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.

 

SEC v. Munchee – Will the crypto-currency community listen?

 Just about 2 years ago I wrote a blog article about the first Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) enforcement action involving equity crowdfunding, SEC. v. Ascenergy.  The SEC action against Ascenergy highlighted the need for the crowdfunding industry to step up and protect the investors from fraud.  That made good common sense because the crowdfunding industry needs investors to survive.

Notwithstanding, most of the crowdfunding industry ignored that enforcement action.  It still largely refuses to carefully vet the offerings that are put on the platforms for investors’ consideration or conduct meaningful due diligence to verify that what the companies are telling investors is true.

Recently the SEC brought what is considered its first action against an Initial Coin Offering (ICO), SEC. v. Munchee Inc.  An ICO is essentially a sub-set of crowdfunding and each offering should be governed by the JOBS Act and the anti-fraud provisions of the securities laws.

A lot of people in the ICO industry will disagree because they believe that they can construct an ICO offering that is not selling securities. The SEC has been clear that it has not seen an ICO that was not a securities offering. Most good securities lawyers agree with the SEC.

Accepting that simple truth would put many people in the ICO industry out of business.  I am referring to the many ICO consultants who charge a lot of money for bad advice. Some of the people who advised Munchee are well known in the crypto industry. Anyone want to bet that they will never mention their participation in the failed, non-compliant and illegal Munchee offering when someone asks about their track record?

On the same day as it announced the Munchee Cease and Desist Order, SEC Commissioner Jay Clayton issued a statement about how the Commission will likely view ICOs. Much of the commentary since has focused on the Commissioner’s statement and not on the enforcement action. That is a mistake.

The Commissioner’s statement covers more ground and speaks in somewhat general terms. It represents the view of the most important regulator in the ICO world, but it is still a statement about generalities that is open to some interpretation.

The enforcement action actually gives more of the “meat” of what the SEC deems illegal conduct. A cease and desist order may become the subject of litigation or appeal. The SEC staff tends to choose its words carefully. It sets forth the facts and the offending conduct, the jurisdictional basis for the action and the reasons why the conduct violates the law.  It is a road map of how not to conduct an ICO offering and everything in it should be scrutinized carefully.

So what, exactly, did Munchee do wrong?

Munchee claimed it was offering “utility” tokens and not securities. It claimed to have performed an analysis of the offering using the test denoted in SEC v. Howey case. I suspect that it did not.  The Munchee white paper lists a dozen officers and advisors not one of whom is an attorney. It provides links to a half dozen PR pieces about the offering but not the attorney’s analysis that these tokens were not securities. The failure to provide a copy of that evaluation was not lost on the SEC staff. They mention that fact specifically in the order.

If an attorney had done the analysis Munchee would set forth the attorney’s name or provided a copy of the evaluation. “Advice of counsel” can be a defense to an SEC action such as this one and Munchee declined to set forth that defense.

A lot of people claim to understand Howey and a lot of articles have been written by people who are not qualified securities lawyers and are claiming to explain it. An evaluation of the offering under the Howey test involves a lot more than just reviewing Howey.

The Order in Munchee refers to Howey and also the SEC’s July 2017 Dao Report.  That report reviews over 30 other cases that have applied the Howey test to various investment offerings. The Order specifically refers to several of those cases which are important to any discussion of this subject.

A lot of people seem to think that if you can use the token for some commercial purpose it is a “utility” token. The Order in Munchee should dispel that idea once and for all.

Purchasers of a Munchee token (MUN) would join a network of people writing reviews of various restaurants. Munchee would pay users in MUN for writing the reviews and would sell both advertising to restaurants and “in app” purchases to app users in exchange for MUN tokens.

Munchee also said it would work with restaurant owners so diners could buy food with MUN tokens and so that restaurant owners could reward app users–perhaps those who visited the restaurant or reviewed their meal in MUN tokens. As a result, MUN tokens would increase in value.

Howey defines a security as an investment premised on a reasonable expectation of profits to be derived from the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others. The argument here might have been that MUN owners might get a profit based upon their own efforts.

But Munchee intended to do much more. It intended to cut off the number of MUN at a fixed amount.  It intended to facilitate a secondary market where people could buy and sell MUN. Because you could buy MUN, not use them or do anything and later sell your MUN for an appreciated price, it should be abundantly clear that your expectation of profits had nothing to do with you and must therefore be derived from the efforts of others.

Let me offer a simple example: You can purchase a membership in COSTCO. The membership allows you to shop in their stores and buy goods in bulk at a discount. You also get free snacks and inexpensive hot dogs. The membership is recorded on the company’s records and you get an ID card with your picture that is checked every time you enter the store so it cannot be transferred to anyone else.  No one would think that a COSTCO membership is a security. But the SEC has declared some other memberships to be securities.

If COSTCO decided to cut off the number of memberships and allow them to be transferred, it might be fair to assume that the price would appreciate. That alone might make them into securities. Transferability, or the lack of it, is not itself the only indicator. A lot of unregistered securities cannot be freely transferred. But once your token can be transferred at a potentially appreciated price, you should certainly consider that you have crossed the line.

