Category Archives: Investor Relations

JOBS Act – What does it mean for angels

I have been asked repeatedly over the last several weeks: “What does the JOBS Act mean for Angels?” In this and other future blog postings, I will give my perspective.

First, what is the JOBS Act? It stands for Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act; it has nothing to do with earlier jobs stimulus efforts other than sharing an acronym. It is a regulatory reform act and does not have any tax elements. The full text can be found at: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr3606/text (There are other pending legislations that address how to stimulate early-stage company investment through tax incentives.)

Broadly speaking, the JOBS Act is intended to provide more capital to startups that fuel the growth of our economy. It does the following:

  1. Removes some of the most onerous provisions of Sarbanes-Oxley Bill from emerging growth companies. The argument is that, while large, publicly traded companies needed the extra oversight and transparency, it was never intended to cripple the ability of high-growth startups from tapping the public markets.
  2. Brings the Securities Act of 1933 into the 21st century by recognizing that markets and communications have changed.
  3. Potentially allows for the revitalization of Reg A filings as a way for smaller companies to raise money from public markets.
  4. Enables “Crowdfunding” – a way that very early stage startups can get many small investors to stake their company early in the lifecycle of the company.

Much of the attention to the JOBS Act has been focused on the Crowdfunding part, so I’ll address this in this posting. However, the largest impact is likely to be from the other provisions, which will modernize and simplify the operations of Angel financings, small IPOs, etc. I’ll address those in future postings.

Crowdfunding (Title III of the JOBS Act)

In the past, startups were typically initially financed by “friends and family.” There are legendary stories of entrepreneurs mortgaging their homes to start their businesses, and then reaching out to their family, friends, and associates to get the company off the ground. As the original Senate bill said, the decline in home values has caused much of this source of early-stage capital to dry up.

Crowdfunding has precedence. People have contributed small amount of money (via the net) to charities, arts, etc. The music and theatre industries have tapped their fan base to ask for money for new works.

The difference with these precedents and Crowdfunding is the purchase of equity, which has been highly regulated. In the US, only accredited investors (a person with over $200k of annual income or over $1M in net worth; see http://www.sec.gov/answers/accred.htm for the full definition) could invest in highly-speculative private shares. The accredited investors were thought to be sophisticated investors, who could do appropriate diligence on the company and assess the risks. In general, Angels and VCs are the primary investors in this category.

There is still a raging debate on the advisability of allowing less sophisticated investors to enter this asset class. On one hand, the optimists say “why should only the very wealthy be allowed to buy early shares in a company like Facebook?” On the other hand, the pessimists would say, “this is a recipe for fraud; charismatic fraudsters will prey on the unsophisticated investors getting them to invest an amount of money that they can’t afford to lose in companies that don’t really exist.”

The devil will be (to some degree) in the details. The Act calls for a 270 day period for the SEC to write the rules. It also includes some safeguards:

  • A company may only raise $1M in a year from Crowdfunding;
  • No investor may invest more than $10,000 (or $2,000 if the investor has an income of less than $100k);
  • The investment can only be through a registered broker or funding portal;
  • A degree of public transparency by publishing the terms of the deal, the basis of the price, cap table, etc. that Angels would typically study;
  • Take steps to prohibit “bad actors” from issuing securities using Crowdfunding to help prevent fraud.

This is an experiment that marries the internet, social networking, and modern communications with selling private securities. It could work, it could fizzle, or it could be a great vehicle that tests the innovative spirit of fraudsters. If it works, it could cause thousands of flowers to bloom – startups in all parts of the US will have access to capital. If not, we can hope that the SEC regulations will limit the amount of fraud.

Impact on Angels

The simple answer is none of us know exactly. But there are certain things I believe to be absolutely true.

First and foremost, Crowdfunding will only INCREASE the need for angel financing. Very few of our high growth companies will get by on just Crowdfunding. If this is a successful experiment, then more companies will need follow-on financing from Angels.

