As a junior banker at Goldman Sachs (GS) in the early 1990's, I was weaned on the conventional wisdom that growth companies were ready to go public when they reached $100 million in annualized revenue and had at least two quarters of profitability under their belts.
The "$100 million revenue" theory was based on the idea that a company must be large enough to both: (a) withstand competitive pressures and (b) earn a large enough market value to enable the company to sell enough stock to institutional buyers in its IPO, without suffering massive dilution in the process.
This theory makes no sense, despite the fact that many bankers and VCs still cling to it like religion. Growth-stage entrepreneurs who want to build long-term winners need to take heed. Going public is by no means the final step to going long. But, it's a big step in the process. Completing an IPO too early can have disastrous effects on the future health of your business. Conversely, waiting too long to do your IPO might allow a competitor to steal your thunder.
In my experience, there are three key attributes you must have to consider an IPO. You're taking major risks if you're not strong on these three:
1. Predictability & Visibility. If your business is $50 million in revenue but you know with high precision what next quarter, or even next year, is going to look like, you pass the test. On the other hand, even if your business is $200 million in revenue, and you can't reliably predict what's around the corner, watch out. Your VCs may have been happy when you hit 97% of plan last quarter. If you miss guidance or analyst expectations by 3% once you're public, your stock will likely plummet, often causing employee morale to suffer and competitors to be emboldened. The stakes are high -- take the time you need to ensure that you have built predictability into your company before your IPO.
2. Underlying Growth Potential. When CEOs fall into the trap of thinking the $100 million revenue plateau is sufficient to "get out" in an IPO, I like to ask them about their plan to get to$300 million or more in revenue. The IPO is not an end game. A better analogy is that going public is more like moving from college sports to the pros. You need to ratchet up your game and be ready. If you're growing fast and have a large market in front of you, $300 million or more will seem like a breeze, and public investors will reward you. If, on the other hand, you eke out growth to $100 million without much more potential and go IPO, don't expect to have a fun run as a public company. The best teams have several tricks up their sleeve for future growth. You may not know all the growth vectors you plan to open up in the future, but you should have a game plan before your IPO. The best teams are always investing in several experiments that could augment growth. You should be encouraged enough by the early results of such experiments before considering an IPO.