The other big issue raised by the SEC staff in the Munchee Order was the way in which the MUN were sold. Munchee posted information about the offering and the MUN White Paper through posts on the Munchee Website, and on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Bitcoin Talk.

This type of general solicitation is specifically permitted by the JOBS Act and is the type of marketing that is needed when a company is trying to raise $15 million without a brokerage firm selling the securities for them. If Munchee had accepted the fact that these were securities, this would not have mattered as long as they did not exaggerate the facts or the potential return.

At the same time, Munchee did not advertise the offering of MUN tokens in restaurant industry media to reach restaurant owners and promote how MUN tokens might let them advertise in the future which is what you might expect if the tokens were being sold for their “utility”. The SEC staff picked up on that fact.

Instead, Munchee and its agents promoted the MUN token offering in forums aimed at people interested in investing in Bitcoin and other digital assets. Munchee made public statements or endorsed other people’s public statements that touted the opportunity to profit, not necessarily the opportunity to use the MUN.

The Order states: “MUN tokens were to be available for purchase by individuals in the United States and worldwide.”  It notes that Munchee intended to use “10% of the offering proceeds ($1.5 million) to make sure Munchee is compliant in all countries.” While that sounds fairly innocuous, as I said, the SEC staff chooses the language it puts into these orders carefully.

There are countries where no crypto-currency or tokens can be sold, so saying it can be sold “worldwide” indicates that the offering is a scam. In a securities offering, it is common for the offering materials to set forth the countries where the offering is being made.  Most telling is the fact that you need to be certain that you are “compliant” before you make the offering, not after. The Howey test does not apply anywhere except the US.

The simple truth is that I would have been happy to help this company raise $15 million for a lot less than $1.5 million in full compliance with securities laws. I would have advised them to sell stock in the company and then memberships separately. They would have had a successful offering and money to market and sell memberships at a lower, more reasonable price where many more people might have joined.

The lesson here should be obvious. If you are claiming to offer a utility token, demonstrate its utility and sell it to people who may want to use it. If you are seeking investors, then stop telling yourself you are not selling a security. Hire lawyers and comply with the rules.

The time, effort and expense that the founders of Munchee expended developing their app and their business, went nowhere.  With the JOBS Act the opportunity for funding a small business has never been greater. If you want money from investors, stay between the white lines.

Any Good Business Can Get Funded

I am always amazed when I get negative feedback to the premise that any good business can get funded. This is especially true when people tell me that businesses owned by women or minorities cannot get funded or that businesses locate outside of New York, Silicon Valley or some other money center have limited access to capital.

Frankly I think that a failure to get funding demonstrates ineptitude on the part of the entrepreneur. Inexperience is a greater impediment to attracting capital investment than gender, race or location.

When I was younger a business had two choices for funding, banks or Wall Street.  Wall Street would not take a company public until it was profitable. Companies often used an IPO to pay down debt and improve cash flow to pay dividends to the shareholders. If you wanted to get funded on Wall Street, it helped if you went to Princeton or Yale or your father did. It was very much a “who you know” network.

Banks provided the bulk of the capital that was available for small business. They still do. They do not care who you are as much as they want to know that you will pay them back.

When I graduated law school in the 1970s women could not get credit cards and minorities could not get even a loan application at any bank. So you cannot tell me that it is more difficult for women and minorities to get funded today.

The US Small Business Administration (SBA) has programs which will guarantee bank loans for about 20,000 small businesses every year.  I speak with entrepreneurs seeking capital all the time. I always ask if they have tried the SBA.  Most of the people I speak with never heard of the SBA or never considered it.  If you are looking for funding for your business, that is mistake number one.

Even if you do not qualify for a bank loan the cost of capital should be your primary concern. Shopping for a loan will give you an idea of how much money costs and how loan payments would impact your cash flow.  If, for example, you intend to borrow $1 million at 6% for 10 years, then the loan will cost you $600,000 and you will need to take $1.6 million out of cash flow to pay it back.

Many people think that venture capitalists will fund their business. That is simply not true. There are actually very few VC funds and they fund very few businesses every year. Some VCs specialize, i.e. they only fund biotech companies. That is great if you are a biotech company and know where to find those VCs with the expertise to evaluate your company. Randomly chasing after VC funds is a waste of time.

The serious money in venture capital is controlled by people who do a lot of analysis and extensive due diligence. Consequently, they like to invest in somewhat larger slices of $10 million or more. If they get 10% of your equity for that amount you are going to have to sell a lot of your product to bring the real value of your company up to the point where they will make a sizeable profit.  Consequently, not many companies will qualify.

The start-up world and especially Silicon Valley are full of stories about start-ups that become unicorns that exceed a $1 billion valuation but they are few and far between. If you are going to swing for the fences, fine. But for most companies this is not an option.

What makes the statement “any good business can get funded” true is the JOBS Act or what most people call equity crowdfunding.  It affords any company the opportunity to sell debt or equity securities directly to investors.

The JOBS Act opened the door for smaller companies to reach investors.  For most companies Reg. D is best because it is the least expensive and it has the largest developed market. Over $1.7 trillion is raised by businesses using Reg. D every year. If you want to raise money for your business, logic would tell you to go where the money is.

