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.

 

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.

 

Crowdfunding- Waving the Red Flag


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Crowdfunding – Letter to the SEC

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

Dear Commissioner Stein:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respectfully,

 

Irwin G. Stein, Esq.

 

 

 

Crowdfunding – Impractical Business Plans

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

The regulations include provisions that are firmly rooted in the idea of investor protection. The regulators will never accept the idea that investors in the crowd can be left to fend for themselves or that proper disclosures do not have to be made. Equity crowdfunding is not a caveat emptor marketplace.

Small investors are being hyped with the idea that crowdfunding portals are offering opportunities for them to invest in the next Facebook or Amazon that will turn their modest investments into huge profits. Investors are actually being offered shares in breweries, distilleries and a lot of small companies with dubious products and often inexperienced managers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Crowdfunding Fraud –Lessons from Elio Motors

A colleague suggested that the demise of Elio Motors would be a “teachable moment” for the crowdfunding industry. This lesson is necessary because too many people who are active in the crowdfunding arena would not know a scam if one bit them on the butt.

The lesson is that people who operate crowdfunding platforms or portals should have some background in corporate finance. The lesson is being paid for by the investors who made a $17 million investment in Elio and got nothing for it. These are losses that would have been avoided if the crowdfunding portal that listed Elio had operated correctly and refused to list it.

I raised questions about Elio when it was making its offering last spring. At the time it seemed to be a lot more hype than substance. That offering was ongoing at least until March.

By the end of September Elio was already bankrupt even if it has not formally filed the paperwork. Its balance sheet showed less than $5 million in current assets and more than $30 million in current liabilities. Elio had less than $100,000 in unrestricted cash on hand on September 30. Elio would likely have already closed its doors if it had not borrowed another $3 million at the end of last year.

Elio spent all of the money that investors put up and more in less than 6 months. That money was spent on “soft costs”, mostly administrative costs and R&D. Elio actually needs more money to get its vehicle into production now than before the offering.

Elio has been held out as one of the first great successes of the crowdfunding industry. It was one of the first offerings to file under the new Reg. A and one of the first to come to market. The offering was deemed a success because it raised $17 million from thousands of small investors.  Elio attempted to raise $25 million and raised $17 million. In the world of finance that is a failure, not a success.

Elio executives made the rounds at crowdfunding conferences last year, basking in that success and telling attendees how to raise money. Elio attracted investors the same way that Bernie Madoff did; by making promises about their future performance that they knew that they could not keep.

Elio has been taking deposits for its 3 wheeled, gas efficient vehicle and was first promising to deliver the vehicle before the end of 2014, then 2015 and then 2016.  Let’s be clear, there is no vehicle; certainly not one ready for production that could be delivered to the 65,000 people who put down a deposit to get one.  If you take someone’s money promising to deliver a product that you know you will not be able to deliver it is fraud.

Elio had also very publically promised to have its manufacturing facility in Shreveport, LA operational before the end of 2015 creating more than 1500 jobs. That promise of “we are getting ready to start production” was one way in which Elio bolstered its claim that it could deliver the vehicles. A lot of people in Shreveport were excited at the time, but those jobs never materialized. Today, a lot of people in Shreveport are very angry.

That same financial statement indicates that for the entire year of 2016, Elio spent about $1 million less than the year before on maintenance, insurance and property taxes for that Shreveport facility. Elio has been selling off manufacturing equipment at that facility to pay its bills, not gearing up to produce its vehicles. The financial report says that it still needs $300 million before it can start manufacturing. If it does not get substantial additional financing soon Elio admits that it may have to cease operations.

You can go to Elio’s website today and still put down a deposit believing that you are purchasing one of the vehicles at a reduced price. If a thousand people would each send me $100, I promise to send each of you a picture postcard from a beach in Bali. That is not much but it is more than you are likely to get from Elio.

At the time of the Reg. A offering, Elio represented that it hoped to obtain a $165 million loan from the US Department of Energy and still mentions that loan program in its recent financial statement. Elio does not qualify for that loan program, then or now.  Mentioning the program in the offering is what is known as “window dressing”; something that makes the company look more substantial or potentially successful than it is.

The fact that Elio did not qualify for the loan at the time of the offering and the fact that Elio had been taking deposits for a vehicle that it could not afford to manufacture should not have escaped the due diligence review conducted by StartEngine, the portal that listed Elio’s Reg.A offering.   The compliance director of StartEngine told me that they do not even attempt a due diligence review of Reg. A offerings based upon the mistaken belief that they are not required to do so.

Any crowdfunding portal that fails to conduct an adequate due diligence investigation does not care if investors who invest through their portal get ripped off.  I speak with start-ups that are interested in crowdfunding every month.  I only refer them to platforms or portals that follow the rules.

What will the regulators do about this? Perhaps nothing.  Regulators do not rectify every situation.

Still, as regards Elio it is not hard to imagine the conversation between someone in Shreveport who put down a deposit for a vehicle that will never be built who happens to share a duck blind with an Assistant US Attorney. As I said Elio is still taking deposits and apparently will continue to do so until some government agency stops them.

The SEC has already issued an order halting the Reg.A offering of Med-X, another offering listed on StartEngine. That case is still under investigation and it should be a lot easier for the SEC to prove that StartEngine did not act appropriately as the facts in the Med-X case are fairly clear cut.

FINRA recently expelled another portal claiming its offerings presented “impractical business plans.”  Exactly what FINRA meant by that would take another article. Suffice it to say that raising $17 million when you need $250 million and claiming most of the rest will come from a government program for which the company does not qualify is a business plan that is “impractical”.

Secondary market liquidity is an important aspect of Reg. A offerings. Companies that register their shares under Reg. A can also list those shares for trading in the OTCQX market. Investors who take a chance on these small companies have a way of selling their shares which investors in private placements cannot.

As of last Friday, the bid and asked for Elio shares was over $8 despite the fact the financial statements have been public for 2 months. Regulators might reasonably look at the liquidity and efficiency of that market as well.

Some people will tell you that crowdfunding is for start-ups most of which will fail anyway, so why bother to follow the rules and do it right? That is like saying everybody dies sometime, so why not drive around drunk.

The capital markets work because they are regulated. Regulation gives investors confidence.  If Elio turns into a well publicized scandal it is likely to scare investors away from the entire crowdfunding marketplace.

If you are operating a crowdfunding platform or portal and are too ignorant or too arrogant to follow the rules that keep scam artists out, please find another business. Neither the issuers nor investors want them around.

FINRA Expels a Crowdfunding Portal

FINRA has expelled its first crowdfunding portal. The firm, UFP (uFundingPortal) of Herndon, Virginia has only been active since May 2016. In five months it apparently listed 16 offerings which FINRA found to be questionable. UFP signed a consent order agreeing to allow FINRA to expel it from membership. The settlement illustrates how FINRA expects crowdfunding portals to operate.

A central allegation in FINRA’s action against UFP was that the portal knew that none of the 16 issuers had made the filings with the SEC that the issuers were required to make. It is as straightforward as an enforcement action can get; either the required filings were made or they were not. If the portal had asked for copies of these filings it would have known that the filings had not been made and, presumably, declined to list the offerings which is clearly what it should have done.

This is the third regulatory action against crowdfunded offerings and the first against a portal.  The organized crowdfunding industry has greeted this action with a yawn as it did the first two.  The industry has its head buried in the sand because it is populated by a lot of people who have never worked in finance and who keep telling each other that they know what they are doing when they clearly do not.

The first regulatory action against a crowdfunded offering, filed by the SEC in October 2015, was against a company called Ascenergy which raised money from investors on four crowdfunding websites. Ascenergy claimed it was going to drill for oil on land where it had no rights to drill. The principals of the company essentially stole the investors’ money. The SEC did not name the websites in the action. If the websites had conducted appropriate due diligence on the offering investors would not have been defrauded.

I wrote, at the time, about the SEC action against Ascenergy and suggested that it was only a matter of time until the regulators would sanction one of the crowdfunding sites. The crowdfunding industry ignored it. Now it has happened and the industry still does not understand that it is a target for regulators and what to do about it.

In October 2016, the SEC filed its second action against a crowdfunding offering. It halted the Regulation A offering of a company called Med-X. The allegation was that Med-X had not made its required filings to the SEC about its financial condition. The Med-X case is ongoing and an action by FINRA or the SEC against the portal may still be filed. Again, if the portal had merely asked for a copy of the filing, it would have known that the filing had not been made.

The FINRA action against UFP paints a pretty clear picture of what FINRA expects from a funding portal.  FINRA said that it expects “a funding-portal intermediary such as UFP to, among other things, deny access to its platform if the intermediary has a reasonable basis for believing that the relevant issuer or offering presents the potential for fraud or otherwise raises concerns about investor protection.”

Thirteen of the 16 issuers listed by UFP did not have any assets or history of operations and each claimed an unrealistic and unwarranted $5 million equity valuation. FINRA was concerned because these companies had “an impracticable business model, oversimplified and overly-optimistic financial forecasts and other warning signs.”

Obviously, the portal cannot know if it should be concerned about fraud if it does not look.  Federal and state law is crystal clear that the portal or other intermediary is liable for a fraudulent securities offerings if they do not investigate the offering with “due diligence.” Most of the portals do not have a full time due diligence department and there seems to be a lack of understanding across the crowdfunding industry as to what is really required.

When FINRA highlights the fact that the issuers offered by UFP had no assets or history of operations, it is reminiscent of the actions that the SEC brought against so-called “penny stocks” back in the late 1970s.  I represented one of the brokerage firms offering penny stocks back then and the SEC was all over them for taking companies public that were not ready to go public. Nothing in the JOBS Act changed that.

The same is true for financial projections. FINRA requires that there be a reasonable basis for the projections given to investors. If the company has yet to make a sale, what basis is there to project the sale of 2 million units in the first two years?  It is usually wise to conduct a test marketing campaign or prepare a good marketing study before an offering is made. Those are few and far between for crowdfunded offerings.  But if you do not have a reasonable basis to make a projection, you should not make it.

There are fewer than two dozen Title III portals registered with FINRA and I have spoken or corresponded with management, compliance officers or lawyers for a few of them. Some are up to the task and some clearly are not.

The lawyer for one of the portals told me that he saw a gap in the regulators’ thinking. He said: “on one hand (the portal) was not supposed to ‘discriminate’, whatever that means, at the same time they were supposed to reject fraudulent offerings.”

I do not see a gap or a problem. If the offering is questionable or has an “impractical business plan” you do not put it on your website, period. The overriding regulation for the crowdfunding industry is not to allow fraudulent offerings to reach the public. No platform should believe that the SEC would sanction them if they refused to list an offering that they thought was going to be a fraud. Just the opposite is true.

The compliance director at another portal told me that their FINRA registration applied only to the Reg. CF (Title III) offerings it listed. “With respect to Regulation A offerings” she told me, we are “solely a technology platform established to host those offerings. Our FINRA membership has nothing to do with Reg. A offerings and imposes no diligence obligations result from such hosting.”

When I asked if she had a letter confirming that FINRA saw it the same way, she failed to respond.  It was a rhetorical question because FINRA was very unlikely to issue that opinion.

When a firm agrees to join FINRA as a Title III portal, it agrees to abide by all of the rules that are authorized by FINRA’s by-laws. Those rules include a requirement that the firm conduct all of its business in accordance with just and equitable principals of trade and not to commit or “aid and abet” securities fraud in regards to any aspect of its business. A registered representative can be expelled from FINRA for a DUI. The idea that FINRA is only concerned with a firm’s Reg. CF offerings is preposterous.

What, exactly does FINRA expect from crowdfunding portals? Three things. FINRA wants to know that each firm 1) has systems in place and written procedures to foster compliance; 2) has trained compliance personnel in place to carry out those procedures and 3) is vetting the offerings to make certain that what they tell investors is true, reasonable and represents a real business with at least a chance of success.

At the same time, there is no excuse for a Title II platform which is not a FINRA member not to adopt the same procedures and to take the same care that they do not list a fraudulent offering.  These procedures are expenses and few platforms want to pay what it takes implement them correctly.

There is some fraud and the potential for more throughout the crowdfunding industry on both Title II platforms and Title III portals.  I see it. Other people see it and the regulators see it. More than one “knowledgeable” person in the crowdfunding industry has told me that fraud is minimal because the regulators have brought only these three actions. That, too, is preposterous because fraud is fraud whether the regulators catch it or not.

The industry for the most part is in denial because it does not want to see fraud.  In many cases people in the industry would not know a fraudulent offering if they did see one. I am certain that the crowdfunding industry is not interested in eliminating offerings with “impractical business plans” because that describes a great many offerings that appear on both Title II and Title III sites.

Only about 30% of the equity offerings that list on crowdfunding sites actually achieve their funding goals. Issuers incur many costs to list these offerings. The crowdfunding sites are doing no one a favor by listing offerings that investors should not want to consider in the first place.

If crowdfunding platforms exercised some judgment and discouraged companies from raising funds until they were ready to do so, it would help the industry raise that percentage of funded offers. There would be fewer offers but each would stand a better chance of fulfilling the promise of crowdfunding for small businesses and the jobs and opportunities they create.

Selling Private Placements

Why aren’t people buying crowdfunding? That question has people flocking to conferences and spending a lot on so-called experts looking for the reason that most equity crowdfunding campaigns fail to raise the money that they want.  Let me save you some money and a week on the road by stating the obvious: people are not buying crowdfunding offerings because no one is selling them.

