Online Speed Dating ‘Platforms’
My interest is increasingly captured in the multiplication of speed dating “platforms” which are bringing together … in the same room so to speak, i.e., an online web site … investors and emerging growth companies seeking capital (“EGCs”). I use the word “platform” because it crops up in every third sentence one hears in the course of discussions on the entrepreneurial/innovation economy in the U.S., assuming the subject matter has something to do with raising capital.  Both the virtue and vice of “platform” is that, like “metric,” the word can mean just about anything the speaker wants it to mean (“it means just what I choose it to mean” in the immortal words of Humpty Dumpty).  A long winded introduction to a listing of the enterprises which I have in mind and forecast (speculation) on what all this may mean.
Let me illustrate by running two lists;
List One: Players Which have a Recognized Profile and a Tested Method of Doing Business
List Two: All Others
What has my undivided attention at the moment is List Two, which I am describing as “all others.” In that category I am including the likes of GrowVC; Crowdcube; Microryza. These are ‘platforms’ which do not seem to fit into any of the categories recognized as ‘tried and true.”
They appear to be the equivalent of dating bars or restaurants where the parties, the buy and sell sides, can relax, meet up, dress themselves properly, deliver an attractive story and take the temperature of potential sponsors on the platform … too hot, too cold or just right. The drinks served by the bartender can include: model documents; information on valuations; market deal terms and the like.
It is very likely, of course, that each of these ‘platforms’ has been organized with the help of an experienced law firm. And, attention has been paid to such issues as broker dealer registration; general solicitation outside of Title II and Title III, and State blue sky laws which might be applicable. What I’m trying to do is to understand, and then explain to clients and friends how and in what way these ‘platforms’ could be categorized, meaning identified in terms of (i) functionality; (ii) observance of (or navigation around) securities law, rules, regulations and like matters; and (iii) importantly, how the platforms finance their costs of doing business and provide a profit for the organizers sufficient to make the exercise worth the trouble. Many platforms are “affiliated” with a broker dealer which can charge success fees and deals are closed. Is that the answer? Is there a way for platform organizers to take a piece of the EGC?
On the other hand, will periodic subscription charges … cash required for an EGC to join the Platform and speed date … be adequate? Separate charges to cover certain expenses (legal? Compliance?). This is not an attempt, of course, to stigmatize any such ‘platforms.’ Rather it is a learning experience so that yours truly is in a position to give advice to existing and prospective clients and to panels in which I participate on the theory I know what I am talking about.
Let me have your thoughts. Grab any information you have in your files and I will enlist you to be one of the contributing editors to what I may jovially refer to as the Platform Encyclopedia.
P.S. To illustrate the pace at which the game is changing, I urge all hands to eyeball the two blogs by Chance Barnett, a one-upon-a-time client and a source for updates on current events, available online at: https://www.crowdfunder.com/blog/fintech-investments-quadruple-top-trends-to-watch/ and https://www.crowdfunder.com/blog/fintech-trends-the-disruption-of-fundraising/. Once you read Chance’s material, you are likely to be asking a number of questions, including:
Where is the startup world going if the online platforms display pitch materials and investors can (i) hit the “buy” button and own securities, paid for with, let’s assume, bit coins (ii) service providers … e.g., Wealth Forge (http://www.wealthforge.com/) … sanctify the process by handling back office and compliance issues (“reasonable steps to verify” if Title II is the window); (iii) “equity research providers” follow the companies so presenting; (iv) venture exchanges provide liquidity … the OTCQB, for example; (v) due diligence is performed by automated systems … Watsons, including a trolling of the web for, e.g., bankruptcies, criminal convictions, lurid civil cases and the like; (vi) valuation data is provided by VC Experts www.vcexperts.com (disclosure, I am the chair); (vii) survey data on the market standard in deal terms is also provided by VC Experts, in league with Fenwick & West; and (viii) deal terms are translated into economics through Solium Capital’s Scenarios (https://solium.com/product/scenarios/) .
The objection, of course, is that the odds are that x% (50+/-) of early stage companies will tank; how will Joe the Plumber have a shot at a bargain? See the following riposte:
First, the remarks from this explorer about the powers of the Internet and the efficacy of dating services. The analogy is driven from John McPhee’s book on The Control of Nature, commenting on the Mississippi River. It finds its own way to the Gulf regardless in the Mississippi’s case, of the Corps of Engineers’ multiple attempts to influence the river bed with dikes, dams, channels, etc. So also, I daresay, is the Internet. It will enable deal flow up, down and sideways regardless of the dicta laid down by a bureaucrat in D.C. or some State capitol. If the political hacks pipe up about fraud protection, we dust off the favor the Massachusetts State securities regulator did the residents of the State by banning, as too speculative, the IPO of … Apple! Think of the money we saved.
O.K., you say, the Internet is powerful but what does that mean to an investor looking at a FinTech play 3000 miles away? Equity research, you say? Won’t happen, say the critics? The institutions won’t find it dignified (my word) to troll for deal flow on the web. When I recently advanced that theorem to a crowd of younger players, they howled, “Dignified?”, said one. “Fifteen years ago,” he remarked, “it was undignified to look for a spouse on the internet. Now,” he said, “everyone does it.”
What if the platforms worth their salt band together and hire a curator (I have one in mind) to build a system which tracks each EGC raising capital on the responsible platforms … from start to finish … and forwards the information to a central repository. The data translates into track records … the good, the bad and the ugly. The EGC is dressed up for the electronic senior prom by the likes of Wealth Forge. The confident founders limit the audience by minimum investment levels … $500,000 to play. Can Joe the Plumber play alongside an institutional lead?
The short of the matter is that investing in Newco may well become as simple and easy as buying a lottery ticket and, once a few winners have been posted in the news, players now spending cash on lottery tickets, plus Fantasy Football and other “no chance” online gaming, may well lean in that direction.
Joseph W. Bartlett, firstname.lastname@example.org
 Terms of art include “curators” and “chaperones.” Curators are generally labels attached to the parties which select the issuers for presentation on the platform and chaperones have the function of leading the EGCs, or in some cases the investors who have joined the platform, from step one to the final series of steps in closing the deal.
 “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master -- that's all.”
 The SEC’s latest take on Demo Days is summarized in by Breheny, DeCapo, Deitz, Duggel, Fernicola & Gao, “Corporate Finance Alert SEC Staff Issues Interpretations on General Solicitation Prohibition,” Skadden Arps Meagher & Flom LLP, Aug. 13, 2015.
“Demo Days or Venture Fairs. The Staff stated that demo days or venture fairs do not necessarily constitute a means of general solicitation. If an issuer’s presentation at a demo days and venture fair constitutes an offer of securities, the presentation may not be a general solicitation if audience is limited to:
– persons with pre-existing substantive relationships with the issuers or the event organizer; or
– persons who have been contacted by members of angel investors networks or similar informal, personal networks of experienced investors.”