Caveat Investor

Amateur Hour: New Crowdinvesting Rules Mean Everyone Can Play Venture Capitalist

You get a startup! And you get a startup!
crowd Amateur Hour: New Crowdinvesting Rules Mean Everyone Can Play Venture Capitalist

(Photo: James Cridland via Flickr)

It was glaringly sunny in Washington, D.C., on April 5, the day President Barack Obama signed the JOBS Act, and there was some confusion as to the location of the afterparty. One faction of Rose Garden attendees gathered on the roof of the W Hotel and wondered where everyone was. The rest assembled at Off The Record, a dimly lit bar in the basement of the Hay-Adams Hotel, and kicked things off with an icebreaker.

About 30 smartly dressed men and women, still sweating out the adrenaline of being three rows away from the president, stood in a circle. Many had worked with each other but never met. Each stated their names, the role they played in the bill, and perhaps a few words about the brave new world of so-called equity-based crowdfunding, which had just been legalized by one of the six constituent laws that make up the JOBS Act. The new rule will allow “ordinary Americans,” in the president’s words, to invest in a nonpublic company in exchange for shares for the first time since the enactment of the securities regulation that followed the 1929 stock market crash.

The mood was triumphant and boozy. Tim Rowe, a Cambridge-based venture capitalist, raised a glass and offered a toast to working together in the future. “The Marine Corps was founded in a bar in Philadelphia,” he said. “Big things can happen starting in a bar.” Attendees signed up to join a trade organization for the newly minted market. “There was the sense of elation that we had cracked the monopoly of Wall Street,” one attendee recalled.

Right now, new businesses have limited ways to raise capital. They can petition venture capitalists to invest, or beg family and friends for cash. Recently, entrepreneurs have also started appealing to the crowd through sites like Kickstarter. After being rejected by venture capitalists, one Palo Alto company called Pebble raised more than $10 million on Kickstarter to build a touch-screen “smartwatch” that can be programmed by an iPhone.

Equity-based crowdfunding, also called crowdfund investing or crowdinvesting (the practice is so new that we’ve yet to settle on a vernacular) is the new IPO. Or rather, it will be in about six months, once the Securities and Exchange Commission hammers out the nuances of the law. Under the new rules, entrepreneurs can solicit up to $1 million from the public in exchange for a slice of future profits. Pebble promised to ship watches in 2013 to everyone who donated. If equity-based crowdfunding had been legal, Pebble could have sent its backers a stock certificate in addition to a gizmo.

Advocates of equity-based crowdfunding believe the change is long overdue. Among those clinking pints at Off The Record were Woodie Neiss, a motivational speaker and former consultant who helped spearhead the 460-day lobbying effort; Amy Cortese, the journalist and author of Locavesting; Jenny Kassan, who three years ago petitioned the SEC to let people invest up to $100 in a business without having to file; and Michael Shuman of Cutting Edge Capital, who argued three years ago that $100 of risk was “no more dangerous to an investor than a dinner for two at a Chinese restaurant.”

Of the equity-based crowdfunding enthusiasts, perhaps the most ebullient are the entrepreneurs who plan to launch websites where unaccredited investors can commit $2,000 to $100,000 in a year, depending on their income and net worth. In exchange, they’ll own a slice of the next Facebook, the next Shake Shack or the next Enron, at the early stage normally reserved for venture capital firms and millionaires.

New York, according to recent Wharton grad Ryan Feit, is the epicenter of crowdfunding—and likely will be the same for equity-based crowdfunding. Mr. Feit’s yet-to-launch site, SeedInvest, works out of the same Soho loft as Kickstarter competitor Indiegogo, and both were supporters of the new law. On a recent Thursday morning, Mr. Feit and three other neatly dressed Wharton grads were stationed at their Macbooks, as they have been for the month since they graduated and moved to New York.

Only one, James Han, is actually building the site. The other three are working on “education,” “setting up partnerships,” talking to the SEC and giving media interviews, Mr. Feit said, when asked what there is to work on given that the first crowdfunded investment is still at least six months away. “A lot of the fun is figuring out what it’s going to look like,” he said. “It’s way more complicated than just setting up a page that looks like Kickstarter. We have to be very nimble to adapt.”

According to JOBS, the new widows-and-orphans investor class must go through so-called “portals,” Kickstarter-esque intermediaries that can ensure a minimum level of diligence so people who are already underwater on their mortgages don’t withdraw their last $3,000 hoping to score big enough to take care of their grandchildren.

Regulatory agencies have until January to write the rules for the portals, and the deadline will likely be extended. Still, portals are already popping up. Crowdfunder, EarlyShares, FundRazr and have all already been certified under the nascent Crowdfunding Accreditation for Platform Standards, or CAPS, a program developed by the independent website WeFunder, a Boston-based portal, launched two months before the law was passed, with nothing more than a homepage and an online petition addressed to Congress. The site has remained essentially frozen since then. “Soon, you’ll be able to invest as little as $100 in your favorite startups,” it says.

Mike Norman, one of WeFunder’s four founders, acknowledged that he already has competitors in a market that does not yet exist. “You need to get it right,” he said. “There are a lot of folks who are going to try to get into this and it’s not going to go well. A small subset will really rise to the top.”

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