What You Must Do Before Taking Your Company Public
Going public often gets a bad rap for its complexity and challenges. But the process doesn't have to be difficult. The key is getting started early enough -- ideally about 18 months out -- and bringing together core business functions and processes that are crucial to a successful IPO and your first year of reporting.
If done properly, you can ensure compliance, minimize costly distractions and enable finance to be a strategic business partner, especially during the critical first year as a public company.
Here are a few pointers on how to prepare for this huge business endeavor:
Align business functions
Functions like accounting, financial planning and reporting and legal must be aligned to meet requirements for annual audits and quarterly reviews. These divisions also need to be ready to comply with the Sarbanes Oxley Act and SEC financial reporting regulations.
It's also important to have the right reporting systems in place. Inadequate technology leads to manual workarounds that can slow progress and increase the risk of reporting errors. Systems need to be capable of producing information that investors will want to see, including reports on key metrics. Finance and IT divisions need to get on the same page early with respect to public company requirements.
Data is another area to consider. It's important in terms of business performance and compliance. Do you know what data you need and whether or not it is easily accessible? Is it clear who has responsibility for the quality and accuracy of data going into financial statements, public filings and other reports that will be used to manage investors after going public? Make sure you have a data structure to capture, process and produce the information and analysis you and your investors will expect.
Prepare your team.
Startups face the challenge of not having the expertise on staff to deal with all the moving parts involve in an IPO. Justifiably, founders are focused on the company's core product or service and raising capital. Often the responsibility for IPO readiness and alignment is folded into the job of an already overcommitted member of the leadership team. Take a hard look at your team's commitments and see where you might need extra help. If needed, bring in outside consultants to help with tasks.
Don't rush the process.
Be sure to allocate enough time to research required disclosures and thoroughly vet and document conclusions to avoid misstatements or errors that can lead to "comments" from the SEC. It's not unusual to expect some comments from the SEC but a large number of them can slow down the IPO process -- and that's a problem if you're on a rigid timeline for the IPO. Make sure you have ample time to gather feedback on your disclosures from your auditors, lawyers and management team. The more eyes the better.
When IPO preparation is rushed, the risk of reporting errors increases. This happens when inadequate systems can't produce the information needed in time and manual data gathering efforts break down. Investors and regulators may perceive reporting errors as a red flag, which leads to more scrutiny, questions and distractions. With the benefit of time, you can fix system and manual process weaknesses in order to reduce the risk of reporting errors pre and post IPO.
Companies who spend time addressing process, systems, data and resource issues ahead of the IPO will experience fewer distractions during the first year of external reporting. But that's not the only benefit. They will also have a finely tuned finance and management system that can deliver data that drives performance and better decision making. And that's a good place to be after an IPO.
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