Venture capital funds routinely negotiate for a right of redemption – the right to require the company to buy out their shares after a certain period of time if an exit has not occurred – as a key element of their exit strategy. But according to a recent case in Delaware, the VCs and the company‘s board members could be Delaware Court of Chanceryliable to common stockholders if they cause the company to engage in transactions to generate funds for redemption to the detriment of the common stockholders.

Frederick Hsu Living Trust v. ODN Holding Corporation, et. al. involves a $150 million investment by venture capital firm Oak Hill Capital Partners in a holding company formed to own Oversee.net. The investment terms included a right in favor of Oak Hill to demand redemption of its shares for its $150 million investment amount beginning five years after the closing. The following year, the terms of the redemption feature were made more favorable to Oak Hill by imposing on the company a contractual obligation to “take all reasonable actions (as determined by the [company’s] Board of Directors in good faith and consistent with its fiduciary duties)” to raise capital if the funds legally available are insufficient to satisfy the company’s redemption obligation in full.

Not long after its initial investment, Oak Hill bought out one of the company’s founders and gained control over a majority of the company’s voting power and the board. The complaint alleged that, two years later, Oak Hill concluded that exercising its redemption right was the most effective way to achieve the return of its capital, that the company lacked the cash to redeem any shares and that the company should change its business plan from pursuing growth to accumulating cash in order to maximize redemptions. The company then stopped making acquisitions, sold off most of its profitable business lines, changed the management team and approved bonuses that would be payable if the company redeemed at least $75 million of preferred stock. The board subsequently approved and the company executed two redemptions in the aggregate amount of $85 million and paid related bonuses in the amount of approximately $2.4 million. Essentially, the complaint alleged that the directors breached their fiduciary duties by prioritizing the interests of the preferred stockholders over those of the common.

In cases involving directors’ fiduciary duties, courts will generally follow the business judgment rule and give deference to, and not second-guess, directors’ decisions. In cases where the board is not constituted with a majority of disinterested directors or otherwise does not act through a special committee of disinterested directors, however, directors’ actions are examined not by the business judgment rule but by the entire fairness standard, effectively shifting the burden to the defendants to establish both that the process and price were fair. In ODN Holding, none of the directors was deemed to be disinterested, so the focus of the case was on whether or not the process undertaken by the board was fair.

Under Delaware law, board members generally have a legal duty to advance the best interests of the corporation, meaning that they must seek to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders. But in a world of many types of stock and stockholders — record and beneficial holders, long-term holders, short term traders, activists – the question is: which stockholders? In his opinion in ODN Holding, Vice Chancellor Laster stated that a board’s obligation to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of stockholders runs generally to the common stockholders as the residual claimants, which he said was justified because a corporation has a perpetual life and the common stockholders’ investment is locked in.

In ODN Holding, abandoning a growth strategy and selling off businesses was essentially a zero sum game: the cash generated by the sale of businesses benefited the preferred stockholders because it funded redemptions, but it hurt the common because it left the company without any means to sustain itself. The board chose to benefit the preferred at the expense of the common. But it could have chosen to keep the company intact, redeem preferred shares incrementally over the long run and thus leave open the possibility of creating residual value for the common. That strategy would have been unappealing to the preferred, who clearly wanted their capital returned sooner rather than later.

The court was careful to draw a distinction between preferred stockholders and lender/creditors. Unlike creditors, preferred stockholders have no legal right to fixed payments of interest and no maturity date with the prospect of capital repayment and remedies for default. The court went on to state that a redemption right, even one that has ripened, does not convert a preferred holder into a creditor, and doesn’t give the holder an absolute right to force the corporation to redeem its shares no matter what. That’s because redemption rights are subject to statutory, common law and contractual limitations. As a stockholder in a Delaware corporation, Oak Hill’s rights were subject to the requirements of Section 160 of the Delaware General Corporations Law. As a matter of common law, redemptions cannot be made when the corporation is, or would be rendered, insolvent. By contract, under the terms of the preferred stock itself, redemptions could only be made out of “funds legally available,” and the board only had an obligation to generate funds for redemptions through “reasonable actions” as determined by the board in good faith and consistent with its fiduciary duties.

The opinion states that a board does not owe fiduciary duties to preferred stockholders when considering whether or not to take corporate action that might trigger or circumvent the preferred stockholders’ contractual rights, i.e., redemption rights. Preferred stockholders are owed fiduciary duties only when they do not invoke their special contractual rights and instead rely only on rights shared equally with the common stock.

It should be noted that Oak Hill’s preferred stock did not carry a cumulative dividend, a common feature of preferred stock which would have otherwise steadily increased the amount of the liquidation preference. Had Oak Hill’s preferred stock included cumulative dividends, the board might have stronger grounds to conclude that there was no realistic scenario for the company ever to generate proceeds sufficient to satisfy the preferred’s liquidation preference (as supplemented by the cumulative dividends) and then to have any value left over for the common, in which case the board would have been justified in liquidating the company with all proceeds going to the preferred.

It also bears emphasizing that ODN Holding was decided on a motion to dismiss, a pleading-stage decision, in which the plaintiff is given the benefit of the doubt. The court left open the possibility that the trial court could find that, even without the obligation to pay cumulative dividends, the directors could have reasonably concluded that the company’s value as a going concern would never exceed Oak Hill’s $150 million liquidation preference and so selling substantially all the assets with all proceeds going to the preferred and nothing left for the common was defensible because the common was effectively worthless. But that issue would have to be determined at trial, not on a motion to dismiss.

Key Take-Aways: Companies should tread very carefully in embarking on a series of transactions to generate funds for redemption when the board is not constituted with a majority of disinterested directors. Directors must treat preferred stockholders, even those with ripened redemption rights, differently than creditors, whose contractual rights have far less legal restrictions and whose rights need not be balanced against those of the common stockholders. Where a board contemplates a course of action to benefit the preferred, they must be prepared to prove that doing so was value maximizing because the preferred holders’ liquidation preference exceeded the company’s value as a going concern, effectively rendering the common stock worthless. And finally, from the investors’ perspective, negotiating for and securing cumulative dividends would help bolster that last argument.

On March 22, the Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Securities, and Investment of the Financial Services Committee conducted a hearing entitled “The JOBS Act at Five: Examining Its Impact and Ensuring the Competitiveness of the U.S. Capital Markets”, focusing on the impact of JOBS Act at 5the JOBS Act on the U.S. capital markets and its effect on capital formation, job creation and economic growth. The archived webcast of the hearing can be found here. Most people won’t have the patience to sit through two hours and 44 minutes of testimony (although the running national debt scoreboard on the right side of the home page showing in real time the national debt increasing by $100,000 every three seconds, and by $1 million every 30 seconds, etc., is eyepopping). At the risk of being accused of having too much time on my hands, but as an act of community service, I watched the hearing (or at least most of it) and will offer some takeaways.