The best thing about equity crowdfunding is that the business owner controls the process. You hire an attorney to prepare the legal paperwork for you, prepare the marketing materials, list it on one of many crowdfunding websites and use your marketing program to attract investors.  You do not have to wait for the loan committee at a bank or for a broker/dealer to put you on their calendar. You can usually start raising money in 4-6 weeks from when you start the process.

Despite what you may have heard about crowdfunding campaigns that are not successful, it is really not that difficult if you hire people who know what they are doing.  Business owners call me about crowdfunding all the time. I always ask them the same four questions.

Questions 1 and 2. How much money do you want to raise and what do you intend to do with that money?  If your answer to the second question is that you intend to “disrupt” this industry or that industry, you better be able to demonstrate that you know a lot about that industry and especially about your competitors.

What investors really want to know is that you have a good business plan and that you are raising enough money to execute it.  It is always better to stick with what you know and hire people who know what you do not.  You should be able to show that you are not just building a better mousetrap but that you are building a good, profitable business.

Question 3. What is in it for the investor?  Investors are often disrespected in the crowdfunding universe. This is partially because the crowdfunding platforms compete for issuers and partly because many crowdfunding platforms are operated by people who do not understand what investors want.  In truth all investors want the same thing; they want to end up with more money than they originally invested.

People who are willing to invest in a start-up understand that most start-ups will fail.  It is important to distinguish yourself and convince investors that your company has a better chance to succeed because you have mitigated some of the risk.

Over the years, I have used a variety of financing tools including preferred shares and revenue sharing models to help start-ups manage their cash flow and still make the investment attractive to investors.  No two companies are the same. If you are thinking that you can just download a template for your offering without some real advice about how to structure it, you are not likely to be successful.

Question 4. What is your fundraising budget?  This is what really separates successful fundraising programs from unsuccessful ones.  You should always be prepared to spend a little more than you think you may need.

What is an adequate budget?  Enough to prepare the legal paperwork, marketing materials and to drive enough potential investors to your offering to get it funded. For a Reg. D offering, few companies spend as much a $50,000 unless they are raising $10 million or more.

One of the common mistakes people make is selecting the wrong crowdfunding platform.  Several advertise that they have had 10,000 investors or more but most crowdfunding investors are not loyal to a particular platform. Only a very few platforms are right for any particular offering. You need to make a decision about which platform to use based upon a number of factors including the size of your offering, the industry that you are in and how your offering is structured.

Under the JOBS Act you can make a Reg. D offering on your own website if you wish.  Given the fact that you will be paying for the marketing costs, it may make sense to be on your own platform where there will be no competition from other offerings.

I speak with about a dozen companies every month and I only take on one or two because I do not want to work full time. If I take you on I will walk you through the process and usually get you funded. That goes for companies owned by women and minorities and those located in Toledo or Tallahassee.

Using the JOBS Act any good business can get funded. If you are going to run a business, then you have to get things done and not make excuses. That goes for financing your business as well.

If you cannot fund your business with equity crowdfunding then it is on you not the market. It is actually a lot easier, faster and more certain than chasing venture capital.

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.

 

Is Technology Changing Finance?

A lot of people seem to believe that technology will fundamentally change or disrupt finance and the financial markets.  Many, if not most, of those people seem to be developing technology, selling it or using it to sell products to investors and financial consumers.  Most of these people seem to have degrees or backgrounds in technology not finance.

Having a background in technology does not give you an understanding of finance or the financial markets.  You cannot fix or disrupt what you do not understand and the lack of understanding behind many of these products is simply ridiculous.

I only write about the law and the financial markets. I spent my career as an attorney working in and around the financial markets. I also taught Economics and Finance so I have a pretty well rounded idea about how the capital markets work and how they are evolving.

So I feel perfectly justified to call out the many techies who think they understand the financial markets even though they have never worked in the markets or studied finance. Nonetheless many seem hell-bent to create products that they think are making these markets better and are quick to label the products that they sell as “disruptive”.

I call these people the “algorithms fix everything” crowd.  It is an interesting thought, except that these mathematicians have no math to back up much of what they say about finance.

At the same time, there is an ongoing narrative that suggests that everyone who works in the financial markets is evil. I find it amazing how many people actually think that all bankers and stock brokers get up in the morning thinking “who can I screw today?”  I have personally brought more than 1000 claims on behalf of aggrieved investors against Wall Street firms and written a book about some of the really bad things that Wall Street firms can do, but even I know that Wall Street firms are not evil.

The capital markets handle millions of transactions every day involving trillions of dollars and the almost all of those transactions settle with both the buyer and seller happy. Banks and stockbrokers fund schools, universities, roads and hospitals and virtually every company since WWII, again without serious problems or complaints from anyone. Banks aggregate and intermediate capital and over all they do it quite well.  So what, exactly, needs disrupting?

