Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Crowdfunders to SEC: Bring it On

I was in the Rose Garden that exhilarating, giddy day last April, when President Obama signed the JOBS Act into law. And I can tell you with relative certainty that everyone present, including the President, thought that it would be implemented by now. Instead, as we approach the one-year anniversary, key pieces of the JOBS Act —namely Title II and III, which eliminate the restrictions on advertising private securities and allow for investment-based crowdfunding, respectively— are still just a rosy dream. That's because the SEC, the agency charged with writing the rules that will govern these new provisions, has been moving at the speed of molasses.

Here's a not-very-well-guarded secret: the proposed rules for crowdfunding have been written by the SEC staff and finished for some time. What's holding it up? Well, apparently the commissioners have been sitting on the rules for reasons spanning wariness of leaving themselves open to criticism from opponents of crowdfunding, to turmoil at the agency: former SEC chairwoman Mary Schapiro resigned late last year. Elisse Walter — one of four remaining commissioners, was named interim chairwoman. Then President Obama nominated Mary Jo White to head the agency, although she has yet to take over the role. In the meantime, it's a power vacuum. For crowdfunding advocates and startups, it's like waiting for Godot.

And that's a shame, because the delay is holding back regulatory progress that could deliver much needed relief to small businesses seeking capital and begin to bring the transformational power of the Internet and social networks to a broken financial system.

It's against this backdrop that some of the leaders of the nascent crowdfunding industry decided to take a stand. This morning, the Crowdfunding Professional Association staged a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, before heading off to meet with various officials in the Office of Science & Technology Research, Treasury and, yes, SEC. Their aim, it seems, was to dispel some of the misperceptions about crowdfunding and put pressure on the SEC to act.

One of those misperceptions is that crowdfunding is about get-rich-quick schemes. Instead, speaker after speaker talked of helping Main Street businesses. Woody Neiss of Crowdfund Capital Advisors summed it up when he said that crowdfunding is not about "finding the next Facebook" — Silicon Valley does a robust job of that already. It's about finding and funding "the next 1 or 10 or 100,000 Main Street startups" that will create jobs and help build strong and prosperous communities. "It's social media meets community finance," he said.

Readers of this blog and my book will know that this is long what I have been preaching. To me, crowdfunding makes the most sense when there are social bonds and relationships that connect investors and entrepreneurs. As Warren Buffet has long advised: it makes sense to invest in what you know!

Crowdfunding is also an opportunity to take a broken financial system and make it better. To wit: Sarah Hanks, a former securities and corporate lawyer who is now the CEO of CrowdCheck, is offering a private market solution that addresses regulators' fraud and risk concerns. Her disclosure and due diligence system walks investors through the investment process, presenting them relevant information in plain understandable English. Compare that with the typical phone book-sized prospectus filled with legalese that no one in their right mind reads. "We've thrown that out the window," says Hanks. "The best disclosure is the kind that someone is actually reads and understands."

Crowdfunding is in its infancy and will continue to evolve to address market needs. As Chance Barnett, founder of Crowdfunder.com pointed out, Crowdfunding 1.0 was about transactions, often undertaken on impulse. But with the JOBS Act, we're on the cusp of Crowdfunding 2.0, which will be based on building long term relationships and community ecosystems.

In a world of speculation and short term trading, that is something to celebrate. That is, if the SEC ever makes a move.