But, the question is “will angels be willing to invest in a company with potentially hundreds of new, unsophisticated shareholders?” Will the cap table be screwed up? Any good, sophisticated angel knows that valuation is a key to success. My biggest fear is the following scenario:

  • Company X at the concept stage has a charismatic CEO with a great vision. He posts a plan and video on a funding portal asking for $1M with a $20M post for common stock at $1 per share. (We all know that it is possible to write a business plan the justifies this!)
  • The company then spends the money and makes progress toward a product. It now seeks angel financing for $2M.
  • We assess the company, like its prospects, and agree that it is a worthy investment, but assess the appropriate pre-money valuation to be $2M (not $20M) for preferred stock.
  • The previous Crowdfunding investor now see their shares valued at less than 10 cents on the dollar. They are very angry.
  • This is widely reported in the press and the entire asset class takes a hit.

We have a lot of work to do on Crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding is about to be approved by Congress and signed into law by the President. For those unfamiliar with the concept, you can read Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crowdfunding) or simply put it is raising money for startups, typically via the Internet, in small chunks from people who may never meet with or diligence the company. Crowdfunding has been used in some non-profits for years and has been successful in Europe for the last two or so years as well.

Most existing investors in this early-stage asset class hear of crowd funding and have the immediate reaction: “Won’t this lead to massive fraud?” Today, investments in unregistered securities require that all investors be “accredited” so that they are assumed to understand the risks in these investments and ensure that sophisticated investors carefully vet deals to ensure that there isn’t fraud.

But, times change. Some VCs and Angels have become fabulously wealthy and famous by investing in early-stage companies, and the media has made a big deal about this. Think Google, Facebook, and even Microsoft. And, in our current economic malaise, creating high-growth, innovative startups is seen as a way out of the mess. But many innovative startups fail in trying to raise money. Angels do their part (see many of my previous posts). But many believe that the need is greater than sophisticated (“accredited”) Angels can finance.

So.. the idea of Crowdfunding has gained great momentum. The current vehicle, H.R. 2930, the Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act, as amended and approved by the House Financial Services Committee on October 26, 2011, (see http://financialservices.house.gov/UploadedFiles/hr2930ai.pdf for the original). The amendments are important, since they lower the size of the amount raised. While the situation is still fluid (the House reportedly just passed its bill and the Senate is in draft), it appears that there will be a $1M annual cap on raising money through Crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is exempt from current broker-dealer rules. Other issues, like how companies handle scores or hundreds of investors or allowable fees that Crowdfunding platforms can charge, remain up in the air.

I have heard rumors about this being done in Europe for the last several years, but cannot substantiate that startup companies have been funded this way. Wikipedia reports that “One of the pioneers of crowd funding in the music industry have been the British rock group Marillion. In 1997 American fans underwrote an entire U.S. tour
to the tune of $60,000, with donations following an internet campaign…” And movies have been known to use Crowdfunding. Any readers with more data?

This is a brave new path for the US. While many (myself included) think that our current SEC regulations that limit investments in startups to “accredited investors” are too narrow and should allow other knowledgeable investors to participate, there is established law and precedent for the investment market. I worry that we might be opening Pandora’s box. Many startups fail and investors that are not willing or able to do due diligence should not be investing in them. It is one thing for sophisticated, accredited investors, like me, to invest in a company and loose their investment. We understand the risk going in. We did our due diligence on the management team, the market, and the technology and reached a positive conclusion. It is quite another thing for someone to “advertise” a deal to the Crowd and have people send them money based solely on the company’s information without any substantiation.

I believe that broadening the participation in the early-stage asset class is a good idea and Crowdfunding is one way to achieve this. I just don’t want some bad actors who use the Crowdfunding mechanism for fraudulent transactions to poison the entire asset class. I think it would behoove both the entrepreneurs that raise money with Crowdfunding and the investment community to find a way to have a trusted platform that verifies that the company is who they say they are and that some investment professional has done due diligence appropriate to the investment.

I also worry that Crowdfunding could lead to some very high priced deals. Investment professionals (including “Professional Angels) have a great deal of experience setting the price for early stage deals. This experience comes from many years of investing, forecasting companies’ success and capital needs, and understanding how exits are likely to occur. Without this discipline, prices might not reflect true value. For example, if an entrepreneur is told by the investment professionals in their community that an appropriate valuation for their company is $2M, but they go to the Crowd with a $10M valuation and raise $500k, what happens when they need to do their next round? After they have spent the $500k, they might approach either Angels or VCs who will then set the price well below $10M. The Crowd will then find that their investment is worth very little. If the Crowd understands that risk, I have no problem with Crowdfunding, but if this isn’t transparent or well-disclosed, I think we could have many disgruntled investors.

I really want Crowdfunding to work. I don’t want a bunch of “mom and pop” unsophisticated investors ripped off.

Angel Investing is Vibrant and Getting More So

Not much surprises me these days, particularly during this mud-slinging political campaign season.

However, Marcelo Calbucci’s Tech Flash post (http://www.techflash.com/seattle/2010/10/have_we_killed_the_angel_investor.html) did. How my posts could be so misunderstood by someone I respect baffles me, especially when that misunderstanding is posted to a widely read blog.

My previous post on Angels forming LLCs for their investments IS entrepreneur friendly, and based on national best practices. Any entrepreneur who has a successful venture with 50 angel investors knows the pain (including excessive legal fees) for getting signatures on every shareholder issue. If a large number of these angel investors are in an LLC, you only need one signature – much more efficient and much less costly. This is the practice in many places, including some of the largest angel groups in the Bay Area and East Coast. It is not widely done in Seattle. And it is not a way to get better terms in seed and A round investments; there really is no relationship between the two.

It is a way for Angels to preserve their rights in the face of a VC round that follows. VC’s typically don’t like to have to get 50 signatures, so they reserve certain rights to “major investors” in their term sheets. This typically either washes away or severely limits the investor rights of Angels, once VCs have entered the deal. It is definitely in the interest of the entrepreneurs, Angels, and the company to make sure that a broader base of investors has a say in the future of the company; the trust from shareholders (the owners of the company) that they will be treated in an open and democratic way is the basis of our entire equity system.

Angels who work together to learn best practices make for a much stronger ecosystem. That is why I spend so much of my personal time trying to learn from other angel groups, both locally and nationally, about what works and doesn’t work. My colleague Angels do likewise. We run a bunch of educational events locally to share our knowledge and insights and encourage other Angels to strike deals that are balanced between return and being entrepreneur friendly. It is why I spent so much time crafting a “Series A Angel Term Sheet,” (http://drosenassoc.com/Draft%20Term%20Sheet%20for%20Alliance%20of%20Angels.pdf) that is now being widely used, not just in Seattle, but around the world. It simplifies the process of bringing in early money for startups, while lowering the costs. All of these activities lower the barrier for entrepreneurs raising money, not as you assert, making it more difficult.

Angel groups are a fabulous way for an entrepreneur to raise money. It is much more efficient to present once to 60 active angels than to set up 60 individual meetings. I don’t know one entrepreneur who would argue with that proposition. And, through the Angel Capital Association (a Kauffman Foundation spinout), we are now sharing best practices, participating in educational events, making sure that public policy encourages early-stage investment (e.g. http://blog.drosenassoc.com/?p=41), making sure that as many Angels as possible enter the ecosystem, and encouraging each other in bleak economic times.

As part of this socialization, it is evident that Seattle IS progressive. We have funded as many or more early stage deals at a slightly higher price than our peers in the Bay Area and Boston. Your assertion that entrepreneurs in the Bay Area are getting their deals funded without a financial projection or a solid plan is an urban myth that is not supported by fact; it encourages behavior that neither helps entrepreneurs or investors. We do help the “the next great idea from two guys who are just finishing their computer science degree at The University of Washington” in part by helping them understand what it means to create a great business. In my 25 years of experience, I have not seen a success where throwing money at people without a great business concept created a great business. It is the marriage of great technology, great people, and a great plan that makes the breakout companies. Yes, this takes some discipline and hard work. Saying that the best model is angels willing to throw money at entrepreneurs who are not committed to a disciplined approach is not only wrong, it does a great disservice to the entrepreneurs willing to quit a high-paying job to risk everything to build a great company.

