132 posts categorized "JOBS Act"

SEC official to angel community: go ahead, develop your own verification methods!

Keith Higgins, the relatively new Director of the Division of Corporation Finance, delivered a speech at the closing session of the 2014 Angel Capital Association Summit - and was it a doozy!

A huge issue for angel investors is the "reasonable steps to verify" accredited status that is part of new Rule 506(c), which permits issuers to engage in "general solicitation." The issue was a focus of at least two breakout sessions at the Summit, including one Thursday moderated by ACA policy chair Mike Eckert that I participated in with the gifted lawyers Peter Rosenblum and Rob Rosenblum (not related), and an excellent breakfast briefing Friday from K&L Gates lawyers Gary Kocher and Kevin Gruben.

1842308438_83cb923365_oThe reason for such attention is the anxiety caused by the non-exclusive verification "safe harbors" set out in Rule 506(c). These verification methods contemplate that, going forward, an issuer is going to have to demand personal financial information from investors, or engage third party verification services to do so. To many readers of the new rule, including a majority of securities lawyers, the safe harbors - in spite of the "non-exclusive" label - feel destined to prove de facto requirement.

But Higgins said that needn't be the case.

In his speech (the full text of which you can access on the SEC's website), Higgins emphasized that if any verification standard might be core under Rule 506(c), it is the flexible, "principles-based" approach laid out in the inital release proposing the new rule:

"These [applications of the principles-based method] are all part of a deliberate effort by the Commission to provide issuers with an alternative to the clear but highly prescriptive list of verification methods included in the rule. In fact, it is ironic that this list of verification methods is being viewed by some as the primary way to verify a purchaser’s accredited investor status when, in fact, the Commission originally proposed the principles-based approach as the way issuers would comply with the rule’s verification requirement and added the list of specific verification methods only in response to address the concerns of commenters who wanted more certainty."

As Gary Kocher explained plainly in his breakfast briefing earlier in the day, lawyers are a conservative bunch, and naturally are going to navigate to the safe harbors. But, Gary stated he believed that the staff meant what they said in the rule and in the release, that the principles-based approach was viable. I think Higgins' speech completely validates Gary's view.

All of this portends well for verification methods based on the Angel Capital Association's Established Angel Group guidance, which would not require the turning over of sensitive financial information to issuers or their vendors.

As for seeking express SEC staff blessing of particular applications of the principles-based method of verification? Higgins seemed to say that was both not likely to be forthcoming anytime soon, and also beside the point:

"On that note, we have had recent inquiries asking whether the staff would provide guidance – presumably on a case-by-case basis – confirming that a specified principles-based verification method constitutes 'reasonable steps' for purposes of the rule’s requirement.  The notion of the staff reviewing and approving specific verification methods seems somewhat contrary to the very purpose of a principles-based rule and I am not yet convinced of the need for this type of staff involvement. Rather, this is an area where issuers and other market participants have the flexibility to think about innovative approaches for complying with the verification requirement of the rule and use the methods that best suit their needs. While the staff may not be in a position at this point to provide guidance on what constitutes 'reasonable steps' under particular circumstances, I also believe the staff will not be quick to second guess decisions that issuers and their advisers make in good faith that appear to be reasonable under the circumstances."

I should note that the angels I spoke to at the Summit, and the questions they posed in the breakout sessions, were more precisely focused on the definition of general solicitation and the activities at pitch events and the like that might push a company from 506(b) territory into 506(c) territory. But let's step back a second and look at the problem from just a story or two higher: to the extent that verification under 506(c) becomes more manageable, then the general solicitation issue becomes somewhat less of an existential distinction. (There may yet be reasons to avoid publicly soliciting investors - but that is another topic.)

Success for principles-based verification approaches will not be self-executing. Angels and their entrepreneurs will have to insist on them, and will have to make sure they have enough rigor to acquire respect. In the right circumstances, lawyers for a given deal might, just might, go along.

Drawing: "Principles Mound" by Paul Downey / Flickr.

What exactly is crowdfunding?

This morning I took part in a panel at the Thompson Reuters 2014 Online Financial Services Symposium.

Moderated by Suzanne Barlyn of Thomson Reuters, the topic was "disruptive alternatives," including crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending.

Bjkz7mTIQAEPKAkThe audience is made up of financial services professionals who manage online trading and other retail financial services on a massive scale. As I blog this, a panel is getting into the nitty-gritty of trade execution. A later panel will talk about user interface design and new ways to engage both self-directed and managed investors (and how the categories are blurring).

So I hope that lends context. The panel I took part in was to discuss new classes of investing that might be around the bend for the mainstream online financial services industry.

6a01156e3d83cb970c01a3fcde8425970b-580wiSomething big that I learned in the course of the morning is that peer-to-peer lending is something not far off into the future, like Title III non-accredited crowdfunding, but a phenomenon already here and even embraced by policy makers at the Federal Reserve. Ron Suber (pictured) of Prosper, a San Francisco based marketplace matching consumer borrowers with lenders, captured everyone's imagination with his vision of disintermediating banks in the consumer credit space. He calls it an investable asset class, and emphasized the pains taken to qualify would-be borrowers (eighty percent of applicants are turned down, he said).