I recently had a conversation with an entrepreneur who was funding his business on a crowdfunding website. I had viewed his offering and asked for more information. He sent me an e-mail and we scheduled a phone call.

He was professional throughout the conversation.  He was knowledgeable about his product, his customers and his competition. His sales projections were realistic and he seemed to have a good team in place.

What he lacked was any real sales skill. He had certainly spoken with dozens of potential investors before he got to me. It was obvious that he did not know how to close the sale.

Compare that with a professional stockbroker. Stockbrokers sell private placements and they are highly incentivized to do so. Private placements pay brokers higher commissions than almost any other financial product.

One of the first things that I learned when I started working on Wall Street was that people do not buy investments, rather people are sold investments. That is the lesson that the crowdfunding industry does seem ready to learn.

People are often surprised to learn that far more money is raised through private placements than public offerings every year. The JOBS Act which enabled crowdfunding to compete with mainstream stockbrokers actually made it easier for the brokers to sell the same private placements in direct competition with the crowdfunding platforms.

When the SEC adopted Regulation D in 1982 to provide a safe harbor for these private, non-registered offerings it defined a class of accredited investors, wealthy individuals with $1,000,000 in net worth or $200,000 in annual income. At the time this was a relatively small group of people. Due mainly to inflation this group has grown substantially since 1982. Many accredited investors who might consider investing in a start-up already have a stockbroker.

By the end of the 1980s there were a number of brokerage firms that specialized in selling private placements and many companies that packaged these investments for them. Most of these private placements were for various types of real estate or oil and gas investments. That is still true today.

A lot of these investors were baby boomers because they had money to invest and many were retirees or near retirement age. These people were specifically looking for investments that would provide steady income to help offset their retirement expenses.  Many private placements were sold based upon projections of monthly or quarterly income.

Selling an investment that throws off a substantial monthly check should not be that difficult, but it is. Virtually every security offered through a private placement has a substantial risk that the investor will suffer a complete loss of their investment.

In part because the universe of individuals who might want to take that risk is limited, the brokerage industry charges a hefty commission to sell these investments. Even the largest firms that package real estate or oil and gas investments as private placements frequently pay a 10% commission to the brokerage firms that sell them.

When you add legal, due diligence and marketing costs, the up-front expenses for a private placement can often add up to 15% or more. Those syndication costs are taken out of the offering proceeds. Some private placements also burden investors with pre-arranged exit costs if the property is sold.  I have seen real estate syndications where the property needed to appreciate by 30% for the investors to break even.

Reg. D offerings were not supposed to be “public” offerings and brokers were constrained to sell them only to people with whom they had a prior business relationship. Advertising a private placement or what is called “general solicitation” was always prohibited.

Given the high commissions that rule was often overlooked. It was not uncommon for a broker to hold a seminar where a sponsor would present the details of an offering that had just closed.  At the end of the presentation, the participants would be invited to sign up if they wanted to be notified when the next offering became available.

Attendance at a seminar was probably not the SEC’s idea of a prior business relationship but these went on for years.  The sponsors paid for the seminars and compliance directors at the brokerage firms looked the other way.

The JOBS Act eliminated the rule against general solicitation. That opened the door for general advertising of private placements. The only condition was that they could only be sold to accredited investors. Advertising of these offerings to accredited investors has exploded.

The JOBS Act was supposed to offer investors the opportunity to invest on-line through websites that did not charge commissions. Eliminating that commission cost should have created better economics and better deals and given the crowdfunders a leg up. Sadly, that has not been true.

Rather than up their game, the crowdfunding industry seems content to list offerings for companies with half-baked ideas, inexperienced management and unpatented products and processes. Add to that a fair amount of out and out fraud because the offerings are un-vetted and it is easy to see why the mainstream brokerage industry has little to fear from the crowdfunders.

What I see in the future is the mainstream stockbrokerage industry establishing crowdfunding sites where potential investors can browse offerings after being solicited by advertisements. Once there, the websites will make the potential investors presence known for licensed registered representatives to follow up and close the sale.

This is not what many of the crowdfunders had in mind when they lobbied for the JOBS Act.  Some believed that the crowd was capable of making intelligent decisions about investing in start-ups and that many people would want to put their money into these small companies.  Neither assertion was ever true.

I am probably alone in suggesting that crowdfunding will make a better adjunct to a traditional brokerage firm than a replacement for it. I suspect that it will not be long before others begin to see what I see and the “contact for more information” button on a crowdfunding site will go to a licensed stockbroker who will close the sale and be paid a commission.

There is a difference between marketing or solicitation and selling. Selling is what the crowdfunding industry needs in order to ultimately be a successful tool for corporate finance.