And during the last year, I’ve spoken at events throughout North America without reimbursement. Like you, Marcello, for me this is a passion, not a business. But most Angels need a return on their investment, if they are going to continue to invest. We need more maturity in the process, not less.

We all want to see more intelligent, high-net-worth individuals in Seattle become Angel investors. They way to do this is NOT by telling them that they should “invest and pray”. It is by showing them how to be successful angel investors, how to lead deals without as much pain as in the current process, and by making it easy to pull the trigger on their first few investments. One way that other communities (e.g. Bellingham) have used is the deal-specific LLC that started this conversation.

Success will come by finding more ways for entrepreneurs and Angels to communicate and understand common goals and then achieve extraordinary results. And success will build more success.

Investor Relations for Private Companies

One of the questions I am asked by first-time startup CEOs: what is an appropriate level of communication with my investors?

This is both a difficult and profound question. It is simple to say that more is better than less. It is also simple to say that any good investor would rather have you spend your time executing your plan than spend your time chatting with investors.

So.. my simple rule of thumb is that you should treat your investors (and the money that they have invested in your company) with respect. And you should recognize that their support, encouragement, and trust that came with that money are incredibly valuable commodities that will continue to pay dividends over time. Let me give rules of thumb for great investor relations by private companies and some issues that need to be considered.

Ten Simple rules for great IR for private companies:

  1. Get the bad news out fast and first. Even if the news in embarrassing (like we are running out of cash sooner than we anticipated, or our customers found a flaw in our product), share it first and fast. Be very candid about the failings as well as the successes.
  2. Don’t bury bad news at the end of a report.
  3. Don’t wait to issue the report until you have good news to share.
  4. Don’t forget to share your passion for your business – that’s generally what made your investors invest!
  5. But don’t allow your passion to obscure the operational facts, like the numbers are not what we anticipated.
  6. Communicate frequently, but not too frequently. These communications should never be less than once a quarter. But remember that your investors are not your employees, so you don’t need to send daily/weekly updates with operational trivia. This just defeats the purpose of making sure that your investors know the state of the business by burying them in the minutia.
  7. Communications can written or in person or a combination. Face-to-face quarterly meetings are a great idea for a company that is growing and needs support and help from its investors. They are especially good for a company that needs to show its product. But they take some time to prepare.
  8. Communications can be short, but never skipped. For example, a simple note to all of your investors that “we have had to revamp our product plans and details will follow within 30 days” is an OK message. As is, “we have received an acquisition offer, but the terms require us to keep the details confidential, so we will let you know as soon as the deal is consummated.” Don’t surprise them!
  9. Your investors are smart, so treat them accordingly. Be very realistic and forthright about the impact of any misses/changes. Early stage investors know the risks. Tell them if the board insisted you take a salary cut or that you have had to lay off key people. These things happen. Sometimes the impact will be that their investment will never realize the potential you had hoped for, but that you will work for the best possible outcome.
  10. And, lastly, NEVER have the communication of the change of your company status come via a package of documents from your lawyers! Even in the case of good news (which is rare), you owe it to your investors to be the one who communicates FIRST. Even if it’s an email (or cover letter in the legal package) that says, “we have had to do X, because of Y, and the result is that your shares have to be changed in the following way. You will be receiving a package by FedEx to implement that change. I will be holding an emergency investor meeting tomorrow at 9am to explain these changes. Those who can’t be there can phone in.”

Even with these simple rules in hand, there are a number of issues that you need to consider.

  • Can I share proprietary information with my investors? This is a tough question. Seek counsel from your lawyer. In general, most startups do share proprietary information, but make sure your investors know it is proprietary. Make sure that they know they can’t redistribute or share it further. Only give info in writing that is less sensitive.
  • Know your investors. Ask them if they have investments in competitive companies. If they do, it doesn’t disqualify them from investing in your company, but make sure that they know they can’t share the info you give them.

Simply put.. if you treat your investors well, they will be there to support you when you need them. Not just in this company but in future ones.