A company may use Regulation A (Tier 1 or Tier 2) only if the company:
Is organized in the U.S. or Canada, and
Has its principal place of business in the U.S. or Canada.
I’m often asked what it means for a company to have its principal place of business in the U.S. or Canada. The first step is to identify the people who make the important decisions for the company. The next step is to ask what country those people see when they wake up in the morning. If they see the U.S. or Canada, they’re okay. If they see some other country, even a beautiful country like Norway or Italy, they’re not okay, or at least they can’t use Regulation A.
Seeing the U.S. or Canada via Facetime doesn’t count.
A company called Longfin Corp. ignored this rule and suffered the consequences. The people who made the important decisions for the company saw India when they woke up in the morning. The only person who saw the U.S. was a 23-year-old, low-level employee who worked by himself in a WeWork space. In its offering materials the company claimed to be managed in the U.S., but a Federal court found this was untrue and ordered rescission of the offering, $3.5 million in disgorgement, and $3.2 million in penalties.
Harder questions arise if, for example, three of the directors and the CFO see the U.S. when they wake up, but two directors and the CEO see Ireland.
On the plus side, a U.S. mining company with headquarters in Wyoming definitely can use Regulation A even if all its mines are in South America. The “principal place of business” means the location where the company is managed, not where it operates.
Mark Roderick fills us in on how the rich can take care of themselves and the non-rich need the government which is why he thinks crowdfunding is so important to the regular Joe. Since the JOBS Act of 2012, Mark has spent much of his time in the crowdfunding space.
If you have ever thought to yourself the internet is a ruthless landscape slowly squeezing the middleman and driving human being up the value chain? Then you’ll want to tune into this week’s episode where Mark will explain everything from syndications to cryptocurrencies to crowdfunding, oh my!
On this episode of A Millennial’s Guide to Real Estate Investing, host Antoine Martel sits down with Mark Roderick, a leading crowdfunding, investing and fintech lawyer. They talk about blockchain, crowdfunding, the JOBS act, and how all of these things are going to be changing the real estate industry. Also discussed are the different types of crowdfunding flavors and how each of them work.
The JOBS Act was signed by President Obama on May 5, 2012. Last month, a client of mine, Tapestry Senior Housing, raised about $13.6 million of common equity for a project in Moon Township outside Pittsburgh. Tapestry is an affiliate of Tapestry Companies, LLC, a national firm that operates as an owner, manager and developer of senior and multifamily properties. The Moon Township project involved the adaptive re-use of an existing Embassy Suites hotel.
This was the largest raise in the history of the CrowdStreet platform and, in my opinion, an important milestone for the Crowdfunding industry.
Not long ago, real estate Crowdfunding was limited to single-family fix-and-flips. At the annual meeting of NAIOP in Denver, in October 2014, I moderated a panel on Crowdfunding with Adam Hooper of RealCrowd and Darren Powderly of CrowdStreet, as it so happens. The audience for our panel was the smallest of the conference — but at the same time probably the youngest and most enthusiastic.
The size of the deals grew and high-quality sponsors like Tapestry began to notice. Now, when word gets out that someone has raised $13.6 million of equity, I believe we’re going to see a spike in interest from a broad spectrum of sponsors in every industry sector.
You can’t raise $13.6 million for just any sponsor and any deal, of course. Tom LaSalle, Jack Brandt, and their team at Tapestry have a remarkable track record in the senior housing space, and this was their third deal on CrowdStreet. CrowdStreet itself has a terrific and well-deserved reputation as a premier site. Put a great deal, a great sponsor, and a great site together and you get a terrific result.
But let’s not forget the most important factor of all (besides the lawyer, I mean). In the Moon Township deal, Tapestry and CrowdStreet gave about 280 accredited investors from all over the United States the opportunity to participate in the kind of investment once reserved for the wealthy. That is now, and will continue to be, the most important ingredient for success. When we talk about Crowdfunding as the democratization of capital, that’s what we mean.
Tapestry raised $13.6 million from 280 investors. There are close to 10 million accredited investors in the United States alone. To my mind, that means that the opportunity for growth, even within Rule 506(c), is practically unlimited.
So hats off to Tapestry and CrowdStreet, and on to the next deal.
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.
I have rarely attended a Crowdfunding conference where this question wasn’t asked. Maybe those of us in the industry haven’t done a good enough job answering it.
