Many issuers are concerned that “Crowdfunding will screw up my cap table.” In response, several Title III funding portals offer a mechanism they promise will leave only a single entry on the issuer’s cap table, no matter how many investors sign up.
The claim is innocuous, i.e., it doesn’t really hurt anybody. But it’s also false.
The claim begins with section 12(g) of the Securities Exchange Act. Under section 12(g), an issuer must register its securities with the SEC and begin filing all the reports of a public company if the issuer has more than $10 million of total assets and any class of equity securities held of record by more than 500 non-accredited investors or more than 2,000 total investors.
17 CFR §240.12g5-1 defines what it means for securities to be held “of record.” For example, under 17 CFR §240.12g5-1(a)(2), securities held by a partnership are generally treated as held “of record” by one person, the partnership, even if the partnership has lots of partners. Similarly, under 17 CFR §240.12g5-1(a)(4), securities held by two or more persons as co-owners (e.g., as tenants in common) are treated as held “of record” by one person.
With their eyes on this regulation, the funding portals require each investor to designate a third party to act on the investor’s behalf. The third party acts as transfer agent, custodian, paying agent, and proxy agent, and also has the right to vote the investor’s securities (if the securities have voting rights). The funding portal then takes the position that all the securities are held by one owner “of record” under 17 CFR §240.12g5-1.
Two points before going further:
Title III issuers don’t need 17 CFR §240.12g5-1 to avoid reporting under section 12(g). Under 17 CFR §240.12g6(a), securities issued under Title III don’t count toward the 500/2,000 thresholds, as long as the issuer uses a transfer agent and has no more than $25 million of assets.
17 CFR §240.12g5-1(b)(3) includes an anti-abuse rule: “If the issuer knows or has reason to know that the form of holding securities of record is used primarily to circumvent the provisions of section 12(g). . . . the beneficial owners of such securities shall be deemed to be the record owners thereof.”
But put both those things to the side and assume that, by using the mechanism offered by the funding portal, the issuer has 735 investors but only one holder “of record.”
Does having one holder “of record” mean the issuer has only a single entry on its cap table? Of course not. At tax time, the issuer is still going to produce 735 K-1s.
The fact is, how many holders an issuer has “of record” for purposes of section 12(g) of the Exchange Act has nothing to do with cap tables. The leap from section 12(g) to cap tables is a rhetorical sleight-of-hand.
As I said in the beginning, the sleight-of-hand is mostly harmless. Except for some additional fees, neither the issuer nor the investors are any worse off. And the motivation is understandable: too many issuers think Crowdfunding will get in the way of future funding rounds, even though that’s not true.
Even so, as a boring corporate lawyer and true believer in Crowdfunding, I’m uncomfortable with the sleight-of-hand. When SPVs become legal on March 15th perhaps the market will change.
Real Estate Crowdfunding in 2021 with Mark Roderick – episode 9
In This Episode:
Updates to Accredited Investor qualifications
Who qualifies as a “Finder” of capital?
Title III crowdfunding changes
How can sponsors and investors take advantage of recent changes
Why crowdfunding is a marketing business
Mr. Roderick concentrates his practice on the representation of privately-owned and emerging growth companies, including companies in the technology, real estate, and health care industries. Mark specializes in the representation of entrepreneurial, growth-oriented companies and their owners.
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.
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.
The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates why we include a list of “risk factors” when we sell securities. Suppose a company issued stock on January 1, 2020 without disclosing that its major supplier was located in Wuhan, China and that Wuhan was experiencing an outbreak of a new virus. Investors who bought the stock likely would be entitled to their money back and have personal claims against the founders, officers, and directors.
If the company issued stock on October 1, 2019, before the pandemic began, its duty to tell investors about the pandemic would depend on which version of Crowdfunding it used:
If it used Title II Crowdfunding (Rule 506(c)) the company would have no duty to tell investors about the pandemic.
If it used Title III Crowdfunding (Regulation CF) the company would be required to tell investors about the pandemic in its next annual report.
If it used Title IV Crowdfunding (Regulation A) the company would be required to tell investors about the pandemic in its next semiannual or annual report, whichever comes first.
CAUTION: That assumes the Company was finished selling stock on October 1, 2019. If it was continuing to sell stock when it learned of the pandemic, then the Company would be required to tell new investors. And if a Title III offering hadn’t yet closed, all existing investors would have the right to change their minds.
