EXIT STRATEGIES

Talking Exits with Frank Addante of Newly Public Rubicon Project

You build it, you grow it, and you need to know the right time to let your business go.
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You could ask Frank Addante, chief executive of the newly public Rubicon Project about a lot of really cool things--How computer engineering led him to be a technology pioneer in the 1990s, for one. Or what it was like to build a search engine that was the seventh most popular site on the Internet, ahead of Microsoft in 1997, two years before Google came along, and when he was just 17. Or his uncanny ability to spot future technology trends and build successful companies around his ideas.

Or you could talk to him about company exit strategies. He's built and sold five very successful businesses, including one stemming from a first-of-its kind ad server for which he developed the code. Yesterday's initial public offering of Rubicon Project, a platform that matches buyers and sellers of online advertisements, is the latest example of his prowess. Shares leapt 33 percent to more than $20, and it's been trumpeted as an example of a company with real value in a year of frothy IPOs lacking profits.

But for Addante, exits are slippery fish. You never build a company looking to exit, he says. You build it because it's a good idea. You want to make the business grow, or position it better in the market, and then sometimes that means an exit might make sense. In the interim, you take on investors, and possibly look for a bigger company to merge with, one capable of taking your original idea further. In the case of an IPO, it's about taking on massive amounts of market cash to build a really big idea.

"An IPO is not an exit, it is a financing event that gives a company capital and currency to grow and accelerate its vision," Addante says. "It is a renewed commitment to the company, and the way I describe this to our team, it is not a finishing-line, but a new starting line."

'Laying the Groundwork'

Regardless, you need to lay the groundwork early on, and that manifests itself first in company culture, Addante says.

"One [Rubicon cultural] value is transparency, another is to measure and test everything," Addante says. "And going from a private to a public company, there is an increased level of transparency, about risks of the business and financials, and we have always been open to investors and shareholders and to our employees."

Certainly Addante knows what he's talking about, as this is his second go-round with an IPO. His previous company, L90, also went public, in 2000. It was an inauspicious time to enter the markets, however.

"We went public on the day of the first stock market crash, and we were sued by Doubleclick the night before, for patent infringement," says Addante, who claims the incident was aimed at derailing L90's IPO.

The ad-serving company thrived, partly because it had a strong customer base of bricks-and-mortar businesses, not just dotcoms--many of which were soon to vanish.

Among L90's customers were AT&T, Dell Computers, EBay, Microsoft, and Sprint, all of which are still around today. Less than two years after the IPO, Doubleclick acquired L90, which was valued at more than $500 million.

'Bought, Not Sold'

So why did he eventually allow the company to be bought? "The best way to look at this: Is there an acquisition that makes sense to accelerate the values, or the vision, or the mission, and would [getting acquired] be the right way to access or use capital to do that?" Addante says.

Something similar was at play for earlier ventures, including his very first company Starting Point, the search engine, which in 2000 sold to CMGI, currently a supply chain management company. Addante says you lay the groundwork first, which includes transitioning from your role as founder and visionary to the chief executive responsible for executing strategy and achieving the company's goals. As you give up pieces of responsibility, you also give up ownership to others in the business. It's not that different when you decide to sell to someone else.

"I never started a company with the intention of selling it," Addante says. "And I believe the saying that great companies are bought, not sold." 

IMAGE: Redux
Last updated: Apr 3, 2014

JEREMY QUITTNER | Staff Writer | Staff Writer, Inc. and Inc.com

Jeremy Quittner is a staff writer for Inc. magazine and Inc.com. He previously covered technology for American Banker and entrepreneurship for BusinessWeek.




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