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Law change could boost little-used state crowdfunding laws

In this March 30, 2017 photo, former Green Bay Packers player Darryl Ingram poses in Milwaukee, next to the website for his personal consulting business, Videoscore, which helps high school athletes connect with college teams. Ingram wants to develop an app that matches players with programs and to launch the venture he's turned to an emerging form of state crowdfunding that lets entrepreneurs sell stock in their startups without going public. (AP Photo/Ivan Moreno)

Former Green Bay Packers player Darryl Ingram poses March 30 in Milwaukee, next to the website for his consulting business, Videoscore, which helps high school athletes connect with college teams. Ingram wants to develop an app that matches players with programs and to launch the venture he’s turned to an emerging form of state crowdfunding that lets entrepreneurs sell stock in their startups without going public. (AP Photo/Ivan Moreno)

By CARA LOMBARDO
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A former Green Bay Packers player whose consulting business has connected 400 high school athletes to college teams got a lesson in federal securities law when he sought to raise money for a new smartphone app.

Darryl Ingram, whose consulting firm is named Videoscore, decided to seek out Wisconsin investors through something known as state crowdfunding, a relatively new and underused method available to small businesses. What he didn’t realize was that the system bans any ad that can be seen by an out-of-state resident, including solicitations through Facebook and Twitter. So his effort to raise $100,000 failed to land a single taker.

Revised federal rules that take effect Thursday lift such restrictions on using social media for state crowdfunding, provided that states incorporate the changes into their own laws. Ingram says it will make it much easier for small businesses like his to raise money from in-state investors.

“If I’m setting up a crowdfunding site, I’d want it to reach as many people as possible,” he said. “That’s hard without social media.”

A measure former President Barack Obama signed into law in 2012 laid the groundwork for the new rules. The goal was to help startups raise money quickly when they couldn’t attract attention using standard means. But as the Securities and Exchange Commission took three more years to put the finishing touches on the crowdfunding rules, more than 30 states grew impatient and created their own.

Under state crowdfunding, small businesses ranging from software companies to yoga studios can sell stock to residents of their own state without having to report the transactions to federal regulators. But if any ad reaches someone outside the state, the company could be found in violation of the arrangement and be forced to register with the SEC — a lengthy procedure that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and subjects the company to additional scrutiny.

“State crowdfunding laws are the Wild West,” said Mitchell Lindstrom, a Milwaukee attorney who specializes in crowdfunding. He said state crowdfunding is a new enough practice that many of the rules are not only untested but also still being worked out.

Federal crowdfunding, on the other hand, allows companies to find investors in any state and advertise widely. Both forms of crowdfunding are risky for investors, given that about half of startups fail within the first five years.

But supporters of state crowdfunding say it’s easier to undertake and has particular appeal because local investors can help local companies expand. The idea is that investors who help a neighborhood restaurant get off the ground not only make a small profit but also get the joy of seeing their investments at work.

Hatch Oregon, a nonprofit state crowdfunding platform based in Portland, calls new offerings on its site “CPOs” — community public offerings — instead of “IPOs.”

“It really is community-based,” said Finn Terdal, Hatch’s technology manager. “There’s nothing about federal crowdfunding that ensures it’s your neighbor.” Offerings listed on Hatch’s site have included a baseball bat maker, an artisanal ice cream company and a distillery.

Terdal said the biggest hurdle has been reaching both entrepreneurs and investors. This could be overcome oth by the approaching rule change and by states’ marketing the option more widely.

Fewer than 200 companies in the country have tried raising capital through state crowdfunding, according to data from the North American Securities Administrators Association. It doesn’t have information on how many of those companies actually raised money, but individual states’ results suggest success has been spotty:

  • In Texas, 41 companies with in-state offerings raised on average less than a quarter of the money they asked for: just $56,000 of $312,000.
  • In Oregon, all but six of 26 companies that tried state crowdfunding canceled their offerings for lack of interest.
  • In Wisconsin, only three of nine companies that tried it raised any money, and almost all of that was for a single brewery.

Abe Chu helped found NextSeed, a crowdfunding portal based in Houston. Chu said the company started as a state crowdfunding platform in 2015 but late last year retooled itself as a solely federal platform to get better results.

But he’s still enthusiastic about state crowdfunding, especially with the coming change.

“A local restaurant, fitness studio or brew pub can benefit a by having a strong base of local investors who in turn can become advocates and customers,” Chu said.

Ingram, the Wisconsin entrepreneur who couldn’t raise a dime for his app using state crowdfunding, says he’s now putting his energies into face-to-face pitches with potential investors. But he says he might try state crowdfunding again after the change.

“I’ll throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and see what sticks,” he said.

Associated Press writer Marcy Gordon contributed to this report from Washington.

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