CAUTION: A company – even a publicly-reporting company – generally is not required to tell investors about COVID-19 if it is not selling securities currently, because pandemics are not on the list of disclosure items found in Form 1-U (for Regulation A issuers) or Form 8-K (for publicly-reporting companies). But be careful. For example, if a Regulation A issuer redeems stock without disclosing the effect of COVID-19, it could be liable under Rule 10b-5 and otherwise.
Assume that we’re required to tell investors about COVID-19 today, whether because we’re selling stock or are filing an annual or semiannual report. What do we say?
If this were January, we might say something simple: “Wuhan, China is experiencing an outbreak of a highly-contagious virus, which is disrupting economic activity. If this virus should spread to the United States, as epidemiologists predict, it could have an adverse effect on our business.”
But this isn’t January. We have much more information today and are therefore required to say more. Exactly how much information we share is as much an art as a science. Our goal is always to give investors enough information to make an informed decision without making the disclosure so dense as to be useless.
Here are two examples, one for multi-family housing projects and the other for a technology company.
With unemployment reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression, by some estimates already 20% and rising, we are already experiencing a number of negative effects from the COVID-19 pandemic:
We are experiencing a decrease in the number of phone calls and visits from potential new tenants. Year-to-year compared to 2019, we experienced a decrease in traffic of approximately ____% in March and ____% in April.
We are experiencing an increase in rent delinquency. Year-to-year compared to 2019, the rate of delinquencies greater than 30 days rose from ____% to ____% during March and ____% to ____% during April.
We are spending more time and resources on collections and marketing.
Although we are working from incomplete information, we expect these trends to continue and perhaps accelerate, depending on the trajectory of the virus and the ability to re-open the economy. Among possible outcomes:
Occupancy levels might decrease, although they have not decreased yet as compared to the same periods in 2019.
We do not intend to raise rents until the pandemic eases. Depending on circumstances we could be forced to decrease rents.
We expect some tenants to re-locate for economic reasons, from Class A projects to Class B projects and from Class B projects to Class C projects. In some cases tenants might leave the market altogether, by moving in with relatives, for example. Because we operate primarily Class B properties, we are uncertain whether the net effect for our properties will be positive or negative.
Conversely, we expect that economic uncertainty will cause some families to postpone buying a house and rent instead, increasing the pool of potential tenants.
The pandemic has caused significant uncertainly in the value of many assets, including real estate. Until the uncertainty is resolved it might be difficult for us to borrow money or raise capital by selling equity.
If occupancy rates and rents decrease while delinquencies increase, we could be unable to meet our obligations as they become due. A reduction in cash flows and/or asset values could also cause us to be in default under the loan covenants under our senior debt. Either scenario could lead to foreclosure and the loss of one or more properties.
At least in the short run we expect the pandemic to cause our revenue to decrease, perhaps significantly. As a result, we are taking steps to conserve cash. Among other things we have decided not to make any cash distributions until the economic outlook stabilizes and have reduced our staff. We have also begun to contact lenders to request a deferral of our mortgage loan obligations.
We do not know how long the pandemic will last or how its effects will ripple through the American economy. In a best-case scenario we would experience a short-term drop in cash flow and a dip in asset values as the economy adjusts to a new reality. In a worst-case scenario, where occupancy and rent levels drop significantly over an extended period of time, we would be unable to make mortgage payments and possibly lose assets, risking or even forfeiting investor equity if asset values drop far enough. Based on the information currently available to us we expect an outcome closer to the former scenario than to the latter and are marshalling all our experience and assets toward that end.
Our software provides a virtual connection between internet-based office telephone systems and cellular phones, allowing incoming calls to the office number to be re-directed to the cellular phone and outgoing calls made from the cellular phone to appear to the recipient as if they were made from the office number. Will tens of millions of people working remotely due the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for our software has grown substantially. On January 1, 2020 our software had been installed on ________ cellular devices worldwide. On May 1, 2020 it was installed on ________ devices.
As a result, we expect both our revenue and our net income for 2020 to increase substantially. However, with many workers now returning to their offices on a full-time or part-time basis it is unclear whether the high demand for our software will continue. Consequently, we are unable to provide a reliable forecast for revenue or net income at this time.
With more than ________ new users, even if temporary, we are accelerating developing of our new consumer-based communications tools. We expected to launch these tools in Q1 2021 but are now aiming for Q3 2020.
Even before the pandemic many of our employees worked remotely at least part of the time. Therefore, our operations have not been affected significantly by the pandemic. Tragically, however, David Newsome, the leader of our marketing team, contracted COVID-19 and died on March 27th in Brooklyn, NY. We have not yet found a replacement for David, who was with the company from its founding in 2013.
We were considering purchasing a commercial building in Palo Alto as the headquarters for our engineering team. Given our successful experience working remotely we have decided to put those plans on hold at least for the time being.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
Crowdfunding is a marketing business. But when it comes to marketing an offering of securities by a Title III issuer, things get complicated. That’s why this is three times longer than any blog post should be.
Why It Matters
Section 5(c) of the Securities Act provides that an issuer may not make an “offer” of securities unless a full-blown registration statement is in effect, of the kind you would prepare for a public offering.
There are lots of exceptions to the general rule and Title III is one of them: you can make “offers” of securities without having a full-blown registration in effect, if you comply with the requirements of Title III.
On one hand that’s good, because if you market your offering as allowed by Title III, you’re in the clear. On the other hand, if you make “offer” of securities without meaning to, or without complying with the intricacies of Title III, you could be in trouble in two ways:
You might have violated section 5(c), putting yourself in jeopardy of enforcement action by the SEC and other liability.
By making an illegal offer, you might have jeopardized your ability to use Title III at all.
What is an “Offer” of Securities?
Section 2(a)(3) of the Securities Act defines “offer” very broadly, to include “every attempt or offer to dispose of, or solicitation of an offer to buy, a security or interest in a security, for value.” And the SEC has defined “offer” even more broadly than those words suggest. Going back to 1957, the SEC said that any publicity that could “contribute to conditioning the public mind or arousing public interest” could be treated as an “offer.”
These examples illustrate the spectrum:
A company continues to advertise its services as usual, keeping its plans for an offering under wraps, then files an S-1 registration statement.
A company steps up its public relations efforts before a new product announcement, which happens to coincide with a new public offering.
For six months before it files a registration statement, a company triples its advertising budget, trying to build brand recognition specifically with the investing public.
A company puts up a website announcing “Please buy our common stock!”
The SEC has adopted a number of rules describing behavior that will not be treated as an “offer” for purposes of section 5(c). For example, Rule 135 allows so-called “tombstone” advertisements of registered offerings, Rule 135c allows notices of private offerings by publicly-reporting companies, and Rule 169 allows factual business information released by an issuer that has filed or intends to file a registration statement. But all these rules apply only to companies that are or intend to become public or publicly-reporting. There are no equivalent rules dealing with the behavior of small companies.
A Different Definition for Small Companies?
With that background, advice given by the SEC in 2015 catches your attention:
Question: Does a demo day or venture fair necessarily constitute a general solicitation for purposes of Rule 502(c)?
SEC Answer: No. Whether a demo day or venture fair constitutes a general solicitation for purposes of Rule 502(c) is a facts and circumstances determination. Of course, if a presentation by the issuer does not involve an offer of a security, then the requirements of the Securities Act are not implicated.
The italicized statement is true, by definition. If there is no “offer,” the securities laws don’t apply. Even so, it’s hard to reconcile with the SEC guidance for public companies. A “demo day” is, by any definition, an event where companies make presentations to investors. Not to customers, to investors. If merely “conditioning the public mind” can be an offer, it is very hard to understand how presenting to a roomful of investors could not be an offer.
Trying to reconcile the two, you might conclude that the SEC is, in effect, using different definitions of “offer” depending on the circumstances. During the period surrounding a public offering of securities a stringent definition applies (the 1957 ruling involved the period immediately following the filing of a registration statement) while outside that period a more lenient definition applies. If that were true, those of us trying to advise Title III issuers would sleep better.
There are two glitches with the theory, however:
Maybe the SEC will view the period surrounding a Title III listing in the same way it views the period surrounding a public registration statement.
The preamble to the final Title III regulations actually cites Rule 169 and cautions that “The Commission has interpreted the term ‘offer” broadly. . . .and has explained that ‘the publication of information and publicity efforts, made in advance of a proposed financing which have the effect of conditioning the public mind or arousing public interest in the issuer or in its securities constitutes an offer. . . .’” That sure doesn’t sound like a more lenient rule for Title III.
