September 2021- Crowdfunding at the Crossroads?

September 2021

The crowdfunding industry is about to announce that more than $1 billion has been raised from investors on the Regulation CF (Reg. CF) funding portals. It is a milestone worth noting for everyone involved in the crowdfunding industry.  

Right now there are approximately 63 Reg. CF funding portals in various stages of the licensing process. Of those, only 27 are operating with 5 or 6 dominating the Reg. CF market. The great bulk of that billion dollars was raised on only a handful of funding portals. 

Also this week the SEC has brought its first case against a Reg. CF funding portal, TruCrowd, headquartered in Chicago.  Among other things, TruCrowd is accused of allowing a company to list its offering on the TruCrowd portal after TruCrowd became aware of some significant “red flags” about one of the people who was associated with the company.

TruCrowd had been alerted to the fact that this person had a criminal past, promised to look into it further, and then did not. TruCrowd apparently allowed the offering to continue, simply ignoring the warning. TruCrowd and its owner have now been accused of participating in the fraudulent offering.

News about TruCrowd’s difficulties with the SEC began to circulate on Monday 9/20.  That same afternoon I got an e-mail from TruCrowd informing me that Shark Tank celebrity Kevin Harrington has endorsed a company raising money on TruCrowd’s funding portal.   

A week earlier Harrington and his partner Mr. Wonderful (Kevin O’Leary) were sued by a group of 20 entrepreneurs claiming that they were defrauded by the pair who had promised to help them get funding but failed to deliver. Mr. Wonderful, of course, shills for StartEngine, one of the largest funding portals. 

The crowdfunding industry is remarkably resourceful. Lacking in funds, many of the participants trade in favors and goodwill. There is a lot of investors’ money splashing around and it is always interesting to see where some of it pops up. 

Last week I published an article about a crowdfunding “rating service” named KingsCrowd that is raising funds from investors using a funding portal named Republic. KingsCrowd, which is little more than a shell, claims a $45 million pre-money valuation.

KingsCrowd’s business is to “rate” companies who are themselves using crowdfunding to raise capital.  All of KingsCrowd’s “value” is tied up in the proprietary algorithm that produces these ratings. 

Yet when asked about KingsCrowd’s own $45 million valuation at a company sponsored Q&A last week, the CEO likened it to values assigned by VCs to other high flying companies. Apparently, he was not asked why he did not seem to trust his own algorithm to rate or value his own company.

The KingsCrowd rating system considers, among other things, an issuer’s management team. Save for the CEO, KingsCrowd has no employees, directors or management team. Is the CEO failing to disclose that his own rating system gave his company a bad score?

The CEO was asked why he was selling his own stock at the same time he was soliciting other people to invest in his company. He apparently disclosed that he needs the funds for personal expenses, including his upcoming wedding. No one asked him why the transaction was structured to put more than $1 million into Republic’s pocket for the company’s Reg, D offering, funds that the company did not need to spend.  

KingsCrowd has been reviewing offerings on Republic’s portal since at least 2020.  Republic has had plenty of time to determine exactly what the algorithm can and cannot do. If Republic has a 3 inch file full of documents that verify that KingsCrowd’s algorithm “works”, then I am certain I will hear about it.

The “notice” of the bad actor’s past, came to TruCrowd from a securities lawyer who was not formally affiliated with the portal. I applaud that effort. It serves no one in the crowdfunding industry, if we let investors invest in scam after scam. Unfortunately, TruCrowd did not listen.

I connected with Republic’s CEO and sent a copy my article suggesting that KingsCrowd’s valuation was way too high.  I am going to punctuate that by offering my opinion, in the words of an old friend, that only “an idiot on acid” could come up with that $45 valuation for KingsCrowd or try to defend it.

The very last thing the crowdfunding industry needs is a corrupt rating system. KingsCrowd’s “independence” from Republic, after this game of “you take a million and I take a million” that KingsCrowd and Republic are playing, is certainly suspect.  If the ratings are not “independent” they have no value at all.

KingsCrowd claims “Wall Street has Morningstar, S&P, and Bloomberg; the equity crowdfunding market has KingsCrowd”. Having followed those services over the years, I think it safe to say that none would place a value of $45 million on KingsCrowd today.

I suspect that the active and retired compliance professionals who follow the blog are all shaking their heads thinking that it is time for Republic to put a halt to both the public and private offerings that KingsCrowd is selling. When a transaction runs up against a regulation, a good compliance officer helps to re-structure the transaction until it complies.

It is certainly time for someone to sit down with KingsCrowd’s CEO and tell him that he needs to be picking out a CFO and Board of Directors at the same time he is selecting his Best Man and ushers. I might suggest taking his algorithm and data over to EY, or similar consulting firm, and see if they will take a look and issue an independent report on what the algorithm does and with what accuracy.

I had no idea that the SEC was about to sanction TruCrowd when I wrote the article about KingsCrowd last week.  Against the backdrop of the TruCrowd complaint, I expect that Republic will halt both offerings unless they do not think that I am waiving a red flag.

To me, this boils down to a question of whether or not Republic will take some amount of ownership for the ridiculous, unnecessary, and misleading valuations featured on its own portal. It would be a signal to other portal operators to do the same.

FINRA has previously expelled two other funding portals, each time questioning the valuations attributed to the companies seeking investors’ funds. The argument can certainly be made that a grossly exaggerated valuation is itself a red flag that the company making the offering lacks substance. 

The ball is in Republic’s court. Like I said, this may be one of crowdfundings’ crossroads moments, or not.

If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please book a time to talk with me HERE

KingsCrowd- selling ratings for fun and profit

kingscrowd

The thing about crowdfunding is that it attracts people who are paid to introduce investors to companies that have little to offer. The worst, of course, are those who know that the companies have little chance of success and hype the hell out of them anyway.

So I was particularly interested in a Reg. A+ offering filed by KingsCrowd, a publication that covers the Reg. CF marketplace and companies that are seeking funds.  KingsCrowd has a “patent-pending AI-driven startup rating algorithm” from which it intends to rate the various offerings on the Reg. CF funding portals.  

In its own words, KingsCrowd will “empower individual investors to make intelligent startup investment decisions on platforms like Republic, Wefunder, SeedInvest, Netcapital, etc., by providing institutional-grade research tools for assessing the thousands of investment opportunities available to investors at any one time.”

Given that 90% of start-ups will inevitably fail, any algorithm that can sort likely winners from likely losers would be welcome.  Even if unable to identify the 10% that will succeed, eliminating the bottom 10% or more that have no chance at success would benefit investors as well. 

KingsCrowd already tracks and rates “every Reg. CF investment opportunity in the United States.” It has a system to research and rate Reg. CF issuers. The only question is does their algorithm work?  How good is their research? What constitutes “institutional-grade” research anyway?

CalPERS, the largest public employee’s pension fund manages a multi-billion dollar portfolio.  It employs several hundred research analysts to oversee that portfolio and to make specific buy/sell recommendations. Other funds and money managers around the globe use much the same data and much the same methods to analyze that data.  Generally accepted methods of securities analysis are taught in business schools and have been for decades.

If that is “institutional-grade” research and analysis then I needed no more proof that KingsCrowd does not provide it than the fact that it gave itself a “pre-money” valuation of $45 million.  There is no way that analysis that produced that valuation can be called “institutional-grade”. The numbers just do not add up.

KingsCrowd says that it collects “more than 150 data points on each issuer, including information relating to its team, its market, financial statements, traction with consumers, and competitors. Our investment research team collects data from multiple sources such as the issuers’ pitch decks, capital raise pages on all of the funding portals (including all Reg CF funding portals such as Wefunder, Republic, Netcapital, SeedInvest), news articles and announcements, social media, founder profiles and resumes, recruitment websites, the SEC filings, growth data provided by the companies and information derived from alternative data sources.” 

I do not think that I need tell you that data in “pitch decks” and “growth data provided by companies” is often exaggerated. Information on the funding portals is often unverified.  What I was hoping for was for KingsCrowd to bring some amount of real financial analysis to this marketplace.  To even begin the process it would be necessary for the data used on Reg. CF funding portals to be accurate.  It isn’t.

KingCrowds’ “algorithm uses a comparative modeling approach to rank and score all companies actively raising capital from the markets across the various key dimensions deemed notable in the rating algorithm and traditionally utilized by venture investors to make informed investment decisions.” 

Forget for a minute that the phrase that ties “venture investors” with “informed investment decisions” is itself an oxymoron.  I worked for VC funds and I have dealt with them as a representative of a company being funded, repeatedly, beginning in the 1970s. Funding has always been more about who you know than what you were selling. The days of an MBA as a requirement to be a “venture capitalist” are a receding memory.

I would think that if KingsCrowd’s algorithm really identified better investments, one of the VC funds would have scooped it up.  When you break down what they do, you can see that it is more smoke and mirrors than mathematics.

At the end of the day, KingsCrowd’s patent-pending AI-driven startup rating algorithm yields a rating that is a number between 1 (lowest score) and 5 (highest score) for every aspect of the issuer, including price, market, differentiation, performance, team, and risk, as well as an overall score for the issuer at a specific funding round.

Given that many of the start-ups being funded have neither income nor profits, the metrics of “performance” may be more subjective than one might expect. KingsCrowd seems to intimate that what they are identifying are companies that had a successful capital raise, not successful companies.  If that is true, they are on a fool’s errand. And, while I always help clients structure their offering to present an investment that will be attractive to investors, success in crowdfunding is often about how you market the offering and how much money you put into your marketing campaign.

Giving a numerical score to a “team” also seems quite subjective. KingsCrowd itself has only 3 employees and a “team” of outside advisors. Christopher Lustrino is a founder of the Company, Chief Executive Officer, President, Chief Financial Officer, Treasurer, and also a member of the Board of Directors. If these positions had been filled with qualified people would the “pre-revenue” valuation have been $60 million? More?

Some VCs and angel investors like a founder to have some skin in the game and invest their own money. Lustrino is selling $1 million worth of his stock in KingsCrowd as is one of the early investors. The fact Lustrino needed to sell his shares costs the company an equal amount.

KingsCrowd is also concurrently offering the same shares to investors in a private placement offering under Regulation D. They are raising a total of $15 million which, if the company had something to offer, would have been cheaper and easier to accomplish using only the private placement.

Under current law, however, Lustrino cannot sell his shares or those of the early investor, using Regulation D. To sell his shares, Lustrino needed to have the company prepare and file the offering using Regulation A+.

In the normal course, the shares being sold under Reg. A+ would be the subject of a commission, here 7%.  Shares sold on a crowdfunding platform using Reg. D do not pay a commission unless the platform is a licensed broker/dealer.

Lustrino arranged to have this offering placed with a broker/dealer affiliated with one of the Reg. CF funding portals, Republic. He has agreed to pay that broker/dealer 7% of the entire $15 million or more than $1 million. That is the fee the company will pay to liberate 2,000,000 shares being sold by Lustrino and his partner.     

The issue is more than the fact that KingsCrowd is spending money that it did not need to spend. The funds would certainly be better spent hiring a CFO to watch over the investors’ money.

KingsCrowd is essentially giving $1 million to a company whose offerings it will rate. This kind of conflict of interest would, in my opinion, negate any rating KingsCrowd issues on a company listed on Republic and likely its competitors as well. As importantly, by selling his shares, Lustrino gives the impression that he has one foot out the door, ready to ditch the algorithm with little utility and ready to fund his next company.

If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please book a time to talk with me HERE

Start-ups, are you buying investors online?

Start-ups, are you buying investors

I have been writing a lot about crowdfunding lately and speaking with other people in the crowdfunding industry.  From our conversations, it is obvious that most do not share my perspective on the entire business.  I see crowdfunding as continuing an evolution of the capital markets already in progress when I started on Wall Street in 1975.

In 1975 the stockbroker was king. People did not buy investments, I was told early on, stockbrokers sell investments.  Good stockbrokers, especially those on their way up, aggressively sold stocks. The sales pitch was often about one particular stock, frequently supported by a report prepared by research analysts.  Analysts were “ranked” every year and firms paid the “1st, 2nd and 3rd All-American teams”, handsomely.

While there were certainly stockbrokers who met their clients for lunch or at the club for golf who came back to the office with orders in hand, much of the “selling” was done over the telephone.  Young brokers were encouraged to stay into the evening and engage in a ritual known as cold calling.

During my training, I spent an evening with a single page from the NYC phone directory, script in hand, dialing for dollars. Most people had those old, heavy rotary phones.  I swear, I could hear the receiver sucking in air as it was being slammed down onto its cradle.

What cold calling teaches us is that some percentage of the calls you make will respond favorably, and buy what you are selling.  If you want to make more sales, you need to make more calls.

I mention this only as a backdrop.  This “sell-side” focus has shifted, significantly. Today, a great many retail stockbrokerage customers, make their own decisions about what to buy and what to sell in their stock or retirement accounts.  These customers are enticed by lower costs. They respond to advertising, and they will rely upon information delivered to them online.  Without these investors, crowdfunding could not exist. 

If I were teaching Law and Economics today, I would look back to 1975 and say that is where it all started.  Changes in the law, a new one enacted and an old one discarded, were the catalysts for enormous changes in the way the capital markets operate. The market responded to those changes by bringing in millions of new people who were affirmatively looking to invest and who brought trillions of new dollars with them.   

ERISA, enacted in 1974 created the tax-deferred Individual retirement account (IRA).  It was intended to incentivize millions of small savers to put their money into a bank or the stock market and to leave it there for the long term. 

In response to this new market of small investors who might start small and add a few thousand dollars every year, John Bogle opened the Vanguard Mutual Funds. Mutual funds provided a simple way for small investors to participate in the market.

Mutual funds had been around for a long time by then.  They were commissioned products sold by many stockbrokers.  And while an IRA account was the perfect vessel for mutual funds, what I would stress to my students would be the shift in the way mutual funds were advertised and sold directly to investors.

Vanguard and the other mutual funds actively advertised for investors seeking to make direct purchases.  Instead of dealing with a stockbroker who would call whenever they had, something that they wanted you to buy or sell, with a mutual fund, an investor could just put their money into a fund and the fund will do it all for you.  Somebody called it “passive investing”. Instead of touting the skill of their analysts to pick winners, these mutual funds sold convenience.

In 1975, both the State of New York and the City of New York were functionally bankrupt. The stock market had tanked and lending had ground to a halt.  The economy was in the midst of abnormal inflation.  People responded to the idea that they take some risk to grow their retirement funds in the stock market rather than save it in a bank so they could keep up with inflation.

Also in 1975, the New York Stock Exchange repealed its long-standing rule that had fixed the commissions that NYSE Members charged for each trade.  Mainframe computers were being installed up and down Wall Street. The costs of everything from executing trades to sending out confirmations and monthly statements were going down.

When commissions were fixed, the customer was charged a commission that reflected both the costs of execution and the “other” services that the brokerage firm provided, most notably, research that would tell the customers what to buy and when to sell. As commission costs became a source of competition, Charles Schwab and others were already talking about “unbundling” the cost of executing a trade from the research component that had always come with it. 

Schwab and its “discount” competitors demonstrated that a great many investors were happy to sit at home and make decisions on what to buy and what to sell, based only on what they read themselves. And while Schwab and other discount brokers now offer research reports, very few customers of discount firms are exposed to the type of research available to institutions. 

The stockbrokers’ response to this unbundling can be encapsulated in their advertising slogans of the time: “Thank you, Paine Webber”; “When EF Hutton talks, people listen” and my personal favorite: “Smith Barney makes its money the old-fashioned way, they earn it”.  The mainstream industry doubleddown; they were selling advice and they were proud of it. 

Without good advertising and a lot of it, the full-service stockbrokers, the discount firms like Schwab, and the entire mutual fund industry would not have grown into the behemoths that they are today.  The result of all of that advertising is a market full of millions of investors who are comfortable making their own investment decisions.  This includes a significant number of baby boomers who still represent a very large pool of capital that is available for investment. 

What does this have to do with crowdfunding in 2021?

If I have learned anything from watching the growth and evolution of this market since 1975, the one thing that stands out is that for companies that are selling investments, good advertising works. There is a cost, certainly, of acquiring investors for any given offering, but if you pay that cost, you will get enough investors to pony up the investment that you seek.

The best people in marketing who are working in crowdfunding understand that it is very much a “numbers game” just like “cold calling”, although now much less expensive and efficient. Modern data mining techniques enable each company that is seeking investors to present its offering to an audience that is more and more specifically targeted. 

