To the delight of both issuers and investors, the SEC continues to make crowdfunding better as they have announced major changes to their crowdfunding rules. In this podcast, crowdfunding attorney Mark Roderick and Co-Founder of Lex Nova Law goes over what he believes are the most important and impactful changes including raising the limits for Regulation A and Regulation CF deals as well as the ability of “finders” to legally accept commissions for bringing deals to the table. And perhaps most importantly, the changes regarding accredited and non-accredited investors are a complete game changer! In this podcast, you’ll find out why that is.
We can’t elect a President, but there’s certainly a preponderance of positive energy being circulated in the crowdfunding industry with respect to these rules revisions from the SEC! By increasing the raise limit of Reg.A and Reg.CF offerings, the entire process has become much more realistic in terms of making everything successful on just about every level and aspect of the industry. Now, accredited investors can have whatever stake of a project they want, and non-accredited investors can participate in ways unimaginable just a short time ago. And what’s an accredited investor? That rule has changed too!
One of the biggest changes the SEC has implemented is the legality of “finders” receiving commissions or payments for brokering deals and introducing investors to issuers, syndicators, developers, etc. Before this change, only broker-dealers were allowed to receive compensation for such deals. With the new changes, these finders can now legally receive these commissions and other transaction-based compensation from issuers. The ability to legally monetize your connections is something many have been waiting for for quite a long time!
There’s no question that crowdfunding still has its growing pains. However, one thing’s for sure: finders, investors, and issuers alike should all be jumping for joy after listening to the information Mr. Roderick goes over in this podcast. Broker-dealers, maybe not… But regardless, it’s a new world for crowdfunding and doors continue to open. The industry is definitely heading in the right direction.
In theory, only broker-dealers registered under section 15 of the Exchange Act are allowed to receive compensation for connecting issuers with investors. In practice, the world of private securities includes lots of folks we refer to as “finders.” Like bumblebees, these folks should be unable to fly according to the laws of physics but many plants couldn’t survive without them.
Because of the disconnect between theory and reality, industry participants have been urging the SEC for years to develop exemptions for finders.
The SEC just proposed exemptions that would allow some finders to operate legally, i.e., to receive commissions and other transaction-based compensation from issuers.
The SEC proposes two tiers of Finders
Tier 1 Finders would be limited to providing the contact information of potential investors to an issuer in one offering per 12 months. A Tier I Finder couldn’t even speak with potential investors about the issuer or the offering.
Tier II Finders could participate in an unlimited number of offerings and solicit investors on behalf of an issuer, but only to the extent of:
Identifying, screening, and contacting potential investors;
Distributing offering materials;
Discussing the information in the offering materials, as long as the Funder doesn’t provide investment advice or advice about the value of the investment; and
Arranging or participating in meetings with the issuer and investor.
A Tier II Finder would be required to disclose her compensation to prospective investors up front – before the solicitation – and obtain the investor’s written consent.
The Limits to the Proposed Finders
The Finder must be an individual, not an entity.
The Finder must have a written agreement with the issuer.
The proposed exemptions apply only to offerings by the issuer, not secondary sales.
Public companies (companies required to file reports under section 13 or section 15(d) of the Exchange Act) may not use Finders.
The offering must be exempt from registration.
The Finder may not engage in general solicitation.
All investors must be accredited.
The Finder may not be an “associated person” of a broker-dealer.
The Find may not be subject to statutory disqualification.
Because they are entities, the typical Crowdfunding portal can’t qualify as a Finder under the SEC’s proposals. And because the proposals don’t allow general solicitation, a Finder who is an individual can’t create a website posting individual deals.
But the no-action letters to Funders Club and AngelList that kick-started the Crowdfunding industry (no pun intended) will invite many Tier 2 Finders to take their businesses online. Under the proposals and the no-action letters, it seems that a Tier 2 Finder could legally create a website offering access to terrific-but-unnamed offerings, but give investors access to the offerings only after registering and going through a satisfactory KYC process per the CitizenVC no-action letter.
