Category Archives: Title III Crowdfunding

The Wealthy Wellthy Podcast: What You Don’t Know About Crowdfunding

The Wealthy Wellthy Podcast: What You Don’t Know About Crowdfunding

2019-06-20_10-54-52

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Our guest on this episode of The Wealthy Wellthy Podcast is Mark Roderick, an attorney who devotes most of his time to crowdfunding. Maybe you are like me in thinking that crowdfunding is pretty straightforward and self-explanatory. I mean, if your friend is looking to start a business and you want to support them, you can donate or invest through their crowdfunding page online and that’s that, right?

Every entrepreneur faces the stage in their business where they need to acquire capital, either from acquaintances, networking, angel investors, venture capitalists, or strategic partners. This process is messy and confusing, filled with regulations and stipulations that may make acquiring the capital more trouble than it is worth. This was partially due to the antiquated laws that were created in the aftermath of The Great Depression and were stifling in the modern economic climate. However, in 2012, the Jobs Act made it legal for entrepreneurs to advertise to raise capital. This opened up a whole new world for small business owners and others who were desperate to be able to connect more easily with potential investors as well as investors who were eager to find new opportunities.

During the interview, Mark distinguishes between the 3 kinds of crowdfunding: (1) to accredited investors only, (2) Regulation A to accredited or non accredited investors, and (3) Title 3 – which is the most common. He also talks about the factors that are most important from a legal perspective when you are determining which crowdfunding site to use to raise capital or to invest capital. It was also interesting to hear Mark spell out the 3 reasons why people invest through crowdfunding: (1) they want to support the company, (2) to do social good, and (3) to make money.

Mark even gave me some advice about a real estate deal I am considering and revealed that 90-95% of the capital exchanged through crowdfunding is for real estate transactions. Finally, he busted a couple of myths regarding the amount of risk involved in crowdfunding and whether money raised from others is subject to securities laws.

What We Covered

  • [2:16] – Who is Mark Roderick?
  • [3:28] – Mark describes the fragmented traditional ways of raising capital.
  • [8:58] – Angel investors and how to present your “deck” to them.
  • [11:08] – Working with venture capitalists and strategic partners.
  • [13:31] – A brief history of the laws affecting capital.
  • [22:34] – What does crowdfunding look like for startup entrepreneurs?
  • [27:20] – How to find a regulated site to post your capital request on.
  • [30:58] – Crowdfunding is the intersection of old and new school.
  • [34:57] – Advice to keep in mind when you are using a crowdfunding site.
  • [38:06] – Mark tells us 3 of the crowdfunding sites he works with.
  • [40:08] – When should an entrepreneur hire an attorney during this process?
  • [42:40]– The prevalence of real estate in the crowdfunding world.
  • [53:24] – What message does Mark want to get out there?
  • [56:17] – Mark busts 2 myths about crowdfunding.

Questions? Let me know.

Think Twice About a Low Target Amount in Title III Crowdfunding

Target amount in Title III Crowdfunding

Many Title III issuers are setting “target amounts” as low as $10,000. I understand the motivation, but I’d urge issuers and the platforms to think twice.

Background

In Title III Crowdfunding (also known as “Regulation Crowdfunding” or “Regulation CF” or “Reg CF”), the issuer establishes a “target amount” for the offering. Once the offering achieves the target amount, the issuer can start spending the money raised from investors, even while continuing to raise more money. That gives issuers a strong incentive to set a low target amount.

EXAMPLE:  A brewery needs to raise $400,000 for equipment, fit-out, marketing, and salaries. If the brewery establishes $400,000 as the target amount, it can’t start spending the money from investors until it raises the entire $400,000. If it establishes $10,000 as the target amount, on the other hand, it can start spending investor money as soon as it raises the first $10,000 — even if the business will fail without the full $400,000.

The platform benefits, also, in two ways:

  • If the brewery establishes a target amount of $10,000 and raises at least that much, the platform can include the brewery in its “Reached Target Amount” list, even if overall the brewery raised only $12,000 and failed.
  • The platform receives a commission only on funds released to the issuer. The sooner money is released to the issuer, the sooner the platform earns a commission.

Minimum Offering Amounts

Target amounts were around long before Title III Crowdfunding, in the form of “minimum offering amounts.” A company raising capital would establish a “minimum offering” equal to the lowest amount of money that would make the business viable. If a brewery absolutely needs $400,000 to be viable, then the minimum offering would be $400,000. If it could plausibly scrape by with $315,000 — maybe by deferring the purchase of an $85,000 piece of equipment — then the minimum offering would be $315,000.

Issuers don’t establish minimum offerings because they want to, but because experienced investors won’t invest otherwise. If $315,000 is the minimum that will make the brewery successful, an experienced investor writing the first check will demand that her money be held in escrow until the offering raises $315,000. If the offering doesn’t raise $315,000, she gets her money back. Investing is hard enough:  why invest in a company that’s guaranteed to fail?

That’s also why we have traditionally seen “minimum/maximum” offerings. The brewery that needs at least $315,000 to be viable might be able to make great use of up to $475,000, with both numbers anchored to a believable business plan.

The Decision in Title III

Cash is king for most entrepreneurs, the sooner the better, so a Title III issuer will be tempted to establish a low target amount. And to the extent an issuer can rely on inexperienced investors, it might be successful, at least in the short term.

But the issuer should also be aware of the downside:  by establishing a low target amount, the issuer is driving away experienced investors. How many experienced investors are driven away, and the amount they might have invested, can’t be captured.

On the positive side, an issuer that establishes a realistic target amount can and should advertise that fact in its Form C, perhaps drawing a favorable contrast vis-à-vis other Title III issuers, whose target amounts were picked from the air. That’s the kind of information an experienced investor will like to see.

An issuer that weighs the pros and cons and nevertheless decides on an artificially low target amount should include a prominent risk factor in its Form C:

“The ‘target amount’ we established for this offering is substantially lower than the amount of money we really need to execute our business plan. If we raise only the target amount and are unable to raise other funds, our business will probably fail and you will lose your entire investment.”

Artificially low target amounts carry a long-term downside for the platform, too. I would argue that as long as issuers are establishing $10,000 minimums, Title III won’t be taken seriously as an asset class, and the industry won’t grow.

Questions? Let me know.

Yes, A Parent Company Can Use Title III Crowdfunding

Title III Crowdfunding

We know an “investment company,” as defined in the Investment Company Act of 1940, can’t use Title III Crowdfunding. For that matter, an issuer can’t use Title III even if it’s not an investment company, if the reason it’s not an investment company is one of the exemptions under section 3(b) or section 3(c) of the 1940 Act. By way of example, suppose a a company is engaged in the business of making commercial mortgage loans. Even if the company qualifies for the exemption under section 3(c)(5)(C) of the 1940 Act, it still can’t use Title III.

We also know that, silly as it seems, a company whose only asset is the securities of one company is generally treated as an investment company under the 1940 Act. That’s why we can’t use so-called “special purpose vehicles,” or SPVs, in Title III Crowdfunding, to round up all the investors in one entity and thereby simplify the cap table.

Put those two things together and you might conclude that only an operating company, and not a company that owns stock in the operating company, can use Title III Crowdfunding. But that wouldn’t be quite right.

A company that owns the securities of an operating company – I’ll call that a “parent company” — can’t use Title III if it’s an “investment company” under the 1940 Act. However, while every investment company is a parent company, not every parent company is an investment company. Here’s what I mean.

Section 3(a)(1) of the 1940 Act defines “investment company” as:

  • A company engaged primarily in the business of investing, reinvesting, or trading in securities; or
  • A company engaged in the business of investing, reinvesting, owning, holding, or trading in securities, which owns or proposes to acquire investment securities having a value exceeding 40% of the value of its assets.

Suppose Parent, Inc. owns 100% of Operating Company, LLC, and nothing else. If Parent’s interest in Operating Company is treated as a “security,” then Parent will be an investment company under either definition above and can’t use Title III. However, it should be possible to structure the relationship between Parent and Operating Company so that Parent’s interest is not treated as a security, relying on a long line of cases involving general partnership interests.

These cases arise under the Howey test, made famous by the ICO world. Under Howey, an instrument is a security if and only if:

  • It involves an investment of money or other property in a common enterprise;
  • There is an expectation of profits; and
  • The expectation of profits is based on the efforts of someone else.

Focusing on the third element of the Howey test, courts have held that a general partner’s interest in a limited partnership generally is not a security because (1) by law, the general partner controls the partnership, and (2) the general partner is therefore relying on its own efforts to realize a profit, not the efforts of someone else.

If Operating Company were a partnership and Parent were its general partner, then the arrangement would fall squarely within this line of cases and Parent wouldn’t be treated as an investment company. As a general partner, however, Parent would be fully liable for the liabilities of Operating Company, defeating the main purpose of the parent/subsidiary relationship, i.e., letting the tail wag the dog.

Fortunately, Parent should be able to achieve the same result even though Operating Company is a limited liability company. The key is that Operating Company should be managed by its members, not by a manager. That should place Parent in exactly the same position as the typical general partner:  relying on its own efforts, rather than the efforts of someone else, to realize a profit from the enterprise.

If Parent’s interest in Operating Company isn’t a “security,” then Parent isn’t an “investment company,” and can raise money using Title III.

Questions? Let me know.

The Per-Investor Limits of Title III Require Concurrent Offerings

Since the JOBS Act was signed by President Obama in 2012, advocates have been urging Congress to increase the overall limit of $1 million (now $1.07 million, after adjustment for inflation) to $5 million. But for many issuers, the overall limit is less important than the per-investor limits.

The maximum an investor can invest in all Title III offerings during any period of 12 months is:

  • If the investor’s annual income or net worth is less than $107,000, she may invest the greater of:
    • $2,200; or
    • 5% of the lesser of her annual income or net worth.
  • If the investor’s annual income and net worth are both at least $107,000, she can invest the lesser of:
    • $107,000; or
    • 10% of the lesser of her annual income or net worth.

These limits apply to everyone, including “accredited investors.” They’re adjusted periodically by the SEC based on inflation.

These limits make Title III much less attractive than it should be relative to Title II. Consider the typical small issuer, NewCo, LLC, deciding whether to use Title II or Title III to raise $1 million or less. On one hand, the CEO of NewCo might like the idea of raising money from non-accredited investors, whether because investors might also become customers (e.g., a restaurant or brewery), because the CEO is ideologically committed to making a good investment available to ordinary people, or otherwise. Yet by using Title III, NewCo is hurting its chances of raising capital.

Suppose a typical accredited investor has income of $300,000 and a net worth of $750,000. During any 12-month period she can invest only $30,000 in all Title III offerings. How much of that will she invest in NewCo? Half? A third? A quarter? In a Title II offering she could invest any amount.

Because of the per-investor limits, a Title III issuer has to attract a lot more investors than a Title II issuer. That drives up investor-acquisition costs and makes Title III more expensive than Title II, even before you get to the disclosures.

The solution, of course, is that Congress should make the Title III rule the same as the Tier 2 rule in Regulation A:  namely, that non-accredited investors are limited, but accredited investors are not. I can’t see any policy argument against that rule.

In the meantime, almost every Title III issuer should conduct a concurrent Title II offering, and every Title III funding portal should build concurrent offerings into its functionality.

Questions? Let me know.

Two Related Party Rules In Title III Crowdfunding

Title III includes two definitions about related parties, similar but not identical.

The first definition dictates who is subject to the $1 million-per-year limit on raising money. There, the regulations provide that the limit applies not only to the issuer itself (the company raising money), but also to “all entities controlled by or under common control with the issuer and any predecessors of the issuer.” To determine who controls whom, the regulations borrow the definition from SEC Rule 405:

The term ‘control’ means the possession, direct or indirect, of the power to direct or cause the direction of the management and policies of the entity, whether through the ownership of voting securities, by contract or otherwise.

This means, for example, that if Company X is raising money using Title III, then Company X and all members of the same corporate family are subject to the same $1 million cap, even if other members of the corporate family are engaged in very different businesses.

(Don’t even think about having your husband or girlfriend or best friend from college own the other businesses get around the rule. It doesn’t work.)

This is a very broad rule and, like so much of Title III, very different than anything we’ve seen before in the U.S. securities laws. For example, while Issuer X may include only 35 investors in an offering under Rule 506(b), Issuer X is allowed to have multiple offerings – an apartment building in this offering, an oil and gas development in this offering, a social media app in a third offering – and include 35 non-accredited investors in each.

Similarly, in Title IV an issuer can raise up to $50 million for a mortgage REIT. Nothing stops a company under common control with the issuer from raising another $50 million for a REIT that buys office buildings.

Why the stricter rule for Title III? I would say that, consistent with the whole Title III paradigm, the goal was to reserve Title III for little guys, the neighborhood businesses, while keeping the professional financiers from Wall Street and Silicon Valley out. It’s part of the big compromise that allowed enactment of Title III in the first place.

The second definition around related parties in Title III dictates who on the portal side may own securities of the issuer. The rule is that:

  • The portal itself may own a financial interest in the issuer only if (1) the portal received the financial interest as compensation for the services provided to or for the benefit of the issuer, and (2) the financial interest consists of the same securities that are being offered to investors on the portal’s platform.
  • No director, officer, or partner of the portal, or any person occupying a similar status or performing a similar function, may own a financial interest in an issuer.

The term “financial interest in an issuer” means a direct or indirect ownership of, or economic interest in, any class of the issuer’s securities.

This rule means, for example, that:

  • A portal may not raise money for itself on its own platform.
  • Neither the portal nor any of its directors, officers, or partners may invest in an issuer before it raises money on the portal (they could invest afterward).
  • Purely contractual arrangements, not relating to the securities of the issuer, are okay.

The rule about financial interests doesn’t use the words “common control” but, because a portal is controlled by its directors, officers, and partners, the result is nearly the same. But not identical. In a typical Crowdfunding structure, for example, the Title III portal is owned in a separate company. Key contributors to other parts of the corporate family who are not directors, officers, or partners of the portal itself should be allowed to invest without violating the rule, even where all the companies are under common control.

Questions? Let me know.

What “Solicit” Means Under Title III

Before the JOBS Act came along, listing a security on a public website would itself have been treated as an act of “solicitation.” That’s the odd thing: Title III portals aren’t allowed to “solicit,” yet in the traditional sense of the term that’s the most important thing Congress created them to do.

The fact is that Congress was ambivalent when it created Title III portals. They are allowed to list offerings of securities, but are not allowed to do other things often associated with the sale of securities, including holding investor funds or offering investment advice. They are regulated by the SEC and FINRA, but with a light touch compared with other regulated entities. They are privately-owned, but are required to provide educational materials to investors, police issuers, provide an online communication platform, and ensure that investors don’t exceed their investment limits – in short, they are required to assume a quasi-governmental role.

Title III portals are a new animal, part fish, part bird. Which makes it that much more difficult to decide what “solicit” means when they do it.

Based on the statute, the SEC regulations, the legislative background of the JOBS Act, and the history and overall context of the U.S. securities laws, I think a Title III portal engages in prohibited “solicitation” anytime it tries to steer an investor to a particular security. If it’s not trying to steer an investor to a particular security, then it’s probably okay.

I’ve included some practical guidelines in the chart below. Although there are plenty of gaps, I hope this helps.

Click the following for a print ready version of the complete chart: Rules for Title III Portals

Rules for Title III Portals

 

 

Using Title III Disclosures In Title II Crowdfunding

Title III requires all these disclosures, reported on the new Form C:

  • The name, legal status, physical address, and website of the issuer
  • The names of the directors and officers of the issuer and their employment history over the last three years
  • The name of each person owning 20% or more of the issuer’s stock
  • The issuer’s business and business plans
  • The number of employees of the issuer
  • A statement of risks
  • How much money the issuer is trying to raise
  • How the money will be used
  • The price of the shares or the method for determining the price
  • The capital structure of the issuer, including the rights of all security-holders, restrictions on transfer, and how the securities are being valued
  • A description of the portal’s financial interests
  • A description of the issuer’s liabilities
  • A description of other offerings conducted within the past three years
  • A description of “insider” transactions
  • A discussion of the issuer’s financial conditionimpossible possible
  • Financial statements or their equivalent
  • Any other information necessary in order to make the statements made not misleading

As I write this, a lot of very smart entrepreneurs and software engineers are working to automate these disclosures. They have to:  to make money running a Title III portals, you’re going to have to automate everything that can be automated.

