Tag Archives: fintech

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.

Opportunity Zone Funds in Crowdfunding

businessman stack of coins.jpg

Everywhere you look, there’s another opportunity zone fund. What are these things and why are they suddenly so popular?

The Tax Savings

It’s all about taxes, specifically capital gain taxes. Added to the Internal Revenue Code by the 2017 tax act, new section 1400Z-2 allows investors to reduce their capital gain taxes in four increasingly-generous levels:

  • Level One Savings: If you sell property (including property sold through a partnership or limited liability company) and recognize a capital gain, then you don’t have to pay tax right away on the gain to the extent you invest in a “qualified opportunity zone fund,” or QOZF, within 180 days. Instead, the gain is deferred until the earlier of (i) the date you sell your interest in the QOZF, or (ii) December 31, 2026.

EXAMPLE:  You bought stock two years ago for $1,000, and sell it during 2018 for $1,100, recognizing a $100 capital gain. If you invest $75 in a QOZF within 180 days, you pay tax in 2018 only on $25 of the gain. You pay tax on the $75 on the earlier of the date you sell your interest in the QOZF or 12/31/2026.

It gets better.

  • Level Two Savings: If you hold your investment in the QOZF for at least five years, you get to increase your tax basis in the QOZF by 10% of the gain you deferred, further reducing your tax bill.

EXAMPLE:  In the example above, if you hold your investment in the QOZF for at least five years, you get to increase your tax basis by 10% of $75, or $7.50.

And better.

  • Level Three Savings: If you hold your investment in the QOZF for at least seven years, you get to increase your tax basis in the QOZF by another 5% of the gain you deferred.

And better.

  • Level Four Savings: If you hold your investment in the QOZF for 10 years, you pay no capital gain tax on the appreciation in the QOZF.

EXAMPLE:  If, in the original example, you invested $75 in the QOZF and sold it after 10 years for $195 (10% appreciation per year, compounded), you would pay no tax on the $120 of appreciation. 

What if the Value of the QOZF Goes Down?

If you lose money on the QOZF, then your tax on the original capital gain also goes down. 

EXAMPLE:  You sell appreciated stock for a $100 profit, and invest $75 in a QOZF. Three years later, you sell your interest in the QOZF for $50 (I’m assuming your tax basis in the QOZF hasn’t changed). You pay tax on only $50 of capital gain, not the whole $75.

Thus, it’s heads-you-win, tails-the-government-loses. 

What’s A Qualified Opportunity Zone Fund?

A qualified opportunity zone fund means a corporation or partnership that holds 90% of its assets in any mix of the following assets:

  • Stock of a corporation that is a “qualified opportunity zone business.”
  • An interest in a partnership that is a “qualified opportunity zone business.”
  • “Qualified opportunity zone property.”

A “qualified opportunity zone business” is a business substantially all of the assets of which are qualified opportunity zone property.”

”Qualified opportunity zone property” means property that is:

  • Located in a “qualified opportunity zone”;
  • Used by the QOZF in a trade or business; and
  •  Either:
    • The property is brand new (g., ground-up construction); or
    • Within 30 months, the QOZF or the qualified opportunity zone business spends at least as much to renovated the property as it paid to buy it.

Boiled down version:  A qualified opportunity zone fund means a fund that, directly or indirectly, owns new or substantially renovated business assets in a qualified opportunity zone.

Only New Businesses or Assets Count

In figuring out whether a fund is a qualified opportunity zone fund, you take into account only property acquired after 12/31/2017.

Does it Matter Where the Capital Gain Came From?

No. The capital gain you’re deferring could come from the sale of appreciated stock, the sale of real estate, the sale of artwork, or anywhere else.

An Alternative to A Like-Kind Exchange

Under section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code, the owner of appreciated real estate (only real estate) can defer paying tax on sale by exchanging the real estate for different real estate. In fact, a whole industry has grown up around these so-called “like-kind exchanges.”

For as long as it lasts, the QOZF provides a simpler and possibly better alternative.

What is a Qualified Opportunity Zone?

A “qualified opportunity zone” means a low-income area that has been nominated as such by the Governor of a state and approved by the U.S. Treasury. A list is of current qualified opportunity zones is available here.

No Massage Parlors

In a crippling blow to my own business plans, a “qualified opportunity zone business” does not include massage parlors or hot tub facilities. Nor does it include golf courses, country clubs, suntan facilities, racetracks or other facilities used for gambling, or liquor stores.

Can I Use an LLC?

Section 1400Z-2 itself defines “qualified opportunity zone fund” as a “corporation or partnership.” However, section 7701(a)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code defines “partnership” follows:

The term “partnership” includes a syndicate, group, pool, joint venture, or other unincorporated organization, through or by means of which any business, financial operation, or venture is carried on, and which is not, within the meaning of this title, a trust or estate or a corporation; and the term “partner” includes a member in such a syndicate, group, pool, joint venture, or organization.

Based on that definition, a limited liability company should work.

What if I Invest More in a QOZF?

Suppose you sell appreciated stock for a $100 capital gain, and within six months invested $150 in a QOZF. The favorable tax rules apply only to two-thirds of your investment. The other one-third is just a regular investment.

Who Can Form a Qualified Opportunity Zone Fund?

Anyone, literally. If you sell appreciated stock and want to defer or avoid tax on all or part of the gain, you can form your own QOZF.

Conversely, large companies, including large investment managers and large real estate developers, have already formed QOZFs, taking advantage of the tax benefits and the media buzz to raise capital.

Investment Company Act Limits

When Congress enacted the tax benefits for qualified opportunity zone funds, it could have created an exception to the investment company rules at the same time, making the funds even more appealing and effective. But it didn’t.

Consequently, and perhaps paradoxically, larger QOZFs — those with more than 100 investors — will have to own property directly, or take controlling interests in other businesses, to avoid being treated as investment companies. They will not be allowed to hold minority, non-controlling interests in businesses owned by others, such as, say, the residents of the qualified opportunity zone. 

How Can I Raise Capital for My QOZF?

You can raise capital using any method you like, including Title II Crowdfunding (Rule 506(c)), Title III Crowdfunding (Regulation CF), Title IV Crowdfunding (Regulation A), or Rule 506(b).

Qualified opportunity zone funds are about saving taxes, specifically capital gain taxes. They make less sense for non-accredited investors who, by definition, earn less money and pay tax at lower rates. Consequently, we will probably see fewer QOZFs using Title III or Regulation A to raise capital, and many using Rule 506(b).

More Rules to Come

The Internal Revenue Service hasn’t yet issued guidance on the details of this complicated legislation. Expect complicated regulations and at least a few surprises.

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

How long will it take before a QOZF is sold using tokens?

Questions? Let me know.

 

What A Tokenized Security Could Do

What A Tokenized Security Could Do

Here are some things a tokenized security could do:

  • Keep track of the owner (and by extension, the whole cap table)
  • Eliminate paper certificates
  • Facilitate transfers
  • Provide a history of transfers
  • Drastically reduce cost of transfer agent services
  • Provide for distributions with the click of a button
  • Make capital calls with the click of a button
  • Allow conversions (e.g., Convertible Note to equity) with the click of a button
  • Provide reinvestment options
  • Provide the K-1 or 1099
  • Allow digital voting
  • Carry up-to-date and historical information about the company, including financial statements and SEC filings
  • Track the tax basis of the security
  • Carry relevant documents, like an up-to-date Operating Agreement
  • Provide an automatic listing on an exchange
  • Integrate with all of the owner’s other securities, private and public, to provide a personal portfolio
  • Provide a communication channel, including video conference calls and chat rooms, with management and other investors
  • Provide information about the market and/or industry generally
  • Provide instant analytics on standard metrics like ROI, IRR, and P/E ratio, and allow exports to Excel and other tools
  • Compare returns to existing or new indices
  • Provide links to other issuers with similar characteristics, with the opportunity to trade, buy, or sell
  • Provide information about trading in the security by other owners, with alerts about trading by insiders

The way capitalism works, I suspect the first tokenized securities will include just a few features – those with the most sizzle and/or the easiest to implement – with more to come later.

Questions? Let me know.

Section 17(b) of the Securities Act in Crowdfunding and Token Sales

Among the tricks of Wall Street bad guys is the fake financial analysis, prepared (and paid for) to promote a particular stock but presented as an objective review. Section 17(b) of the Securities Act of 1933 was written to stop that:

It shall be unlawful for any person. . . . to publish, give publicity to, or circulate any notice, circular, advertisement, newspaper, article, letter, investment service, or communication which, though not purporting to offer a security for sale, describes such security for a consideration received or to be received, directly or indirectly, from an issuer, underwriter, or dealer, without fully disclosing the receipt, whether past or prospective, of such consideration and the amount thereof [italics added].

It’s no joke. For example, in April 2017 the SEC brought an enforcement action charging 28 businesses and individuals for participating in a scheme to generate bullish articles on investment websites like SeekingAlpha.com, Benzinga.com, and SmallCapNetwork.com while concealing the compensation.  See Press Release, SEC: Payments for Bullish Articles on Stocks Must Be Disclosed to Investors, Rel. No. 2017-79 (Apr. 10, 2017).

Hypothetical examples in the Crowdfunding and token world:

  • NewCo pays an industry periodical to publish an article written by NewCo that purports to objectively rate the “Top 10 ICOs of 2018” and happens to list NewCo’s ICO as #1. Section 17(b) doesn’t make the article illegal, it just says the periodical has to disclose both the fact that it’s being paid and the amount of the payment.
  • If NewCo paid me to highlight its ICO on this blog, I’d have to report the compensation.
  • A real estate Crowdfunding platform sends an email promoting an offering, or a group of offerings, on its platform. That email is not covered by section 17(b) because of the italicized language above, i.e., it’s clear that the email is an offer of securities (which raises its own issues, separate from section 17(b)).
  • An investor relations firm places favorable articles about NewCo in trade publications while NewCo’s ICO is live. Those articles are covered by section 17(b).
  • A live event called “ICO Summit World” purports to highlight “The Most Promising ICOs of 2018,” but presents only companies that pay to play. Definitely covered by section 17(b).

My sense is that in the Crowdfunding world, and especially in the token world, there’s a lot of paid promotional activity going on without the disclosure required by section 17(b). The securities laws don’t apply to tokens, right?

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.

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.

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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