Wednesday 26 April 2017

Adrian Weckler: Get ready for a raft of new tech IPOs

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Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Are we about to see a new spurt of tech IPOs? If so, will any Irish companies partake?

For those who missed it, the last two years have seen the fewest stock market flotations in the tech industry in a decade.

Tech firms have shunned the public markets, partly because of lukewarm public sentiment and partly because of the bazillions in alternative cheap finance floating around in private equity markets.

In 2016 there were just 21 tech IPOs in the US (raising under €3bn), compared to 26 in 2015 (raising €6.5bn). Both years were well down on 2014 (56 tech IPOs in the US raising €28bn).

The figures are slightly puzzling given that 2016 was a record year for US stock markets.

But this year might see the IPO party start again.

Snapchat (inset) is expected to lead the charge in March. Uber is also tipped to finally go public toward the end of the year.

In between, other firms such as data firm Qualtrics (which has an office in Dublin) could also take the plunge.

All of these firms will be buoyed by data that shows tech firms were the best performing IPO stocks last year, up an average of 40pc on their debut listing price.

But investors may still need some convincing. High-profile tech companies have had a very mixed report on public markets since their initial flotation. For every Facebook (up 250pc), LinkedIn (up 200pc) and VMWare (up 95pc), there's a Twitter (down 50pc), Zynga (down 65pc) and Groupon (down 85pc). In all, one out of three publicly floated tech companies now has a price below its first listing level, according to research firm Geckoboard.

What about Irish tech interests?

Last week, it was reported that Dylan Collins, the Dubliner with a solid record of building and selling tech companies, is considering an IPO in London for SuperAwesome, his latest company that gives advertisers a platform to legally advertise to kids.

"It's entirely possible that a public listing could be on our timeline at some point," he said in a subsequent email. "SuperAwesome is currently private but we're evaluating a wide range of options to support our growth."

There will be mounting interest, too, in the future intentions of rapid-growth tech firms run by Irish entrepreneurs, such as Intercom or Stripe. (Neither have signalled any intention to seek an imminent IPO, although Intercom has spoken of it as a possibility in the future.)

But some bosses of fast-growing Irish tech companies may yet hold off.

Voxpro co-founder Dan Kiely used to say that he would float the company when the tech outsourcing company made €100m in annual revenue, a target that is now in sight.

"I've revised my thinking on all of that," he told me recently. "We're going to hit the €100m mark sooner rather than later. In my view, we need to be a much bigger company before we consider the IPO route now. It is still something that we aspire to but at much bigger revenues than €100m."

(Instead, Kiely says that he may look to the private markets for "tens of millions" in funding to help pay for its next big push into Asia.)

Talk to tech founders for a while and many will admit that they do not relish the prospect of an IPO. Despite providing capital and beefed-up incentives for staff, being a public company lets millions of people poke their noses into the company's business. It can be a huge distraction.

"I wouldn't be looking forward to it," Phil Libin told me some time ago when he was chief executive of Evernote and considering an IPO for the company.

"Why would I? For one thing, it's a lot of administrative hassle. For another, I think it'll be harder to run a company with a long-term strategy when you have people openly betting for you and against you. When you're private, you can have enemies. But there generally isn't anyone who has an active stake in driving down the company."

Evernote still hasn't floated and now looks unlikely to do so.

Another company that has ruled out an IPO this year is Slack, which offers a messaging service that is replacing email for millions of company workers.

"Definitely not this year," Slack chief executive Stewart Butterfield told me last week at the official opening of the company's swanky new Dublin office.

"We don't have a timeline. In our case, we're growing a little too quickly so we're not predictable enough yet. Some investors prefer predictability."

Butterfield said that an IPO "wouldn't make sense for the purpose of raising money" as Slack has already raised $540m, the most recent $200m of which was only nine months ago. "It would really be more to provide liquidity for equity for employees".

Ultimately, there probably isn't much escape for Slack, Intercom, Stripe or any of the others. Most venture investors prefer flotations or acquisitions to long-term company building. And there is now a build-up of dozens, if not hundreds, of successful tech companies in the US, Europe and around the world.

Besides, Phil Libin said, it's "the moral thing to do".

"If we're asking the world to trust us, part of the that trust is allowing people to be owners," he says.

"There's something elegant and beautiful in that. People should be able to go and buy some shares."

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