Before getting into details, I’ll note that it is no longer a hypothetical question, as it was when the JOBS Act was signed into law in 2012. Today, many companies have indeed graduated from Crowdfunding to venture rounds, to angel rounds, to Regulation A offerings, and even to IPOs.
But judging from the look on the faces of the audience, that answer never seems completely satisfying. Isn’t there something about Crowdfunding that sophisticated investors don’t like?
The answer is “Only if the Crowdfunding round is done wrong!” So:
Institutional investors don’t want anyone else participating in their round. If you give your Crowdfunding investors preemptive rights, or the equivalent of preemptive rights, the institutional investors won’t like it. That’s why you don’t give your Crowdfunding investors preemptive rights.
Institutional investors don’t want anyone but you managing the company. That’s why you keep your Crowdfunding investors (and friends & family investors) out of management. Ideally, you issue non-voting stock (or its equivalent) to the Crowdfunding investors, and don’t permit representation on your Board.
Institutional investors want to know what they’re getting into. If you conduct your Crowdfunding round carefully, with clear legal documents, that’s not a problem.
Institutional investors don’t like surprises. They don’t want to learn afterward that your Crowdfunding investors, or anyone else, have rights they didn’t know about. That’s why you form your entity in Delaware, which gives the parties to a business transaction more or less unlimited freedom of contract.
Institutional investors don’t like a messy cap table. There’s no reason to have a messy cap table in Crowdfunding. Often, we bring in Crowdfunding investors through a special-purpose vehicle, or SPV. We can also issue to Crowdfunding investors a separate class of stock. One way or another, we keep the cap table clean.
Institutional investors worry about legal claims brought by Crowdfunding investors. Of course they do! That’s why we conduct the Crowdfunding offering correctly, just as we conduct the institutional round.
Institutional investors don’t like sharing information with all those investors. With today’s technology tools, communicating with investors isn’t difficult, and Delaware law allows us to limit who gets what. But it’s certainly true that the more investors you have, the more people get the information.
Institutional investors just don’t like hanging out with the riffraff. That’s never stated outright, but implied. If we address all the real issues, I have never found it to be true.
As Crowdfunding gains traction, I expect institutional investors to embrace it fully, as another facet of their own business models. In the meantime, be assured that if done right, raising money through Crowdfunding today will not keep you from raising more money in the future.
The SEC just adopted rules that should make intrastate Crowdfunding easier, at least if State legislatures do their part.
To understand how the new rules help and how they don’t, start with section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act of 1933, which has been, until now, the basis for all intrastate Crowdfunding laws. While section 5 of the Securities Act generally provides that all sales of securities must be registered with the SEC, section 3(a)(11) provides for an exemption for:
Any security which is a part of an issue offered and sold only to persons resident within a single State or Territory, where the issuer of such security is a person resident and doing business within or, if a corporation, incorporated by and doing business within, such State or Territory.
In 1974 the SEC adopted Rule 147, implementing section 3(a)(11). That was long before the Internet, and as state legislatures have enthusiastically adopted intrastate Crowdfunding laws since the JOBS Act of 2012, some aspects of Rule 147 have proven problematic. The rules just adopted by the SEC fix some of the problems of Rule 147:
In its original form, Rule 147 required that offers could be made only to residents of the state in question. The revised Rule 147 says it’s okay as long as the issuer has a “reasonable belief” that offers are made only to residents.
In its original form, Rule 147 required issuers to satisfy a multi-part test to show they were “doing business” in the state. Under the revised Rule 147, an issuer will be treated as “doing business” if it satisfies any one of several alternative tests.
The revised Rule 147 provides safe harbors to ensure that the intrastate offering is not “integrated” with other offerings.
In its original form, Rule 147 provided that securities purchased in the intrastate offering could not be sold except in the state where they were purchased for nine months following the end of the offering. The revised Rule 147 provides, instead, that securities purchased in the intrastate offering may not be sold except in the state where they were purchased, for a period of six months (not six months from the end of the offering).
Those are all good changes. But the SEC didn’t stop there. In addition to changing Rule 147 for the better, the SEC has adopted a brand new Rule 147A. Rule 147A more or less begins where Rule 147 leaves off and adds the following helpful provisions:
Most significantly, offers under Rule 147A may be made to anyone. That means the issuer may use general soliciting and advertising – and the Internet in particular – to broadcast its offering to the whole world. Purchasers – the investors who buy the securities – must still be residents of the state, but offers may be made to anybody.
