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.

SEC PROPOSES MAJOR UPGRADES TO CROWDFUNDING RULES

The SEC just proposed major changes to every kind of online offering:  Rule 504, Rule 506(b), Rule 506(c), Regulation A, and Regulation CF.

The proposals and the reasoning behind them take up 351 pages. An SEC summary is here, while the full text is here. The proposals are likely to become effective in more or less their existing form after a 60-day comment period.

I’ll touch on only a few highlights:

  • No Limits in Title III for Accredited Investors:  In what I believe is the most significant change, there will no longer be any limits on how much an accredited investor can invest in a Regulation CF offering. This change eliminates the need for side-by-side offerings and allows the funding portal to earn commissions on the accredited investor piece. The proposals also change the investment limits for non-accredited investor from a “lesser of net worth or income” standard to a “greater of net worth or income” standard, but that’s much less significant, in my opinion.
  • Title III Limit Raised to $5M:  Today the limit is $1.07M per year; it will soon be $5M per year, opening the door to larger small companies.

NOTE:  Those two changes, taken together, mean that funding portals can make more money. The impact on the Crowdfunding industry could be profound, leading to greater compliance, sounder business practices, and fewer gimmicks (e.g., $10,000 minimums).

  • No Verification for Subsequent Rule 506(c) Offerings:  In what could have been a very important change but apparently isn’t, if an issuer has verified that Investor Smith is accredited in a Rule 506(c) offering and conducts a second (and third, and so on) Rule 506(c) offering, the issuer does not have to re-verify that Investor Smith is accredited, as long as Investor Smith self-certifies. But apparently the proposal applies only to the same issuer, not to an affiliate of the issuer. Thus, if Investor Smith invested in real estate offering #1, she must still be verified for real estate offering #2, even if the two offerings are by the same sponsor.
  • Regulation A Limit Raised to $75M:  Today the limit is $50M per year; it will soon be $75M per year. The effect of this change will be to make Regulation A more useful for smaller large companies.
  • Allow Testing the Waters for Regulation CF:  Today, a company thinking about Title III can’t advertise the offering until it’s live on a funding portal. Under the new rules, the company will be able to “test the waters” like a Regulation A issuer.

NOTE:  Taken as a whole, the proposals narrow the gap between Rule 506(c) and Title III. Look for (i) Title III funding portals to broaden their marketing efforts to include issuers who were otherwise considering only Rule 506(c), and (ii) websites that were previously focused only on Rule 506(c) to consider becoming funding portals, allowing them to legally receive commissions on transactions up to $5M.

  • Allow SPVs for Regulation CF:  Today, you can’t form a special-purpose-vehicle to invest using Title III. Under the SEC proposals, you can.

NOTE:  Oddly, this means you can use SPVs in a Title III offering, but not in a Title II offering (Rule 506(c)) or Title IV offering (Regulation A) where there are more than 100 investors.

  • Financial Information in Rule 506(b):  The proposal relaxes the information that must be provided to non-accredited investors in a Rule 506(b) offering. Thus, if the offering is for no more than $20M one set of information will be required, while if it is for more than $20 another (more extensive) set of information will be required.
  • No More SAFEs in Regulation CF:  Nope.

NOTE:  The rules says the securities must be “. . . . equity securities, debt securities, or securities convertible or exchangeable to equity interests. . . .” A perceptive readers asks “What about revenue-sharing notes?” Right now I don’t know, but I’m sure this will be asked and addressed during the comment period.

  • Demo Days:  Provided they are conducted by certain groups and in certain ways, so-called “demo days” would not be considered “general solicitation.”
  • Integration Rules:  Securities lawyers worry whether two offerings will be “integrated” and treated as one, thereby spoiling both. The SEC’s proposals relax those rules.

These proposals are great for the Crowdfunding industry and for American capitalism. They’re not about Wall Street. They’re about small companies and ordinary American investors, where jobs and ideas come from.

No, the proposals don’t fix every problem. Compliance for Title III issuers is still way too hard, for example. But the SEC deserves (another) round of applause.

Please reach out if you’d like to discuss.

ENCOURAGING LOCAL INVESTMENT IN CROWDFUNDING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick at Flaster/Greenberg PC.

CHOOSING AND PROTECTING A NAME FOR YOUR CROWDFUNDING BUSINESS

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

Generally speaking you can choose three kinds of names:

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

Each category has advantages and disadvantages:

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

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

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

Having chosen a name, how do you protect it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick at Flaster/Greenberg PC.

MARC ANDREESSEN ON THE FUTURE OF TITLE II CROWDFUNDING PORTALS (SORT OF)

On the Technology page of yesterday’s New York Times, Nick Bilton reports on an interview with famed tech guru Marc Andreessen.

Mr. Bilton asks Mr. Andreesen, can other cities compete with Silicon Valley?

“In Mr. Andreessen’s view, there shouldn’t be 50 Silicon Valleys. Instead, there should be 50 different kinds of Silicon Valley. For example, there could be Biotech Valley, a Stem Cell Valley, a   3-D Printing Valley or a Drone Valley.”

A different “Valley,” each specializing in a different vertical, with its own ecosystem of entrepreneurs, favorite tweetinvestors, and experts. I believe Title II Crowdfunding portals, now in their infancy, will develop in exactly the same way.

Carve out a niche vertical. Attract investors looking to place bets on the top companies in that vertical. Find the companies. Create the ecosystem.

Mr. Andreessen was talking about real cities, not virtual cities. But in my opinion the point is exactly the same.

 

LEGAL FOCUS ON CROWDFUNDING

Lawyer Monthly magazine has been following Crowdfunding developments, along with the
business community and media. The attached interview highlights a couple of hot button points, including the benefits and common legal implications of Crowdfunding. Click here to read more.

legal focus on crowdfunding

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick.