DreamFunded – Crowdfunding the Dream – Poorly

One of my pet peeves about the crowdfunding industry is that the so-called professionals take Pollyanna views of bad acts and bad actors. They ignore felons and felonies. When someone screws over investors, they make excuses or worse, simply ignore it.

When the SEC brought its very first action against a crowdfunded offering, Ascenergy, I wrote an article about it. I called out how the lack of due diligence would be a problem for the industry. That was in 2015.  A lot of people told me then that the crowdfunding industry would get its act together.

In 2016 when FINRA brought its first action closing down crowdfunding portal UFunding, I wrote an article pointing out the need for better compliance for crowdfunding portals. The crowdfunding industry gave a concerted yawn.

I have written several articles about companies that were raising money on crowdfunding platforms that looked and smelled like scams.  No one else seems willing to do so. The idea of protecting investors from scams and scam artists seems to be an anathema to the crowdfunding industry.

So I really was not that surprised when someone sent me a disciplinary complaint that FINRA had lodged against one of the better known Reg. CF crowdfunding portals last April.  Even though the industry publications had published every press release and puff piece about this portal while it was operating, I could not find even a mention of the FINRA complaint in the crowdfunding media, let alone a serious discussion about what this platform had done wrong. Perhaps I missed it.

It is not like FINRA’s complaint was not noteworthy. The portal, DreamFunded, was owned by Manny Fernandez a serial angel investor, CNBC celebrity, White House invitee and noted author who has appeared on many TV shows and podcasts and in article after article about crowdfunding. If you are going to run any business having a celebrity out front is usually an asset.  But that does not mean that a celebrity can run the business.

Mr. Fernandez was able to assemble a large group of well credentialed advisors for his portal, some of whom were angels and VCs, but all of whom apparently lacked experience in the business that the portal was set up to do, sell securities to investors.  No competent securities attorney was involved even though selling securities is a highly regulated business.

The crowdfunding industry is supposed to follow those regulations but quite often does not.  FINRA’s complaint against DreamFunded and Mr. Fernandez lays out a road map exactly on how not to run a crowdfunding portal. And, again, the industry has ignored it.

At the heart of the complaint is the fact that companies that were selling securities on the platform were lying to investors or making unsupported claims about their business. That is securities fraud, plain and simple.  Every crowdfunding platform or portal is supposed to take steps to see that it does not happen.  DreamFunded listed fraudulent offerings on its portal even when the fraud was obvious. And worse, Fernandez affirmatively told lies to investors himself to help at least one of those companies scam investors.

DreamFunded operated as a funding portal beginning in July 2016, shortly after Reg. CF became effective, until November 2017 when FINRA apparently began to ask questions about its operation. During that time, it managed to list only 15 companies. How many of those offerings actually raised the funds they were seeking is not disclosed. FINRA takes specific issue with three of the offerings.

The first was a social networking company that had no assets, revenue, or operating history.  Notwithstanding, it claimed a $1 million valuation without providing any support or basis for that valuation. Valuation of pre-revenue start-ups is a significant problem in crowdfunding but you will not find a discussion about it at any of the industry conferences.

The company also claimed that it was in a “$9B market,” that it could achieve a “$900MM+ market cap” and that it projected 100 million active users by its fifth year of operation.  The company claimed that its exit strategy was to be acquired at a sales target of $500 million, which would provide a significant return to investors. The company then listed numerous well-established internet and technology companies as potential “strategic acquisition partners” with no basis or support for doing so.

The company closed its offering early without notifying investors as it was required to do.   “DreamFunded, through Fernandez, transferred the investor funds raised through DreamFunded’s portal to the personal checking account of the company’s CEO. Communications from the CEO available to DreamFunded and Fernandez at that time indicated that the relevant checking account had a negative account balance and was being charged overdraft fees.” No competent securities lawyer would have allowed that to happen but apparently consulting with an attorney who understood this business was not in Mr. Fernandez’ playbook.

The second of those offerings involved a health and wellness company, which claimed assets of less than $5,000 and prior-year (2016) revenue of $12,250. Elsewhere it also claimed assets of $2.3 million, which it attributed almost entirely to an online content library, though it provided no support or basis for this valuation.

Moreover, the company’s “business plan” projected 2017 revenue of $500,000 and 2018 revenue of $2 million but provided no basis or support for these projections.  According to FINRA, the company made unrealistic comparisons between itself and established companies and falsely implied that it was endorsed by a leading entertainment and lifestyle celebrity.

DreamFunded stated on its website that it followed the Angel Capital Association’s “strict due diligence guidelines,” the purpose of which was to “mitigate investment risk by gaining an understanding of a company and its market.” DreamFunded also claimed that the firm’s “due diligence and deal flow screening team screened each company that applied to be featured on the DreamFunded platform.”

DreamFunded and Fernandez did not follow the Angel Capital Association’s due diligence guidelines. Likewise, DreamFunded did not have a due diligence and deal flow screening team. Its claims of due diligence and deal flow screening were false and unwarranted and were designed to mislead investors into a false sense of security regarding the level of due diligence conducted with respect to the offerings featured on the DreamFunded portal.

There is a horrible lack of real due diligence in the crowdfunding industry but that is really not the problem here.  In plain English, the problem here, in my opinion, is Mr. Fernandez’ lack of honesty and integrity. The problem is that Mr. Fernandez apparently has a problem telling investors the truth.

Fernandez was a guest on a cable television network program that purported to match inventors with investors. On the program, Fernandez claimed to have invested $1 million for 30 percent ownership in a third company which subsequently conducted an offering through DreamFunded’s funding portal. Fernandez had not, in fact, made any investment in the company. His statement that he had made an investment was a lie and it seems that it was intended to help that company successfully complete its offering on the platform.

Despite the fact that he lied to investors, I am confident that Fernandez could have settled this complaint with FINRA and would have been permitted to continue to operate DreamFunded provided he cleaned up his act. There are larger FINRA member firms which have done far worse that FINRA has fined but whose memberships they have not revoked.  But Mr. Fernandez’ duplicity did not end with lying to investors, it looks like he lied to FINRA as well.

From the FINRA complaint:

“On January 5 and January 19, 2018, DreamFunded and Fernandez provided limited document productions in response to only a subset of the requests contained in the Rule 8210 request. For example, they did not produce financial records, bank account statements and investor agreements responsive to the request. Without such documents, FINRA staff was unable to fully investigate whether Fernandez and/or DreamFunded violated additional rules in connection with their fundraising efforts conducted ostensibly on behalf of DreamFunded. 

The January 19 production was accompanied by a doctor’s note representing that Fernandez was ill and unable to work between January 17 and January 20, 2018. In light of the doctor’s note, FINRA staff granted DreamFunded and Fernandez yet another extension of time, until January 29, 2018, to provide a complete response to the Rule 8210 request.

On January 25, 2018, new counsel informed FINRA staff that he too would no longer be representing DreamFunded or Fernandez. The following day, Fernandez sent FINRA staff a second doctor’s note, this one dated January 23, 2018, which stated that Fernandez would be unable to resume a normal workload until February 5, 2018. The note did not identify any illness that Fernandez was suffering from or otherwise specify the reason for his alleged inability to work. Moreover, during the time period when Fernandez claimed he was incapacitated, his social media posts indicate that he traveled out of town to enjoy, among other things, a film festival in Salt Lake City and a concert in Las Vegas.”

In truth, Mr. Fernandez did not want to maintain his membership in FINRA.  At the first whiff of the investigation he filed the paperwork to withdraw his membership and just walked away.

What he left behind were perhaps thousands of investors who were defrauded and a number of start-ups and small companies that may be sued by those investors.  These are investors who gave crowdfunding a try and who are unlikely to give it a try again. As I said, the crowdfunding industry has refused to condemn this fraud and in my opinion is shooting itself in the foot by ignoring it.

Operating a crowdfunding platform can be a very lucrative business. There is no shortage of small companies looking for funding. Several of the Reg. CF portals charge 7% of the money that a company raises and take a carried interest in the companies which can be very valuable if one actually takes off.  I can tell you from experience that a good portal should be able to raise $2-$3 million a month or more.  Paired with a Reg. D platform side by side, a good team could demonstrate that the JOBS Act can deliver everything it promised.

I have actually worked in the securities industry; this is my home turf.  If I had a backer, I would open a crowdfunding portal tomorrow because a well run portal can make a lot of money. (This is a serious request. I am actually looking for a backer who wants to make more than reasonable ROI. Send me an e-mail if you want to fund a crowdfunding portal run by a serious team of professionals.)

As for Mr. Fernandez, like a lot of people who failed at crowdfunding he has apparently moved on to greener pastures. He currently speaks at crypto currency conferences and undoubtedly holding himself out as a financial “professional”.

The crowdfunding industry is busy lobbying Congress asking it to change the rules to make it easier for more small investors to participate in this marketplace. Perish the thought that they should spend any time or effort cleaning their own house first. Lobbying for more investors without real compliance with the existing rules and protecting the investors they already have is really a waste of time.

BrightCOIN- The Legally Compliant ICO?

I recently read an article citing a study that concluded that as many as 81% of initial coin offerings (ICOs) are scams. Several people contested that number but it cannot be too far off. If you have more than a cursory interest in crypto currency and ICOs it is hard to miss all of the discussion about ICO scams and what to do about them.

There is a general consensus among many in the ICO community that the ICOs need to stop kidding themselves that they are not securities and begin to seriously comply with US securities laws.  In crypto industry parlance, there is an expectation that ICOs have begun to evolve into STOs (securities token offerings).

A company issuing a securities token will need to register the offering with the SEC or seek an exemption from registration such as Regulation D.  Most STOs will be sold under Reg. D,in part because the SEC has yet to approve a registered offering and does not seem to be in any hurry to do so. US securities laws require that investors be given full disclosure of the facts that they need to make an intelligent decision whether or not to invest.

Around the same time, I came across a discussion on LinkedIn about an ICO for a company called BrightCOIN. The company is raising between $1 and $40 million to expand its tech platform which enables companies to launch their ICO in a “legally compliant” manner.

I read the white paper which is anything but legally complaint and I said so on LinkedIn. This got some brush back by the company’s CEO who commented, among other things that the company had a great lawyer who had helped prepare the white paper.  The CEO claims to be a Y Combinator alumnus with several successful start-ups under his belt. So, of course, he should have an excellent lawyer.

I offered to explain why I thought that lawyer needed to go back to law school and the CEO scheduled two appointments with me so the lawyer could tell me that he was right and I was wrong. They cancelled both appointments at the last minute.

The ICO for BrightCOIN is intended to be a Reg. D offering. I would have thought that since it was selling a service and a platform where other companies can make “legally compliant” offerings, BrightCOIN would have taken pains to make its own offering “legally complaint”. They missed by a mile.

The BrightCOIN offering document is in what is now being called a “white paper format”.  If you look at a lot of ICOs, a great many use this format. I do not know where it originated, but it does not generally make the disclosures that are required for a Reg. D offering in the format that the SEC expects. Using this format is an invitation to the SEC, state regulators and class action lawyers to come after you.

A Reg.D offering is also called a private placement and the offering document is called a private placement memorandum (PPM). There is a reason that most PPMs look alike. Back in the 1980s and 1990s regulators in several states required hands on review of every offering. I personally spent hours on the phone with the staff at these various state agencies going over specific language in Reg. D offerings. They usually wanted additional disclaimers; more risk disclosures; the words “this is a speculative investment” in the cover page in bold.

Congress eventually took away the states’ ability to comment on these offerings; but a lot of lawyers, including me, appreciate that much of what they wanted amounted to good practice. Disclosures are made for the benefit of the company that is raising the money. They are a prophylactic against legal action claiming fraud and misrepresentation.

BrightCOIN calls itself the Kickstarter for ICOs.  It is essentially a crowdfunding platform for ICOs including those private placements offered under Reg. D and registered offerings filed under Reg. A+.  BrightCOIN charges no upfront fees and will provide everything that a company needs to prepare and launch an ICO including “audited documentation”.

Of course Kickstarter does not handle any securities offerings. They operate in the world of “rewards based crowdfunding”, not securities crowdfunding, so the comparison to Kickstarter that BrightCOIN makes in its ICO white paper is meaningless.

Elsewhere BrightCOIN claims that it will become the “next Goldman Sachs” and compares itself to Goldman, Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan.  The white paper included the logos for those companies, all of which I suspect are trademarked.

Did Merrill Lynch give permission for its trademark to be used in this offering? Does Goldman Sachs even know that BrightCOIN exists?  Is there any way to read this hyperbole and not consider it to be misleading?

BrightCOIN claims that its tech platform is valuable because an entrepreneur considering launching their own Reg. A+ or Reg. D offering in the form of a token might spend as much as $500,000 to have the tech built.  By “tech” it appears to be speaking about the crowdfunding platform that they are offering.

The last time I saw a bid to build a crowdfunding platform from scratch (November 2017) the cost was $50,000 and that had some unique CRM capabilities built in. I made a few calls and to add a token capability to that would cost no more than another $50,000 and probably a lot less. Where BrightCOIN gets that $500,000 number is anyone’s guess.

In any event there is no reason to create the crowdfunding technology from scratch. If you want to open your own crowdfunding platform there are several companies that offer white label products for a small upfront fee and even smaller monthly charge. At least one that I know of comes with AML/KYC capability attached.

For any offering of securities to be “compliant” it must present information in such a way that it is balanced to point that it is not misleading. The BrightCOIN white paper is full of interesting and unsubstantiated hyperbole.

Around the world, it appears that 10% of the funds that have been invested in ICOs have been hacked. BrightCOIN claims its platform is “100% hack proof”.  I have spoken with large, mainstream financial institutions that spend a lot of money making their platforms “hack-resistant” but I do not know a single attorney who would put the phrase “100% hack proof” in a securities offering document.  The truth is no one knows if a platform is hack proof until it happens.

The white paper discusses how BrightCOIN can be used to “tokenize” assets like real estate making those assets more accessible to small investors who will be able to trade those tokens on a global basis. The white paper notes (in bold type) that there are over $200 trillion worth of assets that can be tokenized.  In the context it is presented, that statement is akin to me saying that there are 1 million single women in California implying that I will always have a date on Saturday night.

BrightCOIN claims their platform is fully functional and that they are already in business. Do they disclose how many offerings they have done and how much money those offerings have raised? They do not. They also claim that they offer consulting services to help a company prepare and market its ICO. Do they identify the people who perform these services? No.

BrightCOIN estimates that it may be able to list and sell 20 ICOs per month and might be able to take in $6.5 million per month in “success fees” if it does. The lawyer who they claim prepared this offering and who was supposed to call me and explain it to me should have told them that unless the platform is a licensed broker/dealer “success fees” are forbidden.  No where does the white paper suggest that BrightCOIN intends to become a licensed broker/dealer.

People always ask me how is it that I can spot these scams when other people cannot.  In most cases, like here, they do not pass the simple “smell test”. The founder, in my opinion, should simply stop this offering until it is actually compliant. If not people at Y Combinator should pull him aside and ask that he stop using their name.

In my opinion, the attorney, if he actually wrote this offering, which I doubt, should go back to chasing ambulances.  When you prepare an offering of securities, it is expected that people will call up and ask some questions as part of their due diligence investigation. Any attorney, who agrees to field those questions, cancels two phone calls and makes no attempt to reschedule them, should refund the client’s money.

The entire ICO market has been one con after another. Telling investors the truth is not that difficult but it seems to be the one thing that the ICOs just cannot seem to do.

 

Crowdfunding Successfully

Over the last 3 years’ equity crowdfunding has evolved into a fairly easy and inexpensive way to fund a business. More and more businesses, including start-ups, are attracting millions of dollars from investors without having to deal with Wall Street stockbrokers who charge hefty commissions or venture capitalists who want a hefty portion of their company.

I speak with companies every week that are considering crowdfunding as a way of finding investors.  The questions they asked a year ago centered on what crowdfunding is and how does it work. Today the questions are much more practical. They want to know how to get it done and how much it will cost.

One of the great mistakes that people make when they consider seeking outside investors is failing to consider the investment they are offering from an investor’s point of view. Investors expect that you are going to use their money to make more money.  Investors want a return on their investment and they expect some of the money that you make to find its way back into their pockets.

It is very important that you structure your offering to maximize the probability that investors will actually get the return you are promising. It is equally important that you clearly tell them what you are going to do to get there.

Structuring the offering correctly is a balancing act between an investment that will stand out from the pack and be attractive to investors and one that does not promise too much of the company’s profits that would stifle its growth or cause cash-flow difficulties. You can have a great little company with a great product and a huge upside but that does not mean you can attract investors if the offering itself and the return they will get is not attractive to them.

You can use crowdfunding to sell debt or equity in your company.  If you chose debt you get to set the terms and the interest rate. You get to decide whether the debt will be convertible to equity later on and if so when and on what terms. You can also sell common stock, preferred stock, convertible preferred or preferred stock that is callable. In many cases you can keep the financing off of your balance sheet by using a revenue sharing model or licensing your IP.

To structure an offering correctly you need to understand the company’s financial situation, cash flow and anticipated growth both of revenue and expenses.  You also need a good understanding of your competitors and how they approached their financing and the market if you are going to be competitive.

Serious investors look at your spread sheet first. They expect that you will be able to support the projections you are making with real facts and rational assumptions. If you are using investors’ funds to expand your business or introduce a new product into the market, you should have a good idea of what that market looks like, how you intend to reach it and what your competitors are doing.

Unless you have a finance professional on your staff or on your board of directors, you will need someone to help you structure and correctly set the terms of your offering. Very few of the crowdfunding platforms offer this type of advice, but that does not mean that you do not need it. The failure to understand finance is the root cause of the absurd valuations that are everywhere in crowdfunding and are a primary reason that serious investors will not look at your offering.

If you do not have a finance professional to help you, and the platform does not provide this type of advice, by default it is going to come down to the lawyer who is helping you prepare the offering paperwork. I have this discussion with clients almost every time I prepare an offering for crowdfunding.  If you are thinking about using a template to create the legal documents for your offering instead of a lawyer who can give you good advice you are likely to create an offering into which no one wants to invest.

Contrary to what any platform tells you very few platforms have a large audience of loyal investors ready willing and able to write you a check. I work with one platform that caters to institutional investors. Their investors are loyal because the platform is very picky about the companies that it will allow to list. Serious investors want this type of pre-vetting. Serious entrepreneurs want this type of investor.

Some of the worst advice you will get about raising money through crowdfunding is that you can use social media to build a community of potential investors or that crowdfunding for investors is a way to build your brand and solicit new customers at the same time. This actually makes no sense at all.

Customers and investors have divergent interests. Customers want you to sell them your product at the lowest price. They are consumers and think like consumers. Investors on the other hand want you to maximize your profits. They want you to sell your product for as much as the market will bear.

There are a significant number of people in the crowdfunding community who believe that the whole purpose of the JOBS Act is to allow small investors to invest in new companies. Both Regulation A+ and Regulation CF which were promulgated under the JOBS Act specifically allow for small investors.  Both are expensive and cumbersome. In my mind neither is worth the effort.

If you want to raise $1 million using Reg. A+ or Reg. CF you might expect an average investment of $250. That means you will need to reach 4000 investors. To obtain an investment from 4000 investors, your marketing campaign might need to reach 1,000,000 distinct prospects.

If you use Regulation D and make your offering to only accredited investors, you might set your minimum investment at $25,000. That way you need only 40 investors or less to raise the entire $1,000,000 and may need to reach out to only 10,000 prospects to do so.

I have worked with several of the marketing firms that specialize in equity crowdfunding. Some are more expensive than others. I always recommend spending your money on creating a good offering and a good presentation and not spending it on trying to reach 1,000,000 people or more

There are a lot of different crowdfunding platforms. Some specialize in funding real estate, some in solar projects and alternative energy projects. Sometimes a company can benefit by being on one of the larger, national platforms; often a local platform will work just as well.

There is technology available today that allows a company to set up its offering on its own website. You can set it up with what is essentially a drop box where the prospective investors can look at your offering and supporting documents. If an investor wants to invest, it will present the appropriate documents, accept his/her signature, verify the investor’s identity and qualifications and place the funds into an escrow account until the offering is completed.

You lose the advertising that a platform would do but you may gain from the fact that your offering is not competing with a dozen others all looking for investors. The fact that this technology is available has driven down the cost of listing on a platform.

Overall, if you want to raise between $1 and $5 million for your business using equity crowdfunding, legal and marketing costs and platform fees should run in the neighborhood of $50,000 more or less. Legal fees are usually the same but marketing costs increase with the number of investors you are trying to reach. Compared to the 10% fee that a stock brokerage firm would get, you can see why crowdfunding is becoming more and more popular.

 

Conning the Crowd

Equity crowdfunding allows companies to sell their stock or debt offerings directly to investors by placing the offerings on a website platform. No stockbroker or stockbrokerage firm is needed.

An industry of crowdfunding platforms, experts and attorneys has emerged to help these companies raise the capital they seek.  Some do it better than others.  There are several that I would recommend without reservation.  But at the same time, some people do it so poorly that they make a mockery of the whole idea.

Some of those who do it poorly are now suggesting that that equity crowdfunding is a failure.  In reality, those people were never equipped to do it correctly in the first place and never really understood what selling stock to investors entails.

The one idea that these people and others in the crowdfunding industry never embraced was that “no one wins unless the investors win”.  There will never be a shortage of companies looking for capital.  Connecting those companies with people willing to invest takes more than the passive approach that many of the crowdfunding platforms have adopted. If a platform says “we list any company” I would recommend that you find another platform.

There are a small number of platforms that are licensed brokerage firms or run by people who have experience in the mainstream brokerage industry. They seem to appreciate what it takes to make equity crowdfunding work. These platforms offer demonstrably better investments.

The better platforms take the time to carefully consider each company that comes to them seeking capital.  They will not just allow any company to list their offering on their website.  Funding only companies that have a chance of success and providing investors with a return on their investment is the key to success for any crowdfunding platform.

One of the assumptions that people who lobbied for the JOBS Act put forward was the idea that a crowd of investors has the ability to review the offering materials being put out by a new company, evaluate that information and make intelligent decisions about which companies to invest in and which to pass on by.  The crowd never had that ability. Unless you have a working knowledge of accounting, analyzing the balance sheet and income statements of any investment will always be difficult.

When I first looked at crowdfunding I wrote two separate articles about Reg. A+ offerings that I thought were deficient in a number of ways. My primary argument in each case was that the numbers just did not add up. I thought that each company was promising more than it likely could deliver to the investors.  If I owned the platform where these two offerings were listed, I would not have allowed either to list because if they smell like they may be scamming investors, they probably are.

Both of those companies, Elio Motors and Med-X were subsequently the defendants in regulatory actions.  There have not been that many Reg. A+ offerings to date and the fact that there have been several other regulatory actions concerning Reg. A+ offerings should raise the eyebrows of any serious people in the crowdfunding industry.  I have looked at a few other offerings that were clearly suspect as well, but which the regulators have not yet publicly questioned. For the most part, many in the crowdfunding industry just do not care if investors get a fair shake.

A great many people who own and operate crowdfunding platforms simply do not know what they are doing.  If the platforms do not reject these scams, how will they ever build the long term trust of the investors that the industry cannot live without?

Finally there was an idea that websites would develop where the crowd could share its evaluations of various offerings and where the issuers could respond to comments and clarify what they were offering to investors. A true give and take of information so that investors might make informed decisions.

In most cases this has not really happened.  For all the talk about the wisdom of the crowd, there are people who are so foolish that they will not listen when someone makes a cogent analysis of an offering that would lead anyone with an ounce of common sense to invest in something else.

Case in point.

Both Elio Motors and Med-X were listed on a crowdfunding platform called StartEngine.  As I said, neither should have been allowed to come to market because it was pretty obvious that neither was giving investors the whole story.

StartEngine (SE) is currently offering its own shares to public investors under Reg. A+. I wrote an article about StartEngine’s offering as well. I questioned why it was not making a profit in an industry that should be enormously profitable.  As with all my articles, I asked some hard questions, but I always try to be polite. That cannot be said for everyone.

In the name of transparency, StartEngine posts the comments people make about its offering right on its webpage.  Several people sent me this comment which was posted on the StartEngine offering page which I re-publish here verbatim:

-StartEngine is paying its founders $400k apiece per year. This is INSANITY.
-StartEngine is paying all of its EXECUTIVES over $1,000,000 per year!! This is also insanity.
-Half of that pay was in cash bonuses. This needs to be addressed by their CEO especially as they have not made any profits and are taking investor capital.
-Investors are being offered Common Stock NOT Preferred Stock as they should be offered.
-What does that mean? That means that the founders have significant liquidation preferences over the investors.
-You are asking your investors to assign their voting rights to the CEO. This may not even be completely legal.
-The valuation of the company is unheard of,especially for a company that has continually lost money without any profit.
-There is no road map or path to reaching a revenue breakeven point where you can even sustain operations without SIGNIFICANT additional capital commitments.
-Investors will be HEAVILY diluted after this raise or worse there will VERY likely be a down round.
-The fund raise leaves the company with VERY little cash reserves. Guaranteeing the need for more cash.
-StartEngine has to be in the process of registering as a  full broker dealer for what it needs to accomplish the goals stated.
-The language of the offering circular makes it appear that SE is doing everything it can to shield investors from knowledge of its current and actual future plans as well as prevent them from having any ability to have a voice in the company.
-Over $5,446,367 has been spent to date in deficit without any profits.
-StartEngine does not include any listing or sufficient breakdown on its technology
-There is a significant lack of data and information that you would find in a standard pitch deck of a seed stage startup
-There is no timeframe for the ending of this campaign.
-There is no coverage of an exit strategy or potential for one.
-StartEngine does rolling closings and does not disclose when or how it will go about these, directly in conflict with the traditional “crowdfunding” model of get to your goal or get your  money back.
-StartEngine does not cover much on its competitors or the competing models or market.
                Please address these issues.

Certainly this list includes some issues that the company would do well to address. This commentator is no idiot and he is one person of whom it can be said that there are people who can read and assess a crowdfunded offering. He is exactly the type of investor that the crowdfunding industry needs if it is going to succeed.

So did the company respond with a point by point explanation?  It did not.  This is the company’s response which I also republish verbatim:

Thank you for your comment. We believe our offering describes our business effectively, and clearly shows our goals for the future. In fact, your critique of the offering is only possible because we chose to be so transparent.  If you have a specific question about StartEngine that will help you to decide whether or not to invest, please ask. We’d like to provide all the information we can.

Personally, I never would have let a client of mine publish that response.  It strikes me as arrogant and treats a potential investor who asked intelligent questions as someone who can be ignored. To me it smacks of the Wizard of OZ saying “don’t look behind the curtain.”  I would have counseled a carefully worded point by point response that demonstrated respect for the potential investor.

In truth I would never have suggested that StartEngine prepare a Reg A + offering or seek public investors.  As the anonymous commentator points out for any number of reasons investors are going to have a difficult time making a profit on this investment. This is not a charity. The executives are taking out a substantial amount of money ever year.  Because the company is not profitable, some of the money they are taking home is likely to be the investors’ money.

Despite this, the same web page notes that StartEngine has over 400 new shareholders as a result of this offering.  If an active crowdfunding platform can successfully make this offering despite its flaws, why would it care if any of the offerings that were listing on its platform had any value or could possibly offer a return to the people who are investing in them?

In my mind Elio and Med-X were strikes one and two against StartEngine and this offering is strike three. I would not advise a client to list on their platform and I certainly would not advise a client to invest in any company that does. In my opinion, investors deserve and should demand better.

As I said, this offering and the commentary was sent to me by an acquaintance who has toiled in the crowdfunding industry and the commentary was also mentioned to me by others.  They privately say tsk-tsk but do not want to publicly say what needs to be said.

I look at it this way, not every stockbroker is honest or competent. When they do bad things investors lose money. No one hates to see a stockbroker taken away from his office in handcuffs more than the honest stockbroker working across the street.  Bad actors and stupid people just demean the reputation of the whole industry and make it more difficult for honest people to make a living. That is true in crowdfunding as well.

In the past two years I have spoken with a lot of hard working people in the crowdfunding industry who are trying to help small companies find investors by giving investors a solid chance to make a return commensurate with the risk they are taking. You know who you are. Keep up the good work.

 

 

 

Equity Crowdfunding 2018

I received year end 2017 reports from quite a few equity crowdfunding platforms and consultants. All were glowing with their accomplishments.  Several reported the number of offerings that had successfully raised money. None spoke of the offerings that paid the listing fees and failed to get funding.

Overall the equity crowdfunding industry continues to grow and become more popular with both issuers and investors.  Still, no one wants to look at the significant problems that still plague this industry.

There is absolutely no reason why any company that lists on a crowdfunding platform should not raise the money that it seeks.  There is no reason that investors should be offered the opportunity to invest in scams or in businesses that are unlikely to succeed.  The amount of effort that the crowdfunding industry expends to protect investors from scams and losses is virtually nil. The crowdfunding industry cannot expect to succeed if it does not get its act together and begin to address these issues.

Equity crowdfunding allows a company to sell its shares, bonds or notes directly to investors through a website rather than through a licensed stockbroker. That can save a company a lot of money. It also allows start-ups and companies that are too small for most stockbrokers to handle efficiently to raise capital.

A stockbrokerage firm provides two specific and necessary tasks to any stock offering. First it provides investment banking services to the company to assist properly structuring the offering so that it will be accepted by investors.  Second, the brokerage firm provides the sales and marketing efforts that attract the investors, close the sales, and raise the money.  Both tasks are necessary. Offering a new issue of securities without either being done well is like changing a tire without a jack.

The platforms are remarkably passive as regards the structure and sales of any offering. They are content to accept listing fees from any company that wants to list. They do not care if the offering is successful. They do not care if the company is a good investment or if the investors will make a profit.  These are the crowdfunding industry’s biggest mistakes. For the crowdfunding industry to succeed it must reduce the risks to its investors.

The largest beneficiary from equity crowdfunding has certainly been the real estate industry. There are established real estate syndicators in this market offering investors participation in single properties and in public and private REITs.  Several have set up their own proprietary platforms to showcase their own offerings; others use public platforms where their offerings compete with other properties.

Many of these syndicators have always used private placements as a source of equity funding. Crowdfunding has enabled real estate syndicators to save the 10% -15% that stockbrokerage firms charge to fund their projects.  This lower cost usually provides more cash flow for investors.

Most of the platforms are using Regulation D private placements because there is no reason for an income producing property to be “public.”  Real estate is easy for investors to understand. Investors trust real estate not just as an asset class, but as an investment.

Start-ups have a more difficult time raising funds on crowdfunding platforms.  And before you say that is to be expected, when you compare most start-up offerings with real estate offerings it should become obvious that most of the deficiencies with start-ups are correctable.

If you are investing in the equity of a commercial real estate offering there is usually a bank that has done an appraisal of the property and a physical inspection.  With start-ups the valuations are often off the charts. Rarely has anyone actually tested the product to see if it is viable or conducted a patent search to determine if the product infringes on someone else’s patent.

With a commercial real estate offering there is usually a seasoned property manager to handle the day to day business affairs.  With many start-ups the management is often less experienced than it should be.  Asking for investors to fund your business if you have never run a business, or do not have good managers or advisors in place becomes an up-hill fight.

Real estate offerings are most often structured to provide income to investors. Simply stating that the property will be sold after 7-10 years is all the exit strategy most investors need.  Many start-ups would have a much easier time raising funds if they structured the offering as preferred shares or provided income through revenue sharing or royalty payments.

When I advise a start-up seeking to raise capital I always offer my sense of what they should do prior to the offering to strengthen the company. I advise them how they should structure their offering to increase the chance of success.  This is the advice that the crowdfunding platforms should offer to every start-up that is paying for the privilege of listing, but do not.

My hope for 2018 is that the crowdfunding platforms get on board and do the same.  The platforms handling start-ups just need to become more proactive. There is no reason that every offering that lists on a crowdfunding platform should not be funded.

When the JOBS Act was passed there was a lot of discussion about small investors being able to invest. Millennials, especially, were arguing that they were being denied the opportunity to invest in the next Facebook.   So at the end of 2015, the SEC promulgated changes in Regulation A allowing a slimmed down registration process for smaller offerings of up to $50 million.  By any standards Reg. A has been an abject failure.

It takes a lot more money and a lot more time to prepare and complete a Reg. A offering than a Reg. D offering. I will advise any company seeking funding to use the latter instead of the former.  A company that spends an additional 6 months and $200,000 to reach small investors is usually telegraphing that the more sophisticated accredited investors do not want to invest.

Reg. A has been used to raise a fair amount of money, but the issuers themselves have not prospered. Several of the most hyped offerings, such as Elio Motors, have crashed and burned taking the investors with them. The share price of most of the other companies that used Reg. A to raise capital have not been able to maintain the original offering price. And this is in the middle of an historic bull market.

The Reg.A platforms and advisors do not support the price, after the shares have been issued,the way a stockbrokerage firm would.  Again, my hope for 2018 is that they get their act together and provide all the services that a company issuing shares to the public needs, both before and after the offering.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the crowdfunding market has been the lack of attention to the Reg. CF portals. These handle the smallest offerings of up to $1,000,000 that cater start-ups in need of seed capital.  They represent the very essence of what crowdfunding should be about; small investors helping small companies.

Unfortunately, only about 35 Reg. CF portals are operating.  Those that are operating also take a passive role. They fail to assist the companies with the structuring of the offering. They fail to assist with marketing.  The simple fact is that if you are going to raise $1,000,000 by taking one or two hundred dollars from a lot of small investors, then you need to reach out to tens of thousands of investors before you find enough who are willing to invest.  That takes both marketing money and muscle.

It is pretty clear that most start-ups will fail within 24 months and these investors will lose their money. It is these small start-ups that need the most help and these small investors who need the most protection from loss.  But again, the crowdfunding industry has just not provided that help in any meaningful way.

I hope to make a contribution to the crowdfunding industry in 2018.  I am working with a group that wants to provide a measure of protection to small investors that are investing in these small offerings.  They are discussing starting a new Reg. CF portal where small companies can raise $500,000-$1,000,000.

They intend to offer a program to buy back any shares of any offering that lists on their Reg. CF portal if the company fails within 24 months.  You know that they can only do this if they offer only companies that they think will survive and succeed.

This type of vetting is missing in the crowdfunding industry and I am pleased to be part of the team that is putting this together. Besides me the team includes people with years of investment and commercial banking experience and a young, dynamic marketing team.  The goal is to select only the best companies to offer to investors, help those companies get the funding they need and help them succeed thereafter.

Right now, the group is seeking a very small number of investors to help fund the platform itself.  It is using a revenue sharing model so these investors can expect their investment returned quickly with significant return thereafter. If you have an interest in participating with an investment, contact me and I will put you in touch with the CEO.

 

Behind the Crowdfunding Curtain- StartEngine Goes Public

StartEngine, one of the first and most active crowdfunding platforms has filed the paperwork to offer stock under Regulation A. They are raising $5 million, offering 1,000,000 shares to the public at $5 per share.

If you follow my blog, you know that I have written about several other Reg. A offerings; Elio Motors, Med-X, Ziyen, etc. which I thought were essentially scams run by people with questionable intentions.  I have my issues with StartEngine, but I never thought the owners were dishonest or trying to scam investors. Nothing of that sort should be inferred here.

The fact is that crowdfunding platforms, like most businesses, are not public. This offering is the first I have come across where a company that is actually active in this marketplace has published audited financial statements and made disclosures about its business and the risks inherent in that business. For someone like me, who is working in crowdfunding with some of StartEngine’s competitors, looking through this information was irresistible.

First and foremost, StartEngine itself is a start-up and is losing money funding other start-ups.The company lost $1 million in 2015, almost $3 million in 2016 and another $1 million during the first 6 months of 2017. The company had initially raised a little over $5 million in venture capital and has essentially burned through it. It now wants another $5 million to continue.

StartEngine’s business is basically a website and has 13 full time employees. It has no cost for goods sold and the bulk of its expenses are for administrative purposes and marketing.

The core premise of equity crowdfunding is that it facilitates the sale of new issue securities without the commissioned salespeople who perform this function at traditional stock brokerage firms. The commission savings are passed on to the companies who list their offerings on the platforms and ultimately to the investors. It is certainly fair to expect that because the offerings do not have a commission expense more of the funds that are raised will go to the company that is funding its business.

The JOBS Act permits three types of offerings to be funded on a website. StartEngine offers all three; Regulation A, Regulation Crowdfunding (CF) and Regulation D offerings.  At the end of August StartEngine announced that it also intends to offer crypto-currency offerings(ICOs) on its platform. With a full menu, StartEngine can offer more flexibility to a company seeking funds and a larger selection of investments for potential investors.

Under Reg. D a company can raise an unlimited amount of money from wealthier, accredited investors, under Reg. A up to $50 million and under Reg. CF up about $1 million. Reg. A and Reg. CF offerings can be sold to any investor albeit in limited amounts.

StartEngine was one of the first movers in the Reg. A market. The offering document notes that they have hosted the Reg.A offerings of ten companies.  StartEngine’s first offering, Elio Motors, eventually raised $16,917,576 from 6,345 investors.

Regulation CF went into effect on May 16, 2016. StartEngine has acted as intermediary for offerings by 58 companies; raising $7,383,960. According to Crowdfund Capital Advisors, of the 26 platforms registered with FINRA, StartEngine was second in terms of the number of Reg. CF offerings. Overall, in two years of operations, the StartEngine platform has raised about $40 million for issuers from over 17,000 investors.

For a little perspective I write the legal paperwork for crowdfunded offerings being made under Reg. D that are listed on various competing platforms.  I am on target to write the paperwork for $50 million worth of offerings during calendar 2017 and probably more next year. I work part time, out of my home on a 5-year old laptop.

My advertising budget is zero dollars. I get all my business through referrals or because someone reads one of my blog articles and thinks that I have some common sense. I take the time to speak with a lot of people who are starting new businesses and are seeking capital. I have referred a few to appropriate crowdfunding platforms, even if someone else writes the paperwork.

With a six figure per year advertising budget StartEngine should easily be able to host and sell $100 million worth of offerings per year or more.  If they did, the company would be profitable.  So what is the problem?

There are three parties to every transaction, the company seeking investment, the investors and the platform that introduces the other two. The intent should be that all three will ultimately make money from each offering. If the investors make money they will be happy, come back again to make additional investments and recommend the platform to friends.

Roughly 1/3 of StartEngine’s entire customer base invested in Elio Motors. I questioned Elio at the time that StartEngine put Elio’s offering on its platform.  It was obvious to me that Elio was not likely to ever put out its vehicle or turn a profit and I wrote just that.  If that was obvious to me, it should have been obvious to StartEngine as well.

StartEngine’s offering document mentions that it may be liable if a company that lists on its platform gets sued for securities fraud.  It states that even if StartEngine is a party to the suit and prevails, being a party to these suits might cause “reputational harm that would negatively impact our business” in addition to the costs of its defense.

Regulators have just begun to catch up with Elio. Elio was recently fined roughly $550,000 by the State of Louisiana for taking deposits for its non-existent vehicle without a proper license to do so. The lack of a proper license should have come up in the pre-offering due diligence investigation conducted by StartEngine.

Even if Elio is never alleged to have committed securities fraud, the company is insolvent and is unlikely to ever produce a vehicle or operate profitably.  Investors will lose the money that they invested.

Reputational damage for a company like StartEngine also comes from listing any piece of crap that comes along. Why should investors be expected to come back to StartEngine a second time, or a third, if the companies that StartEngine lists on its platform are not likely to succeed?

StartEngine defines its mission as: “To help entrepreneurs fuel the American Dream.” Its long term objective for 2025 is to “facilitate funding for the startup and growth of 5,000 companies every year.”

Assuming that each of those companies raises only $500,000 StartEngine is projecting that it can bring in $2.5 billion in new money every year.  Given that most or all of that money will be lost, I think that is a fantasy. StartEngine is likely to become known as a place where investors flush their money down the toilet long before 2025.

Had I been asked to write this mission statement I would have said something like “the company’s objective is to match investors with worthy companies that offer new technology and new products.”  The key word is “worthy”.

There is no way to sugar-coat the fact that 90% of start-ups fail and that many fail very quickly, usually within the first two years.  No one who I have met in crowdfunding denies that fact and most just accept it as a fact of life, even if they really do not want to talk about it.

An intermediary like StartEngine should be able to discern which companies are more likely to be part of the 90% that will fail and which have a chance of being part of the 10% that will succeed. That is what broker/dealers and investment bankers do every day and have done for decades.

The mainstream stockbrokerage industry has no difficulty identifying or funding new technologies. Stock brokers raised money for Apple and Microsoft when very few people owned personal computers. They raised money for Genentech at a time when no investor had ever heard the words “genetically engineered pharmaceuticals” before.

The offering suggests that StartEngine intends to harness the power and wisdom of “the Crowd”. To be blunt, no one has ever suggested that the crowd has any wisdom sufficient to discern which companies are worthy of investment and which are not. If they did, I doubt anyone would invest in StartEngine.

The lawyers who prepared the StartEngine offering included this statement as a risk factor: “none of our officers or our chairman has previous experience in securities markets or regulations or has passed any related examinations or holds any accreditations.” That, in one sentence, is StartEngine’s entire problem.

StartEngine’s customers are the investors, not the companies raising money. StartEngine has no idea how to give investors what investors want, a fighting chance at making money from the investments that they make.

Some of the other crowdfunding platforms understand this. MicroVentures has a reputation for turning away potential issuers that do not meet its standards.  I have worked with WealthForge which crowdfunds offerings to institutional investors. They would not consider offering those institutions any company that lacked the substance to succeed. Both were founded by or employ people with backgrounds in mainstream brokerage or investment banking.

Running a crowdfunding platform and funding companies without someone trained in investment banking is like running an animal shelter without a veterinarian on staff.  You can round up the animals, but you may not really be able to help them.  People who adopt the animals will never know if the animal is sick or healthy and that is something that they want to know.

Investing in start-ups is risky. You can run your platform like  newspaper want ads taking any ad that comes along or you can use some judgment and refuse ads for bottled water that claims to cure cancer because you know that your readers will not be happy. It is incumbent upon any crowdfunding platform to mitigate the risk for the investors that look at the offerings it lists.

I have personally resisted the idea of working for one of the crowdfunding platforms although I have advised a few. If you seriously want to invest in a crowdfunding platform, I could assemble a team and improve upon what StartEngine has to offer, without the baggage of offerings like Elio Motors, for a lot less than $5 million, probably around $500,000 (maybe even less if I do not replace my laptop).  I could operate the platform profitably and offer a return on your investment probably within a year. Interested? You know where to find me.

 

Crowdfunding Myths and Realities

I speak with people about crowdfunding every week. I learn a lot from others. But there is a lot of bad information about crowdfunding in the marketplace. Most of it comes from the mouths or keyboards of people who claim to be crowdfunding experts but lack a clear perspective of what equity crowdfunding is and how it should operate.  To make up for their deficiencies, these experts often pontificate about crowdfunding and disparage the capital market of which crowdfunding is a tiny, though useful backwater.

I have heard or read every one of the following statements about crowdfunding uttered by people who claim to be crowdfunding “experts.”  I have included my explanation of empirical reality after each one.  If you attend a crowdfunding conference and hear any one of these statements, ask for your money back.

1) “Wall Street is evil”

Reality:  I have probably seen more bad actors in the mainstream financial markets than most people.  I worked on close to 2000 arbitration claims brought by unhappy and defrauded investors against mainstream financial firms.  I wrote a book about the many things that Wall Street does wrong, so yes there are indeed bad actors in the mainstream financial markets.

But those markets also fund local governments, schools, roads and hospitals. The mainstream markets funded Apple and Microsoft, companies that developed life saving drugs, allowed a lot of people to buy homes and financed almost all of the innovative technologies that we take for granted.  Trillions of dollars worth of transactions take place every week in the mainstream capital markets. The overwhelming majority of those transactions settle without complaint or any reason for concern.

2) “Wall Street freezes out new businesses that deserve to get funding”

Reality: The key word here is “deserve.” Entrepreneurship has always been a core American value. A lot of entrepreneurs are passionate about their businesses.  But passion only gets you so far.  A lot of entrepreneurs fail because they do not have a good business plan, a good team or a good sense of what their market really wants.

Billions of dollars flow to new businesses every year.  There is actually more money available for small business in the US today than ever before and it is a lot easier to reach. The Small Business Administration (SBA) continues to make loans and groups like AngelList have made venture capital available where it was previously very hard to find.

3) “Crowdfunding democratizes the marketplace; it lets the little guy invest in great companies that were only available to wealthy investors”.

Reality: Most of the companies on crowdfunding websites have been or would be passed over by VCs and professional Angel investors. That money is cheaper to obtain and often comes with management and other assistance.  For many companies crowdfunding for capital is a last resort, not a first choice.  There are some good companies on crowdfunding websites, but the bulk would never be considered to be “great” by any standard and all come with a very high likelihood that investors will lose their money.

4) “People are being kept out of start-up investing and cannot profit from investing in the next Facebook”

Reality:  Show me the company listed on any crowdfunding platform that has the potential of becoming the next Facebook.  Facebook did not crowdfund for money and no crowdfunded company has approximated Facebook’s success.  It may happen or it may never happen.  Facebook, and Apple and others, all had IPOs which were open to all investors.  If there is a Facebook lurking on a crowdfunding website, it is currently hidden among a lot of offerings that I believe are absolute crap.

5) “Millions of people would invest in crowdfunding if they understood it and they eventually will”

Reality:  This argument is usually used to convince people that the crowdfunding market will explode when people get the hang of it.  More than one crowdfunding “expert” has suggested that these regulations would open the crowdfunding market to as many as 220 million people in the US.  This, of course, ignores the fact that roughly 50% of US households live at or below the poverty line or are living paycheck to paycheck.

Yes, there is still a lot of disposable income in the US. The lines at Disneyland always seem to be long and the hotels in Las Vegas are perpetually full.  Both Disneyland and Las Vegas are selling instant gratification. Equity crowdfunding sites are not. The most successful crowdfunding sites are offering real estate to accredited investors seeking steady, passive income.  That is likely to continue.

6) “The crowd can discern good companies from bad ones”

Reality:  This is simply not true. Investors in the mainstream markets often depend on research analysts to parse through the financial and other information that companies present.  I have worked with investors for 40 years.  Most could not pass  the second mid-term exam that I used to give my freshman economics class. Most of the crowdfunding “experts” could not pass it either.

Even if the crowd spots a bad offering, there is no mechanism built in that would allow them to say so.  No portal has a place has a “comments” section next to any offering, nor would they be expected to have one.

7) “Due diligence is not necessary”

Reality:  I saw this statement in the very first article I ever read about crowdfunding. It was written by an attorney who claimed to be a crowdfunding “expert” and who wrote article after article on the subject although his resume indicated that he had never actually represented an issuer of securities or a broker/dealer.

Due diligence is how the platform or portal prevents the issuer from committing securities fraud.  There are good people who provide due diligence for the crowdfunding industry but there are many platforms and portals who do not even try to verify the claims that the issuers are making to investors. Due diligence protects the investors and it protects the platform or portal.

8) “There is very little fraud in crowdfunding”

Reality:  There have been only a handful of regulatory enforcement actions in the crowdfunding arena but more are clearly on the way.  Regulators use these actions to send a message about expected and aberrant behavior that the crowdfunding industry continues to ignore.

Some of the biggest lies that you will find on crowdfunding platforms concern the valuation and prospects of the business being funded.  I have seen start-ups with no sales and less than $1 million in development expenses value themselves at $20 million or more based upon sales projections of hundreds of thousands of units of a product that does not yet exist.  FINRA has already raised this issue, but the crowdfunding “experts” do not seem to want to address it.

Within the last few weeks, I saw one offering where an executive conveniently left out that he had twice been sanctioned for stock fraud, as if that fact would not be of concern to potential investors.  I recently reviewed a Reg. A offering that was structured like a classic pump and dump scheme and will probably turn into one.

It is not that there is not fraud or the potential for fraud in this market. The crowdfunding “experts” do not know it when they see it.

9) “Government rules make crowdfunding difficult”

Reality: The government rules make crowdfunding possible.  Several real estate funds have raised $25-$50 million and more using basic crowdfunding techniques and there are crowdfunding websites dedicated to films and entertainment that do not seem to be at a loss for investors. The problem is not the rules. The problem is that a lot of the “experts” do not know how to work with them. Those who do have no problem raising money in this market, but true experts are few and far between and compliance with the rules is sporadic at best.

10) “Investors understand that they will probably lose their money so none of this is important”

Reality:  Every new issue of securities, especially those being offered under Regulation D, will include the disclosure “These securities are a speculative investment.  Investors should be aware that they may lose all of the funds that they are investing.”  This is especially true given that most start-ups will fail.

But it is not a sustainable business model for the crowdfunding industry to blithely accept the fact that all investors will lose money. Several crowdfunding sites (most notably MicroVentures and WealthForge) spend a considerable effort vetting companies and are trying to list only the best companies on their sites.  If I were raising money through crowdfunding, those are the sites on which I would want to list my offering.  If I was considering investing in a crowdfunded offering, that is where I would want to spend my money.

Compare that with the statement recently made by an SEC Commissioner to the effect that there appears to be a “race to the bottom” in terms of listing crappy deals on many crowdfunding sites.  This market will become efficient when every company that lists its offering on a site gets the funding it seeks. It will only happen when the patently bad companies are weeded out. That will only happen when the patently bad platforms and portals are weeded out, either by competition or government action.

11) “Equity crowdfunding is disruptive”

Reality:  Crowdfunding may ultimately change the way in which some firms are financed but not in the way that a lot of people seem to think. The Wall Street firms are already positioning themselves to get into this market because it obviates the need to pay commissions to sales people.  Commissions have been on the way out since the 1970s, a trend that has been spurred on by the internet. Crowdfunding is just one more step on the ladder to lower and lower commissions.

It is much more likely that the Wall Street firms will take over the crowdfunding market than the crowdfunding market will supplant the Wall Street firms.  It is, in fact, already happening. I would not be surprised if Goldman Sachs, (some people’s idea of a financial Satan, see # 1, above) is already positioning itself to enter this market.

12) “Equity crowdfunding is new. The problems are just growing pains”

Reality:  Equity crowdfunding is the business of selling securities. There is nothing new about it.  Selling securities over the internet without using a traditional underwriter has been around for almost 20 years. The JOBS Act opened the door for people who are untrained and not knowledgeable about securities to sell them. These people are having growing pains, not crowdfunding. Many untrained people are making money for themselves at the expense of the issuers and investors.

All it takes to enter the crowdfunding market is to set up a platform which is relatively inexpensive and begin to solicit companies to list on it. Owning a platform or portal can be a lucrative business.  As this industry grows there should be a huge opportunity for skilled finance professionals and securities lawyers.

If you are a considering selling shares in your company by crowdfunding look for a platform that has people with experience in finance or the mainstream capital markets.  If the platform’s advertisements include any of the dozen statements highlighted above, pass them by.

 

Crowdfunding- Waving the Red Flag


There are lessons to be learned by crowdfunders from mainstream brokerage firms.  Just about one year ago, when Reg. A+ offerings were just beginning, I wrote two blog articles in which I questioned whether two of the earliest offerings that had been approved by the SEC, Elio Motors and Med-X, were kosher. The Med-X offering was subsequently halted by the SEC for failing to disclose required financial information.  Elio Motors, which was applauded by the crowdfunding industry for separating $17 million from small investors, is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy because it cannot get the government loan it promised but for which it never qualified.

In the ensuing year, a lot of people have told me that these two patently lousy offerings were a result of the immaturity of the crowdfunding industry; just “growing pains”.  So I thought that I would take a look around at some of the current offerings and see if the industry has gotten its act together. Sorry, not yet.

I recently finished preparing the paperwork for a solar energy fund that is conducting an institutional private placement.  I am a fan of renewable energy and I was pleased to see that a crowdfunding portal dedicated to that industry, Gridshare, had opened for business.

Two of the first three offerings listed on that portal are from a company called Pristine Sun.  The company is run by a gentleman named Troy Helming.  Mr. Helming was the subject of two cease and desist orders by the State of Missouri in 2002 and 2005.

The portal is aware of these past transgressions but chose not to require Mr. Helming to disclose them.  Mr. Helming’s biography in the offering covers this time period and leaving out the disclosure is misleading to investors. There were some other questionable things about Mr. Helming’s disclosures that I brought to the attention of the attorney who runs this portal.

The attorney told me that Mr. Helming was a personal friend who “agreed to put an attractive offering on Gridshare to assist us.  Pristine is an outstanding developer of quality projects, notwithstanding Troy’s legal problems in the past.”  I have no reason to doubt this attorney’s word but I still question the non-disclosure.

What he meant by “attractive” was that investors are being paid 20% interest on the loan that they are making to fund one of these projects.  Pristine Sun claims to have over $80 million in assets and cash flow from its over 200 solar projects that generate electricity and money whenever the sun comes up.  I read the 20% return as a red flag. It is significantly higher than the rate that junk bonds pay.

This offering is being made under the new Reg. CF meaning that the securities are being offered to smaller, basically uneducated investors.  If an investor asked my advice, I would wave them off any loan paying 20% interest as a matter of course.  To me, a return that high, coupled with the questionable disclosures about Mr. Helming’s past, is a clear “red flag” from a  due diligence perspective.

Someone asked me to look at the offering for the GreenLeaf Investment Fund (GLIF). This is a Reg. A+ offering that is listed on a platform called CrowdVest. The fund intends to purchase commercial warehouses and rent them to the cannabis industry in states where cannabis is legal.  The website says: “When industrial properties are retrofitted for cannabis cultivation they have shown an increase in value by 5 to 10 times.”

The only research I could find suggested that, in Colorado, re-purposing a warehouse for cannabis cultivation might increase the value by 50%, not 500%. But I am willing to assume that CrowdVest asked the fund to provide support for its advertising.

There are other cannabis related, real estate funds available that are not suggesting that renting to the cannabis industry will increase the property value 5 or 10 times.  Most of those funds are structured as LLCs so that the income that is generated from rents can flow directly to the investors.

The GreenLeaf Investment Fund is structured as a corporation, specifically as a penny stock offering.  There is nothing inherently wrong or illegal about this, but neither is there any obvious reason that this fund should deviate from the norm and not pass the income it will receive to the investors.

The fund certainly spent more on legal fees for a Reg. A+ offering than it would have for a Reg. D offering and I do not believe that it was money well spent.  “CrowdVest shall be entitled to receive an administration fee of $10,000 per month and a one-time consulting and due diligence fee of $125,000 from GLIF that will be due upon completion of the offering.” If CrowdVest did not question the penny stock structure for this offering, I do not think that money was well spent either.

When I wrote about both Elio Motors and Med-X, I was of the opinion that I was looking at two companies that were intent upon scamming investors. That is not the case with either Pristine Sun or the GreenLeaf Investment Fund.  I am not questioning their integrity, just their approach to corporate finance.

When a company is paying 20% to borrow money it is telegraphing the fact that it is not a creditworthy company.  When a company structures itself as a penny stock, a market that has been full of fraudsters over the years, it is saying that it could not structure itself better.  In both cases, the crowdfunding “professionals” at the portal and platform should have set these issuers straight before they released these offerings to the public.

Please do not tell me that the JOBS Act prohibits Title II platforms from giving “advice” to issuers.  As counsel for a platform, I always have a conversation with the attorney representing the issuer and I always ask a lot of questions about the company and the structure of the offering.  The issuer and the platform share a desire to see that all appropriate disclosures are made and that the offering is structured to be well received by investors. Attorneys are always charged with acting to further their clients’ interests.

There are really 3 levels of responsibility in crowdfunding. A registered portal (and the Title II platforms and the issuers) are in the business of selling securities.  They need to appreciate that this is a highly regulated process and they need to take their responsibilities as sellers of securities seriously.

In the first place, there is compliance with the federal securities laws and the myriad rules and regulations that have been enacted by the SEC and FINRA. The primary rule is to not offer securities without full and fair disclosure. The only way that compliance is possible is with a comprehensive due diligence investigation. The portal or platform should also take care to ascertain that the company’s website and other advertising comply with the rules.

Next, offerings need to have practical business plans. FINRA was clear about this when it expelled a portal called uFundingPortal.  FINRA specifically questioned the business plans and the valuations of the companies that listed on this portal.  A portal should be able to evaluate a company’s potential for success at least with the money that they are raising. If a company suggests that they are going to raise $1 million and can cure cancer with that amount of money, I would not expect the offering to be listed on any crowdfunding website.

Finally, an offering should make sense from a corporate financing perspective, which is where the two offerings I discussed above fall short. The portal or platform should appreciate that the size, structure and terms of the offering are important to both the issuer and the investors.

An offering for a real estate fund, a restaurant, a film, a tech company and a company selling consumer products would all likely be structured differently. Companies rarely have the expertise to fashion an offering that investors find attractive which is why many are having trouble selling the offerings and raising the funds that they want.  Portals and platforms should have that expertise available for every offering.

I am constantly amazed how many people operate portals without any real experience dealing with investors.  A Title III portal, because they are dealing with small, inexperienced investors, should always have an experienced broker/dealer compliance person either on staff or on call.  They should also be able to assist companies in structuring and pricing their offering.  They should have marketing people available who understand what excites investors, which is not always the same thing that will excite the end user of the company’s product.

Complying with the rules, funding companies with a better chance of success and structuring offerings in such as way as to benefit both the issuers and investors will lead to more success for the industry and happier investors. This will never happen unless and until the industry steps up.  The way in which the mainstream brokerage firms would approach the same offerings should be a model for the crowdfunding industry.

The mainstream brokerage firms are already beginning to appreciate that they can sell securities to investors from a website without paying sales commissions and make a lot of money doing so.  Unfortunately, until that happens or until the current participants up their game, issuers will continue to have difficulty raising the funds that they need and thousands of investors will lose tens of millions of dollars to bad deals that could have been made better if only the crowdfunding industry would hire people who knew how.

 

 

Crowdfunding – Letter to the SEC

The SEC and New York University recently held a dialogue on securities crowdfunding.  SEC Commissioner Kara M. Stein offered closing remarks and asked some questions that need to be answered. https://www.sec.gov/news/statement/stein-closing-remarks-sec-nyu-dialogue.html. These are my thoughts and responses to Commissioner Stein’s remarks.

Dear Commissioner Stein:

By way of background I am a securities attorney with 40 years of experience representing broker/dealers, issuers of securities and large and small investors.  I have also taught economics and finance at a well reputed business school.

My interest in securities offerings that are made directly to investors over the internet goes back to the late 1990s when the first offering was made by the Spring Street Brewery company. I have spent the better part of the last two years studying and writing about crowdfunding under the JOBS Act.

I currently advise clients who are issuers, Title II platforms and Title III portals.  I believe that crowdfunding can work and that it can be a valuable tool in aid of the capital formation process especially for smaller companies.

To this point in time, a large percentage of successful offerings involve various forms of real estate investments. The vast majority are being offered under Regulation D. Several real estate funds have raised $25-$50 million from accredited investors on Title II platforms. Thousands of smaller real estate offerings have also been successful. These offerings are proof that funding is available outside of the traditional broker/dealer sales network.

Small companies and start-ups on the other hand, have had a much more difficult time attracting investors.  Start-ups, of course, are far riskier investments than most real estate offerings.  There are far fewer investors in the market place who are looking for that risk.  Some will take on the risk if they are satisfied with the potential for the company’s success.

There has been a push to offer securities in these companies to smaller investors under Regulations A and CF on Title III portals. The question that you asked in your remarks at the SEC-NYU dialogue: “Are registered portals appropriately considering the companies and offers hosted on their platforms?” is the appropriate question to ask.

There are fewer than 2 dozen registered portals today. I have reviewed offerings on most and have had direct contact with several. The answer to your question is that some of the portals do indeed act appropriately and several clearly do not.

You can easily identify those portals that do not comply with the rules. Most of those do not have a well trained and experienced professional in the role of compliance director.  The compliance director at any Title III portal should, at the very least, have a complete familiarly FINRA’s due diligence and advertising rules.

There are several portals who do not even attempt to conduct a due diligence review. There are also several consulting firms that provide due diligence investigations to the crowdfunding industry that lack the experience or expertise to do it correctly. These consultants get a lot of work from the portals because they charge very little.

You asked whether there should be minimum and uniform standards for vetting companies seeking to be hosted on a portal.  FINRA already has very specific rules for due diligence that require the member firm to verify the facts that the issuer is presenting to investors.  New rules are not needed; just compliance with and the enforcement of the existing rules.

One FINRA member portal in particular that has specialized in Reg. A offerings has listed several issues which are questionable in terms of their disclosures and economic viability. That portal makes no attempt to vet the offerings it lists.  One of these offerings is currently the subject of an SEC enforcement action.  I cannot know if the Commission’s enforcement staff intends to sanction the portal for its participation in that offering.  In my opinion, it should.  This portal unfairly competes with the portals that take their responsibilities seriously.

This portal does not spend money on due diligence. It does not care whether the issues it lists misrepresent their prospects for success to prospective investors.  It has a track record of successful offerings because the issuers are making promises to investors that they are unlikely to keep.

You suggested that some people have registered their concern at what may be a “race to the bottom” as portals compete for offers. That is exactly what is happening.  That same portal is currently offering a one day Reg. CF workshop that provides issuers with accountants, lawyers, copywriters and other vendors to get their campaign to “go live” on the same day as the workshop with no cost.

I cannot imagine that the SEC staff or FINRA would believe that adequate due diligence is being done if the offering is going live on the same day that the portal is first introduced to the issuer. I cannot personally believe that a competent securities attorney would participate in the preparation of these offerings or that the attorney’s professional liability carrier would approve.

Your presentation also noted that FINRA had expelled a portal for listing 16 questionable Reg. CF offerings. Those offerings were essentially done with a “cookie cutter” approach. What besides a cookie cutter approach can be expected when a portal is proposing to create and list multiple offerings on a single day at a workshop?

I have singled out this portal because its conduct is so egregious that I suspect that the Commission staff has already taken note.  I am not the only person in the crowdfunding industry who would understand if FINRA or the Commission did its job and closed this portal down.  If the crowdfunding industry is to succeed, investors must be able to look to this market with confidence.

You also asked what needed to be done to ensure that crowdfunding opportunities are accessible to everyone from the businesswoman in Missouri to the immigrant in West Virginia.  I have personally been contacted by potential issuers from all over the country. I know that Title II platforms exist in many states and several portals are “under construction” outside of major money centers.

Many of these issuers lack the knowledge and skills to put together an offering that might attract investors.  They lack experienced managers, quality boards of directors and well thought out business plans.  The Small Business Administration (SBA) has an existing mentoring program (SCORE). The Commission would be doing the marketplace a service by partnering with the SBA to make accurate information about crowdfunding available to more potential issuers.

There is currently a lack of good information about crowdfunding in the marketplace and much of the information that is available is inaccurate.  Much of the information about crowdfunding is being disseminated by a remarkably small group of people.  Many of these people have no experience selling securities and treat the process as if they were selling soap powder.

You expressed a desire on behalf of the Commission to improve this marketplace. There are those who are advocating making these very risky investments more accessible to small investors. I urge the Commission to reject that approach.  The risk should be allocated to those investors who can afford to absorb the loss.

As you noted, “portals that are effective at vetting issuers and offers are important as both gatekeepers and facilitators of repeat investment.” Keeping the portals focused on that task is the best thing that the Commission can do for this market.  Investors will come when there are better offerings. Better offerings will come when the portals insist that issuers demonstrate that they have real potential for success.

Respectfully,

 

Irwin G. Stein, Esq.

 

 

 

Crowdfunding – Impractical Business Plans

There seems to be an overriding attitude in the crowdfunding industry that it exists solely to provide access to capital to small entrepreneurs who have previously been denied access by the evil barons of Wall Street.  Many people in the industry are amazed when I tell them that under the regulatory scheme in the US, the owner of an equity crowdfunding platform or portal is in the business of selling securities and every sale that they do is highly regulated.

The regulations include provisions that are firmly rooted in the idea of investor protection. 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 have to be made. Equity crowdfunding is not a caveat emptor marketplace.

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. Investors are actually being offered shares in breweries, distilleries and a lot of small companies with dubious products and often inexperienced managers.

In the mainstream financial market, virtually all of the brokerage firms are members of FINRA so the rules are uniform one firm to the next. In the crowdfunding marketplace only those Title III portals that sell offerings to small investors under Reg. A or Reg. CF need to apply for FINRA membership.  That was intended to provide an extra level of protection for smaller investors.

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

When FINRA expelled crowdfunding portal UFP (uFundingPortal) late last year, in part for listing companies with “impractical business plans”, I expected to see some articles or at least comments from some members of the crowdfunding community about impractical business plans.  The silence from the industry and industry experts has been deafening.

So what, exactly, does FINRA mean when it is telling crowdfunding 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 the business plan has a reasonable chance of getting them there.

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 they will likely find that a company that intends to market a product that infringes on another company’s patent has an impractical business plan. It is also impractical to raise funds to operate a business that is illegal, like a brothel. But not every case will be as clear cut.

The FINRA regulations governing these portals are in addition to the regulations that stem from the federal securities laws. They require additional work and additional skills. Being able to identify and eliminate impractical business plans is one of those skills.

This will make it more expensive to operate a Title III portal than a Title II platform.  Potentially, it is also far more lucrative to be able to accept investments from a larger group of smaller investors.  If you are operating a FINRA portal but you do not have people on staff or as advisors who have experience working at FINRA firms and a clear understanding of what is expected, then I suspect that FINRA will tell you that it is your business plan is “impractical” and put your portal out of business.

In the mainstream markets, FINRA and the SEC have begun enforcement actions signaling that they intend to hold the compliance directors at the brokerage firms personally liable for unlawful transactions that took place on their watch.  I would wager that at least a few of the compliance directors at the 2 dozen or so crowdfunding portals already have regulatory targets on their backs.

I just completed the paperwork for a client who is making an offering through one of the better crowdfunding firms. The offering documents, risk factors, and advertising materials were all reviewed by the firm and the comments demonstrated to me that the reviewers were knowledgeable, competent and well-versed in the rules and requirements. It is not all that hard to comply with the rules if you know what you are doing.  The portals who follow the rules are generally the ones who hire people with some relevant experience.

At the same time, it is very easy for anyone to find crowdfunding portals that are actively inviting small investors to invest in companies that are, for want of a better word, crap.  A portal that lists even one company that would garner this distinction is not doing its job. To my mind, it makes every other offering listed on the portal suspect.  If you cannot make that distinction, you should not be investing at a crowdfunding portal and you certainly should not be operating one.

Please do not push back and tell me that it does not really matter because most start-ups will fail anyway or that investors in these companies know that they are really gambling.  Even casinos are regulated and are expected to operate correctly and in accordance with the rules.

This issue is not that most start-ups fail. The issue is that any start-up funding on a crowdfunding portal should have at least a legitimate chance of success.  They should know how much money they will need and how they will spend it. There is nothing wrong with raising funds to conduct research and development for a new product as long as there is a demonstrable market for the product and the company has people on staff or on hand to conduct the research.

I realize that insisting on “practical business plans” will eliminate a fair amount of the companies that are currently trying to get funded on the crowdfunding portals. That is exactly the point. The JOBS Act was supposed to help companies that could provide sustainable jobs.  Funding companies that are here today and gone tomorrow was never anyone’s idea of what this legislation was intended to do.

The capital  markets, like all markets, work best when they are efficient.  Funding companies that are not likely to succeed is never efficient.  Efficiency results when the companies that have the best chance of success  get funded and those with little or no chance of success do not.

People in the crowdfunding industry tell me that the problem is that the industry is new and just finding its way.  They want to be excused from regulatory compliance until they figure out what to do.

Except that what the crowdfunding portals are doing is not new. People have been selling securities to investors for a long time. The only reason some of the portals are not following the rules is that they do not want to spend the money to do it right.  If they do not believe me, they can explain it to FINRA and the SEC, who are not likely to give them the fair warning that I keep trying to offer.