Raising money for your startup can be hard. Not every entrepreneur can walk into Silicon Valley with a business idea and walk out with multiple VC term sheets in hand. Sometimes the only path to financing your startup is through the hard work of pitching and cobbling together a group of angels and other individual investors. But that path takes time and can be frustrating. Potential investors may hesitate to commit or, even worse, give you the dreaded “you’re-too-early-for-us” response. The offer from a “finder” to introduce you to investors with cash sounds attractive. Why not, right? What’s the downside?
You can use a finder if their role is limited and their compensation is structured properly. But you can cause major problems for yourself and the finder if they’re too involved and paid commissions on the money raised. These are activities that only registered broker-dealers (persons or firms engaged in the business of buying and selling securities for themselves or others) can engage in. If your company uses a finder acting as a broker-dealer, you might find your fundraising round unraveling, and your finder might find themselves in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
A “true” finder
A “true” finder can be OK if they limit their role to making introductions, receive a flat or hourly consulting fee that is not contingent on the success of the offering, and avoid any active role in negotiating and completing the investment. Finders acting in this very limited capacity are not considered broker-dealers. As a result, true finders are largely unregulated under the securities laws and need not be registered with the state or federal government as broker-dealers. This area is murky, however, because there are not clear regulations and the rules of the road have been developed in court cases and case-by-case “no-action” letters from the SEC.
The real problem is that many finders do not limit their activities to mere introductions. These finders end up assisting in structuring and negotiating the offering, providing advice regarding the offering and investment, and even encouraging and inducing investors to invest. These activities make them a “broker” under the securities laws, and federal and state governments require that brokers be registered. Often the finder is not registered as a broker.
Finders also prefer success-based compensation, calculated as a percentage of the funds raised by the company, and companies prefer to pay finders only if and when they’re successful in helping to raise capital. Both courts and the SEC, however, take the position that such success-based compensation (also referred to as transaction-based compensation) is the telltale factor indicating whether a finder is acting as an unregistered broker-dealer.
So, what’s the risk?
For the company, using an unregistered broker-dealer to assist with an offering could create a rescission right in favor of the investors. If investors succeed in rescinding their investments, the company must return their money. For the finder acting as an unregistered broker-dealer, they could be subject to severe SEC sanctions and the company could void the finder’s engagement agreement, requiring return of the finder’s compensation. Moreover, even if a finder’s activities and compensation are perfectly legal, the relationship alone can still give rise to problems for the company. Any financial relationship with a finder must be disclosed to investors and listed on the company’s Form D filed with the SEC and state securities departments. Disclosure of such a relationship, again, even if perfectly legal, may nevertheless prompt some states to initiate an investigation.
The situation in Michigan, however, is even murkier. In the recent case Pransky v. Falcon Group, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that a “finder” as defined in the Michigan Uniform Securities Act, was not required to be registered with and regulated by the State of Michigan, even where the company agreed to pay success-based compensation. Michigan companies and finders, however, should not take the opinion as a green light to engage in a finder relationship, structured with success-based compensation, without fear of regulatory oversight. The trial court initially dismissed the case on summary judgment, and as a result there was no evidence in the record of whether or not the finder’s activities went beyond mere introductions. In addition, some commentators have criticized the court’s decision. Perhaps sensing such impending criticism, the Court of Appeals, in a footnote, cautioned that the “better course of action would be for finders acting pursuant to similar contracts to protect themselves by registering, at the very least, as broker-dealers; the line between a finder’s activities and that of a broker-dealer…is a thin one and persons acting under such contracts without being registered are inviting litigation.”
The bottom line
Using finders for raising capital is not the easy solution it appears to be at first glance. Worse yet, it can lead to significant problems. As the saying goes, nothing worth having is easy. If you don’t have a VC-backable business, you may have an even harder time raising capital than most. Regardless, when it comes to raising money for your startup, be your own “finder”. Network, hustle, and tell your story. No one is more effective than you at explaining your business and the investment opportunity.
For more legal analysis check out the National Law Review.