An initial public offering (IPO) is the process through which a privately held company issues shares of stock to the public for the first time. Also known as "going public," an IPO transforms a small business from a privately owned and operated entity into one that is owned by public stockholders. An IPO is a significant stage in the growth of many small businesses, as it provides them with access to the public capital market and also increases their credibility and exposure. Becoming a public entity involves significant changes for a small business, though, including a loss of flexibility and control for management. In many cases, however, an IPO may be the only means left of financing growth and expansion. The decision to go public is sometimes influenced by venture capitalists or founders who wish to cash in on their early investment. Staging an IPO is also a very time-consuming and expensive process. A small business interested in going public must apply to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for permission to sell stock to the public. The SEC registration process is quite complex and requires the company to disclose a variety of information to potential investors. The IPO process can take as little as six months or as long as two years, during which time management's attention is distracted away from day-to-day operations. It can also cost a company between $50,000 and $250,000 in underwriting fees, legal and accounting expenses, and printing costs. Overall, going public is a complex decision that requires careful consideration and planning. Experts recommend that small business owners consider all the alternatives first (such as securing venture capital, forming a limited partnership or joint venture, or selling shares through private placement, self-underwriting, or a direct public offering), examine their current and future capital needs, and be aware of how an IPO will affect the availability of future financing. According to Jennifer Lindsey in her book The Entrepreneur's Guide to Capital, the ideal candidate for an IPO is a small-to medium-sized company in an emerging industry, with annual revenues of at least $10 million and a profit margin of over 10 percent of revenues. It is also important that the company have a stable management group, growth of at least 10 percent annually, and capitalization featuring no more than 25 percent debt. Companies that meet these basic criteria still need to time their IPO carefully in order to gain the maximum benefits. Lindsey suggested going public when the stock markets are receptive to new offerings, the industry is growing rapidly, and the company needs access to more capital and public recognition to support its strategies for expansion and growth. Advantages of Going Public
The primary advantage a small business stands to gain through an initial public stock offering is access to capital. In addition, the capital does not have to be repaid and does not involve an interest charge. The only reward that IPO investors seek is an appreciation of their investment and possibly dividends. Besides the immediate infusion of capital provided by an IPO, a small business that goes public may also find it easier to obtain capital for future needs through new stock offerings or public debt offerings. A related advantage of an IPO is that it provides the small business's founders and venture capitalists with an opportunity to cash out on their early investment. Those shares of equity can be sold as part of the IPO, in a special offering, or on the open market some time after the IPO. However, it is important to avoid the perception that the owners are seeking to bail out of a sinking ship, or the IPO is unlikely to be a success. Another advantage IPOs hold for small businesses is increased public awareness, which may lead to new opportunities and new customers. As part of the IPO process, information about the company is printed in newspapers across the country. The excitement...
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