The Title III Rule for Advertising
Title III is about Crowdfunding, right? Doesn’t that mean Title III issuers are allowed to advertise anywhere and say anything, just like Title II issuers?
A core principle of Title III is that everything happens on the portal, where everyone can see it, so nobody has better access to information than anyone else. A corollary is that that Title III issuers aren’t allowed to advertise freely. If a Title III issuer put information about its offering in the New York Times, for example, maybe readers of the New York Post (are there any?) wouldn’t see it.
A Title III issuer can advertise any where it wants – Twitter, newspapers, radio, web, etc. – but it can’t say any thing it wants. All it can do is provide a link to the Funding Portal with an ad that’s limited to:
A statement that the issuer is conducting an offering
The terms of the offering
Brief factual information about the issuer, e.g., name, address, and URL
In the public company world, those are referred to as “tombstone” ads and look just about that appealing. In the online world issuers can do much better. A colorful post on the issuer’s Twitter or Facebook pages saying “We’re raising money! Come join us at www.FundingPortal.com!” is just fine.
Insignificant Deviations From The Rules
Recognizing that Title III is very complicated and new, section 502 of the Title III regulations provides:
A failure to comply with a term, condition, or requirement. . . .will not result in the loss of the exemption. . . .if the issuer shows. . . .the failure to comply was insignificant with respect to the offering as a whole and the issuer made a good faith and reasonable attempt to comply. . . .”
The language is vague, as it has to be, but it certainly suggests that Title III issuers can make mistakes without losing the exemption. And there’s no reason why mistakes in advertising an offering should be treated more harshly than other mistakes.
The purpose of the advertising rule, as we’ve seen, is to ensure that every investor has access to the same information. If a Title III issuer mistakenly provides more information about its offering in a Facebook post than it should have, the infraction could be cured easily – for example, by ensuring that any information in the Facebook post appeared on the Funding Portal for at least 21 days before the offering goes live, or by correcting the Facebook post and directing Facebook friends to the Funding Portal.
Where Does That Leave Us?
Ideally, a company thinking about raising money using Title III would follow these simple rules:
Don’t attend demo days.
In fact, don’t mention your plan to raise money to any potential investors until you register with a Title III Funding Portal.
The minute you want to talk about raising money, register with a Title III Funding Portal.
After registering with a Title III Funding Portal, don’t mention your offering except in “tombstone” advertising.
After registering with a Title III Funding Portal, don’t meet, speak, or even exchange emails with investors, except through the chat room on the Funding Portal.
A company that follows those rules shouldn’t have problems.
That’s ideal, but what about a company that didn’t speak to a lawyer before attending a demo day? What about a company that posted about its offering on Facebook before registering with a Funding Portal, and included too much information? What about a company that’s spoken with some potential investors already? What about a real company?
Nobody knows for sure, but unless the SEC takes a very different position with regard to Title III than it has taken with regard to Regulation D, I think a company that has engaged in any of those activities, or even all of those activities, can still qualify for a successful Title III offering.
Let’s not forget, the SEC has been very accommodating toward Crowdfunding, from the no-action letters in March 2013 to taking on state securities regulators in Regulation A. With section 502 in its toolbox, it’s hard to believe that the SEC is going to smother Title III in its cradle by imposing on startups the same rules it imposes on public companies.
It’s instructive to look at the way the SEC has treated the concept of “general solicitation and advertising” under Regulation D.
By the letter of the law, any contact with potential investors with whom the issuer does not have a “pre-existing, substantive relationship” is treated “general solicitation,” disqualifying the issuer from an offering under Rule 506(b) (and all of Rule 506, before the JOBS Act). But the SEC has taken a much more pragmatic approach based on what it refers to as “long-standing practice” in the startup industry. In fact, in a 1995 no-action letter the SEC concluded that there had been no “general solicitation” for a demo day event even when investors had been invited through newspaper advertisements.
I think the SEC will recognize “long-standing practice” in interpreting Title III also.
Bearing in mind the language of section 502, I think the key will be that an issuer tried to comply with the rules once it knew about them, i.e., that a company didn’t violate the rules flagrantly or intentionally. If you’re a small company reading this post and start following the rules carefully today, I think you’ll end up with a viable offering. Yes, there might be some legal doubt, at least until the SEC issues clarifications, but entrepreneurs live with all kinds of doubt, legal and otherwise, all the time.
