This is the second last column in a series on what is involved in taking a tech (or other) company public (the so-called "initial public offering", or IPO, process). After the first and second columns debated the advantages – and disadvantages – of being a public company, the last column focussed on the IPO process itself. It introduced the all-important prospectus document, which must provide "full, true and plain" disclosure about the shares being sold, which will include disclosure about your company and its business.
Description of the Business
So important is the prospectus that the law expressly mandates the minimum information that it must contain. One such section – not surprisingly – is a description of the business. This is where you will recount some history of your company, and then explain what it does, by reference to your markets, products, competitors and the like.
The description of your business is not a simple section to write. It’s easy to describe the particular segment of the tech market that you serve, but more challenging is to explain your particular strategy for success within that market. Which sub-sets of customers do you focus on? How do you ensure that your value proposition resonates for them? What are you doing that your competitors are not? In essence, what is your "secret sauce"?
If you have a detailed business plan (that you may have used previously with venture capital investors), you may be able to use this pre-existing text as the basis for the description of the business section of the prospectus. But even so, it will simply take your Chief Marketing Officer a lot of time and effort to come up with a first draft - which will then be picked apart, sentence by sentence, by your banker and lawyer, until the story is both accurate and easy to understand. It will be a painful process, but when completed you will actually have a very useful document that explains – including to your own employees - what the principal drivers are of your tech business.
The prospectus will have to contain audited financial statements for the past three years (there are some exceptions allowed, for example if the company is not yet three years old). Your financial statements are obviously a critical part of the prospectus. Accounting is the language of business, so of course prospective investors will be keen to understand your balance sheet as well as your income statement.
Your competitors will also be very interested in this information. They probably had a general sense of your top line revenues, but until they see your prospectus, they will not have known your bottom line profitability; or, if you are a software company, your mix of license revenue versus recurring maintenance and support revenue. All of this is very useful insight for your competitors, and they will use it against you (just as you do with such information of your public company competitors).
As such, it will pain you to allow your competitors to have access to your detailed financials (not just once in the prospectus, but continually after you are public through your quarterly and annual financial statements). But this is simply a cost of being a public company – that exalted status comes with the requirement that the investing public have visibility into your affairs, including financial matters.
Predicting the Future, Financially
Interestingly, some companies go even further in their prospectus and include financial projections, that is, estimates for how the company will do financially over the next couple of years. This is a risky activity and expensive too. The legal rules governing prospectuses require that the basis on which you make your projections must be audited, and the auditors charge quite a handsome fee for this service (partly because it is fraught with risk to them as well).
Predicting the future, however, is fiendishly difficult. A few years ago, the Ontario Securities Commission reviewed the subsequent actual results of companies that previously made financial projections in their prospectuses, and the track record for the predictions was not good at all. Bottom line, it’s just very hard to predict the future. So it is really worth thinking twice before your put financial projections in your prospectus.
How Much Do You Make?
It is a long standing rule of polite society that you don’t ask others how much money they earn at work. Securities law has no such reservations. Indeed, the rule is that the prospectus must reveal the compensation of the CEO, CFO and next three highest paid executives of your company.
Again, there will be some operational downsides to you as a result of this rule. For example, recruiters looking to entice away some of your top people will now know precisely what compensation package they have to contend with – and match or exceed. On the other hand, in this day and age of web sites, Internet search engines and blogs, there is much personal information already available to the public, so perhaps this is not as serious a factor for you as it might have been 10 or so years ago.
The Risks of Investing
One very interesting section of the prospectus is called "risk factors". Life and business are full of risks. As noted above, it’s so difficult to predict the future because of different risk factors and our inability to predict exactly which risks will come to pass. Nevertheless, securities law requires that companies about to go public list in their prospectus the various risks that are relevant to the business and the industry in which it operates.
The result is a fairly extensive list of items that, if they came to pass, would adversely impact your company. Some of these risks will be generic and apply equally to all players in your segment of the tech market (ie., "if the economy slows down, there will be fewer purchases of our type of tech product"). Other risks will be more specific to your company (ie., "our product depends on patents for intellectual property protection, and so if our patents are successfully challenged, we are quite exposed from an IP perspective"). Again, the touchstone is "full, true and plain" disclosure.
Meaningful Due Diligence
The prospectus document is not created or written in a vacuum. Rather, it must be firmly anchored in an extensive and meaningful due diligence process. In effect, your lawyer and investment banker (and the underwriters and their lawyers) will want to be sure that each and every factual statement in the prospectus is buttressed by a document (whether an industry report, or a contract of your company, etc.) that they have reviewed (and have satisfied themselves does indeed support the relevant proposition in the prospectus). Conducting proper and thorough due diligence takes time. You must assign adequate staff to the job of compiling the materials. Increasingly, the materials are loaded up to a restricted website so that all relevant parties can access it quickly and simultaneously. But even if presented electronically, there is still the long job of compiling all the raw documents as the first step. Make sure you have enough staff on this project. And don’t forget to keep the material on the diligence web site up-to-date over the course of the IPO process.
Filing and Finale
The prospectus is such an important document that before you "go final" with it, the securities law regulators must review it. Thus, you will have to file a "preliminary prospectus" with the regulators, and then they will take 10 business days to go over it, at the end of which they will send you a comment letter that contains suggestions for improving the document. You will not be able to receive a "final receipt" from the regulators for the prospectus (and close your IPO) until the issues in their comment letter are all addressed to their satisfaction.
Around this time, your investment banker will start to build the order book for the shares you will be selling through the IPO. To support this effort, you will go on a "road show", where your company’s CEO, CFO and perhaps one or two other senior officers will meet with prospective investors and answer any questions they may have. The six to nine months of laborious IPO process will come down to this moment of truth – are investors willing to buy your shares, and most importantly, at what price?
Then follows an intricate negotiation between you and your investment banker about the final public issue price for your shares. If you price them too low and their price rises rapidly on the stock exchange after the IPO, perhaps you "left some money on the table" that investors will now pocket, instead of it going into your company. On the other hand, if the price is too high, and you meet significant resistance to buying your shares at all, you might not raise the amount of money you need.
In coming up with the final price for your shares, ideally you will have some wise members of your board of directors help you negotiate a sensible compromise with the investment banker (and then you can close the IPO, and behold, you are a public company). This illustrates but one useful role of the board - more on them, and other issues relevant to the now public company, in my next column.