunding Portal, LLC.
  • A name with no inherent meaning, e.g., Xeta, LLC.
  • A name somewhere in between, e.g., Lifelong Investments, LLC.

Each category has advantages and disadvantages:

  • A name that describes what you do…well, it describes what you do. When a consumer sees the name she knows what you’re selling. On the other hand, a name that describes what you do is often not very memorable.
  • The strongest names are those that start out with no inherent meaning. Amazon, Starbucks, E-Bay. When consumers think of Amazon they think about the gigantic online retailer, nothing else. The name is worth a billion dollars! On the other hand, Amazon had to spend more than a billion marketing dollars to give meaning to a name that otherwise belonged to a river.
  • A name somewhere in between is somewhere in between. It might be sexier than a name that is merely descriptive and require a lot less marketing fuel than a name with no meaning, but with the associated disadvantages as well.

In the Crowdfunding industry to date, most portals have chosen the more descriptive over the more powerful. Poliwogg is an exception. Fundrise might be another.

With two well-known Crowdfunding companies – Crowdentials and VerifyInvestors – we see two different approaches to choosing a name. And we can’t say for certain whether one is better than the other. That will depend on what each company does with its name.

Having chosen a name, how do you protect it?

To start with, a business acquires “common law” rights to a name merely by using it, without filing anything with the government and without involving lawyers. If another real estate Crowdfunding portal tried to use the Fundrise name today they couldn’t do it, even if the Miller brothers had never done anything to protect their name (they have).

Contrary to common belief, merely registering a company name with the state by forming a corporation or other entity provides no real protection. State filings are simply a matter of bureaucracy – the state wants to make sure that no two names are confusingly similar on its own records.

For the best protection, however, the business owner should obtain a Federal trademark from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A Federal registration provides important benefits, including:

  • The registration constitutes “constructive notice” to all later users in all locations.
  • The registration permits the owner to get an injunction against a trademark infringer and sue for damages, including profits, costs, treble damages and attorneys fees.
  • The registration can strengthen the value of the name as a corporate asset.
  • The registration demonstrates your right to use the name to the owners of other websites, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, which are often called on to “officiate” disputes over names.

The trademark application process normally takes about a year, assuming no significant problems. Once granted, a trademark registration can last forever if continuously used and renewed.

NOTE: Not every name can be trademarked. A name like “Real Estate Crowdfunding Portal,” which merely describes the product or service, probably cannot be registered by itself. But it might be registered with a distinctive logo.

Finally, don’t forget to acquire the domain name.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick at Flaster/Greenberg PC.

THE NEXT BIG THING IN CROWDFUNDING: POOLED ASSETS

September 23rd marks the first anniversary of Title II Crowdfunding. The number of portals has grown exponentially but most or all portals continue to offer investments in single deals, e.g., an apartment building in Austin. Before long, I believe the market will shift to investments in pools of assets. Rather than the single apartment building in Austin, a portal will list a pool of 20 apartment buildings in the Southwest.

Accredited or not, very few individual investors have the knowledge or experience to invest in individual deals. And based on the stock market, most individual investors don’t want to. Individuals have historically preferred mutual funds over individual stocks; a mutual fund is just a form of pooled assets.

An investor can create his own pool, investing $5,000 in each of 20 apartment buildings rather than $100,000 in a single property. On Prosper or Lending Club, I bet most investors participate in multiple loans.

But that doesn’t give consumers quite what they want. What they want is a fund manager, someone who will choose the 20 apartment buildings and also decide when to sell them. A stock market investor who wanted to creat her own pool could buy 20 individual stocks, but instead she buys a mutual fund.

Do Crowdfunding investors view the portals themselves as mutual funds? Maybe investors expect Fundrise, Patch of Land, Wealth Migrate, or iFunding to play the role of the mutual fund manager, selecting only deals worthy of investment. On the advice of counsel, every portal tries hard to disclaim that legal responsibility, but maybe investors ignore the disclaimers, looking for a “brand” for investing.

I certainly expect portals to start offering asset pools. I’ll go out on a limb and say the first portal offering curated pools will have a great competitive advantage, and I’ll go further and say that Crowdfunding won’t reach its potential until pooled asset investments are widely available.

