No Demo Days For Title III Issuers

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

No Demo Days For YouSection 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” iDemo Day Presentations, 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?

Not exactly.

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 tweet
  • 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.

ducks in a row 2A 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.

QuestionnaireWith 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

Great Gatsby original ad
Photo Credit: Fast Company editor Jason Feifer

In Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great 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.

Questions? Let me know.

Crowdfunding in Midtown

when pigs fly

Some say it will be a cold day in hell before Wall Street embraces Crowdfunding. If so, we were very nearly there Thursday, February 19th at the offices of the Citrin Cooperman in Midtown. Braving temperatures in the single digits and a gale blowing pedestrians north on Fifth Avenue, a large group of brave souls turned out to learn about Crowdfunding.

Citrin Cooperman, to my knowledge the first accounting firm to specialize in Crowdfunding, co-sponsored the panel discussion with iFunding, one of the earliest and certainly one of the best real estate Crowdfunding portals. The panel was moderated by Harmen Bakker, a partner in Citrin Cooperman’s real estate practice, and included William Skelley, the founder and CEO of iFunding, and Mark Mascia, the President of Mascia Development. Mark actually wore two hats: one, as a developer who has used Crowdfunding successfully to raise equity for his own deals; and two, as an investor in Crowdfunding deals offered by other sponsors.

As much as I try to know about Crowdfunding, I’m always amazed how much I can learn from the guys in the trenches, i.e., portals and developers.

To my delight, Mr. Skelley revealed that iFunding is exploring two new products:

  • A pooled-assets fund, where investors can invest in a category of real estate assets, rather than just a single project; and
  • A product that allows an investor to choose where in the capital stock he wants to invest (e.g., mezzanine debt or preferred equity), depending on his risk/yield preferences.

Wearing his developer’s hat, Mr. Mascia talked about the two Crowdfunding investment models, the first where investors come directly into the developer’s cap table and the second where the platform creates a special purpose vehicle for the investors. Each has advantages and disadvantages; for example, the SPV is great because the platform takes care of investor relations, but the direct-investment model gives the developer more “ownership” of the investor pool.

The audience was smart but troublesome, typical of New York. For example, someone asked “What happens when a Crowdfunding deal goes sideways?” As if that could ever happen.

To my mind, the most revealing fact is that iFunding – like the other top platforms, I believe – is funding deals within hours after they appear on the platform. Does this mean Crowdfunding investors are speed-readers, able to digest information about complex real estate projects between the main course and dessert? No. It means that Crowdfunding investors are relying on the portals. Legally and otherwise, that’s a really big deal.

By the time we finished the temperature outside had climbed to 3. Thank you to Citrin Cooperman and iFunding for a great morning.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick.

Crowdfunding A Reit

REIT Blog Post Image

People sometimes ask “Will Crowdfunding replace REITs?” That’s not exactly the right question.

A REIT – an acronym for Real Estate Investment Trust – is not a function of real estate law or corporate law. A REIT is solely a function of tax law. Section 856 of the Internal Revenue Code defines a REIT as a corporation, trust, or association that satisfies certain criteria, including these:

  • At least 75% of the entity’s assets must consist of real estate assets or cash.
  • The entity must have at least 100 owners.
  • Interests in the entity must be transferable.
  • No more than 50% percent of the interests in the entity may be held by five or fewer individuals.

There is only one benefit of qualifying as a REIT: as long as he distributes at least 90% of its income to its owners, the entity itself is not subject to tax. Only the owners are subject to tax, when they receive dividend and capital gain distributions. The whole REIT industry is built around this tax benefit.

Because the REIT label is solely a function of tax law, not corporate or securities law, a REIT can be:

  • A publicly-registered company with publicly-traded securities; or
  • A publicly-registered company with privately-traded securities; or
  • A private company with privately-traded securities.

The second category of REIT is probably most common and, frankly, it is the category that has given REITs a bad name. Sold through the traditional broker-dealer channels, it is not unusual for the shares of publicly-registered, privately-traded REITs to carry a load of more than 10%, great for the broker, terrible for the customer. That’s why people say “Private REITS are sold, not bought.”

