You want to reward and incentivize your CFO and CMO with equity in the company. What’s the best approach?
First, make sure equity provides the right incentives. For the CFO almost certainly, because the CFO shares responsibility for the profitability of the whole company. For the CMO, maybe not. If we want the CMO focused on sales, maybe a cash commission makes more sense. On the other hand, you might decide that owning stock will have a positive psychological effect for your CMO, even if it doesn’t offer a direct incentive.
With that box checked, these are the most common equity-flavored alternatives:
Restricted Stock: The CFO might receive a total of 100 shares of stock today, with her right to receive distributions and otherwise enjoy the full benefits of the stock subject to a vesting schedule. The vesting schedule might be based on time (g., 20 shares per year for five years), economic milestones (e.g., 20 shares for each year showing a growth of at least 20% in cash flow or EBITDA), or a combination of the two.
Stock Options: The CFO might be granted the option to purchase 100 shares of stock for $0.10 per share (hoping they will someday be worth a lot more), subject to the same vesting schedule. Under section 409A of the tax code, that $0.10 per share exercise price must be the true fair market value at the date of grant, not an artificially low number.
Incentive Stock Options: If the company is a corporation (not an LLC) and satisfies lots of special rules, the CFO might be granted a special kind of stock option, with special tax benefits.
Phantom Stock: Rather than actual stock, the CFO might receive a contract right intended to achieve the same economic result.
In the world of entrepreneurs generally and the Fintech and Crowdfunding worlds specifically, restricted stock and stock options are the most common choices, so I’m going to focus on those today.
Economically, restricted stock and stock options are almost identical. But the tax consequences can be quite different. For purposes of the discussion below, I’m assuming (i) the CFO’s 100 shares are worth $0.10 per share today and increase in value at the rate of $1.00 per share per year, (ii) the CFO is given 10 years in which to exercise the options, and (iii) the company is sold in 10 years.
Scenario #1: Direct Stock Issuance – General Rule
If the CFO receives 100 shares today, vesting over five years, then she has zero taxable income today because no shares have vested. At the end of the first year she has $22 of taxable income (20 shares vested @$1.10 value per share), at the end of the second year he has $42 of taxable income (20 additional shares vested @$2.10 value per share), and so on. The employee must pay tax on this income each year, while the company can claim a corresponding tax deduction. Thus, over the duration of the vesting period the CFO pays tax on $310 of taxable income and the company obtains a $310 tax deduction.
In this example the CFO will pay roughly $100 of tax on his $310 of taxable income (depending on tax bracket, state of residence, etc.). The exact amount of the tax isn’t important. What’s important is that (i) she will have to fund this cost from her own pocket, and (ii) if the company is very valuable or she owns a lot of stock, her out-of-pocket tax cost could be prohibitively high.
When the company is sold after 10 years, the CFO will receive $1,010 for her shares and have $700 of gain. This $700 would be taxed at long term capital gain rates, and at that point she’ll have the cash to pay her tax.
Scenario #2: Direct Stock Issuance Followed by §83(b) Election
Where an employee receives stock subject to a vesting schedule, §83(b) of the tax code permits an employee to elect to report as taxable income the entire current value of the stock. Having made the election, the employee does not report any additional taxable income as the stock vests.
In our example, the CFO could make an election and report $10 of taxable income on the date of grant (100 shares of the @ $0.10 per share). She would then have no additional taxable income as the stock vests, and the company would have no tax deductions. Upon the sale of her stock the employee would have $1,000 of income, taxed at long term capital gain rates.
An election under §83(b) must be filed with the Internal Revenue Service within 30 days after the CFO receives the stock.
NOTE: Suppose the company fails after two years. Now the CFO has paid tax on $10 and has nothing to show for it except a $10 capital loss. That’s the downside of section 83(b).
Scenario #3: Options
The CFO recognizes no current taxable income as a result of receiving options. Instead, she recognizes taxable income as the options are exercised, equal to the difference between the exercise price of $0.10 per share and the value of the stock at the time.