I call it “buying investors online”. What do you call it?

I have sat in marketing meetings for various players in the financial services industry many times. Depending upon what these companies are selling and to whom, the marketing and sales strategies differ greatly.

The common denominator of these varied strategies is that they are all measured by the same standard, CAC, the cost of acquiring each customer or investor. The object of any marketing campaign is to attract the most customers (and their ‘orders’) from every dollar spent on any advertising directed at those customers. 

In crowdfunding, while statistics are few, it is obvious that the costs associated with acquiring investors varies greatly, offering to offering. Some offerings fail because investors do not find them attractive, most, I think, because they lacked marketing muscle.  

Personally, I find it painful to watch a company that has hired me to prepare the paperwork for their offering fail to acquire the investors they need.  Often, these company’s campaigns fails because they hire the marketing company that was the lowest bidder.  I try to steer my clients to a marketing company that may not be the least expensive, but gets the job done.   

The Regulation D, private placement market has found enormous success using crowdfunding for investors.  Even now, a sponsor can identify potential investors for the purchase of an office building who can afford to invest, who have an interest in real estate, and who live close enough to the property, to drive by if they want to look at it. And the data mining techniques that created these targeted mailing lists are still in their infancy.

Crowdfunding for capital has become a simple process.

Step one: create an investment that will be attractive to investors

Step two: create advertising copy that can be pre-tested and shown to be effective

Step three: put those ads in front of your pre-targeted lists of prospective investors.

Step four: Repeat step three until you raise the money you need.   

I have written elsewhere that I believe that crowdfunding has reached the point where it will now quickly grow to be a major source of capital for start-ups and small businesses.  A major reason will be that companies seeking funding can now approach crowdfunding with a high degree of certainty that they will get funded. With the proper perspective, those companies can appreciate that they are buying investors online. 

 

If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please contact me directly HERE

Or, you can book a time to talk with me HERE

 

Crowdfunding Professional Association – An Open Letter

Crowdfunding Professional Association (CfPA)

To: The Board of Directors

I appreciate that I am a person who no one wants to hear from; a New York lawyer with an attitude and a big mouth.  Fortunately, I have made it work by finding clients who appreciate not only my advice, but the reasoning and experience behind it. Still, I know that people would rather suck an egg than listen to a lawyer.

I worked on Wall Street and helped finance companies for 20 years before I understood finance. That understanding came from teaching finance to college students. There is nothing like going back to the textbooks to create a framework for understanding the nuances of any subject.

I have made no secret of my dislike for the CfPA. I see nothing of value being discussed and certainly nothing of value produced by your organization.

I have been invited to make some practical recommendations to the CfPA Board of Directors. I have no illusions that most of the CfPA Board will simply ignore me. I have been saying many of the same things since 2015. 

To soften the discussion, I think it better that you think of me not as a lawyer but rather a college professor, albeit one who does not give credit for wrong answers. These are my thoughts.

What is best for the investors is best for the crowdfunding industry

There is a great pool of capital available for investment into all kinds of projects and businesses. The job of the crowdfunding industry is to connect companies looking for capital with investors who will provide it.

The JOBS Act was intended to provide capital for small businesses to expand and grow. The Regulation D Title II platforms have demonstrated that investors will invest $25,000-$50,000 or more based largely upon information they learn from a website. Crowdfunding, as a method to source investment capital clearly works. 

Crowdfunding operates in a unique niche market. It competes with banks and commercial lenders for companies seeking funds. At the same time, crowdfunding competes for investors with the mainstream stockbrokerage industry. Those are huge markets full of tough competitors.

Title II private placements went online and immediately competed with the traditional stockbrokers who sold similar offerings to investors face-to-face. There are Title II platforms and broker/dealers using crowdfunding to raise billions of dollars. At the same time there are Title III funding portals where issuers have difficulty raising $50,000 and where their offerings languish for months. 

In place of stockbrokers, crowdfunding offers increasingly sophisticated digital e-mail marketing campaigns and advertisements aimed at highly targeted lists of potential investors. While I was originally skeptical of this approach, it has been demonstrated that it works.

If the content of the e–mails manage to send some investors to review the offering itself, and some percentage of those become investors, then a company can continue to send out e-mails and advertisements until it attracts all the investors it wants. If some people will invest in an offering based upon what they see on the website, others will invest as well.

Effective marketing will press the right rational or emotional buttons that will result in investors investing. A good campaign will reach out to more potential investors than it needs.

Funding a crowdfunding campaign has become just a simple numbers game. As marketing costs for raising $1 million on any crowdfunding platform or funding portal continue to come down, it has reached the point where any company that can afford a good marketing campaign, can “buy” $1 million in investment or more. 

That conclusion, which I reached after countless hours speaking with campaign marketing specialists, caused me to stop and ponder the consequences for crowdfunding, for banks and for small business. I believe that this crowdfunding marketplace is about to explode with the post-pandemic need for small business capital.  

I covered much of my enthusiasm for crowdfunding in a whitepaper I published last week.I promised some more practical advice and recommendations today. 

Crowdfunding is corporate finance, do the math  

The JOBS Act was specifically intended to operate within the framework of existing federal securities laws and an established universe of corporate financing techniques. The crowdfunding industry can only exist if investors are willing to invest. The crowdfunding industry needs to respect investors. The CfPA needs to lead this effort. 

The industry has foisted scam after scam on the investors it cannot survive without. It consistently offers investments into companies that have no reasonable expectation of success. FINRA requires a certain amount of quality control for the funding portals it regulates. Many of the funding portals just ignore that requirement.

I appeared on a podcast recently. The host made me so comfortable that I blurted out something that I probably would have said differently. I said that one of the main problems with the crowdfunding industry was that too many people in it thought Ben Graham had invented a cracker. 

Graham’s textbook has been the basis for analyzing investments for decades. It has, and continues to be used in business schools around the world. Trillions of dollars are invested every year by decision makers who are trained to apply fundamental analysis to investing and corporate finance transactions.

There are very few MBAs in crowdfunding. I do not think that is a requirement, but I do think that to advise a company seeking financing requires some amount of knowledge and experience. I have helped hundreds of companies raise money over the years and I have taught finance at the university level. Still, I collaborate with two colleagues, one a retired investment banker, the other a retired commercial banker on almost every offering I prepare.   

Financing can be nuanced; terms matter; mistakes can be costly; there are always other companies competing for the same investors. If you accept that crowdfunding is a form of corporate finance, then people experienced in finance are a pre-requisite. If you think crowdfunding is just another form of gambling, you need to be doing something else.

There are clearly crowdfunding platforms that get an A in Finance by helping to structure the offerings they host intelligently. Sadly, most of the industry, especially funding portals, have no clue.

Any investment offered to investors via crowdfunding is a speculative investment. The crowdfunding industry wants investors who understand the risks and who can afford to absorb the loss if the worst happens.

Crowdfunding syndicates risk. Higher risks should yield higher rewards. Risk, if you can get your head around it, is what crowdfunding sells. 

Too often, the risks are buried in the boilerplate. The CfPA should bring the discussion of risk out in the open. It should encourage industry participants to help issuers to mitigate those risks and to adequately compensate the investors willing to take those risks to fund these companies. 

The larger marketplace quantifies risk every day. For example: Pre-pandemic, a small business seeking a loan guaranteed by the SBA, with adequate collateral and a personal guarantee from the business owner, would pay about 8.5% interest on the loan. Today, while the pandemic has raised the risks for all small businesses, there are offerings on funding portals offering investors 6%, without the collateral or guarantee, wondering why they are having difficulty attracting investors.   

The funding portals are in the business of helping issuers get funded. There are way too many issues being offered that make no economic sense. If a company cannot demonstrate that it can execute its business plan with the funds it is seeking, no platform or funding portal should agree to host its offering. The CfPA needs to help its members to step up their game. 

Rather than purchase those skills, some prominent people in the crowdfunding industry have conjured a new type of mathematical masturbation to stroke the egos of the issuers by selling a delusion of value to investors. I have not heard a single word from the CfPA questioning this practice.

A lot of start-ups are still in the late stages of development. They have burned through $500,000 in seed capital. They do not have a final product, so they have no sales to report and at most a limited test of the market they intend to serve. They have no assets and even their IP is not finished or protected. 

This company put an offering on a funding portal offering 5% of the company for $2 million. If successful, they claim that because 5% of the company was worth $2 million, the entire company must be worth $40 million. There is no excuse for this bullshit.  

In addition to the standards for analysis evidenced by Ben Graham there are GAAP accounting rules governing valuations. There are experienced business brokers around the US who help to buy and sell businesses every day who could not place anything close to a $40 million valuation on this business.    

That some VC might adopt this math is not relevant. VCs have a different agenda. They are looking for growth, not the profits that majority of investors who might invest via crowdfunding look for. An offering on a crowdfunding platform or funding portal should not mislead potential investors that a VC valuation is correct. There are no reasonable mathematics to support it.

It is also misleading to suggest “we expect to cash out in 5 years by doing an IPO or selling out to a Fortune 500 company”. That is not a fact, it is wishful thinking.  In many cases, the odds are actually better over the next 5 years that one or more of the top executives will go through a divorce and lose focus and productivity.

The CfPA has been talking about writing best practices for the crowdfunding industry for years and produced nothing. And, no, I do not want to participate in drafting them at this time, but I do have some suggestions on how the CfPA can make itself useful.

Recommendation: It has been suggested to me that the CfPA is considering creating a “test” to certify some individuals as “qualified” to perform certain tasks regarding an offering. I think that a waste of time. There are plenty of qualified people in finance who would come to crowdfunding if properly incentivized. There are qualified consultants available who could offer the issuers and the industry everything it needs. 

The CfPA first needs to define the talents needed.  The reality is a far cry from anything I have seen from the CfPA to date.  I have written about the crowdfunding process. I have offered to allow the CfPA to post or re-print anything that I have written. A more definitive guide telling issuers and investors what to expect should come from the CfPA. 

Shine light on the scams 

The JOBS Act was adopted to facilitate capital formation under the Securities Act of 1933. It specifically incorporates the anti-fraud provisions of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934. Operators of crowdfunding platforms, funding portals and virtually anyone else involved in the crowdfunding industry should have at least a working knowledge of what can be said about a company offering its securities to investors, what cannot be said, and what must be said to potential investors. The crowdfunding industry simply ignores these requirements.

Several of the crowdfunding marketing companies insist that issuers pay me to review their final offering materials and especially the marketing materials and adsbefore the offering goes live. I have performed this task, reviewing advertising content, for large wire houses. Like these marketing companies, the Wall Street firms want to have their advertisements reviewed by a lawyer, to protect themselves and their clients from regulators and litigation. 

The Reg. A+ market has been a cesspool from the get-go. By now, I suspect that you could fill up a stadium with people who have invested in a Reg. A+ offering.  Ask that crowd for a show of hands from those who have sold their holding at a profit and very few hands will go up, even though we have been in the midst of a raging bull market.

My very first blog article that discussed crowdfunding was about ELIO Motors which was the very first Reg A+ offering.  The company purported to have a 3 wheeled, electric car.  ELIO brought one prototype to a crowdfunding conference and the crowdfunding “professionals” in attendance went into a sugar shock over it.

I read the prospectus thinking I might write something positive about it. I did not believe what I read to be true and made a single phone call to confirm my suspicions. Once I knew that ELIO Motors was a scam, I wrote it up in no uncertain terms. 

I was thinking, foolishly, the honest people working in the crowdfunding industry would do the same and shine light on ELIO and some of the other obvious frauds since then. I should have known better.

There is a saying in the mainstream markets to the effect that “no one hates to see a stockbroker being dragged out of his office in handcuffs more than the honest stockbroker across the street.”  I have not seen anything from the CfPA that even cautions prospective investors. Given the fact that the Reg. A+ market is going “show biz” to reach a wider, uneducated audience, more and more scams, enforcement actions and bad publicity is inevitable.

There is no shortage of scam artists in the Title II and Reg. CF markets either. The platforms and funding portals need to reject every offering where the issuer cannot support the claims it is making. Too many of the platforms and funding portals claim that they thoroughly “vet” each offering they host. Most have no idea what that actually takes.

When the SEC brought the first enforcement action regarding crowdfunding, Ascenergy, I discussed it with an attorney who had reviewed that offering and rejected it. It was the right call; one that I would have expected an experienced SEC attorney to make. But four platforms were mentioned in the Ascenergy order as having listed the offering. That would not have happened if every platform had access to that first attorney’s report or was at least aware of her concerns.

If a scam artist gets rejected by one platform or funding portal, they just move on to the next one. That is what happened in Ascenergy.That could have been avoided, with a little bit of intra-industry communications.

When I was a young lawyer, the compliance officials for the Wall Street firms would have lunch once a month, bring in speakers and schmooze. It was a venue where lawyers at competing firms could get together for the common good.

Recommendation: The CfPA should sponsor a simple bulletin board where lawyers working in crowdfunding and compliance officers at the platforms and funding portals can post questions to each other. Had the due diligence attorney who rejected Ascenergy posted something simple like: “Regarding the offering for Ascenergy. I spotted some red flags that I could not resolve. Call me for details” likely the offering would not have gotten off the ground, investors would not have been burned and four crowdfunding platforms would not have found themselves discussed within the pages of an SEC enforcement action.

The cost to the CfPA for this is nil. The benefit to the platforms, funding portals and crowdfunding industry is immeasurable. Reducing fraud increases investor confidence and the amount of money they will invest which is the crowdfunding industry’s first and common goal. 

Warn investors by telling them the truth

Let me suggest that the very last thing the CfPA needs to do is to form a committee to discuss investor education. Let me offer instead a homework assignment for the CfPA Board of Directors. Create a list of 10 things that an investor who is thinking about making an investment on a crowdfunding platform or funding portal should consider and publicize the hell out of it.

Let me help:

Crowdfunding Investors Beware:

1) Avoid any company that claims a value many times its projected sales, unless supported by an appraisal from a licensed business appraiser. 

2) Avoid any company that claims it will conduct an IPO or be bought out in the future unless it has a letter of intent in hand.

You get the idea. The CfPA Board of Directors should be able to supply the rest. This assignment is due before Labor Day. I will be happy to review your list and make suggestions before you publish it. And remember, I don’t give credit for wrong answers.

Respectfully,

Irwin Stein

Please STOP Funding Start-ups with “Impractical” Business plans

Please STOP Funding Start-ups

Too many people in the crowdfunding community seem to think that the crowdfunding industry exists solely to provide access to capital to small entrepreneurs who have previously been denied access by the evil banks and brokers on Wall Street. 

I think that the crowdfunding industry will eventually grow and compete with the mainstream banks to fund the same credit worthy companies. The industry just needs to point itself in that direction, something it has been reluctant to do.

Fundraising for start-ups has become remarkably easy with the JOBS Act and equity crowdfunding.  A good, well-funded and professional crowdfunding campaign should receive the funds it seeks every time.

Still many small companies struggle to raise even $50,000 on a Reg. CF funding portal.  Too many of these small Reg. CF offerings fail to raise all of the funds they seek. Part of the reason is that, statistically, 90% of start-ups will fail.

The total universe of investors who might invest in these start-ups is a very small segment of the total number of investors and represents a limited pool of capital. The challenge for any issuer that is crowdfunding for capital is to reach out to enough of the right investors and deliver the right message about your company to them.

Many of the crowdfunding “experts” seem to view investing in start-ups and small businesses as gambling, not finance. That is because many of the funding portals and “experts” know very little about finance.  Some of the portals seem to list any company that can pay the upfront fees.

A great many of the start-ups that seek funding on the Reg. CF funding portals do not deserve to get funded. The offerings are, for want of a better word, crap. The business model they present is unlikely to succeed. Investors are likely to experience a total loss. These companies need to either get their act together or just give up on the idea of getting strangers to fund their business. 

When I read a business plan, I can usually tell if the company has at least a good chance of success or not. It is more than me making an educated guess because there are usually clear signs. Operators of Reg. CF funding portals are supposed to make the same judgment and refuse to host an offering that presents an “impractical” business plan.

Unfortunately, some of the portals do not seem to understand their responsibilities as FINRA members.  Several of the funding portals have no personnel on staff with any experience in any aspect of selling securities, let alone compliance with the regulations. 

I recently joked that what the crowdfunding industry needed most was an introduction to Benjamin Graham because most people operating funding portals think Ben Graham invented a cracker. It is only funny because it is true. 

Several years ago, FINRA expelled crowdfunding portal UFP (uFundingPortal), in part for listing companies with “impractical” business plans. Despite FINRA’s clear warning to the funding portals not to host these types of offerings, many of the funding portals continue to ignore FINRA. 

So what, exactly, does FINRA mean when it is telling funding portals not to list a company that has an “impractical” business plan? It starts with what the company that is raising money is trying to accomplish and whether or not, following its business plan, management has a reasonable chance of making it happen.   

The presentation of an offering on a funding portal should eliminate much of the hype and exaggeration. Notwithstanding, many entrepreneurs are clearly being encouraged to “dream big and promise big” by funding portal operators. If a company is raising capital from investors by making promises it is unlikely to keep, then its business plan is “impractical”.

I think that everyone would agree that a company that is raising $100,000 and promising that it will be enough money to build a skyscraper in Manhattan or to develop a drug that will cure all cancers has an impractical business plan. The same would be true if the skyscraper was not designed by an architect or the drug was intended to be sold without FDA approval. 

A business plan that suggests that the company will sell one million units of its product using social media would be impractical if the company did not have some way of backing-up that assertion.  FINRA has a consistent policy that requires that there be a reasonable basis for all sales and revenue projections. 

As the regulators move forward I think that they will find that a company that intends to market a product that infringes on another company’s patent has an impractical business plan. But not every case will be as clear cut.

Can the Management Deliver?

Investors know that 4 software developers writing code and a CFO do not equal an operating company. It helps if the company has people with experience in the industry in which the company will be operating. At a bare minimum, every company seeking investors should have managers that have experience in managing people. 

With start-ups, it is a red flag if the CEO does not have experience managing a lot of people. It is one thing to get people to work well together and produce the work that needs to be done. It is another in this day and age to comply with often complex workplace rules.

Investors like to see that a company has a marketing director with real experience selling similar products. If the company is not yet ready for a full-time marketing director then the company should at least have someone with marketing experience as an advisor or on the board of directors. For many companies the cost of new customer acquisition is a key metric and may be a foundation for all financial projections.   

I listen when a company tells me that its product will sell millions of units or become a ubiquitous part of everyday life. A company should be able to demonstrate not only that people will want to buy its product but that it can produce it profitably, deliver it efficiently and sustain both.

I always ask about a company’s supply chain.  It is fine if all the company has is a prototype at this point, but if it expects to sell 100,000 units in the first year, it should be ready to explain where the company will get those units, what they will cost and how those units will be distributed.

For a pre-revenue or unprofitable start-up, I always ask the company when, in terms of revenue, will the company breakeven. A company that claims it will see double or triple-digit growth needs to be able to support those claims and demonstrate how and why they will come true.

“If we build it, they will come” is not the best approach for realistic sales and sales growth. Even a start-up should be able to make realistic assumptions based upon proposals give by outside marketing firms.

All of the above is encompassed by FINRA’s rules governing how a Reg. CF funding portal is supposed to operate. The regulations include provisions that are firmly rooted in the idea of investor protection and textbook finance.

New rules allow the funding portals to raise up to $5 million for every company. There has been a significant uptick in funding portal applications.

Small investors are being hyped with the idea that crowdfunding portals are offering opportunities for them to invest in the next Facebook or Amazon that will turn their modest investments into huge profits. The last thing the industry needs is more small companies with dubious products and inexperienced managers competing for investors’ dollars.    

The regulators will never accept the idea that investors in the crowd can be left to fend for themselves or that proper disclosures do not need to be made. Equity crowdfunding is not a caveat emptor marketplace. 

A funding portal is a regulated financial intermediary. It is a very small industry with a single regulator, FINRA. Widespread disregard of those regulations is not good for the industry’s long term health.

If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please contact me directly HERE

Or you can book a time to talk with me HERE

Investors: Be Careful Walking Down CrowdStreet

Investors: Be Careful

2016

Back in early 2016, when the first Regulation A + offerings were being made to investors, I wrote a series of articles questioning the veracity of some of the disclosures that were being made. I called out 6 offerings and within a few months, 5 of the 6 had problems with regulators.

Someone suggested to me that I had a talent for spotting scams. It isn’t a talent, it’s a skill, one which I learned when I was a young attorney still working on Wall Street. I was taught how to conduct a due diligence investigation of any company, even when the technology the company was developing was out of my area of expertise.

It is the skill that originally brought me to California in 1980s. I was hired by a law firm to prepare due diligence reports for a venture capital firm that was funding Silicon Valley start-ups.

In the early days of crowdfunding, there was some discussion that the “crowd” of investors could collaborate together and ask the questions on a public platform that investors should ask. That was never true and never really developed. If you want to conduct due diligence on any offering it is always best to hire someone who knows what they are doing.

One of the very early crowdfunding platforms was a company called CrowdStreet which raised $800,000 in seed capital and opened for business in Portland, OR in 2013. It was a Title II platform offering real estate investments to accredited investors. CrowdStreet was one of the few platforms I looked at when I first became interested in crowdfunding. 

Over time, CrowdStreet seemed to quietly grow and succeed. Syndicating real estate is not rocket science and there is no shortage of accredited investors with money to invest.

In 2018, CrowdStreet “partnered” (their word) with a real estate firm in New York City called MG Capital. MG Capital claimed to be “the largest owner-manager of debt-free luxury residential properties in Manhattan”. At that time, MG Capital was offering investors the opportunity to invest in two real estate funds, MG Capital Management Residential Funds III and IV. The principal of MG Capital was a gentleman named Eric Malley.

$500M to $58M?

The private placement memos for these funds touted the success of MG’s two prior funds (Fund I and Fund II) as would have been appropriate. It claimed that MG had raised over $1 billion for the two earlier funds. Based upon their successful raises for Funds I and II, MG projected a successful raise for Fund III of over $500 million. According to the SEC, they actually raised about $58 million, based upon the strength of their prior success with Funds I and II.

Unfortunately, neither Fund I nor Fund II actually existed. On its website, CrowdStreet makes the following claim: “We evaluate the sponsor’s track record, including a review of their quarterly reporting, to confirm they have successfully executed on past deals and can demonstrate stewardship of investor capital. We specifically look for successes in the asset type they are trying to bring to the Marketplace. We want to work with sponsors that value direct relationships with investors and have the infrastructure to support those investors for the duration of the project.”

Forgive me for asking the obvious question but how do you “evaluate” a track record that does not exist?

SEC

According to the SEC, Malley and MG Capital made numerous other misrepresentations in their marketing materials and offering documents, including claiming that investors’ capital was “100% protected from loss” and secured by a non-existent $250 million balance sheet. MG also  claimed that they had partnerships with hundreds of prospective tenants with pre-signed, multi-year lease agreements.

Just the statement “100% protected from loss” is a red flag for any capable due diligence officer. Any private placement is a speculative investment and investors are always advised that they may lose all or part of their investment.

If a company like MG Capital presented a balance sheet claiming $250 million, a good due diligence officer would have asked for an audit. Crowdstreet’s due diligence files should have had a sampling of those leases sufficient to satisfy that MG’s representations were true.

Also according to the SEC, Malley and MG Capital misappropriated more than $7 million in investor assets while using falsified financial reports to conceal huge losses that ultimately forced the two funds into wind-down. At least one early investor sued MG as early as May 2019.

In truth, I don’t follow CrowdStreet, nor did I have any reason to doubt the honesty of its management. I was prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they had just been bamboozled by the bad actors at MG Capital.

What actually got my attention was the fact that CrowdStreet is looking for a new President and Chief Compliance Officer. LinkedIn dropped a notice of that job offering into my feed because their algorithm thought it matched my skill set. After 40 plus years syndicating real estate even I thought it was a good match.

I sent in an application last week, in part because the Golden State Warriors were losing (badly), in part because the job was being offered as “remote” which was interesting to me, and in part because if the problem with MG Capital was a one-off, I could probably help them to compartmentalize their exposure.

It took them one day to tell me that my skill set was not what they desired.

