SEC proposes relief for “finders”

I have long (oh so long) been one of those urging the SEC to give some clarity with respect to the status of “finders.” See here for the latest piece.

Early-stage companies raising funds very often reach out to a guy who knows some guys who have money and have invested in startups in the past. If the first guy wants to be compensated by reference to the amount of money his contacts are able to invest, he may well have violated the broker registration requirements of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. And it’s not only him who needs to be worried; if a startup raises funds through someone who should have been registered as a broker and wasn’t, their sales of securities may be subject to rescission – buying the securities back, with interest.

Nonetheless, startups are so strapped for money (and often don’t understand the requirements of the law) that they do this all the time.

Industry participants have been asking the SEC for guidance in this area for decades, and now the SEC has come up with some simple proposals that should be of use to the startup community.

The SEC is proposing to exempt two classes of finders, Tier I Finders and Tier II Finders, based on the types of activities in which they are permitted to engage, and with conditions tailored to the scope of their activities. The proposed exemption for Tier I and Tier II Finders would be available only where:

  • The issuer is not a reporting company under the Exchange Act;
  • The issuer is seeking to conduct the securities offering in reliance on an applicable exemption from registration under the Securities Act;
  • The finder does not engage in general solicitation;
  • The potential investor is an “accredited investor” as defined in Rule 501 of Regulation D or the finder has a reasonable belief that the potential investor is an “accredited investor”;
  • The finder provides services pursuant to a written agreement with the issuer that includes a description of the services provided and associated compensation;
  • The finder is not an associated person of a broker-dealer; and
  • The finder is not subject to statutory disqualification at the time of his or her participation.

Tier I Finders. A “Tier I Finder” is defined as a finder who meets the above conditions and whose activity is limited to providing contact information of potential investors in connection with only one capital raising transaction by a single issuer within a 12-month period, provided the Tier I Finder does not have any contact with the potential investors about the issuer. A Tier I Finder that complies with all of the conditions of the exemption may receive transaction-based compensation (in other words, compensation based on the amount raised) for the limited services described above without being required to register as a broker under the Exchange Act.

Tier II Finders. The SEC is also proposing an exemption that would permit a finder, where certain conditions are met, to engage in additional solicitation-related activities beyond those permitted for Tier I Finders. A “Tier II Finder” is defined as a finder who meets the above conditions, and who engages in solicitation-related activities on behalf of an issuer, that are limited to:

  • Identifying, screening, and contacting potential investors;
  • Distributing issuer offering materials to investors;
  • Discussing issuer information included in any offering materials, provided that the Tier II Finder does not provide advice as to the valuation or advisability of the investment; and
  • Arranging or participating in meetings with the issuer and investor.

A Tier II Finder wishing to rely on the proposed exemption would need to satisfy certain disclosure requirements and other conditions: First, the Tier II Finder would need to provide a potential investor, prior to or at the time of the solicitation, disclosures that include: (1) the name of the Tier II Finder; (2) the name of the issuer; (3) the description of the relationship between the Tier II Finder and the issuer, including any affiliation; (4) a statement that the Tier II Finder will be compensated for his or her solicitation activities by the issuer and a description of the terms of such compensation arrangement; (5) any material conflicts of interest resulting from the arrangement or relationship between the Tier II Finder and the issuer; and (6) an affirmative statement that the Tier II Finder is acting as an agent of the issuer, is not acting as an associated person of a broker-dealer, and is not undertaking a role to act in the investor’s best interest. The Commission is proposing to allow a Tier II Finder to provide such disclosure orally, provided that the oral disclosure is supplemented by written disclosure and satisfies all of the disclosure requirements listed above no later than the time of any related investment in the issuer’s securities.

The Tier II Finder must obtain from the investor, prior to or at the time of any investment in the issuer’s securities, a dated written acknowledgment of receipt of the Tier II Finder’s required disclosure.

A Tier II Finder that complies with all of the conditions of the proposed exemption may receive transaction-based compensation for services provided in connection with the activities described above without being required to register as a broker under the Exchange Act.

A finder could not be involved in structuring the transaction or negotiating the terms of the offering. A finder also could not handle customer funds or securities or bind the issuer or investor; participate in the preparation of any sales materials; perform any independent analysis of the sale; engage in any “due diligence” activities; assist or provide financing for such purchases; or provide advice as to the valuation or financial advisability of the investment.

This exemption would not affect a finder’s obligation to continue to comply with all other applicable laws, including the antifraud provisions of federal and state law. Additionally, regardless of whether or not a finder complies with this exemption, it may need to consider whether it is acting as another regulated entity, such as an investment adviser.

The exemption is really aimed at the guy at the golf club who has accredited buddies he can introduce the startup to. It would be available to natural persons only (not companies) and the finder couldn’t undertake general solicitation (he should know the people he is introducing to the startup; if he has to go searching for them, he’s essentially acting as a broker. The “no general solicitation” and “natural person” conditions means that the proposed exemption doesn’t help clarify the regulatory status of non-broker online platforms.

We are a little disappointed that so many of the comment letters on the proposal have been negative. We do understand that there is a great deal of clarification needed with respect to what it means to be in the business of a broker. And the SEC needs to work closely with the states in this area. But we at CrowdCheck are pleased that the SEC has provided some clarity in this area.
Additionally: useful chart and our comment letter.

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