In the simplest scenario, where the CFO exercises options to purchase 20 shares each year, the tax effect would be almost identical to Scenario #1 above. The CFRO would recognize $20 of taxable income in the first year, $40 the next year, and so forth, for a total of $300 of taxable income. No §83(b) election is available with options.
A more likely scenario is that the CFO wouldn’t (or wouldn’t be allowed to) exercise the options each year, but rather waits to exercise until the company is sold. In this case she would recognize no taxable income until sale, and at that point would recognize $1,000 of taxable income, taxed at ordinary income rates rather than capital gain rates. The company would be entitled to a corresponding deduction of $1,000. Again, the CFO would have plenty of money to pay the tax.
Options are simpler than restricted stock, especially if they can’t be exercised until an exit. And the holder of an option, unlike the holder of actual stock, has no right to see confidential information that the company would prefer to keep private.
For that reason, options typically make more sense from the company’s viewpoint, even though the employee might end up paying more tax (ordinary income vs. capital gains) overall. But every company and every situation is different.
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.
Three and a half years into Title II Crowdfunding, I am asked this question a lot, sometimes by portals, sometimes by issuers.
A Chart, of Course
Three Important Differences
In a Rule 506(b) offering, the issuer may take the investor’s word that he, she, or it is accredited, unless the issuer has reason to believe the investor is lying.
In a Rule 506(c) offering, on the other hand, the issuer must take reasonable steps to verify that every investor is accredited. The SEC regulations allow an issuer to rely on primary documents from an investor like tax returns, brokerage statements, or W-2s, but they also allow the issuer to rely on a letter from the investor’s lawyer or accountant. In practice, that’s how verification is typically handled.
I strongly recommend that issuers do not verify investors themselves. Instead, they should use a third party like VerifyInvestor. If an issuer handles verification itself and makes a mistake, it’s possible that the entire offering could be disqualified. Conversely, once an issuer hands the task to VerifyInvestor, the issuer has, by definition, taken the “reasonable step” required by the SEC, and can sleep well at night.
If all the investors are accredited, there is no difference between Rule 506(b) and Rule 506(c).
If there is even one non-accredited investor in a Rule 506(b) offering, on the other hand, the issuer must provide a lot more information, specifically most of the information that would be included in a Regulation A offering.
The technicalities are important to the lawyer, but to the issuer or the portal, the bottom line is that if non-accredited investors are included the offering will cost $5,000 – $7,500 more, and take a little longer to prepare.
In a Rule 506(b) offering you can advertise only the brand. In a Rule 506(c) offering you can advertise the deal.
Ever watch the commercials for brokers and investment banks during a golf tournament? They feature an older guy and his very attractive wife, planning for a carefree and meaningful retirement. They message is: we can help you achieve your dreams. But they don’t show any of the actual investments they recommend! They’re only advertising the brand.
That’s the model for a website offering investments under Rule 506(b). We can advertise the website – the brand – but we cannot show actual investments. The website attracts investors who sign up and go through a KYC (know your customer) process following SEC guidelines. We have the investor complete questionnaires, we speak with the investor on the phone a couple times, we learn about his or her experience and knowledge investing – we develop a relationship. Then, and only then, can we show the investor actual investments.
In contrast, a website offering investments under Rule 506(c) can show actual investments to everyone right away.
Which is Better?
If I own a jewelry store, I have two choices:
I can display jewelry in the front window where passersby can see it.
I can display a sign in the front window saying “Great jewelry inside. Must register to enter.”
That’s why I prefer Rule 506(c).
But I also acknowledge three benefits of Rule 506(b):
To include non-accredited investors, you must use Rule 506(b), or another kind of offering altogether.
If you use Rule 506(c), you might lose bona fide accredited investors who are unwilling to provide verification.