Raymond Keating, Chief Economist of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, testified about some disturbing trends in angel and VC investment. The value and number of angel deals is down from pre-recession levels.  VC investment showed the most life but a decline in raymond keating2016 is troubling. So what’s going on?  Keating believes it’s about reduced levels of entrepreneurship stemming in large part from regulatory burdens that limit entrepreneurs’ access to capital and investors’ freedom to make investments in entrepreneurial ventures. He also testified on the need for further reform, particularly in Regulation Crowdfunding under Title III which allows companies for the first time to raise capital from anyone, not just accredited investors, without filing a registration statement with the SEC, and identified the following reform targets:

  • Issuer Cap. Currently, issuers are capped at $1 million during any rolling twelve-month period. There’s been a push to increase that cap, perhaps to $5 million.
  • Investor Cap. Currently, investors with annual income or net worth of less than $100,000 are limited during a 12-month period to the greater of $2,000 or 5% of the lesser of annual income or net worth, and if both annual income and net worth exceed $100,000, then the limit is 10% of the lesser of income or net worth. The proposal here would be to change the application of the cap from the lower of annual income or net worth to the higher of annual income or net worth.
  • Funding Portal Liability. Currently, funding portals can be held liable for material misstatements and omissions by issuers. That poses tremendous and arguably unfair risk to funding portals and may deter funding portals from getting in the business in the first place. The proposal here would be that a funding portal should not be held liable for material misstatements and omissions by an issuer, unless the portal itself is guilty of fraud or negligence. Such a safe harbor for online platforms would be similar to the protection that traditional broker dealers have enjoyed for decades. A funding platform is just a technology-enabled way for entrepreneurs to connect with investors, and they don’t have the domain expertise of issuers and can’t verify the accuracy of all statements made by issuers.  Part of the role of the crowd in crowdfunding is to scrutinize an issuer, a role that should remain with the investors, not with the platform.
  • Syndicated Investments. Many accredited investor crowdfunding platforms like AngeList and OurCrowd operate on an investment fund model, whereby they recruit investors to invest in a special purpose vehicle whose only purpose is to invest in the operating company. Essentially, a lead investor validates a company’s valuation, strategy and investment worthiness. Traditionally, angel investors have operated in groups and often follow a lead investor, a model which puts all investors on a level playing field.
  • $25 Million Asset Registration Trigger.  Under current rules, any Regulation CF funded company that crosses a $25 million asset threshold would be required to register under the Securities Exchange Act and become an SEC reporting company. Seems inconsistent with the spirit of Regulation Crowdfunding, which for the first time allows companies to offer securities to the public without registering with the SEC.

As to the continuing challenge for companies to go and remain public, Thomas Quaadman, Vice President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, testified that the public markets are in worse shape today than they were five years ago and that we have fewer than half the public companies quaadmantoday than we had in 1996, a number that has decreased in 19 of the last 20 years. Mr. Quaadman blamed this in part on an antiquated disclosure regime that is increasingly used to embarrass companies rather than provide decision useful information to investors. In order to rebalance the system and reverse the negative trend, he suggested a numbere of reform measures the SEC and Congress should undertake. The disclosure effectiveness proposal should be a top priority for the SEC to bring the disclosure regime into the 21st century. We need proxy advisory firm reform that brings transparency, accountability and oversight to proxy advisory firms. Also, there should be recognition that capital formation and corporate governance are inextricably linked and there should be reform of the shareholder proposal process under Rule 14a-8.

2016 turned out to be a terrible year for IPOs, both in terms of number of deals and aggregate proceeds.

According to Renaissance Capital’s U.S. IPO Market 2016 Annual Review, only 105 companies went public on U.S. exchanges in 2016, raising only $19 billion in aggregate proceeds. The deal count of 105 IPOs was downrenaissance 38% from 2015 and the lowest level since 2009.  The $19 billion in aggregate proceeds was down 37% from 2015 and the lowest level since 2003.  In fact, if you remove the financial recession years of 2008 and 2009, the 105 IPOs in 2016 were also the lowest since 2003.  And the drop in deal activity was indiscriminate; both VC- and PE-backed IPOs were at their lowest levels by deal count and proceeds raised since 2009.

The temptation would be to blame the weak IPO market on political election 2016uncertainty, with Brexit and the U.S. election being the biggest culprits. But then how to explain the broader U.S. capital markets, which were hot in 2016. The Dow Jones Industrial Average hovered around 20,000 at year end, and the S&P 500 Index was up 9.5% for the year.  One would expect that the market for IPOs would be pretty strong, as bullish markets normally encourage companies to go public.  To be fair, much of the market gains took place in the latter half of the fourth quarter.  But market weakness doesn’t explain the two-year drought in IPOs for technology companies, considered the mainstay of the IPO market.

Another common theory is that over-regulation, particularly Sarbanes Oxley, has made it much more expensive to go and remain public, thus discouraging many growth companies from doing so. The 2012 JOBS Act tried to remedy this by creating an IPO on-ramp for emerging growth companies, allowing for confidential registration statement filings with the SEC, “testing-the-waters” and scaled disclosure.  The immediate results were encouraging: a dramatic increase in IPO deals and aggregate proceeds in 2014.  Yet IPOs plummeted in 2015 and even further in 2016.

Renaissance Capital’s report points the finger squarely at the public-private valuation disconnect. The tech startup space in 2015 was a mystifying series of mega rounds, sky-high valuations, unicorns and unicornbubble fears. But another trend has been IPOs being priced below the company’s most recent private funding round.  In its pre-IPO round, Square Inc. was valued at approximately $6 billion, but IPO’d at just over half that valuation and then plunged further post-IPO.  Etsy Inc. and Box Inc. both reported $5 billion plus private valuations, only to plunge in the days leading up to their IPOs.  Many, including Benchmark Capital’s Bill Gurley, have blamed the late-stage bidding frenzy on institutional public investors such as mutual funds rushing into late-stage private investing.  Another major contributing factor in the escalation of late stage valuations is the trend toward generous downside protections being given to investors in exchange for lofty valuations, such as IPO ratchets and M&A senior participating liquidation preferences.  The former is simply antidilution protection that entitles the investor to receive extra shares on conversion in the IPO if the IPO price is below either the price paid by the late-stage investor or some premium above that price.  The latter means that, in an acquisition, the investor gets first dollars out ahead of earlier series of preferred and then participates with the common pro rata on an as converted basis.

Renaissance maintains that VC-backed tech companies with lofty late round private valuations chose in 2016 to avoid inevitably lower public-market valuations and had the luxury of remaining private due to ample available cash in the private markets. Mergers and acquisitions offered alternate pathways for other tech companies, such as TransFirst, BlueCoat and Optiv, all of which had previously filed S-1s for IPOs.

Although the private-public valuation disconnect was a major impediment to IPOs in 2015 and 2016, Renaissance believes this phenomenon is close to correcting itself and is optimistic about 2017. Many growth companies have seen their valuations flat or down in new funding rounds to levels that will be more palatable to public investors.  Also, the election results will likely bring a dramatic change in fiscal, regulatory, energy and healthcare policies, all of which should be stimulative to equity markets, new company formation and, ultimately, IPOs.

Another reason for tech IPO optimism for 2017 is Snap, Inc.’s highly anticipated IPO in the first half of 2017. It filed confidentially under the snapJOBS Act, and has begun testing the waters with investors.  The Snap IPO is rumored to raise $4 billion at a valuation of over $25 billion. Another one is Spotify, which raised $1 billion in convertible debt in March 2016 which signals a likely imminent IPO. These two IPOs might raise more capital than all VC-backed tech IPOs in the last two years combined.

Earlier this year, Union Square Ventures Managing Partner Fred Wilson famously referred to corporate VCs as “The Devil”, when he asserted that companies should not be investing in other companies, that they should be buying other companies but not taking minority positions in them, that the “access” rationale for corporate venture is a reason why entrepreneurs should not want them in the room and that startups who take investment from them are “doing business with the devil”.  Ouch!  So why the hostility?

Corporate venture capital refers to venture style investments in emerging companies made by venture capital divisions of large companies, as distinguished from venture investments made by the more google Vtraditional investment funds that most people associate with venture capital. I’ve been seeing corporate VC term sheets with greater regularity lately, so I decided to blog about some of its characteristics, advantages and disadvantages relative to institutional venture capital.

Indeed, corporate VC appears to be on the rise. According to the National Venture Capital Association, corporate venture deployed over $7.5 billion in 905 deals to startups in 2015, a fifteen year high and representing 13% of all venture capital dollars invested for the year but 21% of all deals consummated.  From 2011 to 2015, the number of corporate VC divisions in the United States rose nearly 50% from 1,068 to 1,501   And according to CB Insights, the average corporate VC deal size has consistently been larger than the average institutional VC deal size over the last 14 quarters ended June 2016, with corporate VC deal sizes averaging above $20 million over the previous five quarters.

intel capitalBig technology and healthcare companies have long made venture style investments in startups. Google Ventures, Intel Capital, Dell Ventures and Cisco Investments are veteran corporate VCs that immediately come to mind. But it’s the relatively recent cisco investmentsarrival of new corporate investors that have driven the growth in corporate VC, in sectors ranging from transportation (e.g., GM’s $500 million investment in Lyft) to financial services to convenience stores.

Corporate VC programs have dramatically different overall objectives than institutional VC funds. Primary among these objectives is bolstering internal research and development activities and gaining access to new technologies that complement the corporation’s product development efforts. Venture investments are also a way for corporations to gain intelligence on disruptive products and salesforce vtechnologies that could pose a competitive threat.  A minority investment could also be the first step toward an eventual acquisition of the portfolio company.  More limited objectives might include establishing an OEM partner, a channel for additional company product sales or even a product integration that might drive sales for the investing company.  And yes, there’s also the objective of financial returns.

If a company is considering launching a venture capital program, it’s important to choose a structure that will align with its investment objectives. Corporate VC programs can either be structured internally, where a company invests from its own balance sheet, or externally.  Generally speaking, internal divisions are more comcast venturesappropriate for strategic investments intended to support a corporate sponsor’s core business.  One downside of internal structures is that they tend to be more bureaucratic and slower in decision making. Another is that the financial capacity to invest is basically a function of the corporate sponsor’s financial health, which could fluctuate over time.

External structures are more nimble in making decisions and generally have greater flexibility to make investments that may be disruptive to the investing company’s core business. Since investments are made microsoft venturesoff the corporate sponsor’s balance sheet, external structures allow companies to pursue riskier and more disruptive R&D. They also tend to attract more experienced investment managers and so are often better able to achieve both strategic as well as financial objectives.

In terms of exit strategy, corporate VCs seek a wider range of possible outcomes from an investment. Maximizing proceeds is typically not the exit strategy.  A corporate VC may just as likely view as a successful outcome the portfolio company becoming an acquisition target, an OEM partner, a channel for GE Venturesadditional company product sales or even a product integration that would drive sales for the investing company.  VC funds, on the other hand, seek one type of exit: a multiple return on their investment dollars from either an acquisition or a sale of shares following an IPO.

Advantages

As I mentioned above, investments by a corporate VC are funded by the corporation’s own balance sheet, and are thus not subject to the ongoing pressure from limited partners and the ten year time restrictions of a typical VC fund’s limited partnership agreement. The result is that corporate VCs are generally more patient and have longer time horizons than VC funds.

Corporate VCs generally negotiate for less control over their portfolio companies than do VC funds. This is largely because when the investor company is deemed to have the power to influence the operating or financial decisions of the company its investing in, the investor company is required to account for its investment under the equity method of accounting, under which the investor recognizes its share of the profits and losses of the investee. If the investor has 20% or more of the voting stock of the investee, the investor is presumed to have control.  Consequently, corporate VCs generally avoid taking 20% or more of a portfolio company’s voting shares.  The need to avoid indicia of control is also why corporate VCs often decline board representation.

Another advantage is that, as I mentioned above, an investment from a corporate VC may be the first step toward being acquired by that corporation, thus giving the portfolio company and its founders a clear exit pathway without having to go through a prolonged investment banking process. It can also create instant credibility in the industry, which can then be leveraged to attract talent and customers.  Finally, it can provide channel access, product integration and other benefits to help accelerate market penetration.

Disadvantages

Investment from a corporate VC may have certain disadvantages, however. First, a corporate VC’s strategic objectives may conflict with a portfolio company’s financial goals, which for example may motivate the corporate VC to block a proposed acquisition or subsequent investment if the transaction does not align with the strategic goals of the corporate VC’s parent. Second, corporate VCs often negotiate for a right of first refusal or option to acquire the company which would limit the company’s options going forward and have a chilling effect on other potential acquirers.  Third, it could antagonize potential customers or business partners who view themselves as competitors of the corporate VC. Fourth, corporate VC divisions often receive an annual allocation of dollars to invest, as opposed to an aggregate commitment of dollars that a fund receives to invest during the fund’s investment period, which means that the availability of follow-on funding may be tied to the financial capacity and whims of the parent company. And finally, a strategic may set the valuation higher than what the market will bear, which could make it difficult for the company to secure co-investors, which in turn could leave the company under-funded and, as mentioned just above, could leave the company vulnerable if the corporate VC parent isn’t able or interested in making follow-on investments.

Final Thought

So back to Fred Wilson’s choice words for corporate VCs.  Perhaps the root of the antagonism is the tendency for corporate VCs to drive up valuations, which makes deals more expensive for institutional funds and may crowd them out of certain deals entirely.  Wilson sort of implied as much when he stated in the same interview that a startup would only do a deal with a corporate VC if it couldn’t secure funding elsewhere or if the corporate VC was paying a higher price than he would pay.

The cost of launching an Internet-based startup has fallen dramatically over the last 15 years. This democratization of internet-based entrepreneurship resulted primarily from two innovations: open source software and cloud computing. During the dot-com era, Internet-based startups had to build serversinfrastructure by acquiring expensive servers and software licenses and hiring IT support staff. So the first outside round of investment in an Internet-based startup was typically a Series A round of $3 million or more from one or more VCs. With the emergence of open-source software, however, startups for the most part were no longer forced to acquire software packages bundled with hardware. Another issue, though, was that startups had to acquire and maintain bandwidth to accommodate peak loads, resulting in expensive underutilization. But this all changed with the advent of cloud computing, which enabled entrepreneurs to launch an Internet startup with minimal upfront IT costs and to pay only for used bandwidth. In real dollars, the cost of starting up has declined from a few million dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars.

With the precipitous drop in the cost of launching an Internet-based startup came a significant rise in interest in seed investing by angels and early stage VCs. But the typical Series A document package (amended and restated certificate of incorporation, stock purchase agreement, voting agreement, cloudinvestor rights agreement, right of first refusal and co-sale agreement) is complex, time consuming and expensive to negotiate, and contains several economic, management and exit provisions that don’t become relevant until much later (e.g., if and when the company goes public). This level of complexity can be justified when a company is raising several million dollars, but not so for a seed round of a few hundred thousand.

The resulting pressure for deal document simplification has resulted over the last several years in innovative seed investment deal documents. Seed rounds are either structured as a simplified version of a priced Series A preferred stock or as debt that converts into the security issued in a next round of equity, typically at a discount. This Part I of a two part blog series on seed round investing will focus on priced equity structures; Part II will address convertible debt.

There are currently two alternative open sourced sets of equity seed round deal documents to choose from, each with the common goals of term simplification, cost reduction, transaction time compression and document standardization. Both feature terms similar to those found in a typical Series A deal, but stripped down from the robust set of economic, voting and exit rights usually contained in a Series A. The two deal document products are:

Series AA: Created by Cooley cooleyfor accelerator Techstarstechstarsfenwick
Series Seed: Created by Fenwick & West

The main terms of Series AA and Series Seed are as follows:

1X Non-Participating Preferred: Both Series Seed and Series AA feature 1X non-participating preferred stock, meaning on a sale of the company the investor must choose between his liquidation preference of 1X (i.e., one times his investment amount) or the proceeds he would receive on an as converted basis, but not both. In other words, the investor calculates which would yield the bigger payout and choose that one. On the other hand, participating preferred would give the investor two bites of the apple: first his liquidation preference, and then his share of remaining proceeds as a common shareholder on an as converted basis.

Antidilution Protection: Series Seed provides no antidilution protection. Series AA, however, has broad based weighted average antidilution protection. Most notably, antidilution protects the investor from the economic dilution resulting from down rounds. Weighted average is the type of protection that is more fair in that it factors in the dilutive effect of the actual down round (i.e., the conversion price doesn’t adjust all the way down to the lower down round price but rather takes into consideration the number of additional shares issued at the lower price relative to the number of shares outstanding), and broad based requires inclusion in the number of shares outstanding all outstanding options and options reserved for issuance (as opposed to narrow based which would not include options).

Board Composition: Both Series AA and Series Seed provide for boards consisting of 2 common and one preferred, except that Series AA conditions the preferred board member on the Series AA shares constituting at least 5% of the outstanding equity on a fully diluted basis.

Protective Provisions: These are veto rights in favor of the preferred. Series AA gives vetos over only changes to the Series AA. Series Seed includes vetos over changes in the Series AA, but also includes vetos over mergers, increasing or decreasing authorized shares of any class or series, authorizing any new class or series senior to or on a parity with any series of preferred, stock redemption, dividends, number of directors and liquidation/dissolution.

Right of First Offer on New Financings: Both Series Seed and Series AA give investors the right to purchase their pro rata share of new issuances.

Right of First Refusal: Series Seed gives investors a right of first refusal on shares held by key holders. Series AA does not.

Drag Along Rights: Series Seed gives Series Seed holders and founders the right to require common holders to include their shares or vote for any transaction approved by the board, by a majority of the common and by a majority of the Series Seed. No drag along in the Series AA.

So what standard Series A terms are missing from Series Seed and Series AA? Missing are dividend preference (not a big deal here inasmuch as the overwhelming majority of startups will not pay out dividends), registration rights and tag-along rights (also not a big deal inasmuch as founders rarely have an opportunity to sell their shares).

Overall, Series Seed and Series AA are worthy efforts to simplify terms and reduce transaction costs. There will certainly be situations, however, where investors will resist the weaker investor protections such as the absence of participating preferred and anti-dilution protection and stripped down protective provisions. Any effort to negotiate some terms back in will undercut the objective of diversification and simplicity.

On July 5, the House of Representatives passed a watered down version of the Fix Crowdfunding Act (the “FCA”) that was initially introduced in March.  The bill seeks to amend Title III of the JOBS Act by expressly permitting “crowdfunding vehicles” and broadening the SEC registration exclusion, but leaves out three important reforms that were part of the original version of the FCA introduced in March and about which I blogged about here. The House bill is part of the innovation initiativeInnovation Initiative which was jointly launched by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry.  The bill was passed by the House with overwhelming bipartisan support, so it’s likely to be passed quickly by the Senate.  This post summarizes what was left in the bill from the original and what was dropped from it.

What’s In: Special Purpose Vehicles and the Section 12(g) Registration Exclusion

Special Purpose Vehicles

Title III of the JOBS Act excludes from crowdfunding eligibility any issuer that is an “investment company”, as defined in the Investment Company Act, or is exempt from investment company regulation by virtue of being owned by not more than 100 persons. Several accredited investor-only matchmaking portals such as AngelList and OurCroud utilize a fund business model (rather than a broker-dealer model) for Rule 506 offerings in which investors invest into a special purpose vehicle (“SPV”), which in turn makes the investment into the issuer as one shareholder. Because Title III did not permit issuers to sell shares through SPVs, many growth-oriented startups may be dissuaded from engaging in Title III crowdfunding offerings if they expect to raise venture capital in the future, as VC funds don’t like congested cap tables.

