2019 is supposed to be the year of the monster tech IPO. And it still might be. But, apparently, not without some copious doomsaying.
In a year likely to feature some of the most well-known tech startups — Uber, Lyft, Peloton, Slack, Pinterest, and Postmates — finally becoming public companies, the first few months have soured some of the jubilation in Silicon Valley. After a government shutdown flummoxed dealmakers and delayed IPO timelines, the first of those brand-name public offerings — Lyft — has struggled, seeing its shares fall about 35 percent below its opening trade price in its first two weeks as a public company.
And on Thursday, we’ll begin to see whether that slippage forebodes a full-on downpour.
But here’s the ray of sunshine that busts the narrative of a Silicon Valley valuation bubble: Thursday’s headlines may be driven by Pinterest, the consumer-facing social pinboard company. But what if it is the under-the-radar second fiddle on Thursday — the cloud video communications software startup Zoom — that tells the more accurate story about Silicon Valley’s unicorns?
Maybe you haven’t heard of Zoom. Fair enough. There are a lot of video-chat services out there. But it’s expected to be valued within spitting distance of Pinterest when shares are sold to IPO investors late Wednesday.
Zoom drew the interest of Microsoft, which made repeated attempts to purchase it over the years, Recode has learned from multiple people briefed on the approaches. The talks never grew serious — with founder Eric Yuan repeatedly telling the newly acquisitive Microsoft team that he wasn’t interested in selling — but one approach happened as late as earlier this year, one source said.
That acquisition would have made sense for Microsoft, which has struggled to turn Skype into a success story after buying it in 2011. Neither company returned requests for comment.
But there’s good reason to think that wouldn’t have made sense for Yuan and that he was right to spurn Microsoft’s advances. His company is currently slated to be worth about $8 billion — a 8x spike from its last valuation on the private markets in 2017, when it was judged to be a $1 billion company. And since opening its books and releasing its IPO documents with the SEC — revealing a profitable, high-growth, reliable subscription business — industry observers are salivating over its business fundamentals.
Zoom will make Yuan worth probably about $2 billion. The company has already had to boost its price range to meet the oversubscribed demand it generated on its road show.
We’ll see how Zoom does in its first weeks of trading, but up to this point, it’s looking like a unicorn IPO success story. So, we’re all good?
Here’s the rub: Even though Zoom is slated to be worth barely less than Pinterest, which is currently scheduled to be valued at about $9 billion in its IPO, you probably haven’t heard of Zoom unless you’re a white-collar business professional. It’s an enterprise company. Pinterest, on the other hand, has 250 million monthly active users.
That explains why companies like Pinterest get a lot more media coverage than companies like Zoom. Even though they’ve now built similarly valued companies, it’s consumer-facing startups whose CEOs land on magazine covers, become so iconic that their names grow into verbs, and, more broadly, define a wave of Silicon Valley innovation.
And why that matters is because they also disproportionately drive the narrative of how an IPO market is doing. IPO markets — like a piece of fiction or a well-written speech — have a narrative: Do public market investors these days value growth or profits? What megacompany is the forced analogy du jour? Is the tech IPO market “open” or “closed”?
The stock market is about perception as well as fundamentals. And our perceptions are driven by companies that we actually know, like Pinterest.
And that’s why potential disappointments like Pinterest, which is expected to fall short of its latest private-market valuation when it sells IPO shares on Wednesday, cast long shadows. And it’s why so much attention is paid to Lyft’s troubles (which are indeed troubling).
The hyped companies become the bellwethers for whether the sky is indeed falling. And if Pinterest’s first weeks of trading fall flat — and Lyft’s don’t recover — then yeah, that spells bad news for the Postmates and Pelotons of the world.
To be sure, Lyft is the largest tech IPO yet of the year. Rightly or wrongly, it is the barometer for the tech IPO market right now. Other soon-to-IPO companies are watching it closely to judge whether the waters are safe for wading, or whether it’s better to wait another month or three.
That’s especially true, of course, for that other ride-hailing company expected to go public in a few weeks. Uber, which is eyeing a sky-high valuation, now would probably like to see Lyft succeed — for the first time in its history. If only for just a moment, that is.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.