SMU Central
SMU Central

Things are looking pretty good for the venture capital industry. Potential VC investors have a lot of money available, and industry and geographical trends show a positive outlook for VC investing in the near term. There are numerous factors that could negatively affect the outlook for VC investments, but it certainly appears that substantial VC investment activity could occur over the next twelve months.

The most significant positive factor for VC activity in the near term is the supply of available cash. According to a recent report, VC funds currently have approximately $120 billion available for investment. Even though this is a composite number that is applied across the whole VC industry, it is a huge amount of available investment funds.

Another positive factor is the increase in corporate VC investment. In a relatively short time (aided by large amounts of cash on corporate balance sheets), corporate investors have begun to play a key role in the VC industry, especially in larger deals. Last year corporate VC deals comprised 25% of total VC deals, and this percentage will continue to increase. See my prior blog post on the rise of corporate VC investors (Corporate Venture Capital Investments – Good for Startups?).


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SAFE and KISSEarly stage and startup companies often face difficulty in obtaining initial financing.  These companies normally do not have access to traditional venture capital, angel, or bank financing.  Even when a startup finds an investor, the company may not have the time or the funds to pursue the long and complicated negotiation and documentation process required for a convertible debt or preferred stock investment.

Y Combinator (a Silicon Valley technology accelerator) developed a possible solution for this situation:  the SAFE (Simple Agreement for Future Equity). This is a short document that contains the basic terms of an investment in an early stage company. Y Combinator’s goal was to create a standard set of terms and conditions that the investor and the startup can agree upon without protracted negotiations so that the startup can obtain its initial funding relatively quickly and cheaply. Y Combinator offers both a summary of SAFE concepts and sample SAFE documents on its site.  Y Combinator first proposed this instrument in December 2013, but it is just now beginning to be used outside of Silicon Valley.

While the SAFE has appeared in a number of forms, the basic concept is that the investor provides funding to the company in exchange for the right to receive equity upon some future event.  The standard SAFE contains no term or repayment date, and no interest accrues.  The investor gets the right to receive the company’s equity when a future event occurs (normally a future equity financing). There is no need to spend time or money negotiating the company’s valuation, the terms of the conversion to equity or any similar items (which can often be tough and protracted negotiation items) – all of those decisions can be deferred into the future. The investor will receive shares in the subsequent offering, often at a discount to the price that other investors pay in that offering. The parties can also negotiate a cap on the valuation used in connection with the SAFE, and this may provide additional protection to the investor.

The beauty of the SAFE concept (from the company’s standpoint) is that it
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BSA requires broker-dealers to know who you are
Photo by St. Murse

As we blogged about in May, the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), which requires financial institutions in the United States to assist U.S. government agencies to detect and prevent money laundering, applies to entities that we may not traditionally think of as “financial institutions,” including securities broker or dealers. Compliance with the BSA is no easy task. And if a recent notice of new proposed rule by the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (also known as FinCEN) becomes law, it’s not about to get any easier.

FinCEN’s stated intent with the proposed rule is to clarify and strengthen customer due diligence requirements for banks, brokers or dealers in securities, mutual funds and futures commission merchants and introducing brokers in commodities. Under current regulations, each of these institutions must establish, document and maintain a Customer Identification Program (or “CIP”) appropriate for its size and business that meets certain minimum requirements, including, among others, the adoption of certain identity verification procedures, and the collection of certain customer information and the maintenance of certain records. The proposed rule adds two (2) new elements to the CIP requirements.

First, the proposed rule
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SEC may change identity of angels
Illustration by Royce Bair

Potential Changes.

Accredited investors have long been critical participants in private financing transactions, and the success of most private financings is largely determined by the participation of these investors and the availability of their capital. State and Federal securities laws have been written or amended to foster and facilitate investment by these accredited investors. Based on recent developments, the standards for qualification as an accredited investor may be changing, and these changes could pose problems for companies seeking financing.

The current requirements for accredited investor status are contained in Rule 501(a) of the 1933 Act. The most commonly used standards for individual investors are a $200,000 annual income (or $300,000 combined income with a spouse) or a $1,000,000 net worth (excluding the value of the investor’s primary residence). Other than the exclusion of the investor’s primary residence (which became effective in 2012), these standards have been in place since 1982 without any changes to reflect the effects of inflation during that period.  

Based on these current standards, observers estimate that there are approximately 8.5 million accredited investors in the United States. Some critics have asserted that this number is far higher than it should be, and that many of these people only qualify as accredited investors because
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States creating own exemptions for crowd funding
Photo by Josh Turner

The JOBS Act’s crowdfunding provisions were once one of the most eagerly anticipated items contained in that Act. Many companies and their advisors had high hopes that these crowdfunding provisions would open up new arenas for financing smaller companies while easing the costs and challenges associated with securities regulatory compliance. These hopes and dreams have been substantially curtailed as the SEC’s proposed crowdfunding rules (issued in 2013) did not provide the anticipated relief. The SEC received a significant number of comments on these proposed crowdfunding rules, and these comments were predominantly critical due to the perceived regulatory and cost burdens that the proposed Rules seemed to contain.

Hope springs eternal, however, and many people are still eagerly awaiting the SEC’s final crowdfunding regulations to determine if the SEC will adopt a more reasonable position that may be useful to small companies seeking financing. The Federal crowdfunding exemption from registration will not be effective until the SEC issues these final regulations. Many people just want to know what they are actually dealing with here and whether crowdfunding will offer any viable opportunities for small company financing. Somewhat surprisingly given the significant amount of attention and publicity that crowdfunding has generated, the SEC still has not issued those final regulations despite the JOBS Act’s deadline. This situation has caused a significant amount of frustration in the corporate finance community.

Given the uncertainty regarding the status of Federal crowdfunding regulation, some states have seen an opportunity and have taken somewhat bold steps in establishing crowdfunding exemptions on the state level. The states moving ahead of the SEC is somewhat unusual, but it appears that the initial impact of these state crowdfunding initiatives may be economically beneficial to these states.

The predominant model for these state crowdfunding structures is the creation of an intrastate crowdfunding exemption from registration. The states have been very creative in their efforts, as they appear to have used the strong desire for a useful crowdfunding regulatory structure to create state structures that will help to provide economic growth in the states. This is also very compatible with the nature of crowdfunding – since many crowdfunding projects are smaller and localized, they may not be affected by being required to be contained in any one state.

The participating states have mainly modeled their crowdfunding regulations to be
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Intrastate offering exemption
Photo by Jimmy Emerson

Last week, the SEC issued three new interpretations related to the so-called “intrastate offering exemption,” which is a registration exemption that facilitates the financing of local business operations.  An intrastate offering is exempt because it does not involve interstate commerce, and is therefore, outside the scope of the Securities Act.

We have received a few calls this week from startup companies who mistakenly believed that these new interpretations were creating a new registration exemption.  Largely, the mistaken belief is caused by the confusion stemming from some recent state law changes that allow for intrastate crowd funding.  While the new SEC interpretations were prompted by the recent state law changes, the intrastate offering exemption has been around since 1933, but for many reasons, it is not heavily relied upon.  And, despite the three new interpretations, we still advise against using the intrastate offering exemption.

What is this intrastate offering exemption?

The intrastate offering exemption is actually two separate exemptions, Section 3(a)(11) and a safe harbor Rule 147.  Although the two exemptions differ slightly, generally, if the (i) issuer is incorporated or organized in the same state in which it is offering securities; (2) a substantial portion of the issuer’s business occurs within that state; (3) each offeree and purchaser is a resident of the state; (4) the offering proceeds are used primarily within that state; and (5) the securities come to rest within that state, then your offering would be exempt from federal registration requirements.  The investors do not need to be accredited (unlike Regulation D offerings), there is no limitation on the manner of offering, there are no prescribed disclosures, there is no maximum amount that can be raised (unlike Rule 504, Rule 505, or Regulation A), and the shares are freely transferable to other residents of the state.  In other words, it is a fairly broad exemption that allows a lot of flexibility to issuers, especially to startup companies who need as much flexibility as possible when raising capital.

Ok, so what is such a problem with the intrastate offering exemption?

While there is lots of flexibility with the exemption, the intrastate offering exemption
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Intrastate offering exemption
Photo by Jimmy Emerson

Last week, the SEC issued three new interpretations related to the so-called “intrastate offering exemption,” which is a registration exemption that facilitates the financing of local business operations.  An intrastate offering is exempt because it does not involve interstate commerce, and is therefore, outside the scope of the Securities Act.

We have received a few calls this week from startup companies who mistakenly believed that these new interpretations were creating a new registration exemption.  Largely, the mistaken belief is caused by the confusion stemming from some recent state law changes that allow for intrastate crowd funding.  While the new SEC interpretations were prompted by the recent state law changes, the intrastate offering exemption has been around since 1933, but for many reasons, it is not heavily relied upon.  And, despite the three new interpretations, we still advise against using the intrastate offering exemption.

What is this intrastate offering exemption?

The intrastate offering exemption is actually two separate exemptions, Section 3(a)(11) and a safe harbor Rule 147.  Although the two exemptions differ slightly, generally, if the (i) issuer is incorporated or organized in the same state in which it is offering securities; (2) a substantial portion of the issuer’s business occurs within that state; (3) each offeree and purchaser is a resident of the state; (4) the offering proceeds are used primarily within that state; and (5) the securities come to rest within that state, then your offering would be exempt from federal registration requirements.  The investors do not need to be accredited (unlike Regulation D offerings), there is no limitation on the manner of offering, there are no prescribed disclosures, there is no maximum amount that can be raised (unlike Rule 504, Rule 505, or Regulation A), and the shares are freely transferable to other residents of the state.  In other words, it is a fairly broad exemption that allows a lot of flexibility to issuers, especially to startup companies who need as much flexibility as possible when raising capital.

