For broker/dealers, crowdfunding presents new opportunity

While start-up owners eagerly await the Securities and Exchange Commission’s regulations for crowdfunding, a handful of broker/dealers are racing to be the first to capi­tal­ize on the phenomenon.

An exemption in the Securities Act allows start-ups to conduct a version of crowdfunding today, as long it’s through broker/dealers — companies who buy or sell securities for themselves or customers and who are registered with the SEC. These intermediaries can issue securities to an unlimited number of accredited investors (typically, individuals with a net worth of more than$1 million, or whose income exceeded $200,000 in the past two years).

A recent crop of broker/dealers are looking to pair with platforms that draw entrepreneurs and potential investors. For instance, New York-based broker/dealer Bendigo, which specializes in global technology, began developing its crowdfunding division, called CrowdClear, a few months ago. The firm announced a partnership with crowdfunding platform Rock the Post earlier this month — together, they’ll allow start-ups to raise funds from accredited investors, while they wait for SEC regulations on public crowdfunding.

The move might be a risk for Rock the Post, which, under the Securities Act, can’t profit from securities sales (only registered broker/dealers can). The platform used to function on a donation-only basis, taking a cut from each transaction, in exchange for non-financial rewards. After the partnership, Rock the Post has discontinued the donations, funding its operations with seed money it raised previously.

Rock the Post founder and chief executive Alejandro Cremades said once crowdfunding regulations are passed, he predicts platforms like his will be able to directly generate revenue.

But for broker/dealers like Bendigo’s CrowdClear, which plan to take a cut of each sale, the partnership represents less of a financial risk, and more a move into a new digital space.

“We want to do what we do best—our background is in high-volume transaction processing, building scalable platforms. Our expertise is not in social media or aggregating the crowd. We think these guys [crowdfunding platforms] are going to do a better job of aggregating,” said Rob Simmons, founder and chief executive of Crowdclear.

In its first week of operation, more than 550 start-ups and 330 accredited investors signed up for Rock the Post’s new platform.

Simmons noted that CrowdClear is “funding-portal agnostic,”, meaning the broker/dealer may partner with other platforms in the future. “We’re not in the position of picking winners. We don’t know who ultimately is going to win the crowdfunding game ... We think there are hundreds of portals we’ll try.”

Miami-based platform EarlyShares also announced this month it would be moving forward with equity deals, and has partnered with Chatham, N.J.-based broker-dealer Point Capital Markets.

Crowdfunding “is a natural extension to our current business line,” said John Holman, chief executive of Point Capital Markets, which specializes in early stage investing. “Using a portal [like Earlyshares] expands the people we touch.”

PointCapital is entering the crowdfunding space, because “the first one to the race is usually the winner,” Holman said. He noted that EarlyShares’ site already draws the kinds of investors who will likely participate in public crowdfunding.

Rory Eakin, founder and chief operating officer of San Francisco-based consumer products crowdfunding platform CircleUp, has been operating exclusively for accredited investors for almost two years. Several start-ups have successfully raised capital on the platform.

CircleUp is partnered with registered broker/dealer WR Hambrecht, but Eakin said the platform is currently applying for its own broker dealer license, which would allow it to generate revenue from sales on its platform.

Limiting a platform to accredited investors could encourage entrepreneurs to use it to raise capital, Eakin explained. “Fundamentally, they’re looking for investors who bring more than just capital. People ask about the nature of the investors on the site, and what kind of partnerships they’re able to form.”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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