Still there is a never ending stream of new products and services which claim to be revolutionary and which promise to disrupt the capital markets. On closer examination many of these innovations are more hype than substance. Say what you will, there is nothing disruptive here.  A few examples for your consideration:

1) Algorithmic stock trading – This is a good place to start because it is pure technology applied to the existing markets. “Quant” traders use computers to evaluate trends and trading patterns in the market of various securities. They attempt to anticipate the price at which the next trade or subsequent trades will occur.  Logic says that computers should be able to take in more information that is pertinent to stock trading, analyze it almost instantaneously and execute transactions in micro seconds.

It sounds right, but the reality is that all stock trading is binary; every buyer requires a seller. No one buys a stock unless they believe that the price will appreciate; sellers generally will only sell shares when they think the price will appreciate no further. Both sides to any trade cannot be correct.

Analyzing the information or executing faster is of no use unless each trade you make is profitable.  No one has yet figured out how to accomplish that, nor are they likely to do so.  What we are talking about is predicting the future which is difficult to do even if only a micro-second or two ahead.   And please do not suggest that artificial intelligence will change this.  If there is one right answer based on the current information, e.g. buy APPL, then who is going to sell it?

2) Robo investment advisors- These are similar but much less sophisticated. Robo-advisors do not actually attempt to anticipate future market performance. They make investment recommendations based solely on the past performance of the markets. Anyone who has ever bought a mutual fund is required by law to be told that past performance is not a basis for future results. But that is all you get with a robo-advisor.

FINRA did a study of a half dozen robo investment platforms and found that they provided widely divergent portfolios for the same types of investors. No robo is any better than any other and none is really worth anything.

3) Crypto currency- It was a discussion about Bitcoins that was the initial impetus for this article. Aficionados of crypto currency actually think that they are developing an alternative currency for an alternative financial system. People seem to want to just print their own money and on one level I can understand that.  But that level is more of a fantasy than reality.

The reality is that I can buy food or virtually anything else in most places in the world with US currency. Why do we need Bitcoins? What exactly, is their utility?   When I ask that question I get any number of weak responses. More often than not, I get a tirade about banks and/or governments being evil.

What proponents of crypto currencies never want to face is the fact that the crypto currency market has been full of people laundering money from illegal activities.  The banks that crypto currency fans love to hate are required by law to know their customers and have systems in place to prevent money laundering.  It costs money to follow the law and have those systems. It is money that the crypto currency platforms do not want to spend. If there is a common thread in the crypto currency world, it is that people want to skirt or simply ignore the regulations that keep the markets safe and functioning.

4)  Crowdfunding Platforms- Crowdfunding clearly works and works well as evidenced by the significant amount of money that it has raised for real estate and real estate development projects.  At the same time the crowdfunding industry is populated by a great many people who fall into the “I do not care what the rules say, I am in this to make a buck” crowd.  I have written several articles about how some of the crowdfunding platforms do not take the time to properly verify the facts that they give to potential investors.  Due diligence can be expensive and some of the platforms just refuse to spend what it takes to do it correctly.

Crowdfunding replaces the role that stockbrokers typically fulfill in the process of raising capital with a website and do it yourself approach.  With a stockbroker, the company that was seeking capital got that money the vast majority of the time because the brokers were incentivized to sell the shares. With crowdfunding it is very much hit or miss whether the company will get funded. Many of the better crowdfunding platforms charge close to what a brokerage firm would charge and the investors get none of the protections or insurance that they would get with a stockbroker.

5) FinTech and FinApps – I can go to my bank’s website and send a payment to my electric utility company. I can do the same at the utility company’s website. I admit that it is convenient, but it is hardly disruptive.   Remittance companies like PayPal merely move money from my bank to a vendor’s bank.  And PayPal posted a $3 billion profit in the last fiscal quarter.  So they may charge less of a fee per transaction than a bank, but is not essentially different, and again while PayPal holds my money, I get no insurance against hacking or theft.

Apps that allow me to apply for a mortgage on my phone are really doing no more than eliminating a bank employee who would enter the same information from a written application into the bank’s computer. Again, it is convenient but not necessary.  And the money for the mortgage comes from either a bank or stock brokerage firm so there is nothing disruptive here, either.

Is there nothing truly new and disruptive in finance? Of course there is. They deservedly gave the 2006 Nobel Prize in Economics to Muhammad Yunus for developing a system of micro-finance that continues to create millions of entrepreneurs and lift millions more out of poverty. I doubt that one line of computer code was needed.

Micro-finance has the ability to put globalization on steroids.  Who will be disrupted?  Quite of few people with big school pedigrees and enormous student debt who write code to disrupt finance but who never understood finance in the first place.to

The Start-up Funding Wars-Another Dispatch from the Front Lines

I speak with start-ups and business owners who are trying to raise capital for their businesses several times a week.  Some are my age or close to it; others are very much younger.  Most know their own business well, but few understand the ins and outs of raising capital which is why they call me in the first place.

If I take on the task of helping a start-up raise funds I can usually get them the funds they need.  That is not an idle boast. I will not even attempt to help a company solicit investors if I do not think that the company is a good investment.

That is unfortunately the case with the vast majority of the companies with which I speak.  I will review any pitch deck and offer comments and suggestions for free.  I will spend an hour of my time on the phone with any entrepreneur, no charge. Most simply do not measure up.

