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A Guide for Taking a Company Public [Considerations for Business Owners]

Written by Warren Averett on September 15, 2020

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This guide is for business owners who are considering taking their company public. It explains and highlights the significant factors in the going public decision, as well as the process itself. There are advantages and disadvantages to this course of action, and our guide is designed to help you analyze them in relation to your company’s particular circumstances.

Note: The guide is intended to provide only general information. It is not a substitute for specific legal, accounting, and financial advice from qualified professionals for the application of the laws and regulations discussed. Please consult those advisors to obtain that guidance.

We are proud to have helped numerous companies go public, from the initial planning stage through the final filing of the registration statement. We would be pleased to advise you and your company in this most critical process.

Is Going Public the Right Decision? 

Many entrepreneurs have found initial public offerings to be exceptionally rewarding – both for their companies and themselves.

Take the case of a highly successful software house that built its reputation on quality products and talented employees. The founder dreaded the time-consuming and complex process of going public and the different operating style of a public company. But, on balance, he acknowledged that the capital needs of the company dictated that the time to take that step had come. The company raised approximately $100 million in the public offering. After the offering, the value of the stock rose in tandem with the company’s earnings. As a result, the company now has a substantial foundation for future growth and its founders have become financially secure for life.

If you are the head of a privately owned company, you may very well be asking yourself, “Is going public the right decision?”

Making the Decision

If your privately held company is successful and looks like it will continue to grow, you may already be thinking about entering the public marketplace. Your company can go public through its first registered offering of debt or equity securities. This guide discusses the process of going public by offering equity securities, but it is also applicable to debt offerings.

Your current objectives are key in making this decision. Every founder of a privately owned business has individual preferences and goals which motivated the original investment of time, money, and energy in the enterprise. However, business and personal objectives often change, and capital to expand the business and personal liquidity may now be among your top priorities.

If you are seriously considering going public, first carefully weigh both the advantages and drawbacks of this process. Legislation and SEC staff guidance issued in the past several years may help to ease the process and costs associated with raising capital from the public. The Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, signed into law in April 2012, amended a number of provisions of the securities laws to streamline the registration process and establish an “on-ramp” for certain companies considering an IPO. The JOBS Act provides certain reporting relief for a category of filers called emerging growth companies, which is further highlighted later in the guide. Additionally, SEC staff guidance issued in 2017 provides certain relief, previously only available to emerging growth companies, to an expanded class of issuers and transactions. Regardless, you will probably need to rely on trusted professional advisors to act as a sounding board. Among them, your public accounting firm should be able to assist you in determining whether a public offering is feasible and desirable in your particular circumstances. It can also help you explore other financing options such as: bank loans, private placements of debt or equity, venture capital, or small unregistered public offerings.

WEIGHING THE KEY FACTORS

The opportunities for a public company to maximize the equity holding of the founders and to use the equity base for subsequent public offerings and bank borrowings are compelling. However, there are certain disadvantages associated with becoming a public company. This section describes some of the advantages and disadvantages you will encounter in the process.

What are the Advantages?

Stronger financial base

The major benefit of an initial public offering (IPO) is the substantial permanent capital it can provide to meet your company’s immediate and long-term objectives. This new capital base can dramatically increase your company’s ability to expand its current product line, engage in new businesses, or achieve any number of specific goals.

Better financing prospects

Equity raised through an IPO may help your company obtain debt financing. Returning to the market for additional capital through subsequent offerings (e.g., additional primary equity offerings, debt offerings, etc.) may also be easier once your company’s stock is favorably viewed by the business community.

Stronger position for acquisitions, creating new currencies

Acquired companies frequently accept the publicly traded stock of the acquiring company in lieu of cash. In fact, a stock deal may be more attractive than a cash acquisition, after considering income taxes.

Ability to attract and retain talent

A wider range of executive compensation in the form of stock options or stock purchase plans can be used to attract and retain talented managers. The marketability and potential appreciation of publicly traded stock is appealing to executives.

An available market

Shares you own in a public company are generally much more liquid than if your company remains private, although they are subject to certain resale limitations imposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Increased prestige for the company and management

The status of being a public company is generally recognized as an important credential by lenders, investors, suppliers, and customers.

What are the Disadvantages?

Pressure to maintain earnings growth

The SEC requires public companies to file quarterly and yearly financial statements. Since stock prices are generally based on the company’s recent results and prospects, management is under pressure to maintain steady growth in earnings. This sometimes leads to decisions that conflict with sound long-range business strategies. For example, a company may forego a needed R&D project because of the resulting charge to earnings.

Disclosure of corporate and personal information

Public companies are required to regularly disclose information about sales, gross profit, net income, and EPS. Disclosure requirements also cover compensation of officers and directors, major customers, strategic plans, and related-party transactions.

Costs

While the costs of going public can be substantial, they are usually only a relatively small portion of the final offering proceeds. However, once your company is public, there will be significant ongoing legal and accounting fees, independent directors fees, periodic filings fees, and directors and officers liability insurance. These costs might also include the costs of expanding your internal accounting system to generate the necessary management information and to meet the compliance and certification requirements of Sarbanes-Oxley Act Section 404 on internal control.

Loss of control

You will now be accountable to the shareholders, a board of directors, regulatory agencies, and financial analysts for all important business decisions. Your shareholder accountability has increased due to SEC rules mandated by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act which requires companies to provide its shareholders with the ability to vote on executive compensation programs and golden parachute arrangements. While the votes are non-binding and advisory in nature, they place additional scrutiny over your executive compensation.

Enhanced corporate governance

You will need to meet the corporate governance and disclosure requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the exchange on which your securities are traded. Officers and directors are now held to much higher corporate governance standards than in the past and face a greater risk of personal liability.

Loss of personal benefits

You may need to reduce business with related companies, move relatives off the payroll, or reduce your other “perks” to remove any appearance that insiders or others are being favored at the company’s expense.

CEO and CFO acceptance of personal responsibility for periodic reports

Your CEO and CFO will need to certify responsibility for the financial statements, disclosure controls, and internal controls in the company’s period reports (quarterly and annual). These certifications open these officers to both civil and criminal liability.

Trading restrictions and fair disclosure rules

There are a variety of trading restrictions dealing with limitations on the sale of unregistered stock, prohibition against trading on inside information, recapture of short-swing profits on securities sales, and disclosure of non-public information to selected individuals like analysts.

WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES?

Companies typically consider a variety of financing options prior to making the decision to go public such as: commercial bank loans, asset-based financing, private placements, Regulation A+ offerings, extended terms with suppliers, partnerships, etc. These sources should be explored prior to making the final decision on going public.

WILL MY PUBLIC OFFERING SUCCEED?

If you conclude that going public is to your company’s advantage, the next major question is: will your offering succeed in the marketplace? The climate for IPOs can fluctuate dramatically, both long- and short-term. The climate must be carefully evaluated to project the stock price and number of shares that can best be absorbed by the market at any given time. Underwriters are familiar with what determines the success or failure of an offering in the IPO market and can advise you on timing.

Emerging growth companies may initiate the registration process confidentially with the SEC. In 2017, the SEC staff made the confidential submission process available to all companies conducting an initial public offering of their common equity securities.

The confidential submission would then be filed (and made available to the public) no later than 15 days prior to the IPO road show. Should you decide to abandon the offering for whatever reason prior to the public filing, this confidential submission process allows your information to remain private. Additionally, the JOBS Act permits emerging growth companies and their authorized persons (including the underwriters) to communicate with qualified institutional buyers or institutional accredited investors before or after the initial filing of the registration statement. This opportunity to “test the waters” and communicate with potential investors before the traditional IPO road show may help in determining the potential for the success of your offering.

Another factor in arriving at your decision is whether the proceeds are fair compensation for relinquishing part of your business to outsiders. The size of the IPO depends on what your business is worth and what percentage is to be sold to the public. The offering price is determined through negotiations with the underwriter and is based primarily on:

  • A comparison of your company’s price/earnings ratio and other key performance indicators to other companies in the industry;
  • An evaluation of your company’s future prospects, management team, quality of earnings; and
  • Current stock market conditions.

The gross proceeds from the offering are reduced by the underwriter’s commission which could reach approximately 7% of the offering proceeds plus out-of-pocket expenses. Other costs of IPOs, including fees to attorneys, accountants, financial printers, and registration and filing fees vary widely, often running into several hundred thousand dollars. In addition, some underwriters will negotiate for warrants to purchase the company’s stock, usually exercisable at approximately the public offering price. Although the total underwriter’s fee is negotiated, there may not be much room for maneuvering since the range of fees among underwriters may be narrow.

IS GOING PUBLIC THE RIGHT DECISION?

After seriously considering the merits and drawbacks of an IPO and the potential size of an offering, you still need to understand what is involved in the process of going public from the preliminary stages to life as a public company. The balance of this guide will clarify this often complex process to help you make your final decision with confidence.

Getting Ready

The process of going public can be a long one, with periods of round-the-clock activity alternating with slow spells during which you can do your day-to-day business planning. It is important to set up and follow a strategy to help you anticipate issues and prepare a variety of solutions. