Using A SAFE In Reg CF Offerings

The SEC once wanted to prohibit the Simple Agreement for Future Equity, or SAFE, in Reg CF offerings. After a minor uproar the SEC changed its mind, and SAFEs are now used frequently. I think prohibiting SAFEs would be a mistake. Nevertheless, funding portals, issuers, and investors should think twice about using (or buying) a SAFE in a given offering.

Some have argued that SAFEs are too complicated for Reg CF investors. That’s both patronizing and wrong, in my opinion. Between a SAFE on one hand and common stock on the other, the common stock really is the more difficult concept. As long as you tell investors what they’re getting – especially that SAFEs have no “due date” – I think you’re fine.

The reason to think twice is not that SAFEs are complicated but that a SAFE might not be the right tool for the job. You wouldn’t use a hammer to shovel snow, and you shouldn’t use a SAFE in circumstances for which it wasn’t designed.

The SAFE was designed as the first stop on the Silicon Valley assembly line. First comes the SAFE, then the Series A, then the Series B, and eventually the IPO or other exit. Like other parts on the assembly line, the SAFE was designed to minimize friction and increase volume. And it works great for that purpose.

But the Silicon Valley ecosystem is very unusual, not representative of the broader private capital market. These are a few of its critical features:

  • Silicon Valley is an old boys’ network in the sense that it operates largely on trust, not legal documents. Investors don’t sue founders or other investors for fear of being frozen out of future deals, and founders don’t sue anybody for fear their next startup won’t get funded. Theranos and the lawsuits it spawned were the exceptions that prove the rule.
  • The Silicon Valley ecosystem focuses on only one kind of company: the kind that will grow very quickly, gobbling up capital, then be sold.
  • Those adding the SAFE at the front end of the assembly line know the people adding the Series A and Series B toward the back end of the assembly line — in fact, they might be the same people. And using standardized documents like those offered by the National Venture Capital Association ensures most deals will look the same. Thus, while SAFE investors in Silicon Valley don’t know exactly what they’ll end up with, they have a good idea.

The point is that SAFEs don’t exist in a vacuum. They were created to serve a particular purpose in a particular ecosystem. To name just a couple obvious examples, a company that won’t need to raise more money or a company that plans to stay private indefinitely probably wouldn’t be good candidates for a SAFE. If it’s snowing outside, don’t reach for the hammer.

If you do use a SAFE, which one? The Y Combinator forms are the most common starting points, but in a Reg CF offering, you should make at least three changes:

  1. The Y Combinator form provides for conversion of the SAFE only upon a later sale of preferred stock. That makes sense in the Silicon Valley ecosystem because of course the next stop on the assembly line will involve preferred stock. Outside Silicon Valley, the next step could be common stock.
  2. The Y Combinator form provides for conversion of the SAFE no matter how little capital is raised, as long as it’s priced. That makes sense because on the Silicon Valley assembly line of course the next step will involve a substantial amount of capital from sophisticated investors. Outside Silicon Valley you should provide that conversion requires a substantial capital raise to make it more likely that the raise reflects the arm’s-length value of the company.
  3. The Y Combinator form includes a handful of representations by the issuer and two or three by the investor. That makes sense because nobody is relying on representations in Silicon Valley and nobody sues anyone anyway. In Reg CF, the issuer is already making lots of representations —Form C is really a long list of representations — so you don’t need any issuer representations in the SAFE. And dealing with potentially thousands of strangers, the issuer needs all the representations from investors typical in a Subscription Agreement.

The founder of a Reg CF funding portal might have come from the Silicon Valley ecosystem. In fact, her company might have been funded by SAFEs. Still, she should understand where SAFEs are appropriate and where they are not and make sure investors understand as well.

Questions? Let me know.

Using Reg CF To Raise Money For A Non-U.S. Business

To use Reg CF (aka Title III Crowdfunding), an issuer must be “organized under, and subject to, the laws of a State or territory of the United States or the District of Columbia.” That means a Spanish entity cannot issue securities using Reg CF. But it doesn’t mean a Spanish business can’t use Reg CF.

First, here’s how not to do it.

A Spanish entity wants to raise money using Reg CF. Reading the regulation, the Spanish entity forms a shell Delaware corporation. All other things being equal, as an entity “organized under, and subject to, the laws of a State or territory of the United States,” the Delaware corporation is allowed to raise capital using Reg CF. But all other things are not equal. If the Delaware corporation is a shell, with no assets or business, then (i) no funding portal should allow the securities of the Delaware corporation to be listed, and (ii) even if a funding portal did allow the securities to be listed, nobody in her right mind would buy them.

Here are two structures that work:

  • The Spanish business could move its entire business and all its assets into a Delaware corporation. Even with no assets, employees, or business in the U.S., the Delaware corporation could raise capital using Reg CF, giving investors an interest in the entire business.
  • Suppose the Spanish company is in the business of developing, owning, and operating health clubs. Today all its locations are in Spain but it sees an opportunity in the U.S. The Spanish entity creates a Delaware corporation to develop, own, and operate health clubs in the U.S. The Delaware corporation could raise capital using Reg CF, giving investors an interest in the U.S. business only.

NOTE:  Those familiar with Regulation A may be excused for feeling confused. An issuer may raise capital using Regulation A only if the issuer is managed in the U.S. or Canada. For reasons that are above my pay grade, the rules for Reg CF and the rules for Regulation A are just different.

Questions? Let me know.

Crow of people wearing masks

PODCAST: Is Coronavirus Impacting Crowdfunding?

Coronavirus is the epitome of what a “risk factor” is in any crowdfunding or real estate deal. As such, whatever the deal, issuers are required to warn potential investors about the riskiness of such an investment. If they don’t, then these businesses can get into serious trouble. Coronavirus compounds that issue even more. In this podcast, attorney Mark Roderick of Lex Nova Law provides some real world examples of what Covid19 disclosures are required in crowdfunding offerings and goes over some of the emergency rules that the SEC issued to facilitate Title III crowdfunding during the coronavirus crisis.

How Coronavirus is Impacting Crowdfunding

The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates exactly why a list of “risk factors” should be included in offering documents when companies issue and sell securities. As Mr. Roderick notes on the podcast, crowdfunding itself can be the catalyst of what may actually restart the economy, but the proper disclosures are a must!

For example, if a company issued stock before the pandemic began, its duty to tell investors about the pandemic would depend on which version of Crowdfunding it used.

Are you aware of these specifics? If not, listening to this podcast will get you up to speed on important items you may not know about, yet are crucial to your crowdfunding efforts (especially if something goes wrong). In addition, are you aware of the temporary rules that the SEC has adopted to make Title III crowdfunding a bit easier in the short term in four major ways? You’d be wise to get a pen and paper and take notes regarding the significant points Mr. Roderick explains in detail in this episode.

Questions? Let me know.

My Comments To The SEC’s Crowdfunding Proposals

Gentlemen and Ladies—

The following are comments to the proposed rules published in the Federal Register on March 31, 2020 relating to offerings under §4(a)(6) of the Securities Act of 1933 and related matters.

Before commenting, I would like to applaud the Commission not only for these proposals but for its approach to the JOBS Act generally. I have practiced in this space extensively since 2012, representing funding portals, issuers, and other industry participants. Time after time I have been impressed with how the Commission has sought to achieve two complimentary goals:  on one hand, protecting investors and ensuring that American capital markets remain the most transparent and robust in the world; and on the other hand, facilitating capital formation by small, job-creating enterprises and giving ordinary Americans the opportunity to invest in businesses historically available only to the wealthy.

Among many examples I will mention just one. On May 4, 2020 the Commission adopted temporary rules to facilitate capital formation under §4(a)(6) In response to the COVID-19 pandemic. No one knows how many jobs the temporary rules will save or create, but the willingness of the Commission to draft and issue the temporary rules in the midst of a crisis, taking the time to help very small businesses while overseeing a complex, multi-trillion dollar securities market, speaks volumes. The Commission clearly believes that Crowdfunding has an important role to play in our capital markets, and all Americans, not just those of us in the industry, should be grateful.

Speaking from the ground floor, so to speak, I have just a few comments, all geared toward making the industry more robust while protecting investors.

Raised Offering Limit and Elimination of Limit for Accredited Investors

To my mind, the two most important and welcome proposals are (i) to increase the limit set forth in 17 CFR §227.100(a)(1) from $1,070,000 to $5,000,000, and (ii) to eliminate the limit in 17 CFR §227.100(a)(2) for accredited investors. Either change would have been welcome, but together I believe they will change the Title III market significantly for the better, improving both the quality of the offerings and the level of compliance.

With offerings limited to $1,070,000 and very low per-investor limits, even for accredited investors, funding portals have had a very hard time making money, plain and simple. Struggling to make ends meet, they lack resources to spend on compliance or on other business practices that would attract more promising issuers and, especially, a larger number of prospective investors. In fact, the difficulty in turning a profit has led some funding portals to adopt practices that may provide some benefit in the short term but drive away rather than attract issuers and investors.

With larger offerings and unlimited investments from accredited investors, I believe that the proposed changes to 17 CFR §227.100(a)(1) and 17 CFR §227.100(a)(2) will reverse that cycle. A profitable funding portal can hire compliance officers, exercise more discretion in the presentation of disclosure materials, provide better documents, insist on quality in all aspects of its business. These steps will in turn attract more investors, which will attract more and better issuers, in a virtuous cycle. With the promise of potential profits, I expect the number, sophistication, and expertise of funding portals to grow rapidly, helping to deliver on the promises with which Title III was launched.

Hence, I strongly support these proposals.

Artificially Low Target Offering Amounts

Too often, we see Title III issuers launch offerings with an artificially low target offering amount, typically $10,000. I believe the artificially-low target amounts are unfair to investors and poisonous to the Title III Crowdfunding market.

The concept of offering “minimums” has always been part of private investments with sophisticated investors. For example, a company seeking to raise as much as $750,000 to obtain three patents and hire a Chief Operating Officer and Chief Marketing Officer might set a minimum offering amount of $450,000, which would allow it to at least obtain two patents and hire the COO. But if the company could raise only $150,000 the company was obligated to give the money back, because sophisticated understand that anything less than $450,000 wouldn’t move the needle for the business.

I believe the concept of target offering amounts in Title III should follow that model, i.e., that the target offering amount should represent an amount of money that would allow the issuer to achieve a significant business goal.

Too often we see on funding portals a company that seeks to raise, say, $350,000 setting a target offering amount as low as $10,000. The artificially low target amount serves the short-term interests of the funding portal and the issuer:  if the company raises, say, $38,000, the issuer receives some cash while the funding portal receives a commission on $38,000 and includes the issuer in its list of “successful” offerings, skewing its statistics as well as the statistics of the industry as a whole. Meanwhile, investors have put $38,000 into a company that needed a lot more and have thereby made an investment fundamentally different and riskier than the investment promised. In the larger picture, I believe sophisticated investors see the game and stay away from the funding portal – and perhaps all of Title III – altogether.

I believe the Commission should amend 17 CFR §227.201(g) to provide as follows:

The target offering amount, the deadline to reach the target offering amount, a statement of the significant business goal the issuer expects to achieve if it can raise the target amount or, if there is no such significant goal, a statement to that effect, and a statement that if the sum of the investment commitments does not equal or exceed the target offering amount at the offering deadline, no securities will be sold in the offering, investment commitments will be cancelled and committed funds will be returned;

In addition, I believe the Commission should caution issuers and funding portals that if raising the target offering amount will not allow the issuer to achieve any significant business goal, a risk factor should be added to that effect.

Revenue-Sharing Notes

The Commission proposes to add 17 CFR §227.100(b)(7), making Title III Crowdfunding unavailable for securities that “Are not equity securities, debt securities, and securities convertible or exchangeable to equity interests, including any guarantees of such securities.”

It is unclear to me whether this new rule would allow securities commonly referred to as “revenue-sharing notes.” I believe these securities should be allowed.

A typical revenue-sharing note has the following features:

  • Investors are entitled to receive a specified percentage of the issuer’s gross revenues, or gross revenues from specified sources (e.g., from sales of a new product).
  • The note specifies a maximum amount investors may receive, often a multiple of the amount invested. For example, investors might be entitled to receive a maximum of twice the amount invested.
  • The note also specifies a maturity date – for example, three years from the date of issue.
  • Payments continue until the sooner of the maturity date or the date investors have received the specified maximum amount.
  • If investors have not received the specified maximum amount by the maturity date, they are entitled to receive the balance (the difference between the maximum amount and the amount they have received to date) on the maturity date.
  • Sometimes, but not always, the revenue-sharing is convertible into equity.

Revenue-sharing notes are especially attractive for small companies and less-experienced investors:

  • They are extremely easy to understand. For less-experienced investors a revenue-sharing note is much easier to understand than a share of common stock, for example.
  • The payments on a revenue-sharing note depend on only one thing:  sales. They do not depend on any expense items. For example, they do not depend on how much compensation is paid to the principals of the company. As a result, the potential for misunderstandings and disputes is reduced substantially.
  • They provide investors with built-in liquidity.
  • They allow issuers to maintain a “cleaner” cap table, possibly facilitating future financing rounds.
  • All those benefits are also available with straight debt securities. For many small businesses, however, and especially for true startups, there is no interest rate – short of usury, that is – that would compensate investors adequately for the risk. As of this morning, the one-year return of the S&P 500 BB High Yield Corporate Bond Index is almost 9%. To compensate investors adequately for the risk of investing in a startup the potential return must be far higher. The revenue-sharing note provides that potential.

Revenue-sharing notes shares features of equity securities in the sense of providing a significant potential for profit, and also share features of debt securities in the sense of providing a date certain for payment. Sharing features of both equity securities and debt securities, it is hard to say a revenue-sharing note is only an equity security or only a debt security. Hence, it would be helpful if the Commission would clarify that revenue-sharing notes may be offered and sold under §4(a)(6).

Accountant Review

In the context of large companies, reviews and audits of financial information by independent accountants is an unmitigated positive, indeed a cornerstone of transparency and integrity in the American capital markets. In the context of very small companies, however, the positives are less apparent and can be outweighed by the cost.

Currently, 17 CFR §227.201(t)(2) requires companies seeking to raise between $107,000 and $535,000 to provide financial statements reviewed by an independent accountant. The cost of such a review varies by region but can certainly amount to between $5,000 and $10,000. For a company seeking to raise, say, $150,000, the cost of the accountant review by itself represents between 3% and 7% of the capital raise, an enormous cost and far more as a percentage than the audit costs of large issuers.

In my opinion, the cost of these reviews is not justified by the value of the additional information they provide to investors. For companies raising no more than $107,000, 17 CFR §227.201(t)(2) requires only information from the company’s Federal tax certified by the principal executive officer, who is typically the founder of the company. My experience in representing hundreds of small companies over more than 30 years suggests that a certification for which a CEO and/or founder takes personal responsibility is much more likely to be accurate than a reviewed financial statement. Although I am confident that every small company files tax returns that are accurate in every respect, out of patriotic obligation, I also note that CEOs and founders are, if anything, incentivized to understate a company’s income on a tax return.

In short, I believe investors get very little, if anything, in terms of the accuracy of a company’s financial disclosures in exchange for the added cost to the company. To bring the cost and the benefit closer into line, I recommend raising the threshold in 17 CFR §227.201(t)(2) to at least $350,000, and possibly eliminating 17 CFR §227.201(t)(2) altogether and raising the threshold in 17 CFR §227.201(t)(1) to $500,000.

I will make two further points in this regard:

  • It is possible that as the market becomes more robust investors will reward companies that provide reviewed financial statements and punish those who don’t. If so, the market will impose its own discipline.
  • Although financial statements are extremely important in evaluating established companies, they are far less important in evaluating small companies and startups. For example, the financial statements of Facebook and Amazon and Microsoft were essentially irrelevant to the earliest investors. I believe that investors in the Title III market make investment decisions almost wholly without regard to historical financial statements and will continue to do so. In this sense the paradigm for large companies simply doesn’t fit the small company market.

Advertising

Section 4A(b)(2) of the Securities Act provides that issuers relying on the exemption of §4(a)(6) “shall not advertise the terms of the offering, except for notices which direct investors to the funding portal or broker.” That rule is implemented in 17 CFR §227.204, which defines the “terms of the offering” to mean (i) the amount of securities offered, (ii) the nature of the securities, (iii) the price of the securities, and (iv) the closing date of the offering period.

In practice this rule has created a great deal of confusion and many inadvertent violations. It has also kept issuers from communicating effectively with prospective investors. I do not believe it has protected investors in any meaningful way.

A small company will reasonably wonder why it is allowed to say “We’re raising capital!” on its Facebook page but might not be allowed to say “We’re trying to raise $250,000 of capital!” I say “might not” because even with this simple example the rule is not clear. If “We’re trying to raise $250,000 of capital!” were the only item the company ever posted on Facebook, that would be okay. But of course the company’s Facebook page is filled with all sorts of other information, including information about the company’s founders and history and products – that’s the point of having a Facebook page. In this situation the statement “We’re trying to raise $250,000 of capital!” might be illegal, while the statement “We’re raising capital!” is fine.

In today’s digital, social-media-driven world that creates a mess, impossible for small companies to untangle.

The problems arise from applying the paradigm of large, public companies to the world of small companies and startups. If I want to buy stock of Google I don’t call Google, I call my broker. At some point in the future funding portals might play the role for small companies that brokers play for large companies today. For the present, however, the reality is that Title III issuers have primary and sometimes exclusive responsibility for marketing their own offerings. To hamstring advertising by Title III issuers is to hamstring Title III.

I do understand and support the goal of directing investors back to the portal and thus ensuring that all investors receive exactly the same information. However, I believe that goal can be accomplished, with no harm to investors, through a slightly different approach.

In a Title III offering, I understand the “terms of the offering” to mean all the information contained in Form C. Thus, I would interpret section 4A(b)(2) to mean only that if an issuer provides to prospective investors all or substantially all of the information provided in its Form C, it must direct them to the portal. Otherwise, issuers should be allowed to advertise their offerings, including the four terms enumerated in current 17 CFR §227.204, with three caveats:

  • I would require every advertisement, no matter its contents, to direct potential investors to the funding portal. For these purposes I would define the term “advertisement” very broadly, even more broadly than the term “offer” is defined under current law. Thus, I would consider requiring even notices permitted by 17 CFR §230.169 to include a link back to the funding portal, if made while the offering is open.
  • I would prohibit any advertisement containing information that is not in the issuer’s Form C.
  • In the text of 17 CFR §227.204 I would remind issuers and their principals of their potential liability for material misstatements and omissions.

Those changes would provide clear rules for issuers and funding portals and, I believe, would unleash a torrent of creativity and energy in the Title III market, with no harm to investors.

The Role of FINRA

Under section 4A(a)(2) of the Securities Act, every funding portal must register with any applicable self-regulatory organization. Because there is only one such organization in the United States, all funding portals must become members of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA. Consequently, although not directly germane to the Commission’s proposals published on March 31, 2020, any discussion of Title III must include at least a reference to FINRA and its regulation of funding portals.

Like everyone else involved in Title III, lawyers and the Commission included, FINRA was starting from scratch in 2016, its two point of reference being the Commission’s regulations on one hand and its own experience regulating broker-dealers on the other hand. In my view FINRA has leaned too heavily on its institutional experience regulating large broker-dealers without taking into account the unique aspects of Title III Crowdfunding.

The Commission’s proposals, and my comments to the proposals, are focused on the economic realities of raising capital for very small companies. One of those economic realities is that most funding portals, like most startups, are owned and operated by just a few people. Too often, the FINRA regulatory paradigm seems to ignore this reality and assume that the funding portal is a much larger enterprise, an enterprise with multiple layers of management – an enterprise like a national broker-dealer.

For example, FINRA requires funding portals to adopt and adhere to an extensive manual of policies and procedures addressing every aspect of its operations. Theoretically such a manual is unobjectionable, and in a large organization absolutely necessary, but in the real world of funding portals the manual typically has the effect of requiring Ms. Smith to supervise herself and maintain a meticulous log proving she did so, and how.

Just as the Commission itself seeks to regulate Title III Crowdfunding based on economic realities, understanding that the rules applicable to public filers might not always apply to very small issuers, I would like to see the Commission encourage FINRA to review its approach to funding portals.

****

Thank you for your consideration.

Questions? Let me know.

SEC Issues Emergency Rules To Facilitate Title III Crowdfunding During Covid-19 Crisis

With credit markets tightened and 30 million Americans newly out of work, the SEC has adopted temporary rules to make Title III Crowdfunding a little easier from now until August 31, 2020.

The temporary rules are available here. They aim to make Title III a little faster and easier in four ways:

#1 – Launch Offering without Financial Statements

An issuer can launch the offering – go live on a funding portal – before its financial statements are available. (But investment commitments aren’t binding until the financial statements have been provided.)

#2 – Lower Standard for Some Financial Statements

An issuer trying to raise between $107,000 and $250,000 in a 12-month period doesn’t have to produce financial statements reviewed by an independent accountant, only financial statements and certain information from its tax return, both certified by the CEO.

#3 – Quicker Closing

An issuer can close the offering as soon as it has raised the target offering amount, even if the offering hasn’t been live for 21 days, as long as the closing occurs at least 48 hours after the last investment commitment and the funding portal notifies investors of the early closing.

#4 – Limit on Investor Cancellations 

Investors can cancel within 48 hours of making a commitment, but can’t cancel after that unless there’s a material change in the offering.

CAVEAT:  These rules are not available if the issuer:

  • Was organized or operating within six months before launching the offering (e., this is not for brand-new companies); or
  • Previously raised money using Title III Crowdfunding but failed to comply with its obligations.

I’m not sure how much difference these rules will make in practice. But that’s not the main point as far as I’m concerned. The main point is that with about a million other things on its plate, the SEC took the time to think about and draft these rules. The SEC must believe that equity Crowdfunding can play an important role in our capital markets.

On that basis, I predict that the proposals the SEC made on March 4th will be adopted soon after the public comment period expires on June 1st. And after that, who knows.

Questions? Let me know.

The Biggest Challenge With Title III Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding Image - XXXL - iStock_000037694192XXXLarge

The biggest challenge with Title III Crowdfunding isn’t the $1,070,000 maximum or the per-investor limits. The biggest challenge is how a small company complies with the disclosure requirements on a tight budget.

The disclosures required by Title III — I’m talking specifically about the long list of disclosures required by 17 CFR 227.201 — are fundamentally the same as those required by Title IV (aka Regulation A), which is itself only a slightly scaled-down version of a full-blown public offering.

There are easy questions, like naming the directors and officers, but the most important disclosures make sense only to securities lawyers. Ask the owner of a small business to list the “risks of investing” and you get mostly a blank stare, not the careful list the regulations anticipate. And when you get through everything else, you’re told to disclose “Any material information necessary in order to make the statements made, in light of the circumstances under which they were made, not misleading.”

To a securities lawyer that’s just a restatement of SEC Rule 10b-5. To the founder of a small business it means nothing.

The result is what we see in the Title III market today, a mishmash. Some sites and companies manage to do it well, but many don’t. The widespread failure of compliance has led some to question whether Title III should be expanded before the Title III industry gets its house in order.

How does the industry get its house in order?

Before trying to answer that question, let’s think about how small companies raised money before Title III.

Before Title III, the typical small business was only vaguely aware of securities laws, if at all, and raised money however it could from whomever it could. Without knowing it, the microbrewery raising $250,000 from friends and family was eligible for the Federal exemption under Rule 504 and might have been eligible for state exemptions as well. But it probably wasn’t making the kind of disclosures required by Title III.

The same was true for would-be Silicon Valley unicorns. I’m pretty sure SoftBank didn’t ask Adam Neumann for a list captioned “Risks of Investing.”

The fact is that investing in a small business before 2016, big or small, generally was driven by relationships, not by legal disclosures. Because disclosure is the heart of the U.S. securities laws, it’s no surprise that the SEC turned to disclosure to protect widows and orphans in Title III. But the full-disclosure paradigm is new to this world. Ironically, the typical Title III issuer – even the issuer whose Form C falls short – is making far more disclosures than most small companies made before Title III, and far more than would-be unicorns are making to VCs today.

Does the paradigm used for large companies and institutional investors make sense for tiny companies and non-accredited investors? I’ll leave that for another day.

As an industry, we can take a few steps to improve:

  • Software and Templates – Better software and better templates can help. At the same time, no template or software can produce “Any material information necessary in order to make the statements made, in light of the circumstances under which they were made, not misleading.” I translate that to “What would you tell your grandparents if they were investing?” But still, it’s hard.
  • Standardization – Depending on your point of view, standardization is either the price or the benefit of participating in a mass market. In either case, I’m convinced that Title III can’t function properly without far more standardization:
    • Standardized Corporate Structures – It would be great if every Title III issuer were a Delaware corporation or a Delaware limited liability company, using the same standardized Bylaws or Limited Liability Company Agreement.
    • Standardized Securities – Common stock, a simple preferred stock, a straight term loan, a simple revenue-sharing note, a SAFE, and their tokenized equivalents.
    • Standardized Disclosure Templates – An investor should be able to compare the disclosures between companies and portals apples-to-apples.
    • Standardized Legal Documents – Subscription Agreement, contract between portal and issuer, terms of the SAFE – everything should be standardized. Toward that end, within the next month I’m going to make a set of standardized documents available for issuers and portals.
  • No More $10,000 MinimumsC’mon, man! The Target Amount should reflect the minimum required for a viable business, or to get a necessary patent, or something. The widespread use of artificially-low Target Amounts has damaged the Title III market, driving away serious investors.

As long as I’m at it, I’ll ask just one thing of the SEC. Ideally, figure out a way to eliminate the per-investor limits for accredited investors under Title III, which serve no purpose and are inconsistent with Regulation D. Or, if that’s not possible under the language of the JOBS Act, get to almost the same place by creating a regulatory safe harbor under the Exchange Act, which would allow funding portals to receive commissions from accredited investors in a side-by-side offering.

Everyone benefits, and the Title III market gets healthier.

Questions? Let me know.

Non-U.S. Investors and Companies in U.S. Crowdfunding

Non-US Investors and Companies in US Crowdfunding

When I was a kid, back in the 1840s, we referred to people who live outside the United States as “foreigners.” Using the more globalist and clinical term “non-U.S. persons,” I’m going to summarize how people and companies outside the U.S. fit into the U.S. Crowdfunding and Fintech picture.

Can Non-U.S. Investors Participate in U.S. Crowdfunding Offerings?

Yes. No matter where he or she lives, anyone can invest in a U.S. Crowdfunding offering, whether under Title II, Title III, or Title IV.

The Crowdfunding laws don’t distinguish U.S. investors from non-U.S. investors. Thus:

  • To invest in an offering under Title II (SEC Rule 506(c)), a non-U.S. investor must be “accredited.”
  • If a non-U.S. investor invests in an offering under Title III (aka “Regulation CF”), he or she is subject to the same investment limitations as U.S. investors.
  • If a non-U.S. investor who is also non-accredited invests in an offering under Tier 2 of Title IV (aka “Regulation A”), he or she is subject to the same limitations as non-accredited U.S. investors, e., 10% of the greater of income or net worth.

What About Regulation S?

SEC Regulation S provides that an offering limited to non-U.S. investors is exempt from U.S. securities laws. Mysterious on its face, the law makes perfect sense from a national, jurisdictional point of view. The idea is that the U.S. government cares about protecting U.S. citizens, but nobody else.

EXAMPLE:  If a U.S. citizen is abducted in France, the U.S. military sends Delta Force. If a German citizen is abducted in France, Delta Force gets the day off to play volleyball.

Regulation S is relevant to U.S. Crowdfunding because a company raising money using Title II, Title III, or Title may simultaneously raise money from non-U.S. investors using Regulation S. Why would a company do that, given that non-U.S. investors may participate in Title II, Title III, or Title IV? To avoid the limits of U.S. law. Thus:

  • A company raising money using Title II can raise money from non-accredited investors outside the United States using Regulation S.
  • A company raising money using Title III can raise money from investors outside the United States without regard to income levels.
  • A company raising money using Tier 2 of Title IV can raise money from non-accredited investors outside the United States without regard to income or net worth.

Thus, a company raising money in the U.S. using the U.S. Crowdfunding laws can either (1) raise money from non-U.S. investors applying the same rules to everybody, or (2) place non-U.S. investors in a simultaneous offering under Regulation S.

What’s the Catch?

The catch is that the U.S. is not the only country with securities laws. If a company in the U.S. is soliciting investors from Canada, it can satisfy U.S. law by either (1) treating the Canadian investors the same way it treats U.S. investors (for example, accepting investments only from accredited Canadian investors in a Rule 506(c) offering), or (2) bringing in the Canadian investors under Regulation S. But to solicit Canadian investors, the company must comply with Canadian securities laws, too.

Raising Money for Non-U.S. Companies

Whether a non-U.S. company is allowed to raise money using U.S. Crowdfunding laws depends on the kind of Crowdfunding.

Title II Crowdfunding

A non-U.S. company is allowed to raise money using Title II (Rule 506(c)).

Title III Crowdfunding

Only a U.S. entity is allowed to raise money using Title III (aka “Regulation CF”). An entity organized under the laws of Germany may not use Title III.

But that’s not necessarily the end of the story. If a German company wants to raise money in the U.S. using Title III, it has a couple choices:

  • It can create a U.S. subsidiary to raise money using Title III. The key is that the U.S. subsidiary can’t be a shell, raising the money and then passing it up to the parent, because nobody wants to invest in a company with no assets. The U.S. subsidiary should be operating a real business. For example, a German automobile manufacturer might conduct its U.S. operations through a U.S. subsidiary.
  • The stockholders of the German company could transfer their stock to a U.S. entity, making the German company a wholly-owned subsidiary of the U.S. entity. The U.S. entity could then use Title III.

Title IV Crowdfunding

Title IV (aka “Regulation A”) may be used only by U.S. or Canadian entities with a “principal place of business” in the U.S. or Canada.

(I have never understood why Canada is included, but whatever.)

If we cut through the legalese, whether a company has its “principal place of business” in the U.S. depends on what the people who run the company see when they wake up in the morning and look out the window. If see the U.S., then the company has it’s “principal place of business” in the U.S. If they see a different country, it doesn’t. (Which country they see when they turn on Skype doesn’t matter.)

Offshore Offerings

Regulation S allows U.S. companies to raise money from non-U.S. investors without worrying about U.S. securities laws. But once those non-U.S. investors own the securities of the U.S. company, they have to think about U.S. tax laws. Often non-U.S. investors, especially wealthy non-U.S. investors, are unenthusiastic about registering with the Internal Revenue Service.

The alternative, especially for larger deals, is for the U.S. entity to form a “feeder” vehicle offshore, typically in the Cayman Islands because of its favorable business and tax climate. Non-U.S. investors invest in the Cayman entity, and the Cayman entity in turn invests in the U.S. entity.

These days, it has become a little fashionable for U.S. token issuers to incorporate in the Cayman Islands and raise money only from non-U.S. investors, to avoid U.S. securities laws. Because the U.S. capital markets are so deep and the cost of complying with U.S. securities laws is so low, this strikes me as foolish. Or viewed from a different angle, if a company turns its back on trillions of dollars of capital to avoid U.S. law, I’d wonder what they’re hiding.

What About the Caravan from Honduras?

Yes, all those people can invest.

Questions? Let me know.

Yes, A Parent Company Can Use Title III Crowdfunding

Title III Crowdfunding

We know an “investment company,” as defined in the Investment Company Act of 1940, can’t use Title III Crowdfunding. For that matter, an issuer can’t use Title III even if it’s not an investment company, if the reason it’s not an investment company is one of the exemptions under section 3(b) or section 3(c) of the 1940 Act. By way of example, suppose a a company is engaged in the business of making commercial mortgage loans. Even if the company qualifies for the exemption under section 3(c)(5)(C) of the 1940 Act, it still can’t use Title III.

We also know that, silly as it seems, a company whose only asset is the securities of one company is generally treated as an investment company under the 1940 Act. That’s why we can’t use so-called “special purpose vehicles,” or SPVs, in Title III Crowdfunding, to round up all the investors in one entity and thereby simplify the cap table.

Put those two things together and you might conclude that only an operating company, and not a company that owns stock in the operating company, can use Title III Crowdfunding. But that wouldn’t be quite right.

A company that owns the securities of an operating company – I’ll call that a “parent company” — can’t use Title III if it’s an “investment company” under the 1940 Act. However, while every investment company is a parent company, not every parent company is an investment company. Here’s what I mean.

Section 3(a)(1) of the 1940 Act defines “investment company” as:

  • A company engaged primarily in the business of investing, reinvesting, or trading in securities; or
  • A company engaged in the business of investing, reinvesting, owning, holding, or trading in securities, which owns or proposes to acquire investment securities having a value exceeding 40% of the value of its assets.

Suppose Parent, Inc. owns 100% of Operating Company, LLC, and nothing else. If Parent’s interest in Operating Company is treated as a “security,” then Parent will be an investment company under either definition above and can’t use Title III. However, it should be possible to structure the relationship between Parent and Operating Company so that Parent’s interest is not treated as a security, relying on a long line of cases involving general partnership interests.

These cases arise under the Howey test, made famous by the ICO world. Under Howey, an instrument is a security if and only if:

  • It involves an investment of money or other property in a common enterprise;
  • There is an expectation of profits; and
  • The expectation of profits is based on the efforts of someone else.

Focusing on the third element of the Howey test, courts have held that a general partner’s interest in a limited partnership generally is not a security because (1) by law, the general partner controls the partnership, and (2) the general partner is therefore relying on its own efforts to realize a profit, not the efforts of someone else.

If Operating Company were a partnership and Parent were its general partner, then the arrangement would fall squarely within this line of cases and Parent wouldn’t be treated as an investment company. As a general partner, however, Parent would be fully liable for the liabilities of Operating Company, defeating the main purpose of the parent/subsidiary relationship, i.e., letting the tail wag the dog.

Fortunately, Parent should be able to achieve the same result even though Operating Company is a limited liability company. The key is that Operating Company should be managed by its members, not by a manager. That should place Parent in exactly the same position as the typical general partner:  relying on its own efforts, rather than the efforts of someone else, to realize a profit from the enterprise.

If Parent’s interest in Operating Company isn’t a “security,” then Parent isn’t an “investment company,” and can raise money using Title III.

Questions? Let me know.

The Per-Investor Limits of Title III Require Concurrent Offerings

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:
    • $2,200; or
    • 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:
    • $107,000; or
    • 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.

Questions? Let me know.

A Summary of the Investment Company Act for Crowdfunding

Hardly a day goes by without someone asking a question that involves the Investment Company Act of 1940. Although the Act is hugely long and complicated, I’m going to try to summarize in a single blog post the parts that are most important to Crowdfunding.

Why the Fuss?

If you’re in the Crowdfunding space, you don’t want to be an “investment company” within the meaning of the Act:

  • As an investment company, you’re not allowed to raise money using either Title III (Regulation Crowdfunding) or Title IV (Regulation A).
  • Investment companies are subject to huge levels of cost and regulation.

What is an Investment Company?

An investment company is company in the business of holding the securities of other companies. That statement raises many interesting and technical legal issues that have consumed many volumes of legal treatises and conferences at the Waldorf. But almost none of it matters to understand the basics.

All that matters from a practical perspective is that stock in corporations, interests in limited liability companies, and interests in limited partnerships are all generally “securities” within the meaning of the Act.

And that means, in turn, that if you hold stock in corporations, interests in limited liability companies, and/or interests in limited partnerships, then assume you’re an “investment company” within the meaning of the Act, unless you can identify and qualify for an exception.

How Much is Too Much?

Holding some securities doesn’t make you an investment company. Under one of the many technical rules in the Act, a company won’t be considered an investment company if:

  • No more than 45% of its assets are invested in securities, as of the end of the most recent fiscal quarter; and
  • No more than 45% of its income is derived from investment securities, as of the end of the most recent four fiscal quarters.

Does That Mean a Typical SPV is an Investment Company?

Unless the SPV can find an exception, yes.

Many Crowdfunded investments use a “special purpose vehicle,” typically a Delaware limited liability company. Investors acquire interests in the SPV, and the SPV invests – as a single investor – in the actual operating company. Because the only asset of the SPV is the interest in the operating company, which is a “security,” the SPV is indeed an investment company, unless it qualifies for one of the exceptions below.

Simple Exceptions

The definition of “investment company” is so broad, most of the action is in the exceptions. I’m not going to talk about all of them, only those that are most relevant to Crowdfunding.

  • No More Than 100 Investors – A company with no more than 100 investors (who do not have to be accredited) isn’t an investment company. That’s the exception used by SPVs in Crowdfunding. Which means that as the size of deals in Crowdfunding grows, SPVs will no longer be used.
  • All Qualified Investors – A company with only “qualified investors” isn’t an investment company. A “qualified investor” is generally a person with more than $5 million of investable assets. Many hedge funds rely on this exception, but it’s not going to be used widely in Crowdfunding.

NOTE:  A company that would be an investment company but for either of those two exceptions is still not allowed to use Title III or Title IV.

  • Companies That Invest In Mortgages – A company that invests in or originates mortgages is usually not an investment company.
  • Wholly-Owned Subsidiaries – A company that conducts its business through wholly-owned subsidiaries isn’t an investment company, as long as the subsidiaries are not investment companies. For these purposes, “wholly-owned” means the parent owns at least 95% of the voting power.
  • Majority-Owned Subsidiaries – A company that conducts its business through majority-owned subsidiaries usually isn’t an investment company, as long as the subsidiaries are not investment companies. For these purposes, “majority-owned” means the parent owns at least 50% of the voting power.

The 45% Exception

Some companies, including some REITs, own interests in subsidiaries that are not wholly-owned or even majority-owned. To avoid being treated as investment companies, those companies typically rely on an exception that requires more complicated calculations. Under this exception, a company is excluded from the definition of “investment company” if it satisfies both of the followings tests:

  • No more than 45% of the value of its assets (exclusive of government securities and cash items) consist of securities other than what I will refer to as “allowable securities.”
  • No more than 45% of its after-tax income is derived from securities other than those same “allowable securities.”

For these purposes, the securities I am calling “allowable securities” include a number of different kinds of securities, but the two most important to us are:

  • Securities issued by majority-owned subsidiaries of the parent; and
  • Securities issued by companies that are controlled primarily by the parent.

So think of those securities as being in the “good” basket and other kinds of securities as being in the “bad” basket.

In determining whether a security – such as an interest in a limited liability company – is an “allowable security,” and therefore in the “good” basket, the following definitions apply:

  • A subsidiary is a “majority-owned subsidiary” if the parent owns at least 50% of the voting securities of the subsidiary.
  • A parent is deemed to “control” a subsidiary if it has the power to exercise a controlling influence of the management or policies of the subsidiary.
  • A parent is deemed to “control primarily” a subsidiary if (1) it has the power to exercise a controlling influence of the management or policies of the subsidiary, and (2) this power is greater than the power of any other person.

Summary

If your business model involves investing in other companies and you plan to raise money from other people, the Investment Company Act of 1940 should be on your To Do List.

As a rule of thumb, you can feel comfortable investing in wholly-owned subsidiaries, majority-owned subsidiaries, and subsidiaries where you have exclusive or at least primary control. If you find other investments making up, say, more than 25% of your portfolio, measured by asset value or income, look harder.

Questions? Let me know.