A Step Forward for Crowdfunding
Many finders and issuers will jump for joy at the new proposals, while others will be disappointed that the SEC drew the line at accredited investors. In a Regulation A offering or a Rule 506(b) offering open to non-accredited investors, the law requires very substantial disclosure, especially in Regulation A. The SEC must believe that non-accredited investors are especially vulnerable to the selling pressure that might be applied by a finder.
Crowdfunding continues to grow in popularity. It is a way to democratize the world of real estate investing, which historically has only been open to super-wealthy Americans. Its growth and positive outcomes have led to several changes being made in the space. Mark Roderick, our guest today, joins us to unpack these developments and the positive influence that they will have on real estate investing. In this episode, Mark presents an overview of the current crowdfunding space.
My guest today is Mark Roderick, founder of Lex Nova Law and one of the top online crowdfunding experts in the country. Mark and I discuss the very exciting changes proposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulation crowdfunding, or Reg CF, the securities regulation that is really the first step taken by the S.E.C. towards democratizing investment. The additional changes proposed will give this regulation real legs.
Some states, including Texas, require all securities to be sold through licensed brokers. Do these state laws mean that Crowdfunding issuers can’t sell their own securities? Do they have to use a “clearing broker” instead?
For Title III the answer is easy. Securities under Title III may be offered and sold only through a licensed broker or a licensed funding portal. If you’re selling through a licensed broker then you’re complying with the state law, and section 15(i)(2)(A) of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 prohibits states from regulating funding portals in their businesses as such.
For Title II (Rule 506(c)) and Title IV (Regulation A), the answer is less clear. The issue is especially acute under Title IV, just because of the number of investors.
Section 18(a)(1) of Securities Act
Added to the law in 1996, section 18(a)(1) of the Securities Act of 1933 provides that:
Except as otherwise provided in this section, no law, rule, regulation, or order, or other administrative action of any State or any political subdivision thereof requiring, or with respect to, registration or qualification of securities, or registration or qualification of securities transactions, shall directly or indirectly apply to a security that is a covered security.
Because the term “covered security” includes securities offered under Rule 506(c) and Regulation A (also Title III, for that matter), the law clearly prohibits states from requiring the registration of a Crowdfunding offering. But does it also prohibit states from regulating who sells the securities?
Here’s the statute again, with extra words removed:
No law requiring registration or qualification of securities transactions shall apply to a covered security.
A sale of a security is definitely a “securities transaction.” So here’s the question: does a state law that requires the sale to be effected through a licensed broker amount to requiring “registration or qualification” of the sale? Many smart people conclude that it does, making any such law unenforceable. That’s why you can go online today and find issuers offering securities directly to investors, despite state laws saying otherwise.
But there’s plenty of room for doubt. When a state says that all securities must be sold through licensed brokers, maybe it’s not requiring “registration or qualification” of the transaction; maybe it’s not regulating the sale at all. Maybe, instead, the state is regulating the person making the sale. Because section 18(a)(1) of the Securities Act doesn’t prohibit states from regulating brokers, the way section 15(i)(2)(A) of the Exchange Act prohibits them from regulating funding portals, maybe these laws aren’t affected.
For good measure, I’ve read academic articles arguing that the 1996 law amending section 18(a)(1), and stripping states of their historic regulatory authority over most securities offerings, was an unconstitutional extension of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
What’s At Stake
If an issuer violates a state law by selling securities directly to investors, the issuer could be subject to state enforcement action, i.e., fines and penalties.
The greater risk, in my opinion, is the risk of claims from investors. If a widow in Texas loses money she might not accept her loss graciously. She (or her heirs, or the trustee in her Chapter 7 bankruptcy case) might look for a way to recoup her loss. And if she can show that the issuer violated Texas law, the court may find a right of rescission, i.e., the right to get her money back. The court might even extend that right against the principals of the issuer personally, especially if they were engaged in selling activities.