Compare a publicly-registered, privately-traded REIT to a garden-variety limited liability company owning real estate assets. In both cases, the entity itself pays no tax. And now, through Crowdfunding, the garden-variety LLC can solicit investors using the Internet, leading to transactions cost (load) much lower than the private REIT. Economically it’s a no-brainer: the Crowdfunded real estate LLC is better than the private REIT.

As I said, however, that’s really comparing apples with oranges. The REIT designation is about taxes; Crowdfunding is about how you find investors.

The real question is “Can I find investors for a private REIT using Crowdfunding, rather than through the traditional broker-dealer channels?” And the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes!” When you check the deals available at your favorite real estate Crowdfunding site tomorrow morning, you could well see a REIT.

And why would a sponsor offer a REIT rather than a garden-variety LLC? One reason – maybe the only reason – is tax reporting. An investor in an LLC receives a full-blown K-1 each year, and faces at least the theoretical risk of paying tax on “phantom” income. An investor in a REIT, on the other hand, receives only a simple 1099 and pays tax only on actual distributions.

Be that as it may, nobody should be paying a 10% commission. By connecting sponsors directly with investors, Crowdfunding promises to squeeze this kind of inefficiency out of the capital formation industry. Especially when Regulation A+ comes into effect, opening the market to non-accredited investors, there is every reason to believe that Crowdfunding will replace the traditional broker-dealer as the preferred method for distributing REIT shares.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick.

CFGE CROWDFUND BANKING AND LENDING SUMMIT IN SAN FRANCISCO

Roderick CFGE

Since Labor Day, I’ve spoken at half a dozen events: for entrepreneurs, for intellectual property lawyers, for finance professionals, for digital marketing groups. This week I’ll be speaking at one of the premier Crowdfunding events in country, the CFGE Crowdfund Banking and Lending Summit on the 16th and 17th in San Francisco.

The conference features some of the leaders in the industry, including:

  • Richard Swart, Director of Research for Innovation in Entrepreneur and Social Finance, Colman Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership at UC Berkeley.
  • Ron Suber, the President of Prosper.
  • Jason Fritton, the Founder and CEO of Patch of Land.
  • Tom Lockard, the Vice President for Real Estate Investment and Institutional Sales of Fundrise.
  • Nikul Patel, the Chief Lending Officer of LendingTree.
  • Jesse Clem, the Co-Founder of LOQUIDITY, LLC.
  • Joy Schoffler, the CEO of Leverage PR.

Whether you’re new to Crowdfunding or an industry veteran, I’d strongly suggest you attend. I’m always amazed how much more there is to learn.

To register, click here. Make sure to use my promo code and receive a 25% discount! Promo code: Roderick

And while you’re there, please stop by and say hello. Crowdfunding and skiing – those are my two favorite topics.

IMPROVING LEGAL DOCUMENTS IN CROWDFUNDING: INTERNAL RATE OF RETURN

Internal rate of return, a financial concept, is not always used correctly in Crowdfunding documents.

The internal rate of return, often referred to as IRR, calculates the total rate of return of an investment, expressed as a percentage. Suppose you invested $100 in a bond that paid $5 at the end of each year for four years and were redeemed at the end of the fifth year for $105. Not surprisingly, that investment has an IRR of 5%.

Suppose you try to calculate IRR at the end of the fourth year? You tell Microsoft Excel that you paid $100 and have received $5 per year for four years and Excel says your IRR is minus 43.25%, i.e., you’ve made a terrible investment. What went wrong?

What went wrong is that you didn’t give Excel all the information it needs. It’s like the George Carlin joke, when he plays a sportscaster and announces “Here’s a partial score: Yankees 3.”

To get the right answer for IRR at the end of the fourth year, you have to tell Excel that the bond is still worth $100. When you do that, Excel calculates that your IRR is 5%.

And so it is in Crowdfunding. Often, the sponsor promises that upon any “capital transaction” – a sale or a refinancing, typically – the investors receive an IRR of X% before the sponsor receives his “promote.” Typical language:

The net proceeds of a Capital Transaction shall be distributed first to Investors, until they have received an internal rate of return of 8%, and then 70% to Investors and 30% to Sponsor.

