Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Raising Capital on the Internet

Many business owners ask the same question: can they raise capital on the Internet. My short reply to them is: "It's complicated." The securities rules do not specifically address the Internet offerings, so each offering has to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis to ensure that it satisfies the requirements that apply to private placement offerings. With the creation of online communities and networks, it seems like the Internet would be the logical place to conduct such offerings, as companies can inexpensively reach out to many potential investors at the same time. However, using the Internet to solicit interest in an offering is likely to invalidate the whole transaction since it would violate the ban on general solicitation and advertising that applies to most private placements.

Below is an excerpt from an article published by Michael T. Raymond, a partner in the Ann Arbor office of the law firm Dickinson Wright PLLC, regarding securities offerings on the Internet. Mr. Raymond did an excellent job in summarizing the current applicable securities laws. His article can be found here: http://tenonline.org/art/sl/0611.html.

An excerpt from his article is below:

"As a matter of background, a general solicitation (which, as noted, is prohibited by Rule 502(c) of Regulation D) is typically not found when a pre-existing, substantive relationship between an issuer (or its broker-dealer) and an offeree exists. A 1996 SEC No-Action Letter (IPOnet, SEC No-Action Letter (July 26, 1996)) extended this principle to private offerings posted on the internet. In that case, access to private offering material was granted only after a "member" had been pre-qualified as an "accredited investor" by completing a generic questionnaire. Once qualified, the member was issued a password which enabled access to a website page containing a notice of a private offering. In addition, the operator imposed a suitable "cooling off" period before the qualified member was granted access to the private offering material. The SEC approved the operation of this website. In doing so, the SEC found that the website operator had taken sufficient steps to allow a "pre-existing, substantive" relationship to be established between the issuer/broker-dealer and the offerees.

A similar 1997 No-Action Letter (Lamp Technologies, Inc., SEC No-Action Letter (May 29, 1997)) involved a company that administered a website containing certain hedge funds offered on a semi-continuous basis. The SEC staff determined that the proposed operation of the website would not involve a general solicitation since it was password-protected and accessible only to members who had been pre-qualified as accredited investors. The investors were also subject to a 30-day "waiting" period before investments could be made.

Based upon concerns that certain website operators conducting online private offerings may have been overly zealous in their interpretations of the IPOnet and Lamp Technologies No-Action Letters, the SEC issued a clarifying release in April, 2000 (Release No. 33-7856 (April 28, 2000)). The SEC expressed its concern that certain entities (notably those who were not broker-dealers or affiliated with broker-dealers) may have engaged in practices that deviated substantially from the facts set forth in the IPOnet and Lamp Technologies No-Action Letters in offering private placements over the internet.

For example, some third party service providers had set up websites that invited prospective investors to respond to a questionnaire, ostensibly for the purpose of qualifying them as an "accredited investor". Completion of the questionnaire permitted access to private offerings displayed on those websites. Some of the websites did not even require the completion of a questionnaire; instead, they simply invited the user to check a box as a means of self-accreditation and immediate access. The SEC staff expressed their view that these types of websites raise significant concerns that a general solicitation is occurring."

"Based on available SEC No-Action Letters and other commentary, it appears that the safest online private offerings under Regulation D will involve: (a) a password-protected website directly operated by an issuer or its broker-dealer firm (as opposed to an unlicensed third party), (b) use of a comprehensive, generic (non-offering specific) questionnaire that elicits sufficient information to permit a thorough evaluation of the prospective investor's financial standing and sophistication level, and (c) a requirement that a sufficient amount of time lapse between the response to the questionnaire and actual participation in a private offering. While the time may come when the SEC will truly embrace an online Regulation D offering sponsored by a non-broker-dealer, currently the SEC has shown practically no support for such offerings. Accordingly, start-up and early stage business seeking to utilize online angel investor networks or matching services to raise capital should ensure that these service providers have been registered as broker-dealers, and that they follow at least the "general solicitation" precautions noted above."

Please note that this post is for general information only and should not be used as a legal advice.

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