Next Tuesday, May 10, entrepreneur Sherwood Neiss will be testifying before U.S. Congressman Darrell Issa and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to advocate a regulatory change that I have been working to support: a small offering exemption, aka “crowdfunding exemption.” It’s a simple change that the SEC has the authority to make, and which I believe would spur grassroots innovation and empowerment the way the NSF’s revision of the internet backbone’s Acceptable Use Policy did back in the early 1990s. (Remember that one?)
The background (which I didn’t know until fairly recently), is that any investment where the return does not depend on the investor’s active, day-to-day involvement is considered a security. And securities, no matter how small, are either regulated by the SEC or state securities departments. There are no de minimis exceptions; shares in a lemonade stand would require registration, which I’m told costs $50,000-$100,000 or more (federal) or $20,000-$50,000 (state), mostly legal fees. For VC-free startups based on people doing things that they care about, these costs are prohibitive.
There are exemptions from registration, but never for investments that are described on the open web, like the donation pitches that have made sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo such fonts of creativity — this is prohibited as “general solicitation.” Investments offered privately to friends and family can be exempt, but with strict limits on the numbers of “unaccredited” investors (non-millionaires) allowed in, like a maximum of 35.
These laws were enacted to protect unsophisticated investors from fraud, but they also prevent people from investing in small businesses in their own neighborhoods, or garage ventures launched out of communities of interest that they belong to — despite the likelihood that their personal ties to such investments gives them a better basis for evaluating risk (and contributing to success) than some mass of SEC filings cooked up in an office somewhere. And so, in the name of investor protection, the investments industry currently has a monopoly on all the invested assets of the non-millionaire public. People can’t invest in the people they know from their own communities; they can only entrust their money to the choices contained in a managed menu of exclusively non-local, large-scale investment products.
As an alternative, the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) in Oakland (for whom I volunteer) petitioned the SEC last year for a new exemption to cover investment offerings where individual investments are capped at $100 and the total amount is less than $100,000. The SEC posted it to their website last July 1 as File No. 4-605 (PDF). Check it out! It’s a great document, written to be understandable by laypeople, and I think everyone involved is proud of how it turned out. The funding for the legal work behind the petition was itself raised through crowdfunding.
As hoped, the proposal has been bouncing around and gaining support from Republicans and Democrats alike. The SEC’s comments page for the petition (which you can add to by emailing email@example.com and putting “4-605” in the Subject line) contains more comments than any other petition listed, all of them positive (as of this writing). Last November, when I and some other supporters of the petition attended the SEC’s Small Business Forum to promote the idea, the SEC seemed interested.
Since then, Rep. Darrell Issa wrote a letter to SEC chair Mary Schapiro asking about easing regulations for crowdfunded investments, and Schapiro wrote back (PDF) to say they were evaluating the issue, citing 4-605 and our visit (see footnotes 77 and 78 in the document). Meanwhile, Florida entrepreneur Sherwood Neiss also met with the SEC to promote the idea, and published a less restrictive proposal for a small offering exemption (which also cites 4-605) at his website StartupExemption.
Neiss has also done a wonderful job of spearheading and publicizing this issue. Understanding the power of celebrity, he encouraged Whoopi Goldberg to tweet her support for his exemption proposal. The Wall Street Journal blog covered Goldberg’s tweet on March 23. This reified the issue among financial journalists, who have since reported on it in Bloomberg, The Fiscal Times, The Washington Times, and POLITICO Pro. (Before Goldberg’s endorsement, only the Boise Weekly had covered the idea.)
Now Neiss is scheduled to testify before Issa’s committee next Tuesday, May 10th, and everyone I’ve been working with on this who knows is thrilled. I’ve read an early draft of his planned testimony, and it’s terrific — a great argument with great supporting facts for a revolutionary new idea. I was excited just reading it, and in an idle moment afterwards I caught myself humming “Marching to Pretoria.”
This past Monday, I called C-SPAN’s main number (202-737-3220) to suggest that they cover Issa’s hearing and Neiss’ testimony. The receptionist told me to call back on Monday, May 9th because they don’t decide what to cover until the day before. When I asked her if there was any other way to suggest coverage, she asked me what hearing I was interested in, and told me that she would pass my suggestion on to the editors. Fingers crossed!