BITCOIN, BLOCKCHAIN, CRYPTOCURRENCIES AND ICO’S: LEGAL ENIGMAS FOR START-UP’S OPERATING ON THE FUTURE FRONTIER

BITCOIN, BLOCKCHAIN, CRYPTOCURRENCIES AND ICO’S: LEGAL ENIGMAS FOR START-UP’S OPERATING ON THE FUTURE FRONTIER

The latest buzz words shaking up the technology, business, financial and legal establishments are not to be treated lightly. These terms are uniting (hard as it might be) all the major role players in their quest to evaluate the potential far-reaching effects it might hold for the future of commerce globally. It is difficult to ignore the fast-paced development of the latest technological advances, as we find ourselves amid the fascinating transition phases nestled between the Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions. More importantly, as the universal compatibilities envisioned for this technology have now progressed from hypothetical online discussions between “tech-developers” and futurists to functioning real-life applications, passionate debates have erupted across a variety of diverse forums. Ranging from the corridors of legislators and financial regulators to the living rooms of the Stokvel run by Joe Soap, as people are curious (and watchful) about the industries based on the Future Frontier – and rightly so.

As the terminology is complex, we will not aim to explain what the Blockchain, Cryptocurrencies (which include BitCoin) or Initial Coin Offerings (“ICO”) are. We will also not attempt to define or address the application possibilities of these initiatives in this post, as the possibilities are vast and beyond the scope of this post. (For more information on the technical aspects relating to these terms, please see the links below explaining this in more detail.[1]) We will only briefly aim to highlight some aspects start-ups and potential investors should bear in mind when investigating the opportunities created by the technology found on this Future Frontier.

For Start-Up’s

Start-ups looking to venture into the industries of the Future Frontier are advised to note that there is still a lot of uncertainty as to the regulations governing and enforcing the practical application thereof. As such, carefully considering the current legislative frameworks in existence (and more importantly, the purpose behind it) might provide a helpful understanding of the things entrepreneurs should consider when developing their business models for the market. In a South African context, start-ups should consider the following legislative and regulatory concerns which might be applicable to them:

  • FICA, Money-Laundering and Know-Your-Client (KYC) legislation: due to cryptocurrencies trading far more anonymously over various encrypted platforms entrepreneurs are encouraged to familiarise themselves with the relevant FICA, Money laundering and KYC processes. Especially in industries where payments are being made by potential payment or payment systems operators;
  • Business of a Bank and Collective Investment Schemes: Business models based around the collecting and pooling of fees and/or accepting deposits for investments into cryptocurrencies and ICO’s might be considered to be Collective Schemes or structures conducting the business of a bank, both of which are strictly regulated by the SARB and FSB, respectively;
  • Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act (Twin Peaks Financial Sector Regulation Bill): any current or potential services aimed at the financial advisory or intermediary industries are strictly regulated by the Financial Services Board (and will soon fall under the Twin Peak Provisions);
  • Exchange Control Regulations: Strict requirements regarding the outflow of capital and funds exist in South Africa. As a result, certain apps or services designed to facilitate transfers of this kind without prior SARB approval, tax clearance from SARS or adherence to existing policies may pose some concern to regulators;
  • Companies Act: A very popular means to raise funds for start-ups focusing on Future Frontier industries is by way of an ICO. During an ICO the start-ups issue their own crypto- tokens to participants at a discount and often raise vast amounts of capital. However, an ICO might, depending on the rights attached to these crypto-tokens, in some cases be regarded as a thinly veiled offer of securities to the public. If that is the case, the Companies Act and accordingly, the strict laws relating to the issue of securities by way of an offerings to the public will be applicable. Since the Securities Exchange Commission of the USA recently declared this position (not without criticism), other jurisdictions may follow suit; and
  • Consumer Protection Laws: The loss of virtual cryptocurrencies value, tokens issued to paying participants without any underlying value and other types of blockchain transaction issues such as erroneous payments and systems breaches, hacks or Ponzi schemes are things to consider. If not adequately managed, this may create serious liabilities, not to mention reputational damage, to any start-up involved in these types of commercial venture.

These are merely some of the myriad questions start-ups are urged to consider as a starting point into the regulatory and compliance frameworks regulating the industries on the Future Frontier.

Investors

Warren Buffet once said the following: “What counts for most people in investing is not how much they know, but rather how realistically they define what they don’t know”.

In keeping with this thought, we would therefore urge any investors considering investing into start-ups which focus on the Future Frontier industries to not stray too far from established investment principals. Especially in determining what the Investor does not know, conducting an adequate due diligence investigation (or “DD“) into the envisioned Start-up’s proof of concept, management of regulatory and compliance issues and the viability of their intended financial and business models should be considered a minimum requirement. Further to this, investors would do well to consider special escrow arrangements for any transfer of investment funds irrespective of whether these funds are done by way of crypto-funds/tokens and/or fiat currency. Also using respected and knowledgeable service providers may mitigate against any risks involved in these investments.

Conclusion

There are various levels of uncertainty regarding the practical and legal implications of these Future Frontier industries. This accordingly provides ample grey area for entrepreneurs and investors alike to either flower or flounder through. As such, we would recommend that any Start-Ups or investors contemplating to venture into these Future Frontier Industries to make sure that they have a clear view of the legal nature of the transaction at hand. If the legal nature of the transaction is clear, it enables the parties to take a measured approach to control the relative risk associated and build in the protective mechanisms that the law requires.

We hope to see legislators work with other industry experts to create a legislative framework that promotes certainty, without smothering the revolutionary initiatives and staggering opportunities presented by Future Frontier technology.

[1] For further detailed information regarding how Cryptocurrencies and the Blockchain function and operate please make use of the following recommend sources:

 

Due diligence: an inevitable destination on any start-up’s yellow brick road to investment success

Due diligence: an inevitable destination on any start-up’s yellow brick road to investment success

In the age old classic, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is advised to follow the yellow brick road through the surreal and unfamiliar world of Oz until she reaches the Emerald City. Red boots and all, she, together with her travel companions, set out on this journey, facing some unnerving scenarios along the way. Sound familiar?

Although not written with start-ups in mind, this story can easily serve as a metaphor to illustrate the fascinating world start-up entrepreneurs must navigate on the “yellow brick road” to their next “Emerald City” destination – be it funding rounds, impossible deadlines, incubator pitches or that big exit – this journey has it all. One of the most important, however, not-so-often-discussed, destinations on this “yellow brick road” are due diligence investigations. This article explains why start-ups (or investors) should always keep this often-forgotten destination, and its potential impact on future investment success in mind.

What is a due diligence investigation (commonly referred to as a “DD”)?

Startuplawyer.com defines a due diligence as “an investigatory process performed by potential investors or acquirers to assess the viability of an investment or acquisition and the accuracy of the information provided by the target corporation (or start-up)”.

As such, although a due diligence is usually done by the investors, any start-up would be well-advised to consider the due diligence implications of all their actions leading up to that point. Simply put, this starts by ensuring that internal processes are in place to accurately and continuously record, save and timeously update documentation from the get go. More specifically, documentation and official company records, items relating to internal governance procedures, stakeholders’ communications and company information (i.e. organisation information, market size, team structure), key and material agreements, financial management and annual statements, asset valuation, regulatory approvals, product development and proof of intellectual property (IP) protection are all important for the start-up to keep on record. Furthermore, saving these documents in an orderly and easily accessible folder system eases the process of any due diligence investigation, which in turn, speeds up negotiations and valuations, potentially staving off weeks on an investment timeframe.

Why is it important?

Any sensible investor likes to determine beforehand exactly what it is that they are investing into and in doing so, considers various factors, including: compliance with the potential investor’s investment model, the financial position and investment viability of the start-up, material risks related to its business model, management structure, founders’ commitment, company valuation, legal standing and regulatory compliance. In short, investors are eager to get an all-inclusive and well-rounded snapshot of the start-up to encourage them to provide the necessary funding and to see if the two parties fit. Therefore, if a start-up can provide this information accurately and timeously, it may well contribute to investment negotiations being concluded far more easily than anticipated. Both parties are advised to note that due diligences generally take longer than anticipated, but by being adequately prepared and organised many a pitfall can be avoided.

Does a due diligence benefit the start-up at all?

Yes, regardless of whether the investment proceeds, the preceding due diligence is a good trial by fire for any start-up. Usually, by way of the investor providing a due diligence report, concerns or queries are highlighted in detail, providing an objective and holistic view of all the facets contributing to the start-up’s business. This can greatly assist the start-up in determining further strengths, weaknesses, opportunities or threats. Start-ups are, however, advised to not be duped into a due diligence too easily. Especially during early stage negotiations, a commitment from investors (usually in the form of a term sheet) is important to ensure mutual benefits are derived from the due diligence investigation.

Concluding remarks

Although a due diligence is a high level and intense review of the start-up’s business, it need not be a daunting experience. It is important to remember that both the investor and the start-up should benefit from this process – the start-up showing off its true colours, and the investor justifying its investment. As such, communicating honestly to avoid any confusion, disappointment or time wastage is well advised before any due diligence and subsequent negotiations commence. Considering the above, if a start-up is aware and is pro-actively engaging this inevitable destination from the get-go, the due diligence need only be a brief stopover on your “yellow brick road” to the next Emerald City destination.