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6 Things You Must Do 36 Months Before Your IPO If you wait till the last minute, the public offering will disrupt your business. And if that happens, what's the point?

By Peter S. Cohan

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If you are skilled and lucky, you could be three years away from passing the $100 million revenue target needed for a successful initial public offering. And if you are even more lucky and skilled, you've managed to reach that point without giving up control of your company to outside investors.

If you decide that an IPO is the best way to realize your vision for your company, set the wheels in motion three years in advance. If you wait until the last minute, the launch will disrupt your core business. And if that happens, what's the point?

During a recent phone conversation, Lumenpulse CEO Francois-Xavier Souvay provided me some insight about preparing for an IPO. His LED lighting company, which garnered $42 million in sales last year had an April 15 IPO on the Toronto Stock Exchange, resulting in a $423 million valuation for the firm.

Souvay started planning Lumenpulse's IPO in March 2011. Saying his products target the high-end construction market and are designed to use less energy and last, he noted that sales growth has been strong as prices have tumbled. "In 2010, we had 30 people and we now have 250, a 78 percent compound annual growth rate."

"We concluded that an IPO would give us the capital we needed and the market presence to realize our vision for the company," Souvay added. "To do an IPO without disrupting operations, we needed to plan ahead."

Here are six things to do before you stage your company's IPO:

Related: 4 Lessons I Wish I Learned Before Going Public

1. Install formal financial controls. Once your company is publicly traded, it needs to comply with reporting requirements that can't be met without setting up formal processes. Mistakes in reporting can be very costly and distracting for top management.

Get the firm's financial processes working with virtually no errors by the time you start selling shares to investors. Spend years working out the kinks, delivering quarterly financial performance and forecasts to the company's board.

Use the financial statements of the prospectus of a recently public company as a template for configuring your firm's monthly fiscal reporting. Develop a spreadsheet with an income statement, a cash flow statement and a balance sheet to present to the board and top management every month. Get feedback and refine it over time.

Related: 10 Questions CFOs Should Ask Their Controllers

2. Hire a public company CFO. Employ someone who has previously overseen such financial processes well. Look for an individual who has served as the chief financial officer of a company (preferably in your industry) that's already gone public.

It's not difficult to hire such a person if you can persuade him or her that you're leading a company with the potential to generate enough revenue to go public. After all, being the CFO of an established company can be a little dull after experiencing the thrill of a firm going public.

Going to work for another startup that's poised for an IPO could bring a CFO a career boost -- not to mention a cache of valuable pre-IPO stock.

You'll also need a general counsel who can ensure that all your company's legal and regulatory compliance processes are in sound working order.

Related: 10 Tips for Forming a Board of Directors

3. Build a strong board. To make your IPO work, you'll also need a strong board of directors. Recruit board members with experience at public companies, particularly serving on a board's committees.

The right board members will be able to help you grow your business. For example, find board members who can serve on audit and compensation committees to ensure that your financial reporting is trouble free and that your executive team is receiving competitive compensation.

Hiring a strong board will be easier if you have strong relationships with leaders in your industry. Tap that network to find an effective executive recruiter who can identify strong candidates for key board roles. Develop a compelling pitch for individuals as to why they should join your company's board.

Related: How to Hire Someone Aligned With the Company's Mission

4. Hiring a skilled executive team. Build an executive team with experience in hiring, training and motivating people in your company's key functions, such as finance, governance, human resources and compliance -- not to mention sales, marketing, manufacturing and product development.

Finding this team is aided by your having a strong industry network and using a great executive recruiter. One key test when deciding whom to hire will be whether others in the industry consider the individuals A players. If so, they will help your startup attract the best talent.

5. Focus on strategy. Become skilled at articulating goals and communicating them in a way so others can easily see what they can do to realize them.

Create an environment in which talented people can develop to their full potential while working on tasks that help your company go in the directions intended.

Related: Just Gone Public? Here's How to Keep Investors Happy

6. Get ready for the IPO. With these foundational elements into place, work on the IPO. You'll spend months negotiating with bankers and lawyers on key details. Once the prospectus is complete, you'll present your company to big investors.

With the right planning and execution, you'll be able to do all these things and your team will keep the company on track.

Prepare yourself by creating a peer network -- a group of CEOs who will share their insights about how to work with bankers and lawyers and excel at an IPO road show. Once your company is public, the benefits of access to capital and credibility will more than offset the costs of developing all that financial and compliance infrastructure.

Related: 5 Must-Track Metrics to Keep Your Startup Alive

Peter S. Cohan

President of Peter S. Cohan & Associates

Peter Cohan is president of Peter S. Cohan & Associates, a management consulting and venture capital firm. He is the author of Hungry Start-up Strategy (Berrett-Koehler, 2012) and a full-time visiting lecturer in strategy at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.

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