Closer to the world with which I am more familiar - equity financing provided by accredited investors to startups - Michael Raneri of Venovate, another San Francisco-based company, described a sweet spot for online activity that is post-seed stage (later than AngelList or FundersClub), but still very much emerging growth. His company is part broker, part part portal, part VC fund (or maybe fully all three). He does not appear to like the term "crowdfunding," however, for the connotations it brings of Title III.

BjlGgPNIUAAnRkwTim Baker, Global Head of Content Strategy at Thomson Reuters, reminded all that angel and venture financing is relatively small - only about $25 billion a year. He cited historical precedents which suggest to him that, if crowdfunding on the equity side is going to take off, it will take 5 years or so to catch on.

If Tim is right, I imagine that, in that span of time, people will get comfortable with the idea that some kind of clearinghouse will standardize accreditation. When that happens, the 506(b)/506(c) distinction - so very existentially critical in this moment of transition - won't be as big a deal. 

So debt crowdfunding at a retail level is here already. And accredited crowdfunding (Tito Singh of Thomson Reuters terms it "elite crowdfunding") is finding its footings and will likely impact angel investing as we know it. What about equity crowdfunding for everyone?

I know there are people in the nascent non-accredited crowdfunding industry, who see non-accredited crowdfunding of startups as a asset class. That is a mistake. In fact, part of why I like the state crowdfunding alternatives (alternatives to JOBS Act Title III) is that they seem to take more of the approach that people want to back small companies for reasons that are as compelling or more compelling than the prospect of financial return.

Picture credits: first two, Lauren Young of Thomson Reuters (from her tweet stream); third is picture I took from the dais of Suzanne Barlyn before she took the podium.

The costs of Title III crowdfunding

Kiran Lingam has a deflating post up at the SeedInvest blog this morning.

Kiran and his firm are modeling what costs look like, for pursuing an offering claiming an exemption under the JOBS Act Title III investment crowdfunding rules (caution: these rules are not in effect; they have just been proposed, and I presume Kiran's model is based on the proposed rules).

197742056_c761e25f10_zIt's not pretty.

"A successful $99,999 crowdfunding raise with no audited financials," Kiran writes, "will result in negative CASH FLOW to the company of about $38,000."

So that suggests the sweet spot for Title III fundraising will have to be higher, right? But little comfort there, Kiran says. "A successful $1M raise will actually only net $750,000 in capital, he writes. "This is an astronomical cost of capital."

My suggestion to investment crowdfunding advocates: turn attention away from the prospective federal exemption, and toward analysis of those state crowdfunding exemptions already on the books. Would, say, Wisconsin's investment crowdfunding exemption impose fewer costs?

Thanks to Joe Wallin for the heads up on Kiran's post.

Photo: Mark Jones / Flickr.

Ruth Simon and Angus Loten WSJ articles this week about use of 506(c)

Ruth Simon and Angus Loten of the WSJ have a couple of really interesting articles this week, by way of tracking just how people are using the new accredited crowdfunding rule:

5917135851_7ce6399d13_zBy "accredited crowdfunding rule," I mean of course Rule 506(c), the new rule that lets issuers engage in general solicitation and general advertising, as long as all purchasers are accredited, the issuer takes reasonable steps to ensure each purchaser is accredited, and the issuer otherwise satisfies the applicable requirements of Reg D.

This is a BIG regulatory change. Recall how everyone always used to say, don't talk to reporters about your offering! Don't tweet it, don't blog about it! That's the old rule, which remains in place, renumbered now as Rule 506(b).

Well, the upshot of the Simon/Loten WSJ pieces, is, arguably, the maxims that follow from the old rule are still, as a practical matter, still in place. Don't talk to reporters about your offering! Don't tweet it, don't blog about it!

That's because the conditions of the new rule are not trivial. And also because of uncertainty about proposed rules that would make compliance with 506(c) even harder.

The Simon/Loten articles do, however, speak to examples of folks who are using 506(c). And he pieces relay some WSJ data/analysis on how much money has been raised under 506(c) so far.

"Among companies that have filed with the SEC, those that disclosed their fundraising goals say they intend to raise more than $25 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal's analysis. Since the new measure was implemented, firms that claimed the exemption and have since netted their first investor have raised a total of $1 billion, the analysis shows."

Thanks to Catherine Mott for pointing me to the Simon/Loten articles.

Image: Poster Boy / Flickr.

Early data on use of 506(c) (accredited crowdfunding)

Recent remarks by Keith Higgins, newly appointed Director of the SEC's Division of Corporate Finance, give us some early data on how issuers are making use of new Rule 506(c).

You'll recall that 506(c) is the rule that implements the lifting of the ban on general solicitation in offerings that otherwise meet the applicable Reg D requirements, and also limit purchasers to accredited investors who are subjected to a heightened verification standard. "Implements" refers to the Congressional mandate to do so, under the JOBS Act. (It's interesting to me that Higgins at least once in his written remarks refers to the Congressional mandate as "requiring the Commission to modify the prohibition against general solicitation," emphasis added.)

10727208825_da46007c6f_z

In a footnote to his written remarks, footnote 18 on page 10, Higgins relays the following information from the SEC's Division of Economic Risk Analysis (DERA):

"Based on the information reported in the initial Form D filings reviewed by DERA, as of October 18, 2013, there have been 170 new offerings made in reliance on the new Rule 506 exemption that became effective on September 23, 2013, with approximately $911 million in total amount sold in these offerings. In addition, 44 offerings that commenced in 2013, but before the effective date of the new Rule 506 exemption, were subsequently converted to offerings relying on the new exemption. Since the new rules became effective, the average offering size for Rule 506(c) offerings was $6.1 million, as compared to $22.8 million for Rule 506(b) offerings; the median offering size for Rule 506(c) offerings was $1.3 million, as compared to $1.8 million for Rule 506(b) offerings.

What does this suggest? Well, that issuers (be they startups or hedgefunds, we can't really tell from this data) are using 506(c); and that generally solicited offerings may be targeting smaller amounts than traditional 506 deals.

You may be thinking, the modest number of filings - some 200 - seems too small. After all, weren't thousands of startups going "public" with their "private" offerings on AngelList within hours of 506(c) becoming effective on September 23?

Ah, but recall that the filing deadline is 15 days from first sale. So there should be a healthy lag, at least as long as the current filing requirements remain in place (recall that proposed rules are out, imposing pre-filing requirements for 506(c) deals and lots of other not-so-fun changes for both 506(c) and 506(b)).

Thanks to articles by Broc Romanek and Sarah Lynch for identifying Higgins' testimony.

Working Summary of the Proposed Crowdfunding Rules by Kevin Laws

So here is an early holiday present: AngelList COO Kevin Laws's working, in-process summary of the Title III crowdfunding rules proposed yesterday by the SEC.

Capture113Keep in mind that these rules were first posted some 24 hours ago. Kevin is the last person to think the summary he prepared yesterday will prove definitive. But I personally think his effort is amazing, condensing things at just the right level.

Rather than cut and past Kevin's working summary into the body of this post, the link above is to a Google doc that Kevin is updating as he receives feedback.

Kevin's summary will prove hugely useful to crowdfunding advocates, players in the nascent non-accredited crowdfunding industry, and others just interested in the startup financing ecosystem and trying to figure out how viable this new alternative may prove to be.

Please do also feel free to add comments in the comment thread to this post.

Respect for the crowd in the proposed crowdfunding rules

A huge, immediate surprise in the Title III crowdfunding rules proposed yesterday by the SEC: the Commission proposes to enable discussion of a Title III offering with and among the crowd.

Permitting the crowd to talk to the issuer, and enabling the crowd to talk amongst themselves about a given deal, was an express feature of the original, popular McHenry crowdfunding bill, which passed the House overwhelmingly in 2011 and had the support of the White House.

6306573376_ed2e5975c3_bBut by the time of the ultimate Senate version, which gutted McHenry's bill and made it into the final JOBS Act, that provision went missing. In effect, the Senate took the crowd out of crowdfunding.

The SEC proposes to put the crowd back in.

Here is a sentence from the text of the proposed rules. It's in section labeled "Advertising," which, broadly speaking, limits communication surrounding an exempt crowdfunded offering outside of the chosen funding portal; but on the approved portal, chatting would appear to be okay:

"Notwithstanding the prohibition on advertising the terms of the offering, an issuer may communicate with investors and potential investors about the terms of the offering through communication channels provided by the intermediary on the intermediary’s platform, provided that an issuer identifies itself as the issuer in all communications."

Even more in the spirit of the original (rejected) McHenry bill, here is a section of the propose regulations that talk about potential investors comparing notes within a forum on the funding portal:

"Communication Channels. An intermediary must provide on its platform communication channels by which persons can communicate with one another and with representatives of the issuer about offerings made available on the intermediary’s platform, provided:

"(1) If the intermediary is a funding portal, it does not participate in these communications other than to establish guidelines for communication and remove abusive or potentially fraudulent communications;

"(2) The intermediary permits public access to view the discussions made in the communication channels;

"(3) The intermediary restricts posting of comments in the communication channels to those persons who have opened an account with the intermediary on its platform; and

"(4) The intermediary requires that any person posting a comment in the communication channels clearly and prominently disclose with each posting whether he or she is a founder or an employee of an issuer engaging in promotional activities on behalf of the issuer, or is otherwise compensated, whether in the past or prospectively, to promote the issuer’s offering."

Are there any administrative law problems with the agency improving the statutory provisions in this manner?

I don't know. But it is a strong signal that the SEC is not as cynical about these rules as the Senate was about McHenry's original bill.

Photo: Leslie Jones, collection of Boston Public Library / Flickr.

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