A year ago Congress had to be talked out of doubling the amount of wealth required for individuals to invest in start-up companies. Now the lawmakers are considering the idea of removing basically all qualifications so that crowds of small investors might provide capital for entrepreneurial ventures.
What has stirred support among lawmakers and others for using the Internet and social media for crowd-fund investing is the challenge faced by many start-up companies to find funding in this struggling economy and the promise of the jobs such companies could create.
It was angel-investor groups who convinced Congress of the potential disaster for start-up companies in a provision that, for a time, was included in the so-called Dodd-Frank bill passed last year. The provision would have doubled the assets required for an investor to be "qualified."
It wasn't that difficult to make the obvious case to lawmakers to kill that section before a vote on the Dodd-Frank bill, since most lawmakers hadn't even been aware it was in the bill.
Now angel-group leaders are raising an alarm about the implications of the crowd-funding idea. But they may face a greater challenge because of the arguments of supporters, which include not just key lawmakers but the Obama Administration as well.
The proposal, which has already had a hearing in the House, is to allow exemption from SEC registration requirements for those trying to raise up to $5 million. As with a similar effort to tone down requirements for small public companies, the goal is to find new job-creation engines.
A high-visibility proponent of crowd-fund investing is an evangelical entrepreneur named Sherwood Neise of Miami, who told a Congressional subcommittee a couple of weeks ago that crowd funding could bring in as much as $500 million and lead to creation of 1.5 million new jobs over the next five years.
"What we are proposing is a jobs initiative that everyone should like since small businesses and entrepreneurs are the long-term engines of our economy," Neise said. "However, they need capital to grow and that has dried up since the 2008 financial meltdown."
Comments like that resonate with many, including the Obama Administration.
But not everyone likes his plan, specifically leaders of angel-investor groups, a number of whom I traded e-mails with to seek their thoughts. Angels have traditionally been the sources of capital for entrepreneur and start-up companies that need funding beyond what's called the "friends and family" initial source of money.
Bill Payne, viewed by many as the dean of angel investors, says "I find Neise's claims laughable," offering statistics that could cause pause if they reach the same ears as those who heard Neise's pitch.
Payne noted that Kauffman Foundation statistics suggest that about $100 billion from all sources, angels and VCs and friends and family, flows into start-up companies and they create 3 million new jobs a year.
"That computes to $33,333 per job," Payne said. "Now along comes Mr. Neise claiming that his idea would create jobs for $333 each. Are you kidding me?"
Payne, who has been an angel investor in a number of startups in the Northwest and elsewhere, added: "It's very simple from where I sit: I am not in favor of any investment vehicle that allows unaccredited investors to fund startup companies. It is very high risk and the invested dollars are totally illiquid."
Tom Simpson, who guided one of the Northwest's most successful venture-capital firms and now oversees a couple of angel-investor groups in Spokane, said it's important for "faster, cheaper and easier processes to attract investors to both young private and public companies."
But he said "any new regulations or processes to reduce the time and cost of raising money still need to provide prospective investors with sufficient product, market and management information, comprehensive financial data and specific risk factors to make an educated, informed investment decision."
Villette Nolon, chair of the Seattle-based women-angel group Seraphs and founder of the internet-based business Homesavvi.com, says that "while the intent of this idea is good, the outcomes would be disastrous."
"Legitimate businesses who would try this route would be extremely disappointed in the result, as truly sophisticated investors are highly unlikely to fund companies sight unseen, even at low amounts," she said. "That leaves only speculators who would be attracted by the idea of making a quick buck, and who could get very, very burned."
Gary Ritner, founder and heads the Seattle-based Puget Sound Venture Club, says the $10,000 proposed as maximum investment by a crowd-source investor "is too small" and the $5 million proposed maximum for the entrepreneurial startup "is too large, and not necessary."
But he added "we have to get capital flowing and, in concept, I like the idea of crowd funding."
Perhaps the major concern shared by angel investors and others is that a backlash could occur down the road if Congress hears of abuses and horror stories and decides crowd funding was a bad idea and things need to be made tighter to protect investors.
The concern is summed up by one who noted that "when the pendulum swings back, lawmakers always have it swing too far."
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