Financial Law

Why Equity-Based Crowdfunding Is Not Flourishing? — A Comparison Between the US and the UK

Tianxiang Zhou, MJLST Editor

While donation-based crowdfunding (giving money to enterprises or organizations they want to support) is flourishing on online platforms in the US, the equity-based crowdfunding (funding startup enterprises or organizations in return for equity) under the JOBS Act is still staggering as the requirements are proving impractical for most entrepreneurs.

Donation-based crowdfunding is dominating the major crowdfunding websites like Indiegogo, Kickstarter, etc. In March, 2017, Facebook announced that it will introduce a crowdfunding feature that will help users back causes such as education, medical needs, pet medical, crisis relief, personal emergencies and funerals. However, this new crowdfunding feature from Facebook has nothing to do with equity-based crowdfunding; it is only used for donation-based crowdfunding. As for the platforms specialized in crowdfunding,  equity-based crowdfunding projects are difficult to find. If you visit Kickstarter or Indiegogo, most of the crowdfunding projects that appear on the webpages are donation-based crowdfunding project. As of April 2, 2017, there are only four active crowdfunding opportunities appearing on the Indiegogo website that are available for investors. The website stated that “more than 200 (equity-based) projects funded in the past.” (The writer cannot find an equity-based crowdfunding opportunity on Kickstarter or a section to search equity-based crowdfunding opportunities.)

The reason why equity-based crowdfunding is not flourishing is easily apparent. As one article points out, the statutory requirements for Crowdfunding under the JOBS Act “effectively weigh it down to the point of making the crowdfunding exemption utterly useless.” The problems associated with obtaining funding for small businesses that the JOBS Act aims to resolve are still there with crowdfunding: for example, the crowdfunding must be done through a registered broker-dealer and the issuer have to file various disclosure statement including financial statement and annual reports. For smaller businesses, the costs to prepare such reports could be heavily burdensome for the business at their early stage.

Compared to crowdfunding requirements in the US, the UK rules are much easier for issuers to comply with. Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) introduced a set of regulations for the peer-to-peer sector in 2014. Before this, the P2P sector did not fall under any regulatory regime. After 2014, the UK government requires platforms to be licensed or to have regulated activities managed by authorized parties. If an investor is deemed a “non-sophisticated” investor constraints are placed on how much they are permitted to invest, in that they must not invest more than 10% of their net investable assets in investments sold via what are called investment-based crowdfunding platforms. Though the rules require communication of the offers and the language and clarity of description used to describe these offers and the awareness of the risk associated with them, much fewer disclosure obligations are required for the issuers such as the filing requirements of annual reports and financial statement.

As a result, the crowdfunding market in the UK is characterized as “less by exchanges that resemble charity, gift giving, and retail, and more by those of financial market exchange” compared with the US. On the UK-based crowdfunding website Crowdcude, there are 14 opening opportunities for investors as of April 2, 17, and there were 494 projects funded. In comparison, the US-based crowdfunding giant Indiegogo’s statement that “more than 200 projects funded in the past” is not very impressive considering the difference between the sizes of the UK’s economy and the US’ economy.

While entrepreneurs in the US are facing many obstacles in funding through equity-based crowdfunding, the UK crowdfunding websites are now providing more equity-based opportunities to the investors, and sometimes even more effective than government-lead programs. The Crowd Data Center publicized a report stating that seed crowdfunding in the UK is more effective in delivering 40% more funding in 2016 than the UK government funded Startup Loans scheme.

As for the concern that the equity-based fraud funding involves too much risk for “unsophisticated investors,” articles pointed out that in countries like UK and Australia where lightly regulated equity crowdfunding platforms welcomed all investors, there is “hardly any instances of fraud.” While the equity-crowdfunding JOBS Act has not failed to prove its efficiency, state laws are devising more options for the issuers with restrictions of SEC Rule 147. (see more from 1000 Days Late & $1 Million Short: The Rise and Rise of Intrastate Equity Crowdfunding). At the same time, the FCA stated that it will also revisit the rules on crowdfunding. It would be interesting to see how the crowdfunding rules will evolve in the future.


The Rise and Fall of A Scholarly Crowdfunding Article

Tim Joyce, Editor-in-Chief, MJLST Vol. 18

Print publication of science and tech articles is a weird thing. On the one hand, a savvy articles selection team will prioritize articles on the most pressing and innovative advancements in the field. On the other, though—and precisely because these articles are so current—a draft piece can be partially outdated even before the publisher’s pressing start rolling. So it is that a little piece on investment crowdfunding, conceived in September 2015, meticulously researched throughout the 2015–16 academic year, and selected in April 2016, for publication in January 2017, can transform from forward-looking thinkpiece to historically-dated comparison piece.

My recent article with MJLST, 1000 Days Late & $1 Million Short: The Rise and Rise of Intrastate Equity Crowdfunding, compares the newly-activated federal Regulation Crowdfunding to Minnesota’s intrastate investment crowdfunding model MNvest. When the piece was originally conceived both of these laws were not yet active; in fact, it was not yet clear that the SEC would ever release final rules for what would become Regulation Crowdfunding. When the issue was ultimately sent to the printers, each of the laws had been active for at least 6 months. Like I said, weird.