I imagine the widow on the stand, asking for recourse against the New York based issuer, backed by an amicus curiae brief filed by the Texas Board of Securities and the National Association of State Securities Administrators. Given the room for ambiguity in the statute, I’m not thrilled with my odds.
And even if you win, there’s the time and cost of defending yourself, and the sleeping-well-at-night factor, also.
What To Do
The simplest solution is to sell through a clearing broker licensed in every state.
Another solution is to sell through a clearing broker only in states that require it (I don’t have a list, but maybe a reader does and can share it).
If an issuer doesn’t want to spend the money on a clearing broker, it might decide not to sell securities in any state that requires use of a broker, although that includes some big states.
Or an issuer, guided by counsel, might reasonably decide to live with the uncertainty in the law and sell securities anyway. Just make sure your insurance would cover the widow’s claims.
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.
Before the JOBS Act came along, listing a security on a public website would itself have been treated as an act of “solicitation.” That’s the odd thing: Title III portals aren’t allowed to “solicit,” yet in the traditional sense of the term that’s the most important thing Congress created them to do.
The fact is that Congress was ambivalent when it created Title III portals. They are allowed to list offerings of securities, but are not allowed to do other things often associated with the sale of securities, including holding investor funds or offering investment advice. They are regulated by the SEC and FINRA, but with a light touch compared with other regulated entities. They are privately-owned, but are required to provide educational materials to investors, police issuers, provide an online communication platform, and ensure that investors don’t exceed their investment limits – in short, they are required to assume a quasi-governmental role.
Title III portals are a new animal, part fish, part bird. Which makes it that much more difficult to decide what “solicit” means when they do it.
Based on the statute, the SEC regulations, the legislative background of the JOBS Act, and the history and overall context of the U.S. securities laws, I think a Title III portal engages in prohibited “solicitation” anytime it tries to steer an investor to a particular security. If it’s not trying to steer an investor to a particular security, then it’s probably okay.
I’ve included some practical guidelines in the chart below. Although there are plenty of gaps, I hope this helps.
Everyone knows the “100 investor rule” is a thorn in the side of Crowdfunding portals. The good news is you can still use subsidiaries to protect yourself from liability.
The basics of the 100 investor rule:
A company engaged in the business of investing in securities is an “investment company” and subject to burdensome regulation under the Investment Act of 1940.
A “special purpose vehicle” formed by a portal to invest in a portfolio company is engaged in the business of investing in securities.
There’s an exception: if the SPV has no more than 100 investors, it’s not an investment company.
Today, most deals on Crowdfunding portals are funded with fewer than 100 investors and qualify for the exception. But that’s because most Crowdfunding deals are still small, i.e., less than $2 million. As the deals get bigger and, most important, as we start to see pools of assets rather than individual assets, SPVs will no longer be available. Already, they’re not available for Regulation A+ deals.
In the absence of an SPV, investors will be admitted directly to the issuer’s cap table. But what if the issuer owns one or more subsidiaries? Will the issuer itself be disqualified as an investment company?
Here’s an example. Suppose NewCo is raising $25 million to acquire 10 properties, and we expect 1,000 investors. We’d like to put each property in a separate subsidiary because (1) we might want to finance them separately, and (2) we don’t want the liabilities arising from one property to leak into another property. But would that make NewCo an investment company, holding the stock (securities) of 10 subsidiaries?
Fortunately, the answer is No.
For purposes of deciding whether NewCo is an investment company, the rule is that you ignore securities issued by any company that NewCo controls, as long as the company itself is not an investment company.
That means NewCo can put Business #1 in Subsidiary #1, Business #2 in Subsidiary #2, and so on and so forth, without becoming an investment company. Most likely, NewCo will hold each property in a separate limited liability company, serving as the manager of each.
Don’t fool around with investment company issues. A company that becomes an investment company without knowing it can face a world of trouble, including having all its contracts invalidated.