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2019 tech IPOs: Some thoughts from the public company roller coaster

2019 tech IPOs: Some thoughts from the public company roller coaster
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Scott Sanborn
Contributor

2019 has already been an active year for U.S. tech IPOs. Some highly anticipated unicorns, such as Uber and Lyft, have disappointed investors with their IPO debuts and their first results as public companies. Others, such as Fiverr, Zoom and CrowdStrike, have soared. And food-tech brand Beyond Meat (two words you normally don’t see together) hit a high of $239 from their $25 IPO price.

The first of these 2019 tech IPO companies will soon face a new challenge as the early investor and employee lockups expire — often 180 days after the IPO — allowing them to sell and increasing the number of shares available to trade. Lyft will remain at the front of the 2019 pack when the lockups expire, bringing more of the company’s stock into play on the public market. Regardless of what happens next, it’s amazing to see the trajectory of companies that have built such impressive businesses in such a remarkably short period of time.

I was recently at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) to ring the opening bell and celebrate our three- millionth borrower on the platform. It brought back great memories from when our company, LendingClub, entered the public fray in 2014. LendingClub was the largest U.S. tech IPO that year, and is still one of the biggest U.S. tech IPOs of all time. We listed at a $5.4 billion valuation, and our shares surged 67% on the first day of trading. We were thrilled to celebrate the validation of our hard work and excited about the next stage of our growth. However, by the time our lockups expired, we had fallen back to around our IPO valuation of $15 a share.

Since then, despite being the market leader in the fastest-growing sector of consumer credit in the country with double-digit annual growth, the company today is worth less than a fifth of what it was in 2014. Our story is thankfully unique, and I’ll spare you the details here, but suffice to say… we had a rough period. We are back on track now, delivering growth and margin expansion while executing against our vision.

However bespoke our story, there are some observations I’ll share that might be useful for others as they think about life post-IPO. I’m not going to cover the issues around short-termism and the tyranny of quarterly targets (which have been well-documented elsewhere), but rather a few of the implications that sure would have been useful for me to know going in…

Things will be different — really

I’d compare the period leading up to the IPO to the period when you are expecting a baby. Intellectually, you know things will be different when you bring home a newborn. But knowing it and living it are two different things. Going public is a transformational event that permanently changes your company and how the CEO, CFO and board spend their time (with obvious trickle-down effects). From the moment we rang the NYSE bell on December 11, 2014, everything changed.

Making money matters

Investors buying your stock are essentially valuing your future cash flow. At some point, you have to have your “show them the money” moment and become profitable. Amazon famously lost a total of $2.8 billion over 17 straight quarters after their IPO and was the subject of a lot of skepticism and criticism throughout. The company maintained their strategy, delivering top-line growth and investing in their future and, suffice to say, investor patience paid off!

At LendingClub, we have invested millions of dollars to develop products that delight our 3 million+ customers (and, at 78, our NPS is at its highest level in the history of the company) and expand our competitive moat. We are now driving toward adjusted net income profitability.

Like it or not, there is a scoreboard

Once you go public, some people stop thinking of you as a business, and start thinking about you as a stock price. And that stock price is always broadcasting. It broadcasts to your equity investors, your employees, your partners, your board — to everyone who is listening.

You can’t preserve your culture, but you can and must maintain the values your company holds dear.

When the stock is up, everyone feels great. But, in a volatile market or a downturn, there are a lot of people who will be needing to hear your view on what’s happening. Communication to your stakeholders is not in the way of you doing your job, it is a critical part of your job that just got A LOT bigger. You need to stay ahead of it and deliberately carve out the time to make it a priority.

There are others sharing the microphone

When you are starting out, the world is divided into two types of people: those who love you, and those who don’t know/care. When you are a public company, a lot of voices join the conversation. You’ll add a different beat of reporters focused on your financials. You have analysts who are paid to research and think about your company, your strategy, your prospects and your value. These analysts may have never covered a company quite like yours (after all, you are breaking new ground) and you’ll need to spend time together to understand what matters.

You also can attract a whole new kind of investor, a “short” who has a vested interest in your stock going down. All of these voices are speaking to your stakeholders and you need to understand what they are saying and how it should affect your own communications.

Be careful, the microphone is on

Remember those days when everyone attended the “all hands” and you could share the details of your product road map, your corporate strategy, what’s working and what isn’t? Yeah, those are over. The risk of material nonpublic information leaking means you need to find a new balance in transparency with your employees (and your friends and partners for that matter).

It’s a change to behavior and to culture that doesn’t come naturally (at least it didn’t to me). It’s a change that can be frustrating to employees as the necessary opacity can erode trust as people feel out of the loop. At LendingClub, we still regularly communicate as much as we can and trust our employees, but there are places where you have to draw the line.

Your competitors are listening

Ironically enough, while your ability to share key details with employees is limited, you are sharing a lot with your competition. Shareholders and money managers want to know your battle plans and expect a detailed update at your earnings call every quarter. You can expect that your competitors are taking notice and taking notes.

Your scarcest resource

As the above would indicate, being public means that you are inevitably going to be spending less time running the business, and more time focused externally. Not a bad thing, but something you need to plan for so that you have the resources in place underneath you to maintain business momentum. If your management team isn’t materially different as you head to the market than it was a few years ago, I’d be surprised if you have what you need.

Your culture will change, focus on your values

I once asked a senior Google executive advice on how to preserve culture when going through massive periods of transition. She told me that you can’t preserve your culture, but you can and must maintain the values your company holds dear. Her advice, which I have followed and am passing on to you, is to make sure you write them down, hire against them and assess performance against them.

We started this practice years ago and it is remarkable how consistent our values have remained even as the company has evolved and matured. We codified six core values that put the customer at the center of everything we do. We are guided by our No. 1 value — Do What’s Right. You know a LendingClubber when you meet them, and it is part of what makes us great.

Being a public company is not for the faint-hearted, but being public is part of growing up. Being public legitimizes the company, unlocks liquidity to fuel growth and enables you to attract the next generation of talent. We always said that going public would allow us to deliver more value to a greater number of consumers and would lend legitimacy to our growing industry. We have facilitated more than $50 billion in loans and are still at a small percentage of our immediately addressable market. Although challenging at times, we’re seeing our dream to truly help everyday Americans come to life.

We’ve worked hard since our IPO to change the face people associate with finance. We’ve built a diverse team, established strong core values and nurtured a culture that has resulted in the kind of company we want to represent fintech and the tech industry as a whole — both inside and outside Silicon Valley.

So, to the new joiners in the public sphere — life in the spotlight is a wild ride. Congratulations on this step in your journey, and on to the next!

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