Pooling assets makes things a bit more complicated and a bit more expensive: more legal rules come into play; you have to think harder about giving investors liquidity; and, most important, you have to pay someone to make investment decisions and take the legal risk. But that’s where the market is headed.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick at Flaster/Greenberg PC.

WHAT CAN I SHOW ON MY SITE, TO WHOM, AND WHEN?

The SEC no-action letters issued to FundersClub and AngelList early in 2013 created some confusion around the deal-specific information that can be shown to prospective investors. Let’s try to clear that up.

Rule 506(b) Deals

You cannot show your Rule 506(b) deals to just anyone browsing the Internet, because that would be “general solicitation and advertising,” which is permitted under Rule 506(c) but still prohibited under Rule 506(b). If you’re a real estate portal, you can say “We have great real estate deals on our site,” but you can’t say “Look at this multi-family rental project in Austin.”

Both FundersClub and AngelList hid their deals behind a firewall. A user couldn’t see the deals until he registered at the site and promised he was accredited. In the 2013 no-action letters the SEC approved this arrangement, sort of.

I say “sort of” for three reasons:

  • The two no-action letters weren’t actually about registering users. They were about whether FundersClub and AngelList had to register as broker-dealers. Nowhere do the no-action letters say “We agree that, because you hide your deals behind firewalls, you’re not engaged in prohibited general solicitation and advertising.”
  • The no-action letters were issued by the Division of Trading and Markets within the SEC, not the Division of Corporation Finance. Typically, the Division of Corporation Finance would deal with so-called “exempt offerings” (offerings that are exempt from the general registration requirements of the Securities Act of 1933), of which general solicitation is a part.
  • Most intriguingly, the no-action letters aren’t exactly consistent with prior SEC rulings dealing with the online solicitation of customers, specifically the IPONET rulings in 2000. Those rulings assumed that the person doing the online solicitation was a registered broker-dealer; by definition, FundersClub and AngelList were not broker-dealers.

As a result, we can’t be 100% certain that the SEC, if asked point blank, would approve those arrangements from the perspective of general solicitation and advertising.

Nevertheless, the no-action letters were issued and the Crowdfunding industry has adopted the FundersClub and AngelList model: if you’re doing Rule 506(b) deals, you put the actual deals behind a registration firewall.

Once an investor registers at your site he can see the deals, but he can’t invest in them. In a series of no-action letters issued long before the JOBS Act, the SEC established that once an investor has become a customer, he has to wait before investing – the so-called “cooling off period.”

Some sites today are using a 21 day cooling off period, presumably because Title III incorporates a 21 day cooling off period. But the Title III rule is irrelevant to Rule 506(b). Thirty days is probably better, although, again, the notion of a cooling off period comes from SEC rulings, not a statute.

One more twist: at the end of the cooling off period, your investor can invest only in new deals, not deals that were on the site when he registered.

Rule 506(c) Deals

Rule 506(c) is far simpler. If you are doing only Rule 506(c) deals, you can show anything to anyone anytime.

Using Rule 506(c), you can show every detail of every deal to every casual viewer, even before the viewer has registered at your site. If you think that’s a bad idea from a marketing perspective or because you’re trying to protect confidential information, no problem. You don’t have to show all the details on your home page, but you can.

You can also make users register before they can see deals, just like Rule 506(b). If you take that route, you can ask users whether they’re accredited when they register, as you would under Rule 506(b), but you don’t have to ask. You can let everyone see the deals, accredited and non-accredited alike.

If you ask whether users are accredited – because you think it’s a good idea from a marketing perspective – that doesn’t mean you have to stop non-accredited investors at the door. Non-accredited investors can see the deals, too. Maybe they’ll tell their accredited friends.

Suppose a user tells you she’s accredited when she registers. Can you take her word for it? At that point in the process, absolutely! We don’t want to spend money or time on verification yet, and we don’t want to create transactional friction where we don’t have to.

With Rule 506(c), there is only one critical moment: when your investor is ready to write a check. At that point you must verify that she’s accredited, not merely by asking her but by looking at her tax returns, or getting a letter from her lawyer, or, most likely, having her verified by a third party service like VerifyInvestors or Crowdentials.