But that’s like “Yankees 3.” It works if the Capital Transaction was a sale of the entire business, but it doesn’t work if the Capital Transaction was anything else, like a refinancing or a sale of only part of the business. With this language the investors are going to receive a complete return of their investment even if only a portion of the project has been sold, which might not be what the parties intended.

To get the right result you need to say something like this:

The net proceeds of a Capital Transaction shall be distributed first to Investors, until they have received an internal rate of return of 8%, and then 70% to Investors and 30% to Sponsor. If the Capital Transaction does not consist of the sale of all of the Company’s property and the distribution of all of the net proceeds to the Members, then the internal rate of return shall be calculated by (i) assigning to the remaining assets of the Company a value determined in good faith by the Manager, and (ii) assuming a residual value to the Investors equal to the amount they would receive if all such remaining assets were sold for such value and distributed in a Capital Transaction.

As for a definition of internal rate of return:

The term “internal rate of return” means the internal rate of return calculated using the XIRR function in Microsoft Excel.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick at Flaster/Greenberg PC.

NEW DOMAIN EXTENSIONS BECOME AVAILABLE

Crowdfunding Image - XXXL - iStock_000037694192XXXLargeWe started with .COM. Then .NET, .EDU, .INFO, .ORG, and a handful of others. But we’re about to be flooded with new domain extensions, more than a thousand of them.

In the world of finance, we’re going to have .BANK, .BROKER, .CAPITAL, .FUND, .INVESTMENTS, and .FINANCE. In the world of food we’re about to have .FOOD, .EAT, .GROCERY and .KITCHEN. You get the idea.

The flood of new extensions offers opportunity and challenge. Maybe the .FUND extension would work great for your new Crowdfunding portal. On the other hand, maybe you’re already using portal.com and now you have to worry about a competitor using portal.fund (Hint: a different domain extension doesn’t give a competitor the right to violate your trademark).

Some of the new extensions are already available, while the rest are coming soon. For a complete list and to register, go to a registrar website such as http://www.Godaddy.com.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick at Flaster/Greenberg PC.

IMPROVING CROWDFUNDING LEGAL DOCUMENTS

I don’t know much about videos or marketing, but I know a lot about legal documents. In a series of posts I’m going to suggest improvements to some of the legal documents used in Crowdfunding. Most of the time, I’ll suggest actual language a portal or issuer can cut and paste – after talking with a lawyer, of course.

By and large, the legal documents you see on Crowdfunding websites were pulled from other deals. For example, the Operating Agreement you see on a real estate Crowdfunding website is usually the same document the lawyer used for pre-Crowdfunding deals. And in many respects that’s okay because legal documents are pretty agnostic as to industry.

But in other respects it’s not okay. Sometimes you have to tailor the legal document to the industry.

An example is the section of the Operating Agreement that talks about an investor’s right to information. The provision from one well-known site says that the records of the company “. . . shall be available at the Company’s principal office for inspection and copying by any Member at any and all reasonable times during normal business hours at such Member’s expense.” Another says “A Member and the Member’s authorized representative shall, upon reasonable request and for purposes related to the interest of that Member, have reasonable access to, and may inspect and copy, during normal business hours all books, records and other materials pertaining to the Company or its activities.”

No! These provisions were typical in the pre-Crowdfunding world, but they don’t work with Crowdfunding.

You might have 218 investors in a Crowdfunding deal. You have to limit the right of investors to come to your office to inspect the books, and you have to limit what they can see. Under the Delaware limited liability company statute, if you don’t provide otherwise, your investors have the right to see basically everything, including a list of all the other investors. With one or two unscrupulous or irrational investors, that’s a recipe for losing sleep.

We want to:

  • Be fair to investors and provide all the information they need
  • Avoid spending an inordinate amount of management time dealing with bad apples
  • Protect your confidential information
  • Avoid dealing with 218 investors each asking for the same information
  • Give you discretion to protect your business and the interests of your investors

For an example of actual legal language that does just that while, I believe, fully complying with the Delaware Limited Liability Company Act, click here.

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.

REBUILDING AMERICA, BY JASON FRITTON, FOUNDER & CEO OF PATCH OF LAND

Statue of Lib CF_PurchasedBy: Jason Fritton, Founder & CEO of Patch of Land

Our headquarters is in Los Angeles, but Patch of Land was really born in Chicago.

