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Where Are the IPOs?

Will tech IPOs ever come back? And do we really need Sarbanes-Oxley?

August 31, 2006

4 Min Read
Where Are the IPOs?

Whither Force10 Networks Inc. ? Where's BigBand Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: BBND)? What about Riverbed Technology Inc. (Nasdaq: RVBD)?

All of these networking companies were expected to stage IPOs in either 2005 or 2006 (next, 2007) – and yes, we helped contribute to the hype. But none of their S-1 filings are in sight. (See Force10 IPO Still Hanging, Riding the Cable Consolidation Wave , and Riverbed Scales Up.)The networking IPO has become a rare, exotic bird. And the one big telecom IPO we have to point to – Vonage Holdings Corp. (NYSE: VG) – looks quite ill. Will the tech IPO ever come back or has it flown south for eternity?

You can blame a lot of it on a soft Nasdaq , and eroding technology valuations in general. The Nasdaq is down about 1 percent for the year, while the S&P 500 is just about treading water.

But many of you may choose to blame the least popular legislation in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street: Sarbanes-Oxley. This was the piece of legislation that was supposed to "fix" everything that went wrong in the bubble. But a "government fix" is an oxymoron, so it should come as no suprise that this legislation has become one giant mess.

Sarbanes-Oxley has single-handedly ground down the pace of development for young technology companies by saddling them with an endless stream of bureaucratic costs. It's threatening to move most tech IPOs offshore. And is it cutting down on corruption? I doubt it.

"It's just dumb," says Rod Randall, who is senior managing director with Vesbridge Partners LLC . He estimates that Sarbanes Oxley costs a private company about $2 million to $5 million in preparation to go public. That's a direct hit off of profit – which would result in a $60 million to $150 million haircut off the company's public-market valuation if it were to go public, as he explains it.

Imagine this: You are a maturing venture-funded startup. You survived three years of technology depression. After many years of cutting, down-rounds, and new product development, you're finally close to breakeven now. You're on your fourth gray-haired CEO, and this guy actually seems to get it. You've got almost $100 million in revenue. But you have prepared to go public, and now you won't make any money. Why? Because Sarbanes Oxley has just added another $3 million in additional costs. That's your first year's profit – handed directly over to the regulators.

"Sarbanes Oxley was an overreaction to the aftermath of the Insanity.com era," says John Fitzgibbon Jr., the founder of IPOscoop.com . "It's added a lot of expenses onto these companies. The extra can chew up your bottom line completely. There are companies that are already trading public that have decided that it's better to go private."

"For a tech startup trying to make its first million in profit, to just give it away to Mr. Sarbanes and Mr. Oxley, that's crazy," says Vesbridge's Randall.

Chuck Gershman, the CEO of Bay Microsystems Inc. , one private company that could be a technology IPO, agrees that Sarbanes-Oxley does present a "high hurdle" for a company looking at IPO. He says his company has hired consultants and professionals to look at the the issues, and estimates the cost at $2 million to $4 million.

"It's certainly a topic that we are painfully aware of," he says. "It's a fixed cost in your G&A expenses. It's going to reduce your net profit any way your slice it."

Would Sarbanes Oxley by itself stop a company from going public?

"Sarbanes Oxley is a component of IPOs," says Gershman. "It is one of the reasons the IPO market is not good... but it's a soft market as well. Sarbanes Oxley is not a positive influence."So what to do about it? Well some companies have gone offshore. Sandvine Inc. and Newport Networks plc (London: NNG) staged IPOs on the U.K.'s Alternative Investment Market (AIM), which is emerging as a big competitor to Nasdaq for smaller technology IPOs. On AIM, the reporting requirements are much less strict, and the costs to go public are a fraction of what they are on the Nasdaq. (See Session Controller IPO Scores Success, Sandvine AIMs for IPO, Sandvine Leaps on London Listing).

"To go public on AIM would cost $300,000 to $400,000 per year," says Gershman. "We've investigated this. And the bankers are pitching it."

It's a trend that recently led Hank Greenberg, the CEO of AIG, one of the largest insurance companies in the world, to write in The Wall Street Journal that Sarbanes Oxley may be having the effect of diminishing the competitive advantage of the U.S. capital markets. In the technology world, at least, it certainly looks that way.

First the United States outsourced the technology, then the IPOs. What next? Perhaps the founders and venture capitalists themselves.

Sarbanes-Oxley should be killed. Unfortunately, that doesn't look likely to happen. In the meantime, get used to fewer exits – and a lot more action on the AIM.

— R. Scott Raynovich, Editor in Chief, Light Reading

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