If you use Rule 506(b), which doesn’t require verification, you might get money from non-accredited investors who are willing to lie.
You can start an offering using Rule 506(b), then switch to Rule 506(c), as long as you haven’t accepted any non-accredited investors.
Conversely, once you’ve advertised a Rule 506(c) offering, you cannot go back and accept non-accredited investors, claiming you’re relying on Rule 506(b).
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.
No disrespect to Kim Kardashian, but I think the SEC’s proposals for Regulation A+ have come closer to breaking the Internet than the photos I heard about last year – although that could be a function of the circles I travel in.
My contribution started as a blog post but got too long for a blog post. Hence, I’m providing this Regulation A+ Primer as a separate link. Within the Primer are links to:
I am trying to provide not just technical details in the Primer – which are important – but also practical advice about the cost of Regulation A+ offerings, the advantages and disadvantages, and examples.
If you have thoughts, as many of you will, I am eager to hear them and plan to supplement the Primer.
Today, the most challenging legal question in Title II Crowdfunding is who is required to be a broker-dealer and under what circumstances. The question is most acute for the officers of an issuer, those who direct the issuer’s activities and put the offerings together.
Section 3(a)(4)(A) of the Securities and Exchange Act 1934 generally defines “broker” to mean “any person engaged in the business of effecting transactions in securities for others.” Section 15(a)(1) of the Exchange Act makes it illegal for any “broker. . . .to effect any transactions in, or to induce or attempt to induce the purchase or sale of, any security” unless registered with the SEC.
Simply put, anybody in the business of effecting securities transactions for others must be registered. There is a lot of law around what it means to be “engaged in the business of effecting securities transactions for others.” Based on decided cases and SEC announcements, important factors include:
The frequency of the transactions.
Whether the individual‘s responsibilities include structuring the transaction, identifying and soliciting potential investors, advising investors on the merits of the investment, participating in the order-taking process, and other services critical to the offering.
Whether the individual receives commissions or other transaction-based compensation for her efforts.
Perhaps the most important rule is that the issuer itself – the entity that actually issues the stock – does not have to register as a broker-dealer. The logic is that the issuer is effecting the transaction for itself, not for others.
But what about the President of the issuer, and the Vice President, and all the other employees who send the mailings and put the deal on the website and answer questions from prospective investors? Are they required to register as – or, more accurately, become affiliated with – broker-dealers?
The answer is complicated.
SEC Rule 3a4-1, issued under the Exchange Act, provides a “safe harbor” from registration. Under Rule 3a4-1, an employee of an issuer will not have to register if she is not compensated by commissions, and EITHER:
Her duties are limited to:
Preparing any written communication or delivering such communication through the mails or other means that does not involve oral solicitation of a potential purchaser, as long as the content of all such communications are approved by a partner, officer or director of the issuer; or
Responding to inquiries of a potential purchaser in a communication initiated by the potential purchaser, as long as her response is limited to providing information contained in an offering statement; or
Performing ministerial and clerical work.
She performs substantial services other than in connection with offerings; and
She has not been a broker-dealer within the preceding 12 months; and
She does not participate in more than one offering per year, except for offerings where her duties are limited as described above.
Consider the President of the typical Title II portal offering borrower-dependent notes to accredited investors. Her duties are certainly not limited as described above, and she might participate in – actually direct – dozens of offerings per year. Does that mean she has to register as a broker-dealer?
Not necessarily. Rule 3a4-1 is only a safe harbor. If you satisfy the requirements of Rule 3a4-1 then you are automatically okay, i.e., you don’t have to register. But if you don’t satisfy the requirements of Rule 3a4-1, it doesn’t automatically mean you are required to register. Instead, it means your obligation to register will be determined under the large body of law developed by the SEC and courts over the last 80 years.
Courts and the SEC have identified these primary factors among others:
The duties of the employee before she became affiliated with the issuer. Was she a broker-dealer?
Whether she was hired for the specific purpose of participating in the offerings.
Whether she has substantial duties other than participating in the offerings.
How she is paid, and in particular whether she receives commission for raising capital.
Whether she intends to remain employed by the portal when the offering is finished.
Within the last couple years, a high-ranking lawyer in the SEC spoke publicly but informally about broker-dealer registration in the context of private funds, an area similar to Crowdfunding in some respects. He expressed concern at the way that some funds market interests to investors and suggested that some in-house marketing personnel might be required to register. At the same time, he suggested that an “investor relations” group within a private fund – individuals who spend some of their time soliciting investors – wouldn’t necessarily be required to register if the individuals spend the majority of their time on activities that do not involve solicitation. On one point he was quite clear: the SEC believes that if an individual receives commissions for capital raised, he or she should probably be registered.
Whether an officer or other employee of a Crowdfunding issuer must register as a broker-dealer will be highly sensitive to the facts; change the facts a little and you might get a different answer. With that caveat, I offer these general guidelines:
If an employee receives commissions, he has to register no matter what.
If an employee performs solely clerical functions, he does not have to register.
If an employee participates in only a handful of offerings, he does not have to register.
If an employee spends only a small portion of his time soliciting investors, he does not have to register.
If an employee advises investors on the merits of an investment, he’s walking close to the line. Describing facts, especially facts that are already available in an offering document or online, in response to an investor inquiry, doesn’t count as advising investors on the merits of an investment.
Here are two corollaries to those guidelines.
As long as he’s not paying himself commissions, the Founder and CEO of an issuer that is a bona fide operating company (not merely a shell to raise money) doesn’t have to register.
If the CEO hires Janet to solicit investors, and that’s all Janet does, and she speaks regularly with investors over the phone and helps them decide between Project A and Project B, the SEC is probably going to want Janet to be registered.
Of course, the most conservative approach for Crowdfunding issuers to run every transaction through a licensed broker-dealer. However, that adds cost and most issuers are trying to keep costs down.
This area is ripe for guidance from the SEC, and maybe even a new exemption for bona fide employees of small issuers. Stay tuned.
NOTE: I want to give a shout-out to Rich Weintraub, Esq. of Weintraub Law Group in San Diego. He and I had several very stimulating and thought-provoking conversations on this topic. If there are mistakes in the post, they’re all mine.
The term “fiduciary obligations” sends a chill down the spine of corporate lawyers – although some may object to using the word “spine” and “corporate lawyer” in the same sentence.
A person with a fiduciary obligation has a special legal duty. A trustee has a fiduciary obligation to the beneficiaries of the trust. The executor of an estate has a fiduciary obligation to the beneficiaries of the estate. The fiduciary obligation is not an obligation to always be successful, or always be right, but rather an obligation to try your best, or something close to that. A trustee who fails to anticipate the stock market crash of 2008 has not breached her fiduciary obligation. A trustee who fails to read published reports of a company’s impending bankruptcy before buying its stock probably has.
A person with a fiduciary obligation is required to be loyal, to look out for the interests of those under her care, to put their interests before her own.
By law and longstanding principle, the directors of a corporation have a fiduciary obligation to the corporation and its shareholders. In the classic case, a director of a corporation in the energy business took for his own benefit the opportunity to develop certain oil wells. Foul! cried the court. He has breached his fiduciary obligation by failing to pass the opportunity along to the corporation, to which he is a fiduciary.
Modern corporate statutes allow the fiduciary obligations of directors to be modified, but not eliminated, even if all the shareholders would sign off. If the corporation is publicly-traded, the exchange likely imposes obligations on the director (and the President, and the CEO, etc.) in addition to the fiduciary obligations imposed by state corporate law.
Which takes us to Crowdfunding.
Most deals in the Crowdfunding space are done in a Delaware limited liability company. The Delaware Limited Liability Company Act allows a manager – the equivalent of a director in a corporation – to eliminate his fiduciary obligation altogether. If I’m representing the sponsor of the deal then of course I want to protect my client as fully as possible. And yet, I’m not sure that’s the best answer for the industry overall.
