Reviewing EB-5 Business Plans
August 5, 2016 Leave a comment
Here’s my conclusion from reading years of USCIS evidence requests and AAO decisions on EB-5 cases: the most common EB-5 business plan problems are basic and easy to catch. This post offers a simple three-step process that anyone can use to identify the few most common Request For Evidence and denial triggers in business plans. I also discuss paths to more in-depth review that can help preempt questions from investors and USCIS.
Short-Cut Review for I-526 Business Plans
- Does this EB-5 package include a business plan?
Quick Answer: Look for a document that says “Business Plan” on the cover and whose table of contents includes (at least) section headings like “Business Description,” “Market Analysis,” and “Financials.” If the package doesn’t have such a document, it doesn’t have a business plan.
Common problems: The I-526 petition may have a collection of relevant documents that aren’t gathered and clearly labeled as a business plan, or may have a document that is called a business plan but is really only a business description. The lack of market analysis or financial projections is a clear tip-off that this document is not a business plan.
For more depth: Analyze the purported business plan against the Matter of Ho definition of a comprehensive business plan and other business plan checklists, while considering which content is and is not essential in this specific case. I offer an in-depth review service, and the documents linked on my Business Plans page describe content standards and goals to keep in mind.
- Does the business plan describe a proposal that fits EB-5 requirements?
Quick Answer: Check the following:
- Whether the plan states the amount of EB-5 investment and shows a budget whose total is no less than the investment amount
- Whether the plan has a staffing section that anticipates 10+ new full time jobs created per EB-5 investor and includes words like “job descriptions” and “hiring schedule” (direct EB-5 cases), or whether the plan provides inputs for an economic model estimate of 10+ jobs per EB-5 investor (regional center cases)
- Whether the plan describes an enterprise and jobs that are new following EB-5 investment (or handles preexisting business and pre-investment jobs in a compliant manner)
- Whether the plan shows 100% of EB-5 investment channeled into job-creating enterprise(s), and (for direct EB-5) whether equity investment and job creation occur in a single enterprise
- Whether the plan has a timeline that anticipates imminent plan implementation and use of investment and job creation within about three years
Common problems: An amazing number of supposed EB-5 plans don’t even try to show that the full EB-5 investment amount will be used and the required number of new jobs will be created. Such omissions guarantee an evidence request, or denial if the nature of the business can’t in fact accommodate the EB-5 minimums for investment and job creation. Many plans have also been denied for failure to deal with nuances in business acquisition/expansion scenarios, to link investment and job creation, or to establish that the plan is likely to be implemented and accomplished within a certain time.
For more depth: Have an expert analyze the plan with an eye to all EB-5 requirements that affect the subject business, from the “new” issue to the “at risk” issue. Assess whether the plan adequately addresses potential USCIS concerns (based on regulations and policy) and investor concerns (such as risk, return, and timing). My review service considers these factors.
- Is the business plan credible?
- Credibility from evidence: Turn to the business plan market analysis section and check for references and citations. Confirm that they exist and can be followed to the cited third-party sources, via web links or with reference to exhibits also included in the I-526 package. No credit for unsourced market data, cited but irrelevant data, or citations to unverifiable or weak sources. Extra credit if helpful citations also appear in the business plan sections on schedule, permits, budget, and financials. Exhibits (such as a separate third-party market study) can bear the burden of providing third-party evidence, but the business plan should still reference those exhibits while making claims. If the business plan does not reference any verifiable external evidence, then it does not establish credibility. Think “which claim or projection, if inaccurate, would be a deal-breaker” and ensure that those points are as well-supported as possible. It can be tough to find third-party support for some types of proposals, but the business plan is asking to be challenged if it fails to show off at least a modicum of verifiable detail.
- Credibility from internal consistency: Make list of 5-10 important details in the business plan (e.g. for a hotel: owner name, number of keys, building square footage, construction start and end dates, total budget) and then spot check the business plan and supporting documents to confirm that those details are the same wherever they appear. If the spot check catches discrepancies, get them fixed or explained and look for more.
- Credibility from external consistency: Google the entity names, the project/business name, the names of company principals, and the business address, and read the first few search results for each. The business plan had better preemptively address any significant apparent discrepancies with online information.
Common problems: The words “verifiable detail” or “inconsistencies” appear in nearly every RFE and denial decision that challenges EB-5 business plan credibility.
For more depth: Closely review the business plan and associated documents for numerical discrepancies, even minor ones (e.g. Year 1 ADR estimated at $126 in the business plan and $129 in the economic analysis) and logical discrepancies (e.g. a 40-full-time-employee call center with $300,000 annual payroll expense and a 2,000-square-foot office). Encourage the business owner to try to think about possible future discrepancies (e.g. whether the schedule in the plan is a safe bet or should be qualified for a better chance of fitting what eventually happens). Ask someone with strong research skills and sources to read the plan and suggest ways to strengthen third-party support and validation. Finally, consider how presentation might be improved. Cognitive bias makes people unconsciously assign credibility to attractive documents, and react negatively to material that is ugly or hard to read. I attempt to consider these issues in writing and review.
Avoiding I-526 Business Plan Problems
To avoid problems in business plan review, start by getting the EB-5 plan prepared by someone who knows something about EB-5 and – more importantly – about business. The faulty EB-5 plans I’ve seen can largely be traced to faults in two kinds of authors.
People who understand business but not EB-5 prepare business plans that have good content, just not quite the right content. The plan prepared by a passionate entrepreneur will describe the concept beautifully and at length, but may neglect the nitty-gritty detail needed to help outsiders grasp how and why the business will work. The plan prepared by a professional writer without EB-5 experience will explain the business well but may neglect detail needed to assess compliance with EB-5-specific requirements (e.g. whether the date and conditions of formation qualify the enterprise as “new,” whether the timing and nature of employment meet EB-5 requirements, whether the investment qualifies as being at risk, whether the structure is compliant). A writer unfamiliar with EB-5 is likely to omit content that’s needed to answer questions from EB-5 readers and may unwittingly describe a business that is not suitable for EB-5. A good general-purpose business plan can be a good start, however. An EB-5 attorney or a writer like me can advise on how to rework the plan for the EB-5 context.
People who understand EB-5 but not business prepare business plans that have a good table of contents, but fall apart on closer inspection. The writer knows the expected Matter of Ho categories for EB-5 business plan content, but lacks the background and resources to fill those sections with meaningful material. The writer may try to compensate by cutting-and-pasting, populating sections he or she is not sure how to handle with a patchwork of clips from more and less relevant sources, or by cleaving to a template, writing every proposal as if it were a typical EB-5 real estate project. This is how local demographics end up in the market analysis for an export company, hotel expense items in financials for a factory, legal jargon in a restaurant description, and an economic model in a discussion of marketing strategy. This is how readers get very confused. In general, clients should try talking business with an EB-5 service provider before paying for a business plan. I will not quote to write a plan if I lack the background and resources for the subject industry, and others should also respect their professional limitations. Little can be done to salvage a plan written by someone who didn’t understand the subject business, or how to write about business generally.