The FCA would create a new class of permitted crowdfunding issuer called a “crowdfunding vehicle”, which is an entity that satisfies all of the following requirements:

  • purpose (as set forth in its organizational documents) limited to acquiring, holding and disposing crowdfunded securities;
  • issues only one class of securities;
  • no transaction-based compensation received by the entity or any associated person;
  • it and company whose securities it holds are co-issuers;
  • both it and company whose securities it holds are current in ongoing Regulation Crowdfunding disclosure obligations; and
  • advised by investment adviser registered under Investment Advisers Act of 1940

Section 12(g) Registration Exclusion

The JOBS Act raised from 500 shareholders to 2000 (or 500 non-accredited investors) the threshold under Section 12(g) of the Securities Exchange Act that triggers registration with the SEC, which subjects the company to periodic reporting obligations (e.g., 10-Ks, 10-Qs, etc.). It also instructed the SEC to exempt, conditionally or unconditionally, shares issued in Title III crowdfunding transactions.  In its final rules, the SEC provided that shareholders that purchased crowdfunded shares would be excluded from the shareholder calculation under Section 12(g), but conditioned the exclusion on, among other things, the issuer having total assets of no more than $25 million.

The $25 million limit on total assets may have the perverse effect of deterring growth companies from utilizing crowdfunding and/or prompting such companies to issue redeemable shares to avoid the obligation to register with the SEC if they cross the shareholder threshold because of a crowdfunded offering.

The original version of the FCA would have removed from the 12(g) exclusion the condition that an issuer not have $25 million or more in assets.

The version of the FCA passed by the House removes the $25 million asset condition but replaces it with two other conditions: that the issuer have a public float of less than $75 million and annual revenues of less than $50 million as of the most recently completed fiscal year.

What’s Out: Issuer Cap, Intermediary Liability and Testing the Waters

The House version of the FCA unfortunately dropped a few of the reforms that were contained in the original version introduced in March, apparently the price paid for securing votes of opponents of the FCA.

Issuer Cap                                                                                    

Title III limits issuers to raising not more than $1 million in crowdfunding offerings in any rolling 12 month period. By comparison, Regulation A+ allows up to $50 million and Rule 506 of Regulation D has no cap whatsoever.

The original version of the FCA would have increased the issuer cap from $1 million to $5 million in any rolling 12 month period. This was scrapped from the House version.

Portal Liability

Title III imposes liability for misstatements or omissions on an “issuer” (as defined) that is unable to sustain the burden of showing that it could not have known of the untruth or omission even if it had exercised reasonable care. Title III also exposes an intermediary (i.e., funding portal or broker-dealer) to possible liability if an issuer made material inaccuracies or omissions in its disclosures on the crowdfunding site. It is over this very concern over liability that some of the largest non-equity crowdfunding sites that have otherwise signaled interest in equity crowdfunding, including Indiegogo and EarlyShares, have expressed reluctance to get into the Title III intermediary business.

The original version of the FCA would have clarified that an intermediary will not be considered an issuer for liability purposes unless it knowingly made a material misstatement or omission or knowingly engaged in any fraudulent act. Presumably then, as proposed, a plaintiff would have had the burden of proving not just the fraud, misstatement or omission but that the intermediary knew at the time. The House version dropped this relief for intermediaries.

Testing the Waters

Securities offerings are expensive and risky with no guaranty that they will generate enough investor interest. Congress and the SEC chose not to allow Title III issuers to “test-the-waters”, i.e., solicit indications of interest from potential investors prior to filing the mandated disclosure document with the SEC, out of concern that unscrupulous companies could prime the market before any disclosure became publicly available.

The original version of the FCA would have allowed Title III issuers to test the waters by permitting them to solicit non-binding indications of interest from potential investors so long as no investor funds are accepted by the issuer during the initial solicitation period and any material change in the information provided in the actual offering from the information provided in the solicitation of interest is highlighted to potential investors in the information filed with the SEC. This too was left out of the version approved by the House.

Although it was disappointing to see the foregoing three reforms dropped from the eventual House bill, half a loaf is better than no loaf. Perhaps the dollar cap, intermediary liability and testing the waters could be revisited at some point down the road.

Seed stage investment deals, i.e., those in a range of approximately $100,000 on the low end and around $1.3 million on the high end, are structured either as straight equity or as convertible loans. If straight equity, the company typically issues to the investor shares of preferred stock usually designated as Series Seed which includes a package of enhanced rights but usually stripped down from seed investingthose typically associated with Series A shares.  Alternatively, the investor could invest in the form of a loan that converts into the security issued in the next equity round, usually at some discount to the next round’s price.

This post will focus on convertible note deal term trends based on the 2016 Venture Capital Report recently released by the helpful folks at Wilmer Hale. The convertible note data in the Report was compiled from over 100 deals handled by the firm from 2013 through 2015 for companies and investors in the U.S.

Conversion Discount

Seed investors often negotiate for a discount from the price per share in the next equity round to reward the seed investor for investing at an earlier, riskier stage. discount89% of convertible loan deals covered by the Report in 2015 had discounts, a significant increase from the 66% that had them in 2013.  Sometimes parties negotiate for an ascending discount in which the discount increases as the period between seed and next round increases.  The Report doesn’t provide any information on time periods between seed and next round, or on the percentage of deals that had a sliding discount.  The range of discounts was between 10% and 50%, with 74% of discounted deals having a discount of 20% or less and 26% having discounts of more than 20%.

Conversion Caps

A major advantage of convertible loans is that they allow the parties to defer negotiation of probably the most difficult business issue until the next round: valuation. But that advantage also poses a risk to the seed investor, namely that at the time of conversion at the next round the company’s pre-money valuation will be much higher and thus much more expensive for the seed round investor. caps A discount offers protection against valuation inflation, but only relative to what the next round investors are paying.  An added measure of protection is a cap on the next round valuation applicable to the seed investor’s conversion rate.  For example, imagine a $1 million convertible loan with no discount, no cap, and the company subsequently raises $5 million in a Series A round at a pre-money valuation of $20 million with a per share price of $1.  The note would convert into one million shares ($1 million loan (leaving aside interest for simplicity) divided by $1/share).  But if the note had a $5 million cap, the shares would convert at the rate of, not $1 per share, but $0.50 per share, so that the seed investor would receive two million shares ($1,000,000/$0.50) rather than one million.  I’ve previously blogged here about why valuation caps are loved by angels, tolerated by VCs and hated by entrepreneurs.