It’s Not Just the Issuer
The issuer isn’t the only party with a stake in the advertising rules. The Funding Portal might have even more on the line.
Here’s the challenge:
Before allowing an issuer on its platform, a Funding Portal is required to have a ”reasonable basis” for believing that the issuer has complied with all the requirements of Title III.
We’ve seen that one of the requirements of Title III is that all advertising must point back to the Funding Portal.
Before the issuer registered with a Funding Portal, advertising by the issuer couldn’t have pointed back to the Funding Portal.
Therefore, if a would-be issuer has engaged in advertising before registering with the Funding Portal, including any activity that could be construed as an “offer” for purposes of section 5(c), the Funding Portal might be required legally to turn the issuer away.
With their legal obligations in mind, dozens of Funding Portals are preparing questionnaires for would-be issuers as I write this, asking questions like “Have you made any offers of securities during the last 90 days? Have you participated in demo days?”
If the Funding Portal denies access to any issuer that answers “I don’t know” or “Yes,” it might end up with very few issuers on its platform. On the other hand, if it doesn’t ask the questions, or ignores the answers, it’s probably not satisfying its legal obligation, risking its SEC license as well as lawsuits from investors.
The Funding Portal will have to make some tough calls. But its answer doesn’t have to be limited to “Yes” or “No.” For one thing, using its own judgment, the Funding Portal might suggest ways for the issuer to “fix” any previous indiscretions. For another, rather than make the call itself, the Funding Portal might ask for an opinion from the issuer’s lawyer to the effect that the issuer is eligible to raise money using Title III.
Advertising Products and Services
We’ve seen that product advertisements by a company that has filed, or is about to file, a public registration statement can be viewed as an “offer” of securities for purposes of section 5(c) if the company uses the product advertisement to “arouse interest” in the offering. However, I don’t believe this will be a concern with Title III:
A company that has registered with a Funding Portal should be free to advertise its products and services however it pleases. There’s no “quiet period” or similar concept with Title III the way there is with a public registration.
A company that has not yet registered with a Funding Portal and is not otherwise offering its securities should also be free to advertise its products or services. Just not at a demo day!
Many companies in the Title III world will be looking to their customers as potential investors. For those companies it makes perfect sense to advertise an offering of securities in conjunction with an advertisement of products or services. Sign up with a Funding Portal, follow the rules for advertising, and “joint” advertisements of product and offering should be fine.
Will a Legend Do the Trick?
Suppose a company thinking about raising money using Title III Crowdfunding makes a presentation to a roomful of investors at a demo day, but includes on each slide of its deck the disclaimer: “This is Not An Offering Of Securities.”
The disclaimer doesn’t hurt and might tip the balance in a close case, but don’t rely on it.
An Issuer With A Past: Using Rule 506(c) to Clean Up
In Scott Fitzgerald’s TheGreat Gatsby, the main character reaches for a new future but, in the end, finds himself rowing “against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” In this final section I’ll suggest a way that an issuer might raise money using Title III notwithstanding a troubled past, succeeding where Jay Gatsby could not.
Suppose an issuer registers with a Funding Portal, raises money using Title III, then fails. Looking for a basis to sue, investors learn that the issuer attended a demo day three weeks before registering with the Funding Portal. An illegal offer! Gotcha!
“No,” says the issuer, calmly. “You’re right that we attended a demo day and made an offer of securities, but that’s when we were thinking about a Rule 506(c) offering. As you know, offers made under Rule 506(c) are perfectly legal. It was only afterward that we started to think about Title III.”
As long as the record – emails, promotional materials, investor decks, and so forth – demonstrates that any “offers” were made in contemplation of Regulation D rather than Title III, I think the issuer wins that case. The case would be even stronger if the issuer actually sold securities using Rule 506(c) and filed a Form D to that effect, before registering with the Funding Portal.
An issuer with a troubled past – one that has attended lots of demo days, posted lots of information on Facebook and met with a bunch of different investors – might go so far as to engage in and complete a Rule 506(c) offering before registering on a Funding Portal. With the copy of the Form D in their files, the issuer and the Funding Portal might feel more comfortable that the troubled past is behind.