There’s no cooling off period with Rule 506(c), either. Your investors can see all the deals and invest right away.

Have I mentioned before that Rule 506(c) is better for Crowdfunding?

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick at Flaster/Greenberg PC.

CARRIAGES, CARS, AND POLICEMAN – BY SCOTT PICKEN, SENIOR MANAGING PARTNER OF WEALTH MIGRATE

WM ScottBy: Scott Picken, Founder & Senior Managing Partner of Wealth Migrate.

I’m Scott Picken, the founder and Senior Managing Partner of Wealth Migrate. Our investment committee has collectively 227 years of experience in international real estate. We have facilitated 10,779 investments to a value of over $1.3 billion and invested on five continents. We’re passionate about Crowdfunding as an enabler of our current business, helping to make everything more efficient, accessible, and transparent.

When I spoke at the Coastal Shows event in New York City at the end of June, many of those speaking and attending seemed to believe that Crowdfunding was invented in America in 2012. Far from it! In Australia and elsewhere around the globe, companies have been Crowdfunding for years. At this moment I’m returning from a Crowdfunding conference in Singapore, which was conservatively speaking 10 times the size of the New York City event.

Why invest globally? Because real estate markets do not all move in synch. When the U.S. market was plummeting in 2007-8, the Australian market was doing quite well, actually growing on average by 8.6% in 2009. And if anyone hasn’t noticed, the U.S. dollar has lost about 72% of its value against other major currencies over the last 10 years. No one market, not even the U.S., can protect itself against that kind of loss.

It is just like in nature. When winter comes in the Northern hemisphere the birds fly south and when summer returns they fly north. Migration is a law of nature, and yet we humans remain firmly planted in one place, winter and summer. It is why we called our company Wealth Migrate, as in the 21st century it is about finding the safest and best returns, globally.

Robert Kiyosaki, the author of Conspiracy of the Rich and Jim Rogers in Street Smarts, both teach that the easiest way to get rich is to follow long-term trends. If the globalization of the international economy is not a long-term trend, then I don’t know a long-term trend.

Actually, globalization is not enough – just try selling American cheeseburgers in China. At Wealth Migrate we believe in glocalization, which means thinking globally and acting locally. McDonald’s modifies its menu to fit local tastes and we find best-of-breed partners on the ground in local markets and then partner with them. A bird in a flock can fly 70% further than a bird flying on its own.

Read my book, Property Going Global. It’s all about successful investing in foreign markets.

When I read Ben Miller’s post about the problems he faced with his first Crowdfunding offering, I knew exactly what he was talking about. You can’t imagine how many accountants and lawyers told us “No!” when we started to look at the U.S. investor market and the opportunities in the US. With everyone using the Internet for everything, with Twitter literally driving the Arab Spring, the investment world needed to change from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles and these “experts” were like policemen not giving us a license to drive a car. It just about drove me crazy but fortunately not so crazy that I gave up.

In 1998 I wrote a dissertation about the real estate market and the coming IT revolution. My synopsis said “taking an old industry, steeped in tradition and run by many smaller, disparate and often inefficient operators, and redefining it through the use of web technology to increase global reach, partnerships and efficiencies of scale, so as to provide a ‘one stop’ enhanced and personalized service to our clients.” I didn’t realize then that I was talking about Crowdfunding, the real estate finance market, and Wealth Migrate, but that sums up our business model pretty well.

Look, almost 50% of the world’s wealth is held in real estate yet only a small fraction of the world’s population (12.9%) owns real estate, much less has access to great deals. I am a firm believer in the business philosophy of Zig Ziglar that “You can have anything you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.” The Afrikaans say “Ver van jou goed, na aan jou skade,” which loosely translated means “Keep your assets close to home, if you don’t want to lose them.” But in the 21st century that is no longer true. To give millions of individuals what they want, we need to look beyond our own homes, even beyond our own national borders, and ultimately help create global wealth for all.

In my opinion it’s a great time for cars, not a great time for carriages or outdated policemen, but the cars do need to be driven safely. It is all about trust, transparency and most importantly everyone’s interests being aligned. You are no longer bound to a country, a currency, an economy or even an asset class. I believe it is less about where you live and more important about where you wealth lives.

 

%d bloggers like this: