SEC Announces Two Major Changes to Crowdfunding

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This special edition podcast covers two announcements from the SEC.

The first is that in due course, it will be permitted to pay commissions to someone who helps you find equity for your projects based on the amount of money that they raise for you. This is a seismic change.

The second is the addition of non-accredited investors to deals that would normally only be available to accredited investors. rules that the SEC issued to facilitate Title III crowdfunding during the coronavirus crisis.

Bumblebee and flowers

SEC PROPOSES LIMITED EXEMPTIONS FOR “FINDERS”

In theory, only broker-dealers registered under section 15 of the Exchange Act are allowed to receive compensation for connecting issuers with investors. In practice, the world of private securities includes lots of folks we refer to as “finders.” Like bumblebees, these folks should be unable to fly according to the laws of physics but many plants couldn’t survive without them.

Because of the disconnect between theory and reality, industry participants have been urging the SEC for years to develop exemptions for finders.

The SEC just proposed exemptions that would allow some finders to operate legally, i.e., to receive commissions and other transaction-based compensation from issuers.

The SEC proposes two tiers of Finders 

  • Tier 1 Finders would be limited to providing the contact information of potential investors to an issuer in one offering per 12 months. A Tier I Finder couldn’t even speak with potential investors about the issuer or the offering.
  • Tier II Finders could participate in an unlimited number of offerings and solicit investors on behalf of an issuer, but only to the extent of:
    • Identifying, screening, and contacting potential investors;
    • Distributing offering materials;
    • Discussing the information in the offering materials, as long as the Funder doesn’t provide investment advice or advice about the value of the investment; and
    • Arranging or participating in meetings with the issuer and investor.

A Tier II Finder would be required to disclose her compensation to prospective investors up front – before the solicitation – and obtain the investor’s written consent.

The Limits to the Proposed Finders

  • The Finder must be an individual, not an entity.
  • The Finder must have a written agreement with the issuer.
  • The proposed exemptions apply only to offerings by the issuer, not secondary sales.
  • Public companies (companies required to file reports under section 13 or section 15(d) of the Exchange Act) may not use Finders.
  • The offering must be exempt from registration.
  • The Finder may not engage in general solicitation.
  • All investors must be accredited.
  • The Finder may not be an “associated person” of a broker-dealer.
  • The Find may not be subject to statutory disqualification.

The SEC issued an excellent graphic summarizing the proposed exemptions

Because they are entities, the typical Crowdfunding portal can’t qualify as a Finder under the SEC’s proposals. And because the proposals don’t allow general solicitation, a Finder who is an individual can’t create a website posting individual deals.

But the no-action letters to Funders Club and AngelList that kick-started the Crowdfunding industry (no pun intended) will invite many Tier 2 Finders to take their businesses online. Under the proposals and the no-action letters, it seems that a Tier 2 Finder could legally create a website offering access to terrific-but-unnamed offerings, but give investors access to the offerings only after registering and going through a satisfactory KYC process per the CitizenVC no-action letter.

A Step Forward for Crowdfunding

Many finders and issuers will jump for joy at the new proposals, while others will be disappointed that the SEC drew the line at accredited investors. In a Regulation A offering or a Rule 506(b) offering open to non-accredited investors, the law requires very substantial disclosure, especially in Regulation A. The SEC must believe that non-accredited investors are especially vulnerable to the selling pressure that might be applied by a finder.

Nevertheless, like the SEC’s proposals to expand the definition of accredited investor, the proposals about finders are a step forward.

CAUTION:  As of today these proposals are just proposals, not the law.

TWO REASONS WHY EVERY TITLE II PORTAL SHOULD ADD A TITLE III PORTAL

If you operate a Title II Crowdfunding platform, whether Rule 506(c) or Rule 506(b), you should add the functionality for Title III. Two reasons:

  • It will be good for you, i.e., you will make more money.
  • It will be good for our country.

Adding Title III Will Be Good for You

Any day now the SEC will announce a bunch of changes to the Title III rules, including these: 

  • Sponsors will be able to raise $5M rather than $1.07M.
  • There will be no limit on the amount an accredited investor can invest.
  • The limits for non-accredited investors will be raised.

Most of the deals on your site are less than $5M. Even though the $5M limit under Title III is per-sponsor rather than per-deal, this means that if your Title III portal were up and running today you could expand your potential audience from about 10 million households to about 120 million households.

There are four benefits to making deals available to non-accredited investors.

The first, immediate benefit is that non-accredited investors do have money. By adding non-accredited investors you make it easier to fill deals.

The second, immediate benefit is that adding non-accredited investors allows you to market to affinity groups. If you’re selling a mixed-use project in Washington, D.C. you can market to the neighbors. If you’re selling a company developing a therapy for cystic fibrosis you can market to everyone whose family has been affected.

The third, immediate benefit is you can start taking commissions. If you’re like most Title II portals you spend time and effort to make sure you’re not a broker-dealer. If you were a Title III portal those issues would disappear.

The fourth benefit is not immediate but is much more important than the first three, in my opinion. It’s about building a brand and a funnel of investors.

If you operate a portal you are selling a product, no different than shoes or automobiles. Just as Mercedes offers the A-Class sedan to bring less-affluent customers into the showroom and the Mercedes family, adding Title III can vastly increase your audience and revenue as some non-accredited investors become accredited and the SEC further relaxes the rules for non-accredited investors.

Alternatively, they could start shopping in somebody else’s Title III showroom.

Adding Title III Will Be Good for the Country

Our country is suffering in many ways. Yes, we’re suffering politically, but in some ways the political suffering is just one manifestation of our deep and deepening income and wealth inequalities. You can find a hundred charts showing the same thing:  the very wealthy are becoming wealthier while everyone else, especially the lower 50%, becomes poorer and more desperate.

When I was a teenager I delivered newspapers in Arlington, Virginia. In my suburban territory I delivered papers to accredited investors, whose houses were a little bigger and drove Cadillacs and Town Cars, and to non-accredited investors, whose houses were a little smaller and drove Chevies and Toyotas. One of my customers was George Shulz, the Secretary of the Treasury, who came to the door in his bathrobe and tipped well.

Tax policies, trade policies, all the instrumentalities of government have been focused over the last 40 years to serve the interests of the well-off. Part of it was cynical politics, part too much faith (which I shared) in the power of markets to lift all boats. Most of the boats in our country remain moored at low tide. Steve Mnuchin and his wife wouldn’t dream of living in that neighborhood today while 98% of Americans couldn’t afford to.

Call me an idealist, but I believe Crowdfunding can at least claw back some of the inequality. The deals on your Title II portal should be available to ordinary Americans. They should participate in those returns. They should regain faith that the capitalist system can work for them. We should all hope that the phrase “institutional quality,” when applied to investments, will lose its meaning.

Crowdfunding isn’t the whole solution, but it’s part of the solution. And you can make it happen.

Crow of people wearing masks

PODCAST: Is Coronavirus Impacting Crowdfunding?

Coronavirus is the epitome of what a “risk factor” is in any crowdfunding or real estate deal. As such, whatever the deal, issuers are required to warn potential investors about the riskiness of such an investment. If they don’t, then these businesses can get into serious trouble. Coronavirus compounds that issue even more. In this podcast, attorney Mark Roderick of Lex Nova Law provides some real world examples of what Covid19 disclosures are required in crowdfunding offerings and goes over some of the emergency rules that the SEC issued to facilitate Title III crowdfunding during the coronavirus crisis.

How Coronavirus is Impacting Crowdfunding

The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates exactly why a list of “risk factors” should be included in offering documents when companies issue and sell securities. As Mr. Roderick notes on the podcast, crowdfunding itself can be the catalyst of what may actually restart the economy, but the proper disclosures are a must!

For example, if a company issued stock before the pandemic began, its duty to tell investors about the pandemic would depend on which version of Crowdfunding it used.

Are you aware of these specifics? If not, listening to this podcast will get you up to speed on important items you may not know about, yet are crucial to your crowdfunding efforts (especially if something goes wrong). In addition, are you aware of the temporary rules that the SEC has adopted to make Title III crowdfunding a bit easier in the short term in four major ways? You’d be wise to get a pen and paper and take notes regarding the significant points Mr. Roderick explains in detail in this episode.

PODCAST: Title III Crowdfunding Changes with Mark Roderick

Crowdfunding continues to grow in popularity. It is a way to democratize the world of real estate investing, which historically has only been open to super-wealthy Americans. Its growth and positive outcomes have led to several changes being made in the space. Mark Roderick, our guest today, joins us to unpack these developments and the positive influence that they will have on real estate investing. In this episode, Mark presents an overview of the current crowdfunding space.

Title III Crowdfunding Changes with Mark Roderick

Key Points From This Episode:

  • Learn more about Mark and his expertise as a crowdfunding attorney
  • An overview of the crowdfunding basics and the difference between Title II, III, and IV.
  • Find out about some of the excellent changes the SEC has made related to crowdfunding.
  • How broker-dealers with a wide product mix make real estate accessible to more people.
  • ‘Title’ refers to the different types of crowdfunding as per the JOBS Act of 2012.
  • Why the Title III changes will make it easier to syndicate, even if you’re not a broker-dealer.
  • An explanation of what a funding portal is and the simple steps to set one up.
  • Learn about some of the drawbacks of establishing a funding portal.
  • Some of the changes Mark expects will happen with Title III advertising.
  • Other changes that the SEC has made around crowdfunding.
  • How Mark gives back and where you can get hold of him.

PODCAST: Is the SEC Democratizing Investment?

Democratizing investment. A huge step forward.

My guest today is Mark Roderick, founder of Lex Nova Law and one of the top online crowdfunding experts in the country. Mark and I discuss the very exciting changes proposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulation crowdfunding, or Reg CF, the securities regulation that is really the first step taken by the S.E.C. towards democratizing investment. The additional changes proposed will give this regulation real legs.

Impact Real Estate Investing Podcast

Insights and Inspirations

  • Mark believes the latest round of changes to the crowdfunding rules will bring some fundamental changes to the industry including higher quality deals.
  • As the deals get better, so will the industry grow, and more investors join in.
  • He expects to see changes in the physical landscape in just 5 years as these rules begin to have a far-reaching effect.
WRITE YOUR REGULATION A OFFERING CIRCULAR WITH ADVERTISING IN MIND

WRITE YOUR REGULATION A OFFERING CIRCULAR WITH ADVERTISING IN MIND

Too many issuers think of the Regulation A Offering Circular as just a dry legal document between the SEC and the lawyers. It should be more than that.

As I’ve said once or twice before, Crowdfunding is a marketing business. Creating a great company with a great product isn’t enough. “Build it and they will come” worked for Kevin Costner but it doesn’t work for most companies trying to raise capital.

Here are some examples of things you’d like to say to attract investors:

  • We have a terrific track record in this industry going back 15 years.
  • Our performance during the last five years has doubled industry averages.
  • Our Founder has had successful exits from her last three companies.
  • Experts forecast that our market will triple over the next seven years.

Those can be very powerful messages for prospective investors. But here’s the thing:  you’re not allowed to say them in your Facebook ads unless you’ve already said them in your Offering Circular.

You spend all the time and money to have your Regulation A offering qualified by the SEC, only to learn that you’re not allowed to say what you’d like to say to attract investors. 

Write your Offering Circular with advertising in mind. Make your lawyer speak with your marketing team and vice versa, even though they speak different languages. Create your marketing materials — your website, your Facebook ads, your email campaigns — in conjunction with your Offering Circular, so all the pieces are working together rather than pulling in opposite directions.

How many companies have stayed away from Crowdfunding and the capital it can provide based on a fallacy? Way too many,

THE BIG PROBLEM FOR CROWDFUNDING THAT REALLY ISN’T A PROBLEM

Ask 10 entrepreneurs why they haven’t used Crowdfunding. Three will answer they haven’t heard of it while seven will say “Crowdfunding will screw up my cap table.” Once and for all, let’s lay that fallacy to rest.

We’ll start by noting that many companies have raised money from Crowdfunding and gone on to later rounds of funding, including public offerings. That proves that what passes for common knowledge in some circles can’t actually be true. But let’s drill down a bit more.

What is it about Crowdfunding that could screw up a cap table?

It couldn’t be the number of investors. Public companies with hundreds of thousands of shareholders have no problem managing their cap tables or raising more capital when they need it. Beyond that, technology has made keeping track of investors pretty simple. You can send 1099s to 2,000 shareholders as easily as you can send them to 20, while Excel spreadsheets have 1,048,576 rows. Cap table management tools like Carta make the process even easier.

Don’t want to manage the cap table yourself? Fund managers like Assure Fund Management will handle it for you.

If having lots of investors doesn’t screw up a cap table, what does?

The answer is that a cap table is screwed up by the terms of the securities issued to investors. For example:

  • A company issues 52% of its voting stock to early investors.
  • A company issues stock to early investors with an agreement giving the investors veto rights over a sale of the company.
  • A company issues stock giving early investors a “put” after five years.

In those circumstances and many others, the rights given to early investors inhibit or even preclude the company from raising money in the future. Who’s going to invest in a company where the founder no longer has voting control?

But for purposes of this post, the important observation is that none of those examples depends on the number of rows in your Excel spreadsheet or how the money was raised. If the first round of funding came from just 10 friends and family members who together received 52% of the voting stock, that company has a screwed up cap table and will have a hard time raising more money. By contrast, the company that raised money from 1,000 strangers in Title III by issuing non-voting stock does not have a screwed up cap table and can raise money from anyone in the future, no problem.

To avoid screwing up your cap table, don’t worry about the number of investors and certainly don’t avoid Crowdfunding. Instead, focus on what matters:  the kinds of securities you issue and the rights you give investors. 

Where did the fallacy come from? The venture capital and organized angel investor folks, i.e., the same folks who predicted a few billion dollars ago that Rule 506(c) would never work because accredited investors wouldn’t submit to verification. Considering themselves indispensable middlemen, these folks view Crowdfunding as a threat. (I’ve always thought they should use Crowdfunding as a tool instead of fighting the tide, but that’s a different blog post.)

The fallacy has proven very hard to shoot down, perhaps because of the outsized influence venture capital and organized angel investor folks enjoy in the capital formation industry. In fact, it’s proven so hard to shoot down that the soon-to-be-released SEC rules allowing SPVs in Title III were written in response. If we’re smart about the kinds of securities we issue we don’t need an SPV, while if we issue the wrong kind of security then an SPV doesn’t help. The new SEC rules were written solely for the sake of perception, “solving” a problem that didn’t really exist.

Similarly, the perception that Crowdfunding screws up your cap table led one of the largest Title III platforms, WeFunder, to create an even more convoluted “solution.” WeFunder has investors appoint a transfer agent to hold their securities. Under 17 CFR §240.12g5-1, this means that all the securities are “held of record” by one person for purposes of section 12(g) of the Exchange Act. Based on the section 12(g) definition WeFunder then claims that a round of financing on its platform leaves the issuer with “a single entry on your cap table.” That’s a creative claim, given that the term “cap table” has no legal meaning and if an issuer is an LLC and raises money from 600 investors there are going to be 600 K-1s.  But the point is that WeFunder goes to this trouble and the attendant costs over a problem of perception, not reality.

How many companies have stayed away from Crowdfunding and the capital it can provide based on a fallacy? Way too many, that’s for sure.

RULE 10b-5: THE HIDDEN DISCLOSURE REQUIREMENT IN REGULATION A

RULE 10b-5: THE HIDDEN DISCLOSURE REQUIREMENT IN REGULATION A

Preparing a Regulation A Offering Circular is as much an art as a science.

An issuer offering securities using Regulation A can choose from several disclosure formats, including Form 1-A, Form S-1, or Form S-11. Each of these SEC forms includes a list of information that must be disclosed. For example, Form 1-A lists 17 items, ranging from the cover page to the Exhibits, each with sub-categories and special rules. Transparency and disclosure have been the touchstones of U.S. securities laws since the 1930s, and each form includes hundreds of pieces of information that must be disclosed to prospective investors. 

But even an issuer that made a list of all those items and completed the form meticulously wouldn’t be finished, because 17 CFR §240.10b-5 effectively imposes a catch-all requirement for disclosure.

Rule 10b-5(b) provides:

“It shall be unlawful for any person, directly or indirectly. . . .[t]o make any untrue statement of a material fact or to omit to state a  material fact necessary in order to make the statements made, in the light of the circumstances under which they were made, not misleading.”

The first part of that statement is easy:  you’re not allowed to make untrue statements of material facts, i.e., to lie.

It’s the second part that requires some thought. A couple simple examples:

  • You’re raising money for a grocery delivery business and there’s a guy on your board named Jeffrey Bezos. You’d better tell investors he’s not that Jeffrey Bezos.
  • Your Offering Circular describes the patent with which you expect to revolutionize the world of online payments. You’d better mention the letter you received alleging that your patent is invalid.

In practice, Rule 10b-5(b) means that no matter how many times you compare the SEC form (Form 1-A, Form S-1, Form S-11) to your Offering Circular, checking off all the boxes, if investors lose money a plaintiff’s lawyer can snoop around, with the benefit of hindsight, looking for something else that should have been disclosed. 

That’s why preparing a Regulation A Offering Circular is as much an art as a science.

THE EXPANDED DEFINITION OF ACCREDITED INVESTOR: A (FIRST) STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

For all the ink spilled wondering and worrying how the SEC might change the definition of accredited investor, yesterday’s announcement seems almost anti-climactic.

Perhaps the main story is what the SEC didn’t do. It didn’t limit the definition of accredited investor in any way. Everyone who was an accredited investor yesterday is an accredited investor today. In that sense the SEC continues to demonstrate its support for the private investment marketplace and give the lie to those who believe otherwise.

On the other hand, the SEC didn’t break much new ground expanding the definition, at least for now.

The principal expansion, as expected, was in adding to the list of accredited investors individuals who hold Series 7, Series 65, or Series 82 licenses. The SEC also added investment advisers registered with the SEC or any state and, more surprisingly, venture capital fund advisers and exempt reporting advisers. I say “more surprisingly” because neither venture capital fund advisers nor exempt reporting advisers are required to pass exams or otherwise demonstrate financial knowledge or sophistication.

The list of accredited investors was also extended to include:

  • Entities, including Indian tribes, governmental bodies, funds, and entities organized under the laws of foreign countries, that (1) own “investments” (as defined in Rule 2a51-1(b) under the Investment Company Act of 1940) in excess of $5 million, and (2) were not formed to invest in the securities offered;
  • Rural business development companies;
  • Family offices with at least $5 million in assets under management and their family clients, as each term is defined under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940; and
  • Knowledgeable employees of a private fund, but only with respect to investments in that fund.

Finally, the SEC clarified that existing provisions of the accredited investor definition that refer to spouses also includes “spousal equivalents,” meaning someone who has gotten under your nerves for at least seven years (actually “a cohabitant occupying a relationship generally equivalent to that of a spouse”).

While a modest first step, these additions are welcome and a harbinger of bigger things to come. The new rule explicitly invites FINRA, other industry self-regulatory authorities, and accredited education institutions to develop “certifications, designations, or credentials” that the SEC would approve for accredited investor qualification. I imagine FINRA and professional organizations will jump at the chance. If this leads to millions or tens of millions of Americans learning about securities and participating in the Crowdfunding market, well, that’s a very good thing for everyone.

The new definition will become effective 60 days after being published in the Federal Register.