Ok, so what is such a problem with the intrastate offering exemption?

While there is lots of flexibility with the exemption, the intrastate offering exemption
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Intrastate offering exemption
Photo by Jimmy Emerson

Last week, the SEC issued three new interpretations related to the so-called “intrastate offering exemption,” which is a registration exemption that facilitates the financing of local business operations.  An intrastate offering is exempt because it does not involve interstate commerce, and is therefore, outside the scope of the Securities Act.

We have received a few calls this week from startup companies who mistakenly believed that these new interpretations were creating a new registration exemption.  Largely, the mistaken belief is caused by the confusion stemming from some recent state law changes that allow for intrastate crowd funding.  While the new SEC interpretations were prompted by the recent state law changes, the intrastate offering exemption has been around since 1933, but for many reasons, it is not heavily relied upon.  And, despite the three new interpretations, we still advise against using the intrastate offering exemption.

What is this intrastate offering exemption?

The intrastate offering exemption is actually two separate exemptions, Section 3(a)(11) and a safe harbor Rule 147.  Although the two exemptions differ slightly, generally, if the (i) issuer is incorporated or organized in the same state in which it is offering securities; (2) a substantial portion of the issuer’s business occurs within that state; (3) each offeree and purchaser is a resident of the state; (4) the offering proceeds are used primarily within that state; and (5) the securities come to rest within that state, then your offering would be exempt from federal registration requirements.  The investors do not need to be accredited (unlike Regulation D offerings), there is no limitation on the manner of offering, there are no prescribed disclosures, there is no maximum amount that can be raised (unlike Rule 504, Rule 505, or Regulation A), and the shares are freely transferable to other residents of the state.  In other words, it is a fairly broad exemption that allows a lot of flexibility to issuers, especially to startup companies who need as much flexibility as possible when raising capital.

Ok, so what is such a problem with the intrastate offering exemption?

While there is lots of flexibility with the exemption, the intrastate offering exemption
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506 offerings to raise moneyThe SEC issued Final Rules last week that effectively eliminate the ban on the use of general solicitation and general advertising in connection with certain securities offerings performed under Rule 506 of Regulation D. This is a major shift that will allow issuers to use general solicitation and advertising to promote certain private securities offerings. Rule 506 is widely used by many startup and early stage companies to provide a safe harbor from registration under the 1933 Act. The elimination of this ban should have very positive effects for startup and early stage companies. Hopefully it will facilitate capital raising for these companies and thus begin to allow some of the long-awaited positive impacts that we all expected from the JOBS Act. These Final Rules will become effective in mid-September of this year.

The SEC also issued a Press Release and a Fact Sheet that contain helpful information on the Final Rules.

These Final Rules provide amendments to Rule 506 and Rule 144A under the 1933 Act. I will focus on the Rule 506 amendments since they are most relevant to startup and early stage company financing situations. These Rule 506 amendments allow an issuer to engage in general solicitation and advertising in connection with the offering and sale of securities under Rule 506 provided that all purchasers of the securities are accredited investors under the Rule 501 standards and that the issuer takes “reasonable steps” to verify each investor’s accredited investor status. The Rule 506 amendments provide a non-exclusive list of methods that issuers can use to verify the accredited investor status of natural persons. These amendments also amend Form D to require issuers to tell the SEC whether they are relying on the provision that permits general solicitation and advertising in a Rule 506 offering. The Final Rules also contain some very interesting economic and statistical data on Rule 506 offerings and participation by accredited investors.

In a related development, the SEC issued a Final Rule on July 10, 2013 that amended
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We have recently experienced some of the worst financial and economic conditions that we (hopefully) will see in our lifetimes. Most of us have been touched personally by these conditions. It appears that economic and financial conditions will continue to get better, but these situations have created some ongoing challenges that will continue to face early stage companies and entrepreneurs even under better conditions. 

The apparent changes in the traditional roles of the venture capital, private equity and angel investing models are some of the changes that will impact early stage companies. This appears to be the “new normal” for the financing of early stage companies.  Financing from venture capital and angel investor sources has historically been a vital source of funding for early stage companies.  Most early stage companies are not able to qualify for bank financing and are too early for private equity financing. Venture capital and angel investor financing traditionally stepped into this gap and gave these companies the critical financing that they needed to survive and expand. Private equity firms tended to remain out of the early stage financing arena until a company had reached a certain level of revenues or profitability.

This traditional financing model has changed.  Many private equity firms have shifted their investment focus to an even more mature class of companies. There has been a concurrent shift in focus by venture capital firms as many of them have also shifted their investment focus to more mature companies and are subjecting target companies to stricter investment criteria.

These shifts in investment focus are understandable, but they have significantly reduced the availability of crucial funding sources for early stage companies. These shifts happened at a very tough time for most small companies as they tried to recover from bad economic conditions.  This reduction in financing opportunities coupled with the overall slow pace of the economic recovery has caused a dire situation for many early stage companies and entrepreneurs.  Fortunately several events have occurred that should help to fill this financing gap.
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