The recent experience of Groupon’s faltering IPO holds tough lessons for young entrepreneurs. After analysts started questioning its accounting, Groupon had to amend its regulatory filing several times.
Trying to salvage the IPO, founder Mason shed his trademark jeans and T-shirt and donned a suit. He dropped the irreverent talk and spoke about the company’s growth prospects at the IPO “roadshow” to impress investors.
Other companies have encountered problems when they went public and tried to reward customers. Upstart Internet phone company Vonage wanted to give customers a chance to buy up to 15 percent of its 31 million shares at its IPO at $17 apiece.
But when the shares fell 13 percent on the first day of trading, many of its small investors that had put in orders to buy didn’t want to pay the offer price. It gained the dubious title of one of the worst IPOs that year, something Facebook wants to avoid.
It’s also more expensive to sell shares to many people. When thousands of small investors want to buy in, it becomes a logistical nightmare to make sure each investor gets a prospectus with all the important information.
Banks like large investors because it costs about the same to process an order of 50 shares as 50,000. But William Hambrecht, founder and CEO of WR Hambrecht & Co., a firm that runs IPO auctions, says companies that value their customers benefit in the long run.
He gives the example of Boston Beer, maker of Samuel Adams, which went public in 1995. Its founder, James Koch, wanted to reward the people who made his company successful: the buyers of Sam Adams.
Koch set aside a quarter of his shares for the small investor. The deal was a big success and attracted more interest from his beer drinkers than there were shares available. Some people left out were dissatisfied.
Hambrecht says about two-thirds of the investors who bought those shares still owned the stock two years after the IPO. Even today, about a third still own it. Hambrecht says that’s because these investors appreciate the company’s product.
“Our argument has always been that true buyers of your stock ought to be your own customer base,” says Hambrecht. “As the great investor Peter Lynch said: Invest in what you know.”