This post is intended to update the curious reader on current happenings with investment crowdfunding on both a federal and a state level.

On the federal level, Regulation Crowdfunding rules have been final since October 2015 and active since May 2016. Nearly 200 offerings later, analysts and scholars are already starting to crunch the numbers. [Full disclosure: I am one of those academics. Our paper (co-author Zach Robins of Winthrop & Weinstine) will be presented at the Mitchell-Hamline Law Review Symposium next month, if you’re interested.] Similar to rewards-based crowdfunding models like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, there appear to be some things a crowdfunding issuer can do to increase the likelihood of success of their offering. Here are some examples.

First, a clear business plan is essential to attracting investors. After all, the “crowd” is made of lots of folks without sophisticated investing experience; so you have to find a creative way to hook them without violating securities disclosure restrictions. This isn’t always as easy said than done, and some portal operators have already gotten in serious trouble for violating their obligations to ensure offering accuracy.

Second, and perhaps a bit counterintuitive, the most successful Regulation Crowdfunding issuers actually have slightly higher minimum investments than you would expect. There is no dollar floor to the investment under the rules of Reg CF, but a small minimum opens the door to a potentially unwieldy cap table. In addition, a high minimum investment decreases the number of available spots for investors in the targeted offering amount; there is a very real “exclusivity” effect. To illustrate: it takes 10,000 investors at $10/per to get to $100,000 offering, but you could raise the same $100,000 with only 100 investors at $1,000/per. Issuers get to choose which investors they take on in oversubscription situations, and it can’t hurt to create a little buzz as investors “compete” for limited spots in the offering.

Finally, communicating the business plan using a strong video is a must—industry analysts report that campaigns using any video at raised significantly more money that those without (on the order of 11:1 times more money!). If that video is of good enough quality, according to those same analysts, your offering does even better. Of course, video quality only matters if your network is sufficiently large to reach enough potential investors. For issuers hoping to raise $50,000, that generally means connecting with more than 3,000 people.

There are plenty more nuggets of wisdom to glean from the first 8 months of federal investment crowdfunding offerings, and this post only scratches the surface. For more, see our forthcoming paper in Mitchell-Hamline Law Review’s symposium issue later this year.

As for MNvest, unfortunately, while the law has been technically available for Minnesota crowdfunders since June 2016, it took until the end of the year for the Department of Commerce to approve any portals. So only a handful of issuers and portals are currently active in the space. True to form, for federal crowdfunding offerings at least, craft breweries are making a strong showing (read: in Minnesota, 4 of the first 4 MNvest issuers are breweries!). Hopefully we’ll see more of them as the vehicle becomes more well-known.

One thing that should further aid MNvest issuers is that the SEC recently released final rules that will make it easier and safer for intrastate issuers to use the internet to advertise. Before the rules update, issuers were bound by advertising and solicitation restrictions drafted in the 1970s (that is, before the interwebs). As crowdfunding, almost by definition, requires the use of the internet to reach a crowd, these updates should streamline and loosen up the fundraising process. The new final rules create a new exemption (Rule 147A); state legislatures that based their intrastate laws on old Rule 147 will need to update their laws accordingly first.

Investment crowdfunding laws of the intrastate and federal varieties hold promise for many issuers. And, while there is not yet a perfect model or a one-size-fits-all strategy for fundraising, it is clear that investors and issuers alike are excited by the promise this investment vehicle holds.

Who knows—perhaps in another 18 months the way we crowdfund will have experienced as much change again, to make this piece as quickly “historical” as my earlier article!


Court’s Remain Unclear About Bitcoin’s Status

Paul Gaus, MJLST Staffer

Bitcoin touts itself as an “innovative payment network and a new kind of money.” Also known as “cryptocurrency,” Bitcoin was hatched out of a paper posted online by a mysterious gentleman named Satoshi Nakamoto (he has never been identified). The Bitcoin economy is quite complex, but it is generally based on the principle that Bitcoins are released into networks at a steady pace determined by algorithms.

Although once shrouded in ambiguity, Bitcoins threatened to upend (or “disrupt” in Silicon Valley speak) the payment industry. At their core, Bitcoins are just unique strings of information that users mine and typically store on their desktops. The list of companies that accept Bitcoins is growing and includes cable companies, professional sports teams, and even a fringe American political party. According to its proponents, Bitcoins offer lower transaction costs and increased privacy without inflation that affects fiat currency.

Technologies like Bitcoins do not come without interesting legal implications. One of the oft-cited downsides of Bitcoins is that they can facilitate criminal enterprises. In such cases, courts must address what status Bitcoins have in the current economy. The Southern District of New York recently held that Bitcoins were unequivocally a form of currency for purposes of criminal prosecution. In United States v. Murgio et al., Judge Alison Nathan determined Bitcoins are money because “Bitcoins can be accepted as payment for goods and services or bought directly from an exchange with a bank account . . . and are used as a medium of exchange and a means of payment.” By contrast, the IRS classifies virtual currency as property.
Bitcoins are uncertain, volatile, and complex, but they continue to be accepted as currency and show no signs of fading away. Going forward, the judiciary will need to streamline its treatment of Bitcoins.