By Jenny Kassan and Michael H. Shuman
What kinds of conversations can a business owner have with potential investors without breaking the law? Over the past year many local investment advocates and practitioners have sought our advice in answering these questions, and this blog attempts to provide some answers.
The law has been rapidly changing in this area, so not all our answers are crystal clear. But below is our best effort to summarize what’s permissible for individuals or groups that wish to have conversations about the possibility of investments in person or online. (We do not cover here new rules that apply to “pitch sessions” before groups of investors.)
(1) Public Conversations Unrelated to Investment – Green Light
The First Amendment protects free speech, including conversations between businesses and supporters. If you’re a fan, customer, or mentor for a business, you can freely talk about anything unrelated to investment.
Once the conversation shifts to investment, however, caution is needed because such conversations are regulated under state and federal securities law. Securities regulators consider any conversations between businesses and potential investors about potential investments, whether one-on-one, in group conversations, or via public platforms, to be an offering of securities. And unless or until you jump through the appropriate legal hoops for a securities offering, you cannot have such conversations.
If you run a web site encouraging conversations between businesses and supporters—say a mentorship platform—you might want to post disclaimers that the conversations should not touch on any potential investment opportunities. Better still, you might actively facilitate the conversations to prevent any violations.
(2) Private Conversations on Investment – Yellow Light
If a business has an informal conversation with a potential investor about a potential investment, this conversation may fall under the definition of a securities offering. A private conversation like this is often legal without the need to do any particular filings or make any particular disclosure. However, the details of what is required vary quite a bit depending on various factors such as what state the potential investor is in, what is being offered, and the potential investor’s wealth and income. Before actually offering an investment opportunity, even privately, it’s important to work with an attorney to determine what rules apply.
Does this mean that any conversation that even mentions an investment opportunity would be considered a regulated securities offering? Not necessarily. A conversation in which an entrepreneur mentions the possibility of raising funding in the future and does not mention any details about the investment offering (e.g. the size, the terms, the timing) is less likely to be considered a securities offering. Unfortunately, the line between an unregulated conversation and a securities offering is not well-defined under the law. Hence the yellow light.
(3) Social Mixers Involving Businesses and Investors – Green Light
Unstructured social gatherings among potential investors and business owners are fine as long as specific investment opportunities are not discussed. The original conception of LION, the Local Investment Opportunity Network of Port Townsend, Washington, was to deepen relationships between local investors and local businesses, to facilitate the possibility of future investments.
(4) Investment Clubs – Yellow Light
Groups of investors are welcome to come together, form a club, and collectively invest. They can have robust conversations about potential investments among fellow investors (but not potential investees). The presumption also is that members do not pitch one another to invest in their own businesses.
As soon as the club enters conversations with outside businesses about potential investments, the federal and state rules apply.
(5) Open, Online Conversations About Potential Investments – Red Light
Generally, an online public platform cannot host free-wheeling conversations between businesses and potential investors. This is regarded as facilitating general solicitation. And the host might be considered a broker-dealer, which would mean that it would have to register with the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), or under state law, as a broker. Some states are very strict about what constitutes a broker-dealer. One business was shut down by the state of California for hosting a platform that did nothing more than facilitate private investments for a flat fee.
But the next point offers a potential exemption for platforms that wish to help businesses “test the waters” (TTW) with potential investors.
(6) “Testing the Waters” Conversations in Preparation for an Investment Crowdfunding Campaign – Yellow Light
The SEC recently announced a new Rule 206 that permits businesses planning to raise money through investment crowdfunding to “test the waters” with potential investors. Participating businesses effectively must announce their interest in crowdfunding, agree to various disclaimers, and then conversations can begin.
But there’s a catch: If you meet a potential investor through public testing the waters activities, and then decide not to do a crowdfunding campaign, you may not be able to ask that person privately to invest in your business later. Thanks to little-appreciated rules around “integrating” separate offers, you cannot engage in general solicitation now, meet a bunch of new people, and then pitch them with a private offering later.
It’s important to point out here the difference between public and private offerings. Public offerings, like investment crowdfunding, allow you to advertise to the general public. Private offerings can only be made privately through one-on-one conversations. One of the virtues of the LION approach is that it is a legal way of developing relationships with people who you might be able to approach privately about a potential investment.
So if you’re a business seeking capital, the only way you can transform an investor you met through a public TTW discussion (a precursor for a public offering under Regulation Crowdfunding) into a private investor is by developing a substantial relationship with him or her after the public solicitation round. If someone you met online becomes your best fishing buddy, for example, you might be able to pitch him privately.
The good news is that if you only are pitching accredited (that is, wealthy) investors after your crowdfunding campaign, you can use Rule 506(c) to pitch them. Under this rule, public advertising is permitted and all investors must be accredited and their wealth or income status must be carefully established. If you want to also pitch unaccredited investors and include people you met through public solicitation, you will have to stick with investment crowdfunding going forward.
There’s one other possible opening that’s useless now but could be useful later—and that’s the newly announced Rule 241. It’s like Rule 206—permission for public “testing the waters” conversations with appropriate disclaimers—except that businesses do not need to announce that they are only interested in crowdfunding. All kinds of investment options, public and private, could be discussed. The problem is that the SEC did not preempt state laws that mostly prohibit such conversations. If you want to lobby your state to harmonize its laws with Rule 241, then this option could be helpful—especially to community investment groups having preliminary conversations with local businesses.
We should say, finally, that we are explaining the law, not defending it. Whether these legal rules are sensible is another blog for another day.