The issuer doesn’t have to be incorporated in the state, as long as it has its “principal place of business” there – defined as the state “in which the officers, partners or managers of the issuer primarily direct, control and coordinate the activities of the issuer.” Thus, a Delaware limited liability company could conduct an intrastate “offering in Indiana, as long as all the officers and managers live and work in Indiana.
Why did the SEC bother to create a whole new Rule 147A to add these provisions, rather than just adding them to Rule 147?
The answer is that Rule 147 is an implementation of section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act, and if you look at section 3(a)(11) you’ll see that the additional provisions in Rule 147A – allowing offers to everybody, allowing a non-resident issuer – are prohibited by the statutory language. To add these provisions, the SEC had no choice but to create a new Rule 147A that is entirely independent of section 3(a)(11).
And there’s the rub. Many of the existing intrastate Crowdfunding laws require the issuer to comply with Rule 147 and section 3(a)(11). Texas, for example, says:
Securities offered in reliance on the exemption provided by this section [the Texas intrastate Crowdfunding rule] must also meet the requirements of the federal exemption for intrastate offerings in the Securities Act of 1933, §3(a)(11), 15 U.S.C. §77c(a)(11), and Securities and Exchange Commission Rule 147, 17 CFR §230.147.
This means that issuers in Texas will not be allowed to conduct an offering under the more liberal provisions of Rule 147A until the Texas State Securities Board changes that sentence to read:
Securities offered in reliance on the exemption provided by this section must also meet the requirements of the federal exemption for intrastate offerings in the Securities Act of 1933, §3(a)(11), 15 U.S.C. §77c(a)(11), and Securities and Exchange Commission Rule 147, 17 CFR §230.147, or, alternatively, the requirements of the federal exemption for intrastate offerings in Securities and Exchange Commission Rule 147A, 17 CFR §230.147A.
To those who have spent the last three years pushing intrastate Crowdfunding laws through state legislatures, it might look as if the boulder has rolled back down the hill. But there might also be a silver lining. Almost all the state rules were adopted before Title III became final, and almost all include very modest offering limits. Now that Title III is working as promised, Rule 147A might present an opportunity for legislatures not just to take advantage of the more liberal provisions, but also to raise offering limits and make other adjustments, seeking to make their state rules more competitive with the Federal Title III rules.
In the big picture, the SEC has once again proven itself a fan of Crowdfunding. And that’s good.
A couple weeks ago, Howard Marks of StartEngine and I presented a webinar about Regulation A. Listeners asked far more questions than we were able to answer in the time given, and I promised to post their questions and answers on the blog. Here goes.
What’s the difference between Regulation A and Regulation A+?
There is no difference. Regulation A has been around for a long time, but was rarely used primarily because issuers could raise only $5 million and were required to register with every state where they offered securities. Title IV of the JOBS Act required the SEC to create a new and improved version of Regulation A, and the new and improved version is sometimes referred to colloquially as Regulation A+. But it’s the same thing legally as Regulation A.
Can I use Regulation A to raise money from non-U.S. investors?
Definitely. Non-U.S. investors may participate in all three flavors of Crowdfunding: Title II, Title III, and Title IV (Regulation A).
But don’t forget, the U.S. isn’t the only country with securities laws. If you raise money from a German citizen, Germany wants you to comply with its laws.
Can non-U.S. companies use Regulation A?
Only companies organized in the U.S. or Canada and having their principal place of business in the U.S. or Canada may use Regulation A.
What about a company with headquarters in the U.S. but manufacturing facilities elsewhere?
That’s fine. What matters is that the issuer’s officers, partners, or managers primarily direct, control and coordinate the issuer’s activities from the U.S (or Canada).
Is Regulation A applicable to use for equity or debt for a real estate development project?
I believe that real estate will play the same dominant role in Regulation A that it plays in Title II. I also believe that real estate development will be more difficult to sell than stable, cash-flowing projects simply because of the different risk profile.
Is there any limit on the amount an accredited investor can invest?
No. An accredited investor may invest an unlimited amount in both Tier 1 and Tier 2 offerings under Regulation A. A non-accredited investor may invest an unlimited amount in Tier 1 offerings, but may invest no more than 10% of her income or 10% of her net worth, whichever is greater, in each Tier 2 offering.
