Not every tech startup will end up going public. The vast majority that make it through the initial startup gauntlet will engineer an exit through some form of merger or acquisition.
However, for those intrepid founders whose eyes are set on pursuing an IPO as a means to greater growth and funding, it would be wise to consider how such an elaborate process should be reflected in a company’s communications strategy well in advance of making the announcement.
Based on some recent client consulting and project research, here are 17 general pointers to help ready your communications strategy for the demanding IPO process:
Don’t Jump the Gun
At the risk of overstating the obvious, you would be surprised at how many tech companies fail to address the communications requirements of an IPO early in the process. The risk of waiting too late can come in the form of fines and even a delay of the IPO. As a general rule of thumb, if an IPO is planned 6-9 months out then start planning for the communications component at the same time.
As soon as an IPO becomes more than just an idea, schedule a planning session with the key executives (CEO, CFO, CRO, CMO, etc.) and legal to review the stricter communications guidelines that must be followed as the IPO approaches. This will help you institute message discipline as you seek to control company information shared publicly through the media. You should map out communications goals for the IPO communications program for all stakeholders including advisors and board members, clients and prospects, 3rd party vendors, and investors.
It’s wise to establish a cadence of company-related announcements and stick with the cadence up to a year in advance of the IPO. Why? The SEC may infer a sudden increased cadence of announcements as an attempt to influence a company’s valuation and for the company to delay its IPO.
Establish Major Theme(s)
Begin beating the drum about your greatest accomplishments and market differentiators to build to a crescendo with a major pre-IPO announcement. Give yourself time to build up to the announcement, which could be a major product release establishing a greater dominant position in the market, the acquisition of a company that provides key technology essential to your offering, or a strategic alliance with an established provider of complementary technology. This helps build anticipation for the IPO without ever mentioning it.
It may go without saying among communications professionals, but start spending more time building relationships with influential business and technology journalists who could positively (or negatively) impact the reception of an IPO. While you can’t come out and say why you are reaching out, do so as part of your ongoing media relations strategy and even go so far as to ask for one-on-one briefings to warm the relationship. If you are a market leader in your industry, most journalists will be open to a one-on-one call with the CEO.
Have the Right Collateral on Hand
An IPO just doesn’t materialize out of thin air. You have to prepare months in advance, and that includes developing collateral such as fact sheets, corporate presentations, management videos, web pages, and internal/external Q&A.
Seed the Financial Story
There will come a time when you have to begin sharing the financial story of the tech startup. That could be a combination of fundraising news, market share growth, M&A activity, and even C-Suite hires.
White Paper or Study
Around four to six months before the planned IPO, it’s advisable to commission a high-level white paper or study that defines the broader addressable market, its general trends, and the company’s role in that market. An example of this is a Global Impact Report that WeWork released earlier this year in advance of its planned 2019 IPO. It relates the general trends impacting the office market worldwide and the various social and financial impacts WeWork is having on the global economy, either directly or through it’s member customers. The goal is to have something of substance for use by analysts, investors, and media speaking to the market and your upside potential to fulfill defined market needs.
Don’t Forget Case Studies
Make sure you have at least 5-10 solid case studies to demonstrate how your company’s technology had a positive, measurable impact on customers. Sure, it’s a no-brainer to already have case studies given the role they play in sales enablement. But you’d be surprised that even advanced startups sometimes forget to freshen their case study inventory. These stories give a real-world scenario that media can easily comprehend and use when writing about the IPO.
Establish who will be the face of the pre and post-IPO company. Build out their biographies in advance to put a personality with the face and add a little emotional color to their online personas. Also, put both of them through an intense round or two of media training. Once a company goes public there are things a person can and cannot say, and receiving challenging questions about company performance occurs much more frequently given the intense scrutiny of key stakeholders like investors and analysts.
Press and Analyst Tours
Speaking of analysts, just before the quiet period begins, it’s strongly recommended to organize an investor/analyst tour (commonly called a roadshow) to generate excitement for the upcoming IPO. Usually organized by the underwriters, it’s important to keep the broader technical and business media in mind as well. Press tours could be organized separately from the roadshow to get you in front of selected, influential members of the press for face-to-face conversations that can build relationships and future coverage opportunities.
While not technically part of the communications strategy, it still must be well understood. This document ends up serving as the financial positioning of a company. It will become the foundation for how company executives talk to media, investors, and other key stakeholders.
The quiet period is perhaps the most challenging, and unnerving, part of the IPO process. The perception of your company is largely in the hands of the financial media at this stage. Post-roadshow and S-1 filing, they have all of the information they need to begin parsing your company’s past, its core business model, and the financials in the S-1. What’s more, as mentioned above, you must avoid making any announcements that could have a financial theme given that you must avoid the perception of unduly influencing the IPO stock valuation.
During the run-up to the IPO, you would do well to re-evaluate your crisis communications plan to bring it up to date and make sure it’s ready to take on the financial component of a crisis response. Don’t have a crisis communications plan? Better get started (read our past blog post on The 4 C’s of a Good Crisis Communications Manual to learn more!). Most importantly, don’t forget to execute real-world training sessions where key crisis communications team members act out a particular scene so that in the event something does happen organizational muscle-memory will kick in and the team will respond quickly and effectively. After all, your financial and reputational future may hang in the balance when a crisis finally hits.
Only after the IPO wraps, and the stock lists on an exchange and begins to trade, will executives have the ability to openly discuss their future plans for the company. All the more reason to create a strategic, creative communications plan for Listing Day. Be sure to connect with the appropriate parties in the NASDAQ to determine what you can and can’t do to celebrate the big day. Much like a major brand activation, the listing day should include speeches from company execs, a party attended by key employees and customers, social media posts with plenty of videos, and more.
Next to the quiet period, the first quarter after IPO is the most stressful stage of the IPO. Why? It’s where the rubber meets the road. Your company is public, so how were the financial results from Q1? What’s more, how well will the executive team — usually the CEO and CFO — manage the conference call? Setting up a successful investor relations program will ensure that all of this happens without any undue stress on executive team or the analysts covering your company.
Final IPO Communications Thoughts
An IPO is not just about investors and the media. Employees, vendors, partners, and customers are all important stakeholders in the run-up to the IPO. Don’t forget to devote planning and resources toward messages aimed at these important ‘internal’ audiences, not only assuring them business will continue as usual but also that they are all playing a vital role in the company’s future.