Although still popular, valuation caps seem to be trending down somewhat. The Report indicates that only 55% of convertible loan deals contained caps in 2015, nearly a 20% drop from the 74% that featured them the year before.

Conversion on Maturity

The truth about seed round convertible promissory notes is that they are promises that no one intends to be kept. At least the repayment part.  They are intended to be converted into equity.  But what happens if a qualified next round doesn’t occur prior to the maturity date of the note?  Very often, the note will provide that the outstanding principal and interest will convert on a given date, either automatically or at the option of the holder, at a set price or a price determined by a formula or procedure.  According to the Report, 60% of deals in 2015 had some kind of conversion at maturity.  Of those, 89% were at the investor’s option (up from 80% in 2013) and 11% were mandatory (down from 20% in 2013).  In addition, 32% of the 2015 deals that converted upon maturity convert into common stock, substantially unchanged from 2013 but a dramatic decline from the 54% of the conversion-at-maturity deals in 2015 that convert into common.  68% of the 2015 convert-at-maturity deals convert into preferred, also substantially unchanged from 2013, but a sharp increase from the 46% of the 2014 deals that convert into preferred.

Sale of the Company

Upon a sale of the company prior to maturity and prior to a next-round conversion, the outstanding principal and interest may convert into common or preferred stock, either automatically or at the option of the debt holder. In 2015, 74% of the convertible deals covered in the Report had some kind of conversion on a sale of the company, up from 66% in 2014.  Of those, the conversion-on-sale feature was overwhelmingly at the option of the holder (91%, up from 86% in 2014; 9% were mandatory).  Of these deals, they were pretty evenly split in 2015 between those converting into common and those converting into preferred.  In 2014, on the other hand, the conversion-on-sale provisions tended to favor conversions into common (60%) rather than preferred (40%).

Conversion Premiums on Sale of the Company

Seed investors sometimes negotiate for the right to be paid a multiple of principal and interest upon a sale of the company, similar to a liquidation preference associated with preferred stock. Roughly one half of the deals in the Report had company sale premiums.  The premiums ranged from 1.5x (i.e., 1.5 times the outstanding principal and interest) on the low end to 4x on the upper end, an increase from the upper range of 3x in 2014, although the median multiple was steady throughout 2013-2015 at 2x.

Secured Notes

Convertible note investors sometimes negotiate for the note to be secured by some or all of the company’s assets. If the note is not repaid or converted at maturity, the investor could look to the pledged assets to satisfy the loan.  Investors in 2015 were not as successful as they were in 2013 in getting their notes secured.  Only 15% of the convertible notes covered by the Report in 2015 were secured (85% unsecured), down from 25% in 2013 (75% unsecured in 2013).

Conclusion

The foregoing data on conversion discounts, caps, conversion at maturity, sale-of-company conversions and premiums and security suggests that the convertible note deal term pendulum may have started to swing back in favor of investors in 2015. Deal terms in the categories of conversion discounts, conversion at maturity, sale-of-company conversions and sale-of-company premiums were more favorable to investors in 2015.  Terms were more favorable to companies in 2015 with respect to caps and note security.  Given recent developments regarding cooling valuations and a stalled technology IPO market, it will be interesting to see whether the pendulum for convertible deal terms will move more significantly in favor of investors in 2016.

 

Lane Becker, Former CEO of Get Satisfaction
Lane Becker, Former CEO of Get Satisfaction

The Founder of a $50 Million Startup Just Sold His Company — And He Didn’t Make a Dime”.  Such was the provocative headline of the Business Insider article last year reporting the sad tale of young entrepreneur Lane Becker and how he and his management team received none of the acquisition proceeds on the sale of Get Satisfaction, the company Becker founded.  Becker’s fate was not anomalous, and happens when the cumulative liquidation preference amount payable to investors exceeds the value of the company itself.  In this blog post, I’ll briefly explain the liquidation preference overhang phenomenon and discuss how to keep founders and key employees incentivized with a carveout arrangement.

Liquidation preference is a key term negotiated in venture and even seed stage investments. It’s the amount of money the preferred stockholders are contractually entitled to receive off the top on a sale of the company before the common stockholders receive anything.  The common stockholders receive only the balance after the liquidation preference is paid, and if the liquidation preference has a participating feature, the preferred stockholders also participate pro rata in that balance on an as-converted basis.

I have previously blogged here and here about how entrepreneurs often are too fixated on valuation and tend to overlook at their peril the impact that liquidation preference can have on the value of the entrepreneurs’ equity stake. A rich valuation could be completely undercut by a heavy liquidation preference stack.  For example, suppose an investor is proposing to invest $20 million at a pre-money valuation of $60 million for Series B preferred stock constituting 25% of the total equity on an as converted fully-diluted basis and includes a 2x liquidation preference.  The founder is giddy about the $60 million pre-money valuation and takes the deal.  The company had previously raised $10 million in a Series A round where the Series A had a 1x liquidation preference.  Two years after the Series B, the company is sputtering, challenged by competitors and investors and management alike believe the company may only be valued at $40 million, $10 million below the cumulative liquidation preference of $50 million (2 x $20,000,000 (Series B) + 1 x $10,000,000 (Series A)).  Founders’ and management’s common shares are essentially worthless and, consequently, they have little or no incentive to work hard and help the company succeed.

Prior to being acquired, Get Satisfaction was reported to have raised $10 million in a Series B round at a pre-money valuation of $50 million, bringing the total amount raised to $21 million. The purchase price of the acquisition was not disclosed, but it must have been less than $21 million for management to have been washed out (assuming a 1x liquidation preference).

In Lane Becker’s case, he had been terminated as CEO a few years prior to the acquisition of Get Satisfaction, which could happen when founders negotiate away control of their company. But what happens in the more typical scenario when founders are still the CEO or otherwise are employed by and managing the company at a time when the liquidation overhang looms, i.e., when the aggregate liquidation preference amounts exceed the company’s valuation?  What incentive does the common stock holding management team have to stick it out?  Cash compensation will rarely get management satisfaction (pun intended), either because startups seldom have the cash to do so or because cash compensation was never a motivating factor for key employees to begin with.  By joining a startup, talented employees typically sacrifice higher cash compensation they could earn with more established companies in favor of the upside potential that comes with equity they receive in the startup.  Hence, the drill would be to come up with a mechanism that simulates the upside potential of equity without that upside being negated by the liquidation preference overhang.

