There’s definitely a lot of talk about SPACs these days. But the tried-and-true IPO is still the long-term liquidity goal for most tech startups. CEOs dream of ringing the bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, or seeing their face splashed across Nasdaq’s giant video screen in Times Square. Just last week, five high-profile tech companies filed on the same day to go public through traditional IPOs, presumably gunning to get out before the November election.
There is obviously a ton of operational, financial and regulatory preparation that goes into a successful initial public offering. But one aspect of IPO planning that often gets short shrift, particularly at B2B-focused companies chasing relatively niche buyer audiences, is branding and communications. As the head of marketing and communications for a big investment firm, I see this all the time. I believe companies who skimp here are throwing away significant equity value.
Simply put, a highly public financing event like an IPO is an enormous branding opportunity for most companies. It’s a free pass for companies to tell their stories to a huge, global audience and rack up high-level press coverage — both at the time of the IPO and in the future, since many publications (like my former employer, the Wall Street Journal) often focus on coverage of larger, publicly traded companies.
Why do so many companies fall down in this area? I think a lot of it has to do with the broader shift toward data-driven, online marketing and away from branding at many companies. Because highly technical companies in areas like hybrid-cloud computing or DevSecOps (yes, that’s a thing) often struggle in their early days to get journalists interested in their stories, they never make communications a priority inside the company. This comes back to haunt them when, all of the sudden, they’ve filed an S-1 and their exec team has zero experience explaining the company’s story in clear, persuasive terms to a general audience.
But smart companies can avoid this trap. Here are five ways you can get the most branding bang out of your tech IPO, no matter how arcane your company’s business is.
This is honestly the most important point to take away here. Successful PR and communications around an IPO are a result of long-term planning that starts at least 12 to 18 months before you file your offering document with the SEC. Once you think an IPO is in the offing, take a hard look at both your 1) marketing/communications staffing, and 2) your existing digital footprint.
In terms of staffing, ask yourself: Do I have a top-notch PR firm, or savvy internal staffers, with IPO experience? If not, it’s definitely time for an upgrade. Don’t be cheap here. In terms of your digital footprint, take a hard look at your website, Google search results, Wikipedia page, Glassdoor, etc. Are you broadcasting a consistent and positive message to all your key audiences (customers, investors, employees, press, partners, regulators) through these channels? If not, you have time to make fixes. If you wait too long, you may be stuck in an SEC-mandated quiet period and will face more limitations in how you can rectify some of these problems. This means you may not be perceived as positively on IPO day.
With messaging, go high.
Take it from Michelle Obama: While much of your earlier corporate messaging may have been low-level and focused specifically on drumming up sales, you now need to go high. Instead of selling a product, you need to be publicly selling a broad (preferably fast-growing) market category and attaching yourself to mega technology trends—every-company-is-a-software company, the rise of work-from-home, the decline of privacy on the Internet, whatever. Your investors and the press want a non-jargony story they can easily understand, and one that is focused on a better future. This will help you connect with reporters and make them more likely to write about you.
Prime the pump.
Well before you file that S-1, you need to establish a regular cadence of outward-facing communications activity. This could include everything from customer case studies to CEO blogs to conference sponsorships to press interviews—all underpinned by your new, high-level messaging and positioning. Sticking to this cadence often means you can continue some of these efforts even into your quiet period (though obviously, you should consult with your legal counsel on the specifics).
You should be breaking into the Tier-1 business press during this time, instead of limiting yourself to coverage in the trade/industry press. You should also make sure your CEO and other C-suite executives are getting visibility at conferences (now all online, obviously), podcasts and social media. And remember, some of your best, high-level press coverage may have nothing to do with your business. A reporter may care less about DevSecOps and more about the fact that you have multiple women in your C-suite, that you’ve developed unique company culture, or that you maintain dual headquarters in the U.S. and Europe—and somehow manage to make that work. Embrace this. The coverage is still building your brand. This also means that when the S-1 drops, reporters will already have a lot of background information about you that they can use in their IPO-specific stories.
Train the messenger.
Don’t forget: In an IPO, you’re also selling your management team. Investors at T. Rowe Price and Fidelity want to invest in compelling, brilliant people, along with a great story—and the press wants to write about those people, too. So, IPO-specific media training for the CEO and any other IPO spokespeople is a must. As a CEO, you may get asked questions you’ve never been asked before, like, “How does it feel to be $100 million richer?” A detailed, lawyer-approved FAQ document here is essential. And of course, a strict FAQ also helps ensure that company spokespeople are not making comments through the process that appear to be hyping the stock.
Treat “IPO Day” like D-Day.
I realize you’re not storming the beaches of Normandy. But you should treat the communications aspect of IPO day like a military operation. Every aspect of it needs to be planned in advance: Where the CEO will be, what written communications they are issuing to whom — like employees and customers—when, and which reporters they are speaking with when. You can start planning this and scheduling interviews with reporters up to two weeks in advance. Having a staffer track press coverage on the fly and adjust talking points based on what’s being written in this critical period – -and on how the stock initially prices and starts trading — is also important.
Honestly, it’s harder than it looks on TV. But with careful planning and preparation — and plenty of help from your legal team — your brand will come out an IPO stronger than before and ready to evolve as your company moves into its next chapter of growth.
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Content obtained from third-party sources, although believed to be reliable, has not been independently verified as to its accuracy or completeness and cannot be guaranteed. Battery Ventures has no obligation to update, modify or amend the content of this post nor notify its readers in the event that any information, opinion, projection, forecast or estimate included, changes or subsequently becomes inaccurate. This blog post should not be considered legal advice and should not be viewed as a substitute for consulting your legal counsel.