What I want to hear is that you have a business.  I want you to tell me that you have a product; that you know what it will cost to source your product and that you have actual customers who have bought or at least used the product and have reacted favorably to it.  If you are not yet at that stage, at the very least I want to know that you are close.

The difference between raising funds for a product that has been developed and raising funds to develop a product is huge. The number of investors who will take a chance on the latter is much smaller. It can still be done but it might take a little more time and money to reach them.

The two things that I do not want to hear is that your product will “disrupt” the market or that your company is destined to have a billion dollar plus valuation.  Neither is likely to come true.  I would rather hear that you have a good marketing and sales plan in place and have hired good, experienced people to execute it.

Please do not ask me to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before we speak.  In the first place, I am an attorney at law, so everything that you say to me is confidential if you want it to be.  In the second place, if your product or process is so novel, valuable and proprietary then get it patented.

Please do not send me a pitch deck that has no resemblance to a business plan. If your pitch is all flash and no substance it is not going to work. Investors want to see what you are going to do with their money and how and when your company will become profitable.

Please do not tell me that you have read all the books about funding a start-up and have attended several conferences featuring the best start-up “gurus”.  If you had read all the books that actually count, you would probably have an MBA in Finance.

Sometimes I can help a small company up its game by suggesting that it add some additional directors, patent its product, refine its business plan or change the terms or structure of its offering.  But more often than not, I find myself turning away business.

What I really want to hear most in that first phone call with any entrepreneur is that he/she can close the sale. If you are going to deal with investors, you are going to have to do more than tell them about the great company that you are building. You are going to have to ask them for a check. To get it, you need to tell investors how they are likely to profit from the investment in your company and why you can make it happen.

I am not a philanthropist. I charge for my services albeit less than I used to charge when I was paying rent for an office in a financial district high rise.  I will not work for stock in your business and you cannot pay me later after we raise money for you.

It takes money to raise money.  If you raised seed capital from friends and family to develop your product and did not raise enough to take you to the next level of fundraising at the same time, let me say this judiciously, you blew it.

I generally tell people to budget between $35-$50,000 if you need to raise between $5-$15,000,000.  So far none of my clients have gone over budget and most have spent less, but running out of money would be aggravating to all concerned.

A lot of people ask me to introduce them to VCs. I know a few VCs on both coasts and a few in between.  Most are serious investors meaning that they want to invest in companies that will succeed and produce a good return on their investment.  This is true of all investors, not just VCs.

For most start-ups seeking venture capital is a waste of time.  VCs actually fund very few businesses every year and each has its own funding requirements. The process is time consuming (even companies that get funded can be at it a year or more) and often political (like a lot of things in life it is often who you know that is important).

For most start-ups and small companies, equity crowdfunding would be the preferred way to raise funds.  It can be quick (90-120 days) and inexpensive ($35-$50,000).  I work with several equity crowdfunding platforms and several different marketing companies.  If you start with the idea that you are just going to slap an offering together as inexpensively as possible, put it up on a crowdfunding platform that has dozens of competing offerings and send out an e-mail or two to prospective investors, you are more likely than not going to fail.

I know a lot of people in the crowdfunding industry and I think that I know the best of the best.  I can usually direct a client to an appropriate crowdfunding platform and a marketing firm that will get the job done. I use different firms for different offerings of companies in different industries and at different stages of their corporate development.

Funding is always a team effort. That is why I like to pick the team.  I try to use the best people for each job.  Some charge more than others but like everything else in life, you get what you pay for.

To save time here are three types of offerings that I do not do.

1) Anything to do with cannabis. It is not that I am a wimp on the subject of marijuana. I was in college in the 1960s.  It is just that I can read the handwriting on the wall. Cannabis is illegal in all 50 states, no matter what the state legislature may have enacted.  The current US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, seems to be getting ready to start enforcing federal law and closing down the retail stores and medical dispensaries.  He recently loosened the rules on asset forfeiture, meaning that nice warehouse where some company is growing cannabis might be seized and sold without a trial.  If I was an investor who helped to fund the purchase of that building I would sue the principals for using my money to participate in an illegal enterprise.

2) Any Reg. A+ offering. Reg. A+ requires the registration of shares with the SEC so that they can be sold to smaller investors. There is more than enough money in the Reg. D private placement market to fund your business. A Reg. A+ offering will likely cost you $150,000 or more to raise the same amount of money. That does not scream “look how smart I am” to any investor.

3) Any ICO. Recently I have been asked by more than one company to do an Initial Coin Offering (ICO).  These are offerings denominated in crypto-currencies. Several have raised significant amounts of money.  The SEC has declared that depending on how these offerings are structured they may be securities. Most of the lawyers with whom I spoke would err on the side of caution if they were asked to prepare an ICO. I got quotes in the range of $150,000- $250,000 just for legal fees. Again why spend that much more than you need to spend to fund your business.  And if you need a gimmick like an ICO to fund raise funds, what does that say about your business?

By refusing to fund businesses selling cannabis, any Reg. A+ or any ICO, I am leaving a lot of money on the table because these offerings, especially the latter two, pay well.  I have the expertise but I also have a reputation. I will not advise a client to use Reg. A+ or an ICO when a Reg. D offering will work just as well and cost them much less.

Good businesses get funded. While 90% of start-ups fail,  the key is to convince investors that you are among the 10% that will not.  If you are unsure, you are welcome to try to convince me first.

 

Ziyen Inc- Another Reg. A+ Question Mark

I have written several articles about specific Reg. A+ offerings. These offerings are targeted at small investors who are ill-equipped to judge their value as an investment, let alone, the accuracy of the disclosures.

I recently got a call from a colleague who works at a reputable brokerage firm.  He suggested that I look at the Reg. A+ offering of a company called Ziyen Inc.  He thought that it might be the grist for a blog article. He was not wrong.

Ziyen Inc. was incorporated in April 2016 to provide a suite of “cutting edge digital business intelligence, marketing and software services.”  By business intelligence it means information about available government procurement contracts, initially in Iraq and eventually globally.

The offering circular states: “Ziyen currently operates the B2B Procurement Portals “Rebuilding Iraq.net” and “Cable Contracts.net”.  “Rebuilding Iraq is our first B2B Procurement Portal, and the flagship service for the company. We are currently the number one international source for information on tenders, contracts, news and marketing services in Iraq.”

As far as I can tell, Rebuilding Iraq.net lists tenders for contracts that might be found elsewhere and does not charge for the information. It claims that 200,000 people visit the site every month.  When I checked Cable Contracts.net, which does charge for usage on a monthly subscription basis, I did not find any tenders listed. According to the financial statements in the offering circular the company has no revenue and roughly $7000 in the bank.

The company is selling up to 64,000,000 shares at $.25 per share. It is self-underwriting, meaning that there is no brokerage firm involved or even an established crowdfunding platform.  The offering circular mentions two crowdfunding platforms by name and the subscription agreement mentions a third, but I could not find this offering on any of them.

It appears that shares are being sold directly from the company website. The website actually uses shopping carts into which you can put a bundle of shares and check out using a credit card. And before you say that the shares are only $.25 a piece, the bundles go up to $25,000 so this is a serious offering of securities.

The subscription agreement also mentions an escrow agent where investors can deposit their funds, except that no escrow agent is being used.  According to the offering circular, “Subscription amounts received by the Company will be deposited in the Company’s general bank account, and upon acceptance of the subscription by the Company, the funds will be available for the Company’s use.”

No competent securities attorney would permit these types of inconsistencies. In truth, it appears that no competent securities attorney was involved in the preparation of this offering.  None is disclosed and no funds are allocated to pay an attorney to prepare the offering or deal with the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Corporate Finance which reviewed it.

It appears the offering was prepared by the company’s principal, Alastair Caithness, a Scottish-American businessman.  You can tell he wrote the offering circular because he refers to himself in the first person – “I was Head of Sales in a company in the UK” although he never discloses the name of that company.

The offering circular also obliquely refers to other employees and a Board of Directors, none of whom are named. The Company does business in Iraq and for all you know the Company might have people on its Board of Directors whom the US government might not look upon favorably.

I did find six other Board members on the Company’s website, but their backgrounds were short on the type of detail I would have expected to see in an offering circular. The disclosures give incomplete employment histories and several fail to disclose where they were educated.  Nothing negative was disclosed about any of them and I am not suggesting that there was anything negative to disclose. I am only questioning whether Mr. Caithness would have known what disclosures the rules required.

For a little perspective, back in the late 1970s when I was writing registration statements I took some flak from the Division of Corporate Finance because one of the executives at an issuer had claimed to have a Bachelor’s degree and did not. It seems he got his draft notice right before his senior year final exams and decided that graduating was not that important. When he took the job at the company years later his resume said that he had graduated and no one had ever checked. The Division of Corporate Finance told me at the time that was a misstatement of a material fact.

I must have missed the memo where they subsequently decided that not disclosing the names of the members of the Board of Directors in an offering circular was not an omission of a material fact.  Nowhere in the offering circular does it suggest that investors should review every page of the company’s website or every subsequent press release.

The offering circular is dated mid-October of 2016. In mid-April 2017, the Company announced separately that it had established a “new investment division in the company to focus on financing unfunded construction projects in Iraq”.  It claimed to have “the capabilities to provide the finance for long-term projects.”  Financing for long-term projects?  According to the offering circular the company has $7000 in cash in the bank.

In June 2017, the Company announced that Ziyen Energy, a division of Ziyen Inc., had just secured over $36 million dollars of oil reserves in Indiana in the United States.  The deal includes 7 existing oil producing wells worth over $6 million dollars of proven reserves along with a support water injection well and a water producing well for injection purposes with a further potential for 20 new oil producers on undeveloped reserves on the site worth over $30 million.

That would certainly be big news, except the offering circular does not mention Ziyen Energy nor any intention to be in the oil production business, much less in the oil production business in the US. If you were to download and review the offering circular today you would have no idea you were investing in an oil company. Even if you tracked down the press release, it does not disclose how much the company paid for these reserves, whether they were financed, how much the wells are producing or if contracts are in place to sell the production.

As I was researching this article I was prepared to give Mr. Caithness the benefit of the doubt. I thought he was just a businessman trying to raise some money for his own company on the cheap, i.e. without hiring a competent securities attorney.

Then I found this offering on a crowdfunding platform that specializes in Reg. A+ offerings called Wall Street Capital Investment. It is owned by Mr. Caithness who holds himself as an expert and offers to help raise money for others.

Ziyen Inc. is actually the second offering on that platform. The first is a company called Novea Inc. which shares the same address in Cheyenne, Wyoming as Ziyen. (Mr. Caithness is actually in California and presumably operates Ziyen from there. I have no reason to believe that Novea is actually in Cheyenne either.) The offering circulars for the two are remarkably similar and no attorney was apparently paid to prepare the Novea offering either.

Novea Inc. also has neither revenue nor cash in the bank and is in the business of offering warranties that “disrupt” the warranty industry.  One of its largest shareholders is Mr. Carlos Arreola who is Mr. Caithness’ partner in Wall Street Capital Investment. As an aside, the advertising for both companies feature the same actor and the marketing plan and press releases are also very similar.

I also suspect that this is about more than just saving some money on legal fees. Had Mr. Caithness come to me I would have suggested that he raise his funds through a Reg. D offering to accredited investors. He would have spent about the same as he anticipated (the offering budgets $20,000 for crowdfunding and related expenses) whereas the average cost of a Reg. A+ offering is in the neighborhood of $150,000 and much of that is for the lawyers.

Personally I think this offering might have been difficult to sell to accredited investors given that its business plan is weak. But if its Rebuilding Iraq.net website gets 200,000 views per month there would be a steady stream of non-accredited potential investors who are pre-disposed to the idea that Iraq needs rebuilding and might put a few shares in their shopping cart, even though they would actually be investing in a US domestic oil producer.

And that is really the point. Since there is neither a competent securities attorney nor broker/ dealer involved with this offering it is up to the individual investors to investigate this offering and make their own decision. No one has vetted this offering and no one can say whether every material fact is disclosed or accurate. The crowdfunding industry needs to stop deluding itself into thinking that small investors can actually perform due diligence.

Given the internal inconsistencies and inaccuracies, the failure to disclose the names of the Board of Directors and the fact that this was a DIY Reg. A+ offering I would have expected a little more scrutiny by the SEC’s Division of Corporate Finance before it was approved. But that no longer matters.

I know that about two dozen senior staffers at the SEC receive this blog through Linked-in, as do people at FINRA and the offices of state securities administrators in more than a dozen states. I know that people in a few Congressional offices that have oversight on the SEC and crowdfunding receive it as well. This one is a no-brainer.

From the company’s own press releases it is obvious that the information being disseminated to prospective investors in the offering circular does not reflect the current state of the company’s affairs. If a cease, desist and disclose order is not appropriate here, I cannot imagine that it will ever be appropriate anywhere.

I am older than most of my readers. I was around and litigated matters involving Stratton Oakmont and before them Blinder, Robinson and First Jersey Securities, so I think I have a pretty good idea of what a micro-cap fraud looks like. I was not certain that I was looking at one here until I got to the press release about the potential for 20 new producing oil wells. There have been quite a few micro-cap frauds involving oil stocks over the years. Mr. Caithness and his partner are registering a lot of their own stock. My gut tells me that there will be an enforcement action here sooner or later.

I am not a whistle blower. I know a lot of lawyers and others who are trying to navigate the Reg. A+ waters specifically because they believe that more companies need access to capital and that smaller offerings should be open to smaller investors. Their hard work will go for naught if the investors are drawn into scam after scam.

I am not the world’s biggest fan of government regulators. But if you want the fire department to show up and put out a fire, you need to scream FIRE at the top of your lungs. That is really all that I am trying to do.  I am optimistic that some securities regulator will hear me. There have already been far too many examples of fraudulent Reg. A+ offerings that the crowdfunding industry does not want to talk about.  Here is an opportunity for the SEC to re-enforce the need for compliance with the rules. Investors should be able to look at an offering circular and at the very least get accurate disclosures of all of the facts.

 

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.

 

The Cold Hard Truth About Funding Start-ups

Contrary to what a lot of people seem to believe, it is not that difficult to fund a start-up. Funding a start-up is a process.  It requires a plan and time, effort and money to execute the plan.  The process varies depending upon where you intend to procure the funds. That decision is most often determined by what sources of funding are or are not available .

More often than not the availability of funds depends upon the attributes of the company being funded.  Who you are, how far along your company is and the realistic chances for success are usually the determining factors.

If you believe the blather that successful start-ups must disrupt an existing market or must solve a problem that the market may not know it has, you are making it harder for yourself, not easier. Lenders want the loan principal returned with interest and investors want their capital returned and a return on their investment. You need to adopt that mindset if you want to attract funds.

A great many small businesses receive funds from the Small Business Administration (SBA) which has been making loans to start-ups and small businesses for decades. Like most lenders the SBA wants collateral for the loan and will review your business plan to satisfy itself that you will have the cash flow to make the payments.