Now look at Title II. As a write this, the disclosures for almost all Title II deals are prepared the old-fashioned way, with a lawyer writing an old-fashioned Private Placement Memorandum. The PPM for Deal 1 on Portal X might or might not include the same information as the PPM for Deal 2 on Portal X, and almost certainly doesn’t include the same information or look the same as the PPM for deals on Portal Y. An investor trying to compare apples to apples would go, well, bananas.

That situation is ripe (sorry) for change and I think it will change as Title III comes online, for three reasons:

  1. As someone argued recently, investors couldn’t care less about the distinction between Title II and Title III. They are going to want to see the same information in the same format.
  2. Using the tools developed for Title III, Title II portals will be able to provide more information than they are currently providing, cheaper and more effectively.
  3. There is no law that dictates what information must be provided in a Title II offering. But we still think about 17 CFR §240.10b-5, which makes it unlawful to “. . . .make any untrue statement of a material fact or to omit to state a material fact necessary in order to make the statements made. . . .not misleading. . . .” As the industry develops, it seems at least possible, if not likely, that the disclosures required by Title III could be viewed as the standard for avoiding Rule 10b-5 liability.

Questions? Let me know.

How To Operate A Title II Portal And A Title III Portal On The Same Platform

crainsMost Title II and Title IV portals will also want to operate Title III portals, and vice versa. Can they do it?

The Title III regulations issued by the SEC appear to contemplate that a Title III portal – a “funding portal” – will do more than operate a Title III portal. For example, 17 CFR §227.401 provides that “A funding portal. . . .is exempt from the broker registration requirements of section 15(a)(1) of the Exchange Act in connection with its activities as a funding portal.” If a Title III portal couldn’t do anything else, that extra language at the end wouldn’t be necessary.

The same is true for of the regulations issued by FINRA. FINRA prohibits Funding Portals from making false or exaggerated claims, implying that past performance will recur, claiming that FINRA itself has blessed an offering, or engaging in other misconduct, but a well-behaved Title II or Title IV portal would have no trouble meeting those standards.

What about the platform itself? The Title III regulations (17 CFR §227.300(c)(4)) define “platform” as:

A program or application accessible via the Internet or other similar electronic communication medium through which a registered broker or a registered funding portal acts as an intermediary in a transaction involving the offer or sale of securities in reliance on section 4(a)(6) of the Securities Act.

Nothing there would prohibit Title II, Title III, and title IV securities from appearing on the same website.

The fly in the ointment is 17 CFR §227.300(c)(2)(ii), which provides that a Title III portal may not:

  • Offer investment advice or recommendations; OR
  • Solicit purchases, sales or offers to buy the securities displayed on its platform.

What does that mean, in the context of a portal offering both Title II and Title III securities? What it should mean is that a Title III portal cannot offer investment advice or recommendations concerning Title III securities, and cannot solicit purchases, sales, or offers of Title III securities. The idea of Title III is to protect Title III investors. Why should the SEC care whether the portal is offering investment advice concerning Title II or Title IV securities?

But we can’t be 100% sure that’s what it means. If it means that a Title III portal can’t offer investment advice about any securities and can’t solicit offers to buy any securities, then we need to steer clear.

I’ve spoken informally with the SEC and they’re not sure how to interpret 17 CFR §227.300(c)(2)(ii). They suggested I submit a request for a no-action ruling and I guess I will, unless one of my Crowdfunding colleagues already has.

Pending that guidance, there are several ways to operate a Title II portal, a Title III portal, and a Title IV portal on the same platform:

  • Operate the portals through a single legal entity. Avoid giving investment advice to anybody or soliciting purchases, sales, or offers of any securities.
  • Operate the portals through one legal entity. If you want to offer investment advice and/or actively solicit, do it through or more additional legal entities. For now, limit the investment advice and active solicitation to Title II and Title IV securities.
  • Create a separate legal entity to hold the Title III license. Create an arm’s length license agreement between that entity and the entity that owns the platform (a simple downloadable form is here). List all the deals on the same platform, but make sure that when an investor clicks on a Title III deal the Title III portal handles the investment process.

