This month. the Security and Exchange Commission, or SEC, modified the definition of "accredited investor," with the effect of dramatically increasing the number of people eligible to participate in non-publicly traded investments.
The SEC definition of accredited investor establishes requirements for who may invest in private deals, startups, and private funds. These rules are meant to protect individuals from investing in assets that are high risk and have little publicly accessible information.
Historically, accredited investor status was limited to those that met certain wealth or income thresholds — specifically, a net worth of $1 million excluding primary residence, or $200,000 in annual income for an individual or $300,000 combined annual income for married couples. The SEC's thinking was that higher net worth individuals or higher earners likely have the sophistication to evaluate the risks and the ability to financially withstand potentially losing money they invested in a private investment.
However, with fewer companies going public and an increased interest in participating in private deals, startups, and funds many have suggested the accredited investor rule appeared more and more antiquated.
The SEC's new definition adds individuals with certain professional certifications (Series 7, Series 65, or Series 82 license) and "knowledgeable employees" at private funds, regardless of an individual's level of wealth or income.
Now, individuals with heavy involvement in and responsibility for investment activities and those with financial certifications are assumed to have the financial sophistication and ability to assess the risks of private investments. The SEC also added the clients and employees of family offices, which are investment arms of high net worth families. In addition, the SEC also expanded the married couples' income calculation to include "spousal equivalent" to capture non-married couples.
It remains to be seen whether these additions to the definition of accredited investors will add a significant number of new angel investors, as many of the individuals with such certifications already meet the previous net worth or income requirements. The startup ecosystem, however, has welcomed the move away from wealth and income criteria, as a good first step toward opening the private offering markets to more qualified individuals.
If you now find yourself meeting any of these qualifications of accredited investor, what now? The Houston Angel Network is a great resource to help you navigate these new waters, by providing a framework and network to learn how to evaluate investment opportunities. A common rule of thumb is that nine out of ten startups fail and will return zero dollars to investors. It is prudent to invest in several startups or through a fund with experienced and capable managers to get the needed diversification to expect a return on your investment in this asset class.
Angel networks throughout the country exist to educate accredited investors and provide a network of sophisticated and experienced individuals across industries to support due diligence. By working together and learning from experienced investors, newly accredited investors can avoid common investment mistakes and can develop skills to evaluate non-public investment opportunities.
The upshot of the expansion of accredited investors is that the SEC still expects such investors to be sophisticated and well educated about investment opportunities with high risks and rewards. Investors new to non-public markets should consider joining a network like the Houston Angel Network, where they can see hundreds of startups a year and learn from experienced investors.
Additionally, new accredited investors can engage in the local startup community by volunteering their services as a mentor at a local startup development organization like the Ion, Rice Alliance, Capital Factory, Mass Challenge, Plug and Play and many more. If you are considering investing in startups or a fund, please reach out to us at the Houston Angel Network for more ways to get involved and learn.
Stephanie Campbell is managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund.