The following is adapted from remarks prepared for the Angel Capital Association's 2015 Angel Insights Exchange, held in New Orleans the week of November 9. I am the volunteer chair of an advisory council to the ACA, but the views I express below are personal to me, and not a reflection of ACA views or policy; nor are they a reflection of views of my law firm.
As we all know, Dodd-Frank (2010) and the JOBS Act (2012) brought big changes to the rules that govern what’s okay and what’s not okay in the world of federal exemptions from securities registration requirements.
One of the biggest reforms – permitting startups and other private companies to advertise a securities offering, provided that all purchasers are accredited investors – has caused the most consternation, at least in the early implementation. That’s largely because this particular reform – “lifting the ban on general solicitation” in Rule 506, the primary federal exemption on which almost all angel-backed companies rely – came with a catch. The catch is this: if you advertise or otherwise “generally solicit,” you will have a newly-invented1 and heightened burden to verify the accredited investor status of your purchasers.
This has caused many entrepreneurs and angels to shun Rule 506(c). Because the new rules made clear that the old rule (now called Rule 506(b)) remains available on a parallel track, you can still raise your money privately the old way; the heightened verification burden will not apply.2
But still there are gray areas: what about demo days; what about online platforms that restrict access so that only accredited investors can see deals; what about angels syndicating deals with other angels? In the early days of implementation of these reforms, people are worried – even more than they were before the JOBS Act, it seems3 – on whether they might trip accidently into conduct that could be deemed “general solicitation.”
Thankfully, we’ve had new guidance from the SEC this year pertinent to the quandary of “general solicitation” and what we might call the 506(b)/506(c) divide. 2015 has brought us:
- No fewer than eleven (11) new questions-and-answers on general solicitation, to be added to the Division of Corporation Finance’s ongoing Compliance and Disclosure Interpretations; and
- A new “No Action” letter, called “Citizen VC,” which tells an online platform how it might avoid slipping into Rule 506(c) territory.
The theme of the new SEC guidance is this: a “pre-existing, substantive relationship” can be a terrific antidote to the virus4 of “general solicitation.”
Now, the concept of the pre-existing, substantive business relationship has been around for a long time. It’s been a way of demonstrating that a given deal is indeed private, and prior guidance from the SEC has long held that an issuer can extend the utility of the concept by including, not only persons the issuer knows, but also the relationships of a broker dealer participating in a given offering.
The new SEC guidance, however, now makes it expressly clear that it’s more than okay for an issuer to be introduced by an angel to other angels the issuer might be meeting for the first time, without tripping into “general solicitation.”5 Here’s an excerpt from the answer to Question 256.27:
[W]e acknowledge that groups of experienced, sophisticated investors, such as “angel investors,” share information about offerings through their network and members . . . may introduce [the] issuer to other members. Issuers . . . may be able to rely on those members’ network to establish a reasonable belief that other offerees in the network have the necessary financial experience and sophistication.
Similarly, the new SEC guidance at Question 256.33 states that demo days can be “insulated” by the pre-existing, substantive relationships that a demo day organizer has with attendees:
Where a presentation by the issuer involves an offer of a security, the presentation at a demo day or venture fair may not constitute a general solicitation if, for example, attendance at the demo day or venture fair is limited to persons with whom the issuer or the organizer of the event has a pre-existing, substantive relationship or have been contacted through an informal, personal network [of angels] as described in Question 256.27.
Finally, I want to highlight the Citizen VC No Action Letter, because it speaks to what an online angel investing platform might do, should it wish to remain under the ambit of Rule 506(b). Here’s how Dan DeWolfe, a member of the ACA Advisory Council and the attorney who wrote the no-action request on behalf of Citizen VC, summarized in a blog post (co-written with Samuel Asher Effron) his take on the import of this particular guidance:
In essence, the approach under the CVC Letter is to make the online private placement offering similar in policies and procedures to an offline private placement. The pre-existing relationship is not time based nor is it satisfied by answering a mere two questions. Rather, the establishment of a pre-existing relationship depends on the QUALITY of the relationship between the issuer and a potential investor. While the vast majority of online offerings will clearly fall within the new Rule 506(c), the CVC Letter does spell out a way to conduct a true private placement in a password protected web page that does not give rise to a general solicitation.
How can an online platform be sure it is not using general solicitation? That’s right, the answer is in line with the guidance theme for 2015: establish a substantive, pre-existing relationship with prospective investors. In the case of online platforms, establishing such a relationship must occur prior to, and not in the context of, a given offering by an issuer on the platform.
Photo credit: Paul Kline (Creative Commons)
1. On the “newly invented” nature of the verification burden imposed by offerings that are generally solicited pursuant to new Rule 506(c): many securities lawyers might emphasize that Rule 506 has always, always required an issuer to have a reasonable basis on which to conclude that its purchasers were accredited. I myself predict that the distinctions between 506(b) and 506(c), on the point of verification, will inevitably blur over time. But it is certainly fair to say that current industry practices that pass muster as sufficient under 506(b) do not pass muster under 506(c).
2. It’s fair, and probably important, to point out that the verification pitfall is connected with another aspect of Rule 506(c) that is scary to startup and emerging company lawyers, and should be to entrepreneurs and angels as well: if you’re relying on an exemption that expressly stipulates that you have engaged in general solicitation, then, unlike what would be typical in most Rule 506(b) offerings, you will not have other private offering exemptions to fall back on, should your Rule 506 exemption somehow fail. Claiming exemption under 506(c) is like walking a highwire without a net.
3. Anxiety about the meaning of “general solicitation” dates back to the rollout of Rule 506(c) two years ago. See this piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal: http://blogs.wsj.com/accelerators/2013/09/27/weekend-read-the-trojan-horse-of-accredited-investor-verification/.
4. Is my metaphor over the top, or is it really dangerous and unhealthy for a startup to conduct a Rule 506(c) offering? This is a question I would like to put back to all of you!
5. Technically speaking, it does not appear as though the new guidance is saying that a given angel’s network extends the reach of the issuer’s pre-existing, substantive relationships, at least not in the same way that a broker-dealer’s relationships might. See Question 256.29. Rather, the long-standing practice of introductions via angel networks appears to be a similar but independent method of “neutralizing” general solicitation.