Finally, FINRA is a wonderful organization, but I’m not necessarily eager to have FINRA looking at everything my clients do. All other things being equal, I might choose option #3 just to keep a degree of separation between the regulated entity and my non-regulated activities. But that’s not necessarily the end of it – FINRA will want to explore the relationship between the funding portal and its affiliates.

Questions? Let me know.

Why Title II Portals Will Also Become Title III Portals, And Vice-Versa

CF Portal Mall

Why has Home Depot made local hardware stores a thing of the past? Partly price, but mainly selection. And I think the same forces will require most Crowdfunding portals to offer investments under Title II, Title III, and Title IV, all at the same time.

Crowdfunding portals are like retail stores that sell securities. They have suppliers, which we call “sponsors” or “portfolio companies,” and they have customers, which we call “investors.” They pick the market they want to serve – hard money loans, for example – then try to stock their shelves with products from the best suppliers to attract the largest number of customers. Think of DSW, but selling securities rather than shoes.

Now consider these situations:

  • You’re a Title II portal and have established a relationship with Sandra Smith, a real estate developer you’ve learned to trust. She informs you she’d like to raise $30 million to build a shopping center in Chicago and needs to attract investors from the local community. You could tell her you only do Title II and send her across the street, but maybe she’ll find a competitor where she can get Title II and Title IV under one roof. So you’d really like to offering Title IV as well, which means attracting non-accredited investors.
  • You’re a Title II portal raising money for biotech. A company approaches you with a new therapy for cystic fibrosis. They have 117,000 Facebook followers and wide support in the cystic fibrosis community, and have already raised $30,000 in a Kickstarter campaign. They want to raise $800,000 for clinical tests, then come back and raise $5 million if the tests are successful. Sure, you could tell them to go somewhere else for the $800,000 raise and come back for the larger (and more profitable) $5 million round, but once they leave they’re probably not coming back.
  • You’re a Title III portal with lots of investors signed up. Turned away by the portal she’s used to working with, Sandra Smith asks for your help in the $30 million Title IV raise. Any reason to turn her down?

Those of us in the industry see Title II, Title III, and Title IV as separate things, but to the suppliers and customers of the industry they’re all the same thing. The differences between Title II and Title IV are nothing compared to the differences between sneakers and 6-inch heels! Yet DSW sells them both and everything in between because in the eyes of customers, they’re all shoes.

It doesn’t matter to suppliers and customers that Title II and Title III require different technology and business models. It doesn’t matter that one is more profitable than the other. Mercedes might lose money selling its lower-end cars but doesn’t mind doing so because customers who buy the lower-end Mercedes today buy the higher-end Mercedes 10 years from now. The Vanguard Group probably loses money on some of its funds but sells them anyway to keep customers in the fold. As the Crowdfunding market develops, I think the same will be true of the interplay with Title II, Title III, and Title IV.

For portals that have achieved success in Title II, it might be unwelcome news that Title II isn’t enough. But on the positive side, Fundrise has managed to leverage its reputation in Title II into a well-received REIT under Title IV. In any case, I think it’s inevitable.

Questions? Let me know.

Title III Crowdfunding Is Here

The JOBS Act was signed into law by President Obama on April 5, 2012. The SEC was supposed to issue regulations under Title III 270 days later, by December 31, 2012. Instead, the SEC issued final Title III regulations last Friday, which will become effective around May 1, 2016, or about 1,466 days after enactment.

But better late than never! In its final regulations the SEC has again bent over backward to make Crowdfunding easier, for example:

  • Liberalizing the financial disclosures required of issuers
  • Clarifying that a Title III offering will not interfere with other exempt offerings
  • Allowing Title III portals to pick and choose among issuers
  • Allowing Title III portals to take financial interests in issuers

Hat’s off the to the SEC staff for doing excellent work with a flawed statute!

For those of you who want to read all 686 pages of preambles, regulations, and forms, here’s a link. For others, I’ve written a Title III Crowdfunding: Outline for Portals and Issuers.

This is a brave new world, the transformation and democratization of the U.S. capital formation industry. I am very, very interested to hear what all of you think.

Thanks for reading.

Questions? Let me know.

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