Like all American cities, Chicago is a tale of two cities: one where the streets are lined with mansions, tidy row homes, and plush high-rises; and the other where most houses, if you can call them that, have boarded up windows, loose bricks, and rotting wood.

You can’t see those neighborhoods without wanting to help, and if you’re a real estate entrepreneur, as I am, you think there must be a lot of money to be made from all those vacant and abandoned buildings.

I went to foreclosure auctions but found that the market was broken. On one hand, the same handful of ultra-wealthy individuals or companies bid on $10 million properties. On the other hand, nobody bid on the smaller properties in blighted neighborhoods even though they could be had for a pittance, $10,000 or $20,000 apiece. The problem was (and is) that banks wouldn’t touch them, even if the developer had a proven track record. So the properties stayed vacant and abandoned, basically worthless, eyesores in the community.

I had a great idea – Crowdfunding! I’d ask for money from everyone. Not just as charity, although revitalizing neighborhoods would be the goal, but also as good investments for the donors/investors. We would start in Chicago and then move across the country, helping communities along the way.

We had our motto – Building Wealth & Growing Communities – before we knew how we were going to do it.

As it turned out I was a little early. I wanted to advertise my investments to everyone but in securities law terms that would have been “general solicitation,” which was still illegal. To keep my idea alive I found myself in Washington, D.C. lobbying for the JOBS Act, where I learned how political compromise can work. Republicans liked the economic freedom the bill gave to entrepreneurs and individual investors, while Democrats liked the potential for improving neighborhoods and the boost for small business.

Both sides came together and President Obama signed the bill into law on April 5, 2012. Now, without going to jail, I could start improving those neighborhoods.

There is an old African proverb: “If you want to go quickly, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.” I started building my team piece by piece, knowing a lot of other smart people were getting into the market at the same time. And I’m proud of the team I built, the best in the business as far as I’m concerned. We did our first deal on October 15, 2013 and within six were the leading platform in the country dedicated to real estate debt.

We pre-fund all our deals, meaning we invest our own money before asking for money from anyone else. Unlike some other platforms, we also start paying interest as soon as we take an investor’s money. We are completely transparent. We charge no fees to investors. We offer very fast turnarounds to borrowers and very competitive returns to investors. We do a great job evaluating loans, based on our credit experience to date. We’ve taken big steps toward bridging the gap between the old world of behind-closed-doors capital formation, and the new world of online transparent capital structures.

But they’re just first steps. We and the industry have a long way to go. More than anything, we need a workable Title III or its equivalent. Accredited investors, all eight and a half million of them, make up only a small fraction of American adults. To truly democratize the formation of capital, we need to let everyone into the game.

Less than a year after Title II came into effect the market is exploding, with some very large real estate players getting into the business. To me, that’s just vindication of our business model, proof that the Crowdfunding business is being taken seriously.

I don’t worry much about the competition from those companies because small, nimble companies like Patch of Land enjoy a bunch of advantages:

  • Crowdfunding is a new business. Those of us who have been here from the start know the business inside out.
  • There’s a reason Walmart can’t seriously challenge Amazon. Amazon’s business was built online from the ground up, while Walmart’s entire model, entire way of thinking, is based on bricks and mortar. For more on that, click here.
  • Our business runs on technology, and our technology is second to none. In one seamless, integrated process, we control a project from application to interest-paying loan.
  • Our cost structure is far lower, allowing us to share the savings with both borrowers and investors.
  • There are wide swaths of the American real estate market the big players have never touched and will never touch. We call that market “under-served” or “most of America.” That’s the market Crowdfunding was created to address.

Among the many transactions we’ve complete, our loan to Deborah Smith in Georgia shows what we’re about. Deborah developed a rent-to-own program where veterans with poor credit could qualify for financing from the Veterans’ Administration. Using financing from Patch of Land, she was able to get those veterans in homes they couldn’t afford otherwise. And our investors made money in the propatch of landcess. That’s a long way from solving every problem in the real estate market, but it’s a start.

I’m super optimistic about the future of Patch of Land. If you had told me five years ago that I could be doing what I’m doing today, I’d have thought you were dreaming. Wait until you see what we’ve built five years from now.

