For most startups, going public is not part of the company roadmap. It's a far-off dream more than it is an obtainable reality. Early stage startups are simply looking to survive and thrive, which can be difficult when more than 90 percent of startups tend to fail.
And after seeing some startups break into the public markets with less than satisfactory outcomes, many wonder if going public is even worth it.
But that didn't stop Techstars alum SendGrid from ringing the bell in November of 2017, becoming the first-ever startup accelerator graduate to break into the public markets.
After a successful Q1 earnings report, I sat down with SendGrid CEO Sameer Dholakia to discuss the company's journey from early-stage startup to publicly-traded company, along with the tips for startups who do dream of a publicly-traded future for their company.
Should "going public" be a company goal?
Some CEOs dream of ringing the stock exchange bell, but others that have the opportunity (like Patagonia's Yvon Chouinard) don't take it because they simply don't desire the publicly-traded life.
For Sameer Dholakia, the main priority was always to build an enduring company, and to stay laser focused on the company's mission and vision, whether a public or private company.
"An IPO should never be your destination," says Dholakia. "It's an important milestone along your journey and a signal that you have built a company that is sufficiently mature to withstand the scrutiny of the public eye."
Adapting and overcoming obstacles
Dholokia joined SendGrid during a time when the business was experiencing a decelerating growth rate. He was able to turn it around and prepare the company for the public markets, but had to face some tough decisions along the way.
"We were only able to overcome those obstacles due to: 1) a willingness to embrace change and 2) being transparent with our team about why those changes were required," says Dholakia. "And change was required...We changed our mission and vision, and refined our product strategy; we were maniacally focused on closing competitor gaps; we invested heavily in innovation to enter new product categories; and we brought in new leaders with deep experience scaling companies through an IPO and beyond."
For Dholokia, it wasn't just about implementing changes, it was also how he communicated them with the SendGrid team, and the team's willingness to embrace them, that allowed the company to break down walls and set up a successful future.
Ensure your company is "IPO-ready"
IPO's are difficult. There are more hoops to jump through, more meetings with legal, more responsibilities to uphold and even less time for your regular duties. Before your company even thinks about going public, Dholakia suggests these three tips:
Focus on culture and values. Scaling your culture is difficult for growth-stage companies. Finding ways to embed your values in your operations is critical. For example, we interview against our values; we talk about values with all new hires as part of their onboarding; we include a section on values in our promotion template; and we give out awards to teammates who embody our values at our all employee meetings. In so doing, our values, and their reinforcement, get structurally woven into the fabric of our day-to-day.
Be able to predict your key operating and financial metrics. This one seems obvious, right? Don't consider an IPO without that predictability. Period. Full stop. Do not pass go. You need to have a critically deep understanding of the numbers behind your business. You need to be ready for really tough and smart questions about every aspect of your business. If you're not 100 percent confident in the visibility to and predictability of your performance, you should really reconsider going public and try again at a later stage.
Begin developing the muscle that allows you to be both a world class sprinter and an ultra marathoner at the same time. This is what being public requires. If you are able to do both of these things: sprint every 90 days but still be disciplined enough to make the long-term bets that will enable you to reach your mission and vision, then you've probably got what it takes to be a public company.
What are the upsides, if any?
With all the prep-work to prepare for an IPO, all of the changing responsibilities, the constant scrutiny from the public and the never-ending ticker notifications, what are the benefits to being a publicly traded company?
"I think the biggest benefit is our increased brand visibility, which is helpful in attracting both new customers and teammates," says Dholakia. "For example, many startups think it's harder to hire top talent after going public, but I'd argue it's actually easier. All of a sudden, employees' equity provides accessible monetary value and we can offer them liquidity as part of their compensation. That provides a lot of benefit to your employees and makes them feel like owners rather than renters."