That mechanism is a bonus or carve-out plan that provides for a payout to carveouteligible employees upon a sale of the company or other liquidity events identified in the plan. A typical plan sets aside a pool of money whose amount is determined based upon a certain percentage of acquisition proceeds.  A well drafted plan would address certain issues related to calculating the proceeds upon which the payout is determined, such as assumption of debt by the purchaser, deferred payments, earnouts and contingent payments.  The relevant percentage may also be on a sliding scale, e.g., 3% on the first $100 million, 5% on the next $50 million and 7% on amounts exceeding $150 million.

Inasmuch as these plans are intended to provide value to common stockholders when the common is worthless, plans could (or should) consider the value of the common (i.e., when the purchase price exceeds the liquidation preference amount) as an offset to payouts and also set a ceiling on payouts. The plan could be structured either as a quasi-contractual commitment by the company in the form of a benefit plan or as a special class of common stock that would be issued to founders and key employees that would be pari passu with the preferred but have a separately calculated payout formula upon the sale of the company.

SEC logoAt an open meeting on October 30, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission by a three-to-one vote adopted final rules for equity crowdfunding under Section 4(a)(6) of the Securities Act of 1933, as mandated by Title III of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act.   The final rules and forms are effective 180 days after publication in the Federal Register.

Crowdfunding is an evolving method of raising funds online from a large number of people without regard to investor qualification and with each contributing relatively small amounts.[i]   Until now, public crowdfunding has not involved the offer of a share in any Crowdfunding1financial returns or profits that the fundraiser may expect to generate from business activities financed through crowdfunding. Such a profit or revenue-sharing model – sometimes referred to as the “equity model” of crowdfunding – could trigger the application of the federal securities laws because it likely would involve the offer and sale of a security to the public.  Equity crowdfunding has the potential to dramatically alter the landscape of capital markets for startup companies. It has also been the subject of a contentious debate ever since it was included in the JOBS Act, pitting those who want to allow startups to leverage the internet to reach investors and to permit ordinary people to invest small amounts in them against those that view crowdfunding as a recipe for a fraud disaster.

The SEC had issued proposed rules in October 2013 (see my blog post here), and received hundreds of comment letters in response. When the final rules become effective (early May 2016), issuers for the first time will be able to use the internet to offer and sell securities to the public without registration.  Here’s a brief summary of the new crowdfunding exemption rules and where they deviate from the original proposal.

Issuer and Investor Caps

  • Issuers may raise a maximum aggregate amount of $1 million through crowdfunding offerings in any 12-month period.
  • Individual investors, in any 12-month period, may invest in the aggregate across all crowdfunding offerings up to:
    • The greater of $2,000 or 5% of the lesser of annual income or net worth, if either annual income or net worth is less than $100,000, or
    • 10% of the lesser of their annual income or net worth if both their annual income and net worth are equal to or more than $100,000.
  • Aggregate amount an investor may invest in all crowdfunding offerings may not exceed $100,000 in any 12-month period.

Many commenters believed that the proposed $1 million offering limit was too low, but the SEC in the end believed the $1 million cap is consistent with the JOBS Act. The SEC did state in the final rules release, however, that Regulation Crowdfunding is a novel method of raising capital and that it’s concerned about raising the offering limit of the exemption at the outset of the adoption of final rules, suggesting that it would be open to doing so down the road.

As for the individual investment limit, the final rules deviate from the original proposal by clarifying that the limit reflects the aggregate amount an investor may invest in all crowdfunded offerings in a 12-month period across all issuers, and also specifies a “lesser of” approach to the income test.

Financial Disclosure

Financial disclosure requirements are based on the amount offered and sold in reliance on Section 4(a)(6) within the preceding 12-month period, as follows:

  • For issuers offering $100,000 or less: disclosure of total income, taxable income and total tax as reflected in the federal income tax returns certified by the principal executive officer, and financial statements certified by the principal executive officer; but if independently reviewed or audited financial statements are available, must provide those financials instead.
  • Issuers offering more than $100,000 but not more than $500,000: financial statements reviewed by independent public accountant, unless otherwise available.
  • Issuers offering more than $500,000:
    • For issuers offering more than $500,000 but not more than $1 million of securities in reliance on Regulation Crowdfunding for the first time: financial statements reviewed by independent public accountant, unless otherwise available.
    • For issuers that have previously sold securities in reliance on Regulation Crowdfunding: financial statements audited by independent public accountant.

The financial disclosure requirements contain a number of changes from the proposal that hopefully will help reduce the costs and risks associated with preparing the required financials. Instead of mandating that issuers offering $100,000 or less provide copies of their federal income tax returns as proposed, the final rules require an issuer only to disclose total income, taxable income and total tax, or the equivalent line items, from filed federal income tax returns, and to have the principal executive officer certify that those amounts reflect accurately the information in the returns.  This minimizes the risk of disclosure of private information which would exist if tax returns had to be provided.  In addition, reducing the requirement for first time issuers of between $500,000 and $1 million from audited financials (as had been proposed) to reviewed financials is a sensible accommodation inasmuch as the concern about the cost and burden of the audit relative to the size of the offering is even greater for first timers who would need to incur the audit expense before having proceeds from the offering.

Intermediaries

  • Offerings must be conducted exclusively through one platform operated by a registered broker or funding portal.
  • Intermediaries required to provide investors with educational materials, take measures to reduce the risk of fraud, make available information about the issuer and the offering and provide communication channels to permit discussions about offerings on the platform.
  • Funding portals prohibited from offering investment advice, soliciting sales or offers to buy, paying success fees and handling investor funds or securities.
  • Funding portals must register with the SEC by filing new Form Funding Portal, which will be effective January 29, 2016.

The rationale behind the requirement to use only one intermediary is that it helps foster the creation of a “crowd”. Having one meeting place enables a crowd to share information effectively, and minimizes the chances of dilution or dispersement of the crowd. This in turn supports one of the main justifications for equity crowdfunding, which is that having hundreds or thousands of investors sharing information increases the chances that any fraud will be exposed, thus the “wisdom of the crowd”. The one platform requirement also helps to minimize the risk that issuers and intermediaries would circumvent the requirements of Regulation Crowdfunding. For example, allowing an issuer to conduct an offering using more than one platform would make it more difficult for intermediaries to determine whether an issuer is exceeding the $1 million aggregate offering limit.

One important deviation from the proposed rules is that funding portals will be permitted to curate offerings based on subjective criteria, not just based on perceptions of fraud risk.  A second important deviation is that all intermediaries will be allowed to receive as compensation a financial interest in the issuers conducting offerings on their platforms, which will expand the options available to cash-starved startups.