The U.S. public capital markets thrive mainly because investors trust them, just as the U.S. consumer products industry thrives because people feel safe shopping (that’s why securities laws and consumer-protection laws, as aggravating as they can be, actually help business). My client’s investors may or may not pay attention to the fiduciary duty sections of his LLC Agreement, but I wonder whether the Crowdfunding market as a whole can scale if those running the show regularly operate at a lower level of legal responsibility than the managers of public companies. Will it drive investors away?
Part of my brain says that it will, and yet, over the last 25 years or so, as corporate laws have become more indulgent toward management and executive pay has skyrocketed, lots of people have wondered when investors will say “Enough!” It hasn’t happened so far.
The Securities Act of 1933. The Exchange Act of 1934. The Investment Company Act of 1940. Those are the pillars of the U.S. securities laws, as relevant today as they were 80 years ago. And here’s one more old law relevant to Crowdfunding: the Trust Indenture Act of 1939.
Here’s the idea. A company issues its promissory notes (obligations) to a large group of investors. If the company defaults on one or two notes, it might not be financially feasible for those particular investors to take legal action. Even if the company defaults on all the notes it will be a mess sorting out the competing claims. Which investor goes first? If there is collateral, which investor has priority? At best it’s highly inefficient, economically.
The Trust Indenture Act of 1939 imposes order and economic efficiency. It provides that where a company issues debt securities, like promissory notes, it must do so pursuant to a legal document called an “indenture” and, most important, with a trustee, normally a bank, to represent the interests of all the investors together. The TIA goes farther:
It provides that the indenture document must be reviewed and approved by the SEC in advance.
It ensures that the trustee is independent of the issuer.
It requires certain information to be provided to investors.
It prohibits the trustee from limiting its own liability.
Why don’t Patch of Land and other Crowdfunding portals that issue debt securities comply with the TIA? Because offerings under Rule 506 are not generally covered by the law. Conversely, because Lending Club and Prosper sell publicly-registered securities (their “platform notes”), they are covered, and have filed lengthy indenture documents with the SEC.
The real surprise is with Regulation A+. If a Regulation A+ issuer uses an indenture instrument to protect the interests of investors then it will be subject to the TIA and its extensive investor-protection requirements. If the issuer does not use an indenture, on the other hand hand, it will not be subject to the TIA as long as it has outstanding less than $50 million of debt. That’s a strange result – giving issuers an incentive not to use an indenture even though indentures protect investors.
That’s what happens sometimes when you apply very old laws to very new forms of economic activity. Welcome to Crowdfunding.
I see a lot of contracts between would-be Crowdfunding portals and “white label” portal software providers. It would help the industry, in my opinion, if everyone used or at least started with the same agreement. So I’ve drafted a model agreement, accessible as a Microsoft Word document here.
An agreement for a white label platform is a software license agreement. I’ve drafted more software license agreements than I can count, representing both licensors and licensees. That gives me a very good feel for what’s important, what’s not so important, and what’s fair.
My model agreement is designed to be a very fair document. It protects what’s important to the white label provider, and also protects what’s important to the would-be portal licensing the platform. It is also designed to be a comprehensive document, meaning it covers what’s important without overkill. I hope it’s easy to read and understand, as legal contracts go. And it’s completely flexible in terms of what the customer gets and how much the customer pays.
Multi-million-dollar portal businesses are being created based on the relationship created by this contract. It’s not a back-of-the-napkin kind of thing.
Because there could be special situations that the model agreement doesn’t cover, white label providers and their customers should have this model agreement reviewed by their own lawyers. Also, I haven’t provided a Service Level Agreement, because response times might vary significantly among white label providers.
But using one standard agreement should make things easier for everyone. Fewer transaction costs, less friction, greater certainty, faster to market. That’s what the industry needs.