Upon further investigation it appears that lawyers who represent investors are lining up to sue CrowdStreet for offerings it hosted that had nothing to do with MG Capital. And let’s be clear, in order for an investor to sue, the investor needs to show that they lost money. In this bull market for real estate, that is hard to do. If CrowdStreet hosted a number of offers where investors were defrauded, in my experience and opinion, the problem at CrowdStreet is a systemic failure.

In addition to a new slate of managers, CrowdStreet is moving from Portland to Austin, Texas. If I had to guess, I suspect that this is the beginning of its winding down process and an attempt to distance the current management from the stench they created.

Multi-Million Dollar Scandal

CrowdStreet may turn out to be a huge, multi-year, multi-million dollar scandal that will turn investors off to the idea of buying shares in a real estate project from a website. That would be a huge black eye for the crowdfunding industry as a whole. 

Notwithstanding, the crowdfunding industry “experts” will, at best, lament this as an aberration. The idea of teaching every platform or portal operator how to conduct a legitimate due diligence investigation is a non-starter. Believe me, I have offered to teach at least one platform that consistently hosts offerings that are BS for free and got turned down.

As I have said before, the crowdfunding industry needs to re-focus on investor protection or the investors the industry cannot live without will continue to stay away.

If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please contact me directly HERE

Or you can book a time to talk with me HERE

Making the New Capitalism Efficient

Making the New Capitalism Efficient

Economic theory teaches us that in a perfect world capital would always be allocated to its best use. The best use is always viewed from the perspective of the person or entity that is deploying the capital. Consequently we normally calculate the best use as the highest rate of return that the capital can reasonably achieve. The object is always to use money to make money.

To further this goal, capital has always been deployed to companies that have had the best chance of success. A due diligence process is employed to separate the best companies from those that the market deems less worthy. While far from perfect, this system has historically worked well enough to create our modern society with few truly innovative ideas left by the wayside, meaning unfunded.

In the last 20 years, some people with capital have been content to deploy it for other, more altruistic reasons. Specifically, they want to make capital available to people who have no access to the mainstream capital markets and others who for a variety of reasons could not get funded.

This new capitalism has taken two innovative forms, micro-lending and crowdfunding. Each has the potential to put capital into the hands of people who otherwise would never have access to it. Both have the potential to be transformative at the lowest tier of the global economic system. Neither is focused on highest rate of return as its primary goal.

In its purest form a micro-loan is very small and will often help a subsistence level individual transform into a capitalist. Micro-loans are frequently used to purchase one sewing machine to create a manufacturer; one shipment of goods at wholesale to create a merchant. Some micro-loans are used by a rural community to purchase one used truck or tractor. The benefits of these loans are obvious.

As originally envisioned, micro-loans were often interest free or loaned at an interest rate low enough to cover only the lender’s overhead and the costs of defaults. Even though no one who gets a micro-loan has a FICO score, statistics show the rate of default worldwide to be very low. As much as 97% of the loans are repaid. As conceived, micro-lending is a model of market efficiency.

Unfortunately, as this industry has developed and matured, there are some places where micro-loan programs are managed by bloated bureaucracies. There are stories of interest rates that would make loan sharks blush, corruption and exploitation in the lending process and misappropriation of funds intended for borrowers.

Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding is a remarkable tool for capital formation. Its successful utilization still eludes too many small businesses who might benefit most from an infusion of capital.

The crowdfunding industry still suffers from “experts’ who have no idea how to raise capital. Fraud remains a problem because no one really vets the companies that seek funding. The process itself can be expensive and is often hit or miss even though it does not need to be.

Investors who buy into the equity of a small company on a crowdfunding platform must understand they may take a total loss. Even if the company is initially successful, there is no liquidity for the equity that investors purchase.

There is, I would think, a way to combine the micro-loans with crowdfunding in a way that would remove much of the inefficiency. I think it would be welcomed in the developing world.

In most developing countries there are universities whose students are themselves often making the transition to the middle class. They should appreciate that strengthening the underclass will provide a greater market for the products and services that they themselves will eventually make and/or sell.

What I would propose is that each university in developing countries create a crowdfunding program to enable students to fund micro-loan programs in their own communities.

Most peer-to peer lending platforms allow companies in need of loans to borrow from multiple individuals, essentially syndicating each loan. I envision the university students creating a single fund from which to make micro-loans to many borrowers.

I would ask the students to fund the program by purchasing shares in the fund with a small yearly tithe for the 4 years that they are students and for a few years after they graduate. Call it a 10 year voluntary commitment to purchase shares.

Additional funds would come from sale of shares to faculty, alumni, local banks, businesses and importantly, each country’s expatriate community. University students in western countries could partner with university students in developing countries. All anyone need do to participate is buy one share.

I have intentionally left out any local government involvement or participation. Direct government participation rarely adds efficiency to anything.

Business students and volunteer faculty at each university would administer the fund. This would remove much of the costs and corruption. It would give these students valuable experience evaluating business proposals and detailed knowledge about the local economy that will not be found in their textbooks.

Borrowers would pay a fixed interest rate. A rate of 6% might be sufficient to cover the risk of defaults and provide some amount of internal growth. Real growth for the fund will come from new students who will join the program each year as they enter college.

At some point each fund would reach a predetermined principal amount and be closed. In the US and elsewhere a closed-end mutual fund can become registered and be listed and traded in the regulated securities markets. This would provide liquidity to these crowdfunded investments where none exists.

Even after it is closed, a fund can continue to collect payments on existing loans and make new loans year after year. There would be no reason or requirement for it to liquidate.

As the fund grows after it is closed the per-share value will continue to appreciate. Providing for growth and a liquid market would mean that shareholders could expect to make a profit from their investment.

The closing of one fund will be followed by the opening of a new fund to replicate the process. Over time, multiple funds will exist in every country that wants them, sponsored and funded by university students and others who will see both the benefits of the program and the potential for their own modest profit.

Replicated university to university and country to country a program like this would have a demonstrable effect within a decade. On a continuing basis it has the ability to transform communities and economies in the developing world from the bottom up.

It is an opportunity to demonstrate that altruism and capitalism are not mutually exclusive.

If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please contact me directly HERE

Or you can book a time to talk with me HERE

What is a dream worth?

What is a dream worth

A long time ago, when I was a young lawyer fresh out of school, I was walking with a friend along a side street in Manhattan, probably in the West 30s. There were brownstones on both sides of the street. We stopped in front of one that had a small shop on the street level.

In the window were two shelves on which were displayed a series of antique dolls, doll clothes and doll carriages and furniture. Many seemed to be from the early 20th Century, if not earlier. The shop was dark and the sign on the door said: Hours by Appt. Only.

“Interesting business” I remarked. My friend responded: “That isn’t a business, it is someone’s dream”.

In some ways, every entrepreneur and small business owner is a dreamer. They try to turn the intangible, an idea, into something tangible, a business. Assigning a value to any business is not an easy task. While the business is still a dream it is virtually impossible.

Valuations

Of all the things that we teach business school students, corporate valuation is given very little time or attention. When a business needs to be valued because it is being bought or sold the task is relegated to accountants. Accountants plug data about earnings and assets into established formulas and come up with a value. 

Accountants can determine the “book value” of a business by subtracting the company’s liabilities from its assets. That rarely tells the whole story. What if there is little or no data? What if the business has no earnings or assets?

Assets are placed on a balance sheet at cost and are then depreciated over time. The true value of the asset is not always represented in the financial reports. Some assets, especially real estate can often appreciate over time to greatly exceed their cost.

We teach that real estate should ultimately be valued at its highest and best use. A developer may see a dilapidated old farm as the site of a shopping mall or residential development. Still, the current owner carries the farm on its books at cost minus depreciation. The value of any parcel of real estate can change dramatically in the time it takes to hold a press conference announcing a new development.

Accountants will often add a line item for the company’s “good will” which is more often than not the accountant’s way of capturing the value of the business as a going concern, including the value of its brand and customer base. This, too, is far from perfect.

I have helped many clients buy or sell a business over the years. If they use a business broker to facilitate the transaction, they are likely to hear that a business is “worth” 3 times next year’s projected earnings.

This may not be a proper method of valuing a small business either. It is modeled after the way that many research analysts predict the future price of publicly traded securities. But with privately held companies, the risk is often higher so the price for which it sells, logically should be lower. 

Yes, I know that this is the antithesis of the view practiced by venture capital firms who are often dealing with companies that have little more than an idea that they want to bring to market. These companies do not have earnings or assets. The values assigned to portfolio companies by venture capital firms have no basis in reality nor are they entitled to be included in any serious discussion of finance.

IP

Intellectual property like patents, copyrights and trademarks are very hard to value at the time they are first obtained. No author knows that they have a best seller on the day their book is published. Few know that their book will be made into a movie or that anyone will pay to see it. So, what is the “value” of any book on the day before the manuscript goes to the publisher?

As an example, I have a friend who is a noted cartoonist. Her characters were originally published in the US for an American audience but have found a huge following in Japan. Was that in her business plan when she sat down to draw those characters for the first time? Hardly.

One of the interesting things about intellectual property such as copyrighted material, is that it can be segmented in myriad ways. A novelist can sell the right to have his book published in the US to one publisher and the rights to publish the book in a dozen other countries, or a dozen other languages to a dozen other publishers. The theatrical rights and film rights to the same novel can also be segmented and sold. In the right circumstances, the rights to produce and sell merchandise that derives from the novel may be the most valuable rights of all.

The value of intellectual property can vary greatly based upon how it is used and how it is sold. Young Bill Gates might have sold the operating system he purchased from a third party to IBM for a nice profit and gone on to do something else. Instead, he licensed the software and received a royalty every time IBM sold a PC with the operating system in it. The result was the Microsoft Corporation which made Gates the world’s richest man. We use a lot of royalty or revenue sharing arrangements in crowdfunding because they are clean and simple.

1990’s

Back in the 1990s when there was a new and disruptive technology introduced every day, I would ask my students if they could identify the most valuable intellectual property that was in use in the 20th Century. It had been a century of tremendous innovation, much of which had been superseded by even better innovation. Many very valuable patents and other IP had become worthless.

The object of the exercise was for them to identify a simple idea that had been patented, trademarked or copyrighted, that had become very valuable even though no one could have predicted the magnitude of its success on day one. I wanted to demonstrate just how difficult it was to value things that had never been done before. Two pieces of IP stood out.

The first was the copyrighted image that is Mickey Mouse. The media giant that is Disney today started with an animated short film of a mouse whistling.  Maybe the most recognizable face on the planet, I do not believe that even Walt Disney would have valued the ownership of the copyright at anything close to its true value.

The second was the patented formula for Coca Cola. I have been in a Jeep in the middle of a jungle where the guide said that there was a village up ahead where we could stop and get a Coke. Pour yourself one and try to imagine how many cans and bottles they have sold. How would you have valued that patent on the day it was filed?

I think that I have made the point that placing a value on any business, especially a start-up, is a waste of time and effort. I will encourage any small business owner to dream big, but you just cannot put a number on it. 

If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please contact me directly HERE

Or you can book a time to talk with me HERE

Reg. CF – Will Fools Rush In?

Reg. CF – Will Fools Rush In?

I have written a lot of articles about crowdfunding in general and specifically about crowdfunding to accredited investors under Regulation D.  I have largely ignored the much smaller financings that are accomplished under Regulation Crowdfunding (Reg. CF) that accept investments from all comers. The time has come to fill that void.

REG CF

Reg. CF was the last of the regulations issued by the SEC under the JOBS Act.  It embodied much of what proponents of the Act had wanted….a sanctioned method for community funding for start-ups and small businesses. 

The first Reg. CF offerings began in May 2016. Despite a few success stories, the Reg. CF marketplace has yet to mature.  I do not see that coming at any time soon, despite the out-sized need for small business capital.

Reg. CF created a new class of financial intermediary called “portals” which are essentially websites where companies seeking investors are displayed.  But the portals are more than just websites.

The SEC wanted this market to be regulated, in part to protect investors from fraudulent offerings and in part to provide the companies seeking capital with a way to interact with investors in a regulated environment. The SEC required the portals to register with FINRA, the stock brokerage industry’s regulator, and to adhere to FINRA’s regulations.     

Until recently only about 50 portals had been registered with FINRA, a number that had been fairly static for a while. A small handful of the portals handle the bulk of the transactions.  Some of the earlier portals have quietly gone out of business. The rest quietly grind out only a few offerings at a time. 

Top Ten REG CF Portals Ranked By Capital Raised 2020

Reg. CF required that investors be given specified disclosures about each company.  It set baselines for the presentation of financial information and set limits on how much any small investor could invest every year in these very risky ventures.  A required filing gives the SEC specific information about each offering. 

Reg. CF allows companies to raise no more than $1,070,000 in a single year. For reference, the average loan guaranteed by the SBA is closer to $600,000. The SBA guarantees about 40,000 loans per year and rejects a similar amount. There are many thousands of small companies that do not come up to SBA standards.

A great many companies would have their capital needs satisfied with much less than $1,000,000.  These companies should be looking to Reg. CF portals but are not. The portals have not demonstrated that every listing will get funded which is what any company should want.   

A very large percentage of the offerings that list on Reg. CF portals raise very little money.  Still, a great many start-ups and small businesses ask for very little.  Many of the offerings seek less than $100,000. 

Many of those small offerings do not employ a specialized marketing company or even an organized crowdfunding advertising campaign.  Too many of the campaigns rely solely upon the company’s existing social media contacts which are rarely enough to get the company funded. 

Portals

Very, very few of the portals are wildly profitable, if at all, even though the compensation structure is patterned after the wildly profitable mainstream stock brokerage industry.  Most portals charge close to 7% of the funds every company raises. The very best portals raise a total of less than $1 million every week.  This against a backdrop of so many companies in need of capital.

Five new portals were registered this month and the scuttlebutt around the industry is that another dozen portals more or less are in various stages of the registration process. Many anticipate that the SEC will raise the limit to $5 million. That may or may not happen and it will have little import since most of the portals have no idea how to raise even $100,000.

Just in the last few months, I have spoken with several people planning new Reg. CF portals. With one exception, none of these new portal owners knew anything about selling securities which is the business of any portal. None seemed particularly interested or focused on helping the listing companies raise the funds that they seek, even though the portals get paid a percentage of the funds that are raised.

FINRA

FINRA has always been a fairly lax regulator.  Notwithstanding, like many regulators, FINRA can get their teeth into you. They especially like to tangle with smaller firms that would rather settle than fight. 

Reg. CF – Will Fools Rush In?

I expect FINRA to get more involved as it is aware that the investors themselves have little recourse. If an investor invests in a Reg. CF offering that is a total scam no lawyer is going to file a suit against the portal if the loss is only $500.  Even a $1 million Reg. CF offering is likely too small for a class action.

FINRA has its own set of portal rules and an established set of standards and practices.  FINRA views the portals as being in the business of selling securities to public customers and should be expected to act accordingly.

Several people in the crowdfunding industry have suggested to me that crowdfunding platforms and portals have no real liability if an offering they host uses fraudulent or deceptive means to attract investors.  At least with portals, that is categorically not true.

FINRA’s Rules for Portals specifically forbids the portals from engaging in fraudulent conduct with the same language it prohibits the mainstream stock brokers. As the portals do not have trading desks, the only place the portals might engage in fraudulent conduct is regarding the offerings they host.

FINRA expects each of its Members to have some system in place to verify the information that the listing companies provide to the public investors.  FINRA has warned its members to not accept the self-serving statements of the founders of these companies at face value.  In many ways, this is the antithesis of the approach that many portals take, especially with start-ups. 

I have said before: when a portal lists an offering for a pre-revenue company, with negative or minimal book value, and allows the company to claim a “valuation” of tens of millions of dollars it is a fraud.  What some VC might think or say about the company is not regulated in the same way as a firm registered with FINRA.  The lawyers who allow the portals they represent to make a misrepresentation as to the “value” of a company are not doing anyone any favors. 

There are very few lawyers who work with Reg. CF portals. Every one of the lawyers that I have met or spoken with was a very competent professional.  But not all of them could really see Reg. CF offerings from the investor’s point of view which FINRA is likely to adopt as its own.

I recently spoke with an attorney who represents one Reg. CF portal and who is in the process of helping a client set up another.  His new client writes a blog with a lot of followers. The blog features articles about specific start-ups.  His client frequently appears on podcasts that get a significant amount of viewers. The client hopes to leverage his notoriety to help the companies that list their offerings on his new portal.