Preliminary Thoughts

The ink is still wet on the SEC’s 686 page release, but here are some preliminary thoughts. Equity crowdfunding has the potential to create new capital raising opportunities for many startups and early stage companies by removing antiquated regulatory barriers and allowing companies to leverage the internet and social media to reach and sell to prospective investors without regard to accredited investor status. The federal securities laws were written over 80 years ago when investors had no access to information about issuers.  In the internet age, prospective investors have many sources of information at their fingertips and the “wisdom of the crowd” can both steer dollars to the most promising companies and ensure that ample information is spread to interested parties.

As I’ve stated before, however, the SEC’s preoccupation with investor crowdprotection has created a disconnect between the potential of equity crowdfunding and its reality, now expressed in the final rules. To be fair, the framework for most of the rules was predetermined by what Congress enacted in Title III of the JOBS Act and the final rules do contain some welcome relief from the original proposal. Nevertheless, I fear that the burden and expense associated with some of the rules will make Regulation Crowdfunding far less attractive to most companies than traditional offerings under Rule 506 notwithstanding the latter’s pro-accredited investor bias. For example, the requirement to produce audited financial statements for offerings above $500,000 (except for first time Regulation Crowdfunding issuers) will seem prohibitively expensive when compared with accredited investor-only Rule 506 offerings where no financials are mandated at all. It’s also unclear how the burdensome rules governing intermediaries will attract established investment banks, or even boutiques, and will likely leave the field open primarily to persons with scant resources and experience. Lastly, even in the context of a successful crowdfunded offering, companies will also need to consider carefully the negative consequences associated with a shareholder base consisting of potentially thousands of individual investors. Those consequences include the expense associated with keeping them informed, the difficulties of securing quorums and votes and the inevitable misgivings VCs will have of investing in a crowdfunded startup.

In the final analysis, though, Title III equity crowdfunding will finally become law, meaning that issuers will for the first time be allowed to leverage the internet to sell securities to an unlimited number of investors without registration and without regard to accredited investor status, and that is decidedly a treat.

[1] The term “crowdfunding” has also been used more broadly as a somewhat generic term for any campaign to raise funds through an online platform.  These include non-equity crowdfunding (i.e., rewards or pre-order based), “accredited” crowdfunding (in reliance on Rule 506(b) or 506(c)) and registered crowdfunding (in reliance on Regulation A+).  This post will use the term only as it applies to small equity offerings to many investors, each contributing relatively small amounts, and soon to be available under Regulation Crowdfunding.

In my last post, I blogged about online funding platforms. In that post, I described the typical model of indirect investing through a special purpose vehicle (“SPV”) with the platform sponsor taking a carried interest in the SPV’s profits from the portfolio company and no ourcrowdtransaction fee, as a means of avoiding broker-dealer regulation. I also discussed the concept of a pre-screened password protected member-only website as a means of establishing a preexisting fundablerelationship with prospective investors and thus avoiding the use of any act of “general solicitation,” which would otherwise violate the rules of the registration exemption under Rule 506(b).

SEC logoIn a no-action letter dated August 6, 2015 entitled Citizen VC, Inc., the SEC has provided important guidance on the procedures needed for an online funding platform to establish the kind of preexisting relationship needed to avoid being deemed to be engaged in general solicitation. As an aside, the concern over general solicitation and preexisting relationships is relevant to offerings under new Rule 506(b), but not under Rule 506(c).   Despite the creation in 2013 of an exemption under new Rule 506(c) pursuant to the JOBS Act for general solicitation offerings in which sales are made only to accredited investors, most online funding platforms continue to prefer to conduct portfolio company offerings indirectly through SPVs under Rule 506(b), despite the prohibition on general solicitation, primarily because of the additional requirement under Rule 506(c) that issuers use reasonable methods to verify accredited investor status.

In its request for a no-action letter, Citizen VC described itself as an citizen vconline venture capital firm that facilitates indirect investment in portfolio companies (through SPVs) by pre-qualified, accredited and sophisticated “members” in its site. It asserted to have qualification procedures intended to establish substantive relationships with, and to confirm the suitability of, prospective investors that visit the website. Anyone wishing to investigate the password protected sections of the site accessible only to members must first register and be accepted for membership. To apply for membership, prospective investors are required to complete an “accredited investor” questionnaire, followed by a relationship building process in which Citizen VC collects information to evaluate the prospective investor’s sophistication, financial circumstances and ability to understand the nature and risks related to an investment. It does so by contacting the prospective investor by phone to discuss the prospective investor’s investing experience and sophistication, investment goals and strategies, financial suitability, risk awareness, and other topics designed to assist Citizen VC in understanding the investor’s sophistication, utilizing third party credit reporting services to gather additional financial information and credit history information and other methods to foster online and offline interactions with the prospective investor. In the request letter, Citizen VC asserted that the relationship establishment period is not limited by a specific time period, but rather is a process based on specific written policies and procedures created to ensure that the offering is suitable for each prospective investor.

Citizen VC stated in its request letter that prospective investors only become “members” and are given access to offering information in the password protected section of the site after Citizen VC is satisfied that the prospective investor has sufficient knowledge and experience and that it has taken reasonable steps necessary to create a substantive relationship with the prospective investor. Once a sufficient number of qualified members have expressed interest in a particular portfolio company, those members are provided subscription materials for investment in the SPV formed by Citizen VC to aggregate such members’ investments, the sale of interests of such SPV is consummated and the SPV then invests the funds, and becomes a shareholder of, the portfolio company.

In its request letter, after providing the foregoing background, Citizen VC asked the SEC staff to opine that the policies and procedures described in the letter are sufficient to create a substantive, pre-existing relationship with prospective investors such that the offering and sale on the site of interests in an SPV that will invest in a particular portfolio company will not constitute general solicitation.

sec no-actionIn its no-action letter, the SEC staff concluded that Citizen VC’s procedures were sufficient to establish a preexisting relationship and do not constitute general solicitation. It stated that the quality of the relationship between an issuer and an investor is the most important factor in determining whether a “substantive” relationship exists and noted Citizen VC’s representation that its policies and procedures are designed to evaluate the prospective investor’s sophistication, financial circumstances and ability to understand the nature and risks of the securities to be offered. The staff went on to say that there is no specific duration of time or particular short form accreditation questionnaire that can be relied upon solely to create such a relationship, and that whether an issuer has sufficient information to evaluate a prospective offeree’s financial circumstances and sophistication will depend on the facts and circumstances of each case. The staff also based its conclusion on Citizen VC’s representation that an investment opportunity is only presented after the prospective investor becomes a “member” in the site.

An argument could be made that SPV-based online funding platforms represent the future of VC investing. The Citizen VC no-action letter provides valuable guidance relating to the establishment of the kind of substantive relationship with prospective investors needed to enable the online funding platform to conduct Rule 506(b) offerings without being deemed to engage in general solicitation.