What kinds of securities can be sold using Regulation A?
All kinds: equity, debt, convertible debt, common stock, preferred stock, etc.
But you cannot sell “asset-backed securities” using Regulation A, as that term is defined in SEC Regulation AB. The classic “asset-backed security” is where a hedge fund purchases $1 billion of credit card debt from the credit card issuer, breaks the debt into “tranches” based on credit rating and other factors, and securitizes the tranches to investors. However, the SEC views the term more broadly.
Can I combine a Regulation A offering with other offerings?
In general yes. For example, there’s no problem if an issuer raises money using Rule 506 (Rule 506(b) or Rule 506(c)) while it prepares its Regulation A offering. The legal issues become more cloudy if an issuer wants to combine multiple types of offerings simultaneously. Theoretically just about anything is possible.
Can the same platform list securities under both Regulation A and Title II?
Yes. In fact, the same platform can list securities under all three flavors of Crowdfunding: Title II, Title III, and Title IV. But on that platform, only licensed “Funding Portals” can offer Title III securities.
Does a platform offering securing under Regulation A have to be a broker-dealer?
The simple answer is No. But a platform that crosses the line into acting like a broker-dealer, or is compensated with commissions or other “transaction based compensation,” would have to register as a broker-dealer or become affiliated with a broker-dealer.
Can a non-profit organization use Regulation A?
Regulation A is one exception to the general rule that all offerings of securities must be registered with the SEC under section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933. Non-profit organizations are allowed to sell securities without registration under a different exception. So the answer is that non-profits don’t have to use Regulation A.
With that said, I represent non-profit organizations that have created for-profit subsidiaries that plan to engage in Regulation A offerings. For example, a non-profit in the business of urban development might create a subsidiary to develop an urban in-fill project, raising money partly from grants and partly from Regulation A.
Can I use Regulation A to create a fund?
If by “fund” you mean a pool of assets, like a pool of 30 multi-family apartment communities, then Yes. You can either buy the apartment communities first and then raise the money, or raise the money first and then deploy it in your discretion. If you want to own each apartment community in a separate limited liability company subsidiary, that’s okay also.
If by “fund” you mean a pool of investments, like a pool of 30 minority interests in limited liability companies that themselves own multi-family apartment communities, then No. Your “fund” would be treated as an “investment company” under the Investment Company Act of 1940, and Regulation A may not be used to raise money for investment companies.
Can a fund be established for craft beverages?
Same idea. You could use Regulation A to raise money for a brewery that will develop multiple craft beverages. You cannot use Regulation A to buy minority interests in multiple craft beverage companies.
For a brand new company, can the audited financial statements required by Tier 2 be dated as of the date of formation, and just show zeroes?
Yes, as long as the date of formation is within nine months before the date of filing or qualification and the date of filing or qualification is not more than three months after the entity reached its first annual balance sheet date.
How does the $50 million annual limit apply if I have more than one project?
The $20 million annual limit under Tier 1, and the $50 million limit under Tier 2, are per-issuer limits. A developer with, say, three office building projects, each requiring $50 million of equity, can use Regulation A for all three at the same time.
NOTE: This is different than Title III, where the $1 million annual limit applies to all issuers under common control.
What does “testing the waters” mean?
It means that before your Regulation A offering is approved (“qualified”) by the SEC, and even before you start preparing all the legal documents, you can advertise the offering and accept non-binding commitments from prospective investors. If you don’t find enough interest, you can save yourself the trouble and cost of going through with the offering.
NOTE: Any materials you use for “testing the waters” must be submitted to the SEC, if the offering proceeds.
Where can Regulation A securities be traded?
Theoretically, Regulation A securities could be registered with the SEC under the Exchange Act and traded on a national market. But I’m sure that’s not what the listener meant. Without being registered under the Exchange Act, a Regulation A security may be traded on the over-the-counter market, sponsored by a broker-dealer.
This sounds expensive! Can you give us an estimate?
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.
On March 4th I had the pleasure of co-presenting a workshop on Regulation A (Title IV Crowdfunding) in Mountain View, California, at an event organized by Crowdfund Beat. My co-presenter, Jillian Sidoti of SyndicationLawyers.com, is a terrific person, an engaging speaker, and one of the country’s leading authorities on Regulation A.
I hope you enjoy our conversation and get a sense of the real-life practicalities of preparing and filing a Regulation A offering.
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