Follow Jason Fritton on Twitter: @JasonFritton

Follow Patch of Land on Twitter: @PatchOfLand

 

WHAT CAN I SHOW ON MY SITE, TO WHOM, AND WHEN?

The SEC no-action letters issued to FundersClub and AngelList early in 2013 created some confusion around the deal-specific information that can be shown to prospective investors. Let’s try to clear that up.

Rule 506(b) Deals

You cannot show your Rule 506(b) deals to just anyone browsing the Internet, because that would be “general solicitation and advertising,” which is permitted under Rule 506(c) but still prohibited under Rule 506(b). If you’re a real estate portal, you can say “We have great real estate deals on our site,” but you can’t say “Look at this multi-family rental project in Austin.”

Both FundersClub and AngelList hid their deals behind a firewall. A user couldn’t see the deals until he registered at the site and promised he was accredited. In the 2013 no-action letters the SEC approved this arrangement, sort of.

I say “sort of” for three reasons:

  • The two no-action letters weren’t actually about registering users. They were about whether FundersClub and AngelList had to register as broker-dealers. Nowhere do the no-action letters say “We agree that, because you hide your deals behind firewalls, you’re not engaged in prohibited general solicitation and advertising.”
  • The no-action letters were issued by the Division of Trading and Markets within the SEC, not the Division of Corporation Finance. Typically, the Division of Corporation Finance would deal with so-called “exempt offerings” (offerings that are exempt from the general registration requirements of the Securities Act of 1933), of which general solicitation is a part.
  • Most intriguingly, the no-action letters aren’t exactly consistent with prior SEC rulings dealing with the online solicitation of customers, specifically the IPONET rulings in 2000. Those rulings assumed that the person doing the online solicitation was a registered broker-dealer; by definition, FundersClub and AngelList were not broker-dealers.

As a result, we can’t be 100% certain that the SEC, if asked point blank, would approve those arrangements from the perspective of general solicitation and advertising.

Nevertheless, the no-action letters were issued and the Crowdfunding industry has adopted the FundersClub and AngelList model: if you’re doing Rule 506(b) deals, you put the actual deals behind a registration firewall.

Once an investor registers at your site he can see the deals, but he can’t invest in them. In a series of no-action letters issued long before the JOBS Act, the SEC established that once an investor has become a customer, he has to wait before investing – the so-called “cooling off period.”

Some sites today are using a 21 day cooling off period, presumably because Title III incorporates a 21 day cooling off period. But the Title III rule is irrelevant to Rule 506(b). Thirty days is probably better, although, again, the notion of a cooling off period comes from SEC rulings, not a statute.

One more twist: at the end of the cooling off period, your investor can invest only in new deals, not deals that were on the site when he registered.

Rule 506(c) Deals

Rule 506(c) is far simpler. If you are doing only Rule 506(c) deals, you can show anything to anyone anytime.

Using Rule 506(c), you can show every detail of every deal to every casual viewer, even before the viewer has registered at your site. If you think that’s a bad idea from a marketing perspective or because you’re trying to protect confidential information, no problem. You don’t have to show all the details on your home page, but you can.

You can also make users register before they can see deals, just like Rule 506(b). If you take that route, you can ask users whether they’re accredited when they register, as you would under Rule 506(b), but you don’t have to ask. You can let everyone see the deals, accredited and non-accredited alike.

If you ask whether users are accredited – because you think it’s a good idea from a marketing perspective – that doesn’t mean you have to stop non-accredited investors at the door. Non-accredited investors can see the deals, too. Maybe they’ll tell their accredited friends.

Suppose a user tells you she’s accredited when she registers. Can you take her word for it? At that point in the process, absolutely! We don’t want to spend money or time on verification yet, and we don’t want to create transactional friction where we don’t have to.

With Rule 506(c), there is only one critical moment: when your investor is ready to write a check. At that point you must verify that she’s accredited, not merely by asking her but by looking at her tax returns, or getting a letter from her lawyer, or, most likely, having her verified by a third party service like VerifyInvestors or Crowdentials.

There’s no cooling off period with Rule 506(c), either. Your investors can see all the deals and invest right away.

Have I mentioned before that Rule 506(c) is better for Crowdfunding?

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick at Flaster/Greenberg PC.