Rules Are Rules

FINRA expects portal owners to follow its rules regarding communications with the public.  When you are selling securities much of what you can and cannot say is regulated.  There is also a list of things that you must say when talking about an offering where you expect to collect a fee if the offering is successful.

Reg. CF – Will Fools Rush In?

FINRA has already expelled one portal owner for what he said about an offering in an interview away from his portal. There will be others.

I asked the attorney if the portal he was working on had an in-house compliance officer with experience to check all the scripts and the advertising copy for compliance before it is released.  He told me that his client had not even thought about it.

That is the nub of the problem.  Only one of the new portal owners with whom I spoke had a clear idea of how they would find companies to fund or how to make certain that there were always more investors available than securities to sell.  And that is really crucial to the success of this business.

Adding 20 new portals to a market where most of the portals are not profitable is likely to result in a race to the bottom rather than the top.  Adding more portals whose operators lack essential experience and trained compliance officers is not going to get more small businesses funded correctly.

Ideally, there would already be 50 portals each supplying $1 million per week or more for start-ups and small businesses.  Another 20 would be welcome, especially now when the need for small business capital is great.

With Reg. CF the SEC offered a truly new and relatively simple method of corporate finance for small business.  FINRA offers a roadmap to compliance and respectability. The road to success will come when the portal owners start acting like they are in the business of selling securities and focus on doing exactly that. Sadly, I do not see that happening any time soon.

If there are any portal owners out there who are ready to give up because they cannot run their portal profitably, I have some clients who would be interested in acquiring your registration to help you to salvage something from your efforts.  Serious inquiries only.

If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please contact me directly HERE

Or you can book a time to talk with me HERE

Start-ups Don’t Have to Fail

start-ups don't have to fail

I think that it is patently absurd for people to accept the fact that 90% of start-ups will fail in their first year or two.  That number screams that the market for new business formation is not efficient.  Economics teaches that markets hate inefficiency and always strive to do better. But this is one statistic that never seems to change.

I have read quite a few books and a lot of articles written by so-called experts dissecting why start-ups fail and how to make them succeed.  Much of it is nonsense.

There are really only three primary reasons why a new business will fail; 1) the owner lacks basic business acumen; 2) the business is under-capitalized and 3) the business misread the market. All can and should be avoided if the entrepreneur knows what he/she is doing.  Usually lack of experience and the ability to run the business profitably is what leads to the failure.  There are a lot of would-be entrepreneurs who do not know what a successful business looks like or how to run one.

It is hard to find an article that discourages entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. But some people need to be discouraged because they do not have what it takes.  Fortunately, most of those people could learn what they need to know even though most will not.

Economics

When I was teaching economics I used the example of a restaurant, specifically a small pizza parlor, as a way of demonstrating how profitable a restaurant or any business can be.  Of all start-ups, restaurants often top the list of those that fail most often and more quickly than other businesses. That should not be.

In the example, the restaurant’s owner stops on his way to work to buy the ingredients that he needs, flour, cheese, tomato paste, pepperoni, etc. to make the pizzas.  If he opens his shop at 11AM, he can convert all of those ingredients into pizzas and back into cash, at a healthy mark-up, by the time he closes that evening. That type of rapid inventory turn-over is almost impossible to get in any other business.

Start-ups Don't Have to Fail

Customers at a pizza parlor are not expecting table cloths and fancy décor so overhead can be kept to a minimum. Since the pizzas come out of the oven one or two at a time, the wait staff can handle more tables than the staff at other restaurants. They may use paper plates and paper cups eliminating the cost of a dishwasher. In most cases, advertising can be done cheaply with signage, flyers and coupons.

Couple that with the fact that the other product the restaurant sells, fountain soft drinks, has a huge mark-up and you can see why a small pizza restaurant can make a lot of money.  If he owner is really smart, he will add a soft serve ice cream dispenser as well because it also has a very high mark-up and will substantially increase the total amount of sales and profit per customer.

The further away the restaurant gets from this simple model, the greater the chance that it will fail.  Nothing about this discussion has a lot to do with the pizza or how good it is. It is all about the numbers, especially money in and out; how to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

The problem with most people who start a restaurant is that they plan the menu around what they want to serve or what they think they need to serve to attract customers, not on how much money they will make. Likewise, most start-ups focus on their product. But they also need to keep their eyes on the numbers. That is where start-ups succeed or fail.

The real lesson here for any business and especially start-ups is that what you are doing is a business. To make it work you need to be focused on the bottom line. If you cannot operate the business at a profit, it cannot succeed.  So why do 90% of start-ups fail: because their expenses are greater than their income.

When someone asks me what I consider to be essential for any new business, I always include an adequate bookkeeping system so the business owner can easily keep track of cash flow, inventory turn-over, etc. It is very difficult to find that suggestion on the list of start-up essentials in any of the hundreds of articles on the subject in Inc. or Entrepreneur Magazine.

Start-ups Don't Have to Fail

The best advice for any start-up would be to “work smart and spend your time and your money wisely”.   That is especially true if you are looking for investors. Investors are expecting you to make money and they are expecting that you have what it takes to run a business and that you know what you are doing.

There are still thousands of articles about how to pitch VCs for funding. Over all VCs fund very few companies each year and many thousands of entrepreneurs are trying to get their attention because that is what the articles tell them to do.  Pitching to VCs may be the single biggest waste of time and money that any start-up does, especially so if you have to get on an airplane to make your pitch.

On the other hand, boot strapping can be very hard and the lack of cash can hold you back, delay your progress and cause you to fail just when you were beginning to succeed.  It is a lot easier to focus on your business when there is money in the bank to pay the bills.

Being able to raise seed capital so that you can focus and move forward is also an indication of other people’s evaluation of you and what you are attempting to do.  Feedback from potential investors on your seed round is important. Comments and suggestions, especially negative ones, will help you move forward.

Fund raising for start-ups has become remarkably easy with the JOBS Act and equity crowdfunding.  There is a lot of money available. It works for most start-ups because they can control the process and make it work.  I started walking companies through the process 3 years ago. Feel free to contact me if you are considering raising capital through crowdfunding or are raising capital and never considered crowdfunding.

A start-up is not a start-up until it starts-up.  Every business begins when it makes its first sale. It is a lot more difficult to raise funds for a pre-revenue company versus one which has a product already being sold. Pre-revenue you need a great business plan and a team to carry out your plan.  A good idea for a new business is important but execution is everything.

Given that financing a pre-revenue company is difficult, no one should plan on doing it twice; once to build your prototype product and again to launch it.  So an article that suggests that should raise money to create a  MVP (minimum viable prototype) and then again to take it to market is not really not helpful.   If you are going to raise seed capital to get your company off the ground, you should raise enough to get your product into the market, sustain your company until it is profitable, cover the costs of raising more money to help it grow and usually a small reserve in case things do not go exactly to plan.

There seems to be another stream of start-up gospel that suggests if you want to succeed you need to disrupt the market or solve a problem that nags the market. It is vitally important that you understand your market but you do not have to disrupt anything.

Nothing about the pizza parlor solves any specific problems that cannot already be solved in the marketplace. There is no new technology; no bells and whistles; no Blockchain.  While in a competitive market like New York City everyone knows a good slice from a not so good slice, I have waited on line at pizza parlors in small college towns around the US for some really mediocre pizza.

I look at a lot of pitch decks and I speak with a lot of entrepreneurs. Sometimes I can tell that the person just does not have what it takes to operate a successful business.  When that happens, I usually ask a lot of questions. How will the business operate post-launch? What are the sales goals month to month and where will the sales come from?  Where is your break-even point?

From day-one, the focus needs to be not on just starting up but staying open. The reason that 90% of start-ups fail is a lack of execution by the founders. If every entrepreneur focused on running the business well, that number would plummet.

If you are thinking about opening your own business, take a moment to have a slice a pizza and consider why that pizza parlor is successful.  Do that for fifty businesses. Look at what they are doing right and what you would do better.  Quantify how much more money the business would make if they did things your way.

Once you can analyze what makes other businesses successful, you will on the road to making your own business successful as well.  Sadly, the vast majority of people who are considering their own start-up would fail at this exercise. That, more than anything is why the 90% failure rate for start-ups is with us year after year.

If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please contact me directly HERE

Or you can book a time to talk with me HERE