The SBA will assist in the process and provides mentoring for businesses before they apply. There are also private SBA loan brokers in every major city in the US. Not every small business qualifies, but many of the SBA loan brokers will provide guidance and assistance if the company is close to the qualifying line.

Venture capital funds (VC) or angel investor groups seem to be the choice for most start-ups. VC’s can provide management and other assistance in addition to funding. The bulk of venture capital money goes into second round financing and many of the funds specialize in tech or bio-tech companies only.

Most venture funds are willing to take a calculated risk on young companies. That calculation includes their ability to recoup their funds with some type of post financing liquidity transaction, like a merger or IPO.  Consequently, a great many companies do not qualify.  In truth, VC’s only fund a very limited number of smaller start-up companies every year.

There are far more companies that are chasing venture capital than there are venture capitalists. Consequently, the VCs usually get to fund the best companies they see.

The world is full of stories of companies that pitched dozens of VCs before they got funded and even more companies who repeatedly pitched VCs and never got funded. There are a great many books and consultants who will tell you how to make your pitch better but the truth may be that your company is just not as attractive as the others competing for the same funds.

I would hope that it would be obvious that it is easier to find funding for a company with a well thought out and well prepared business plan than a for a company whose business plan looks like it was written on a napkin by a couple of drunken frat boys.

Investors will certainly want to know if your product works, whether or not it can be sourced, whether or not people will purchase it and at what price.  You can show them with spreadsheets and marketing studies or you can start selling your product and generate some revenue.  An operating company should always be easier to finance than a company that needs funding to begin operations.

This flies in the face of the idea that all an entrepreneur need do is develop a minimum viable prototype (MVP) and then shop it around to venture capitalists. I have known a lot of VC’s over the years and almost all would tell me that they fund businesses not prototypes.

Investors also legitimately want to know exactly what you intend to do with the funds that they give to you. They also want you to use their money efficiently.

Several years back I met with a young code writer who was working at one of the larger Silicon Valley companies. He and a few of his co-workers had an idea for an APP. They wanted my help to raise $1 million so that they could quit their jobs and spend a year working on it full time.  Once the APP was developed and tested they would have had no money left for marketing and no one with any marketing experience to help them.

I suggested to him that it might easier to raise the money if their plan was to have the code for the APP written in India for a lot less and use the difference to package and promote the finished product. That way he and his cohorts could keep their day jobs and they would have a sufficient monies to hire a real marketing pro to help sell the product once it was developed.

I might as well have suggested that they enlist in the Army. They wanted the entrepreneurial experience paid for by someone else.  A good VC will see through that attitude and as far as I know that particular group never got the funds they were seeking.

Crowdfunding`is the financing tool that is the foundation for my belief that funding any start-up is not that difficult. If you follow this blog you certainly know that I continue to be concerned about the absolute disregard for investors in this market. But executed correctly, a good crowdfunding campaign should obtain the funds it seeks almost every time.

I recently had a beer with a long time friend is a lot more cynical than I am.  His thought was that since you could fool some of the people some of the time, I should just embrace that fact and come around to the thinking that any start-up could get funded if it spent enough money advertising its offering in the right way.

My friend was thinking that a good advertising company could put lipstick on any “pig” of an offering and sell it to investors on a crowdfunding website because most investors in this market really had no idea what they were doing.  While I personally decline to assist bad companies looking for capital, many in the crowdfunding market will simply list any company that shows up on their website.

I have a little experience in advertising and a lot of respect for people who do it well.  Selling securities usually takes a different approach than selling a product but my friend was thinking in more generic terms.  The point here is that selling securities is often referred to as a “numbers” game.

Advertising is about “eyeballs”.  If you want to sell shares in your company to 500 people, then a lot more than 500 people need to see your advertisements for the offering.

When someone comes to me with the desire to crowdfund an offering, I always recommend that a good marketing company is essential.  Several marketing companies that work in the crowdfunding market are careful to follow the rules. Many more are not.

Whether you are selling a loan package to the SBA or equity to a VC, angel or crowdfunding audience the operable word is sell.  Selling is not free. The old saying that it takes money to make money is true here as well. It takes money to raise money.

If you want to fund a new business you should be prepared to spend money for a professionally prepared presentation. I know a company that sent e-mails and their presentation to a list of one thousand VCs and Angels six times before one responded. They then flew cross country, made a presentation and got nothing.

With crowdfunding, I again recommend that you hire someone to prepare a professional presentation, a good lawyer to help you prepare the paperwork and budget enough money to drive potential investors to your offering. If you want to raise funds for your business, it will cost you money to do so.

I speak with a lot of people who essentially bootstrap their business until they are ready to bring it to market and then seek funding. Many are stymied because they are essentially broke at this point and do not have the resources to pay for lawyers, business plans, videos and a marketing campaign.

A lot of people wring their hands and feel sorry for this group. I,however, am not among them.  I believe that any company good enough to seek funding from strangers, should be able to borrow enough from family, friends, neighbors and college roommates to pay for a campaign to raise more funds.  If your Uncle Fred who has known you since childhood is not willing to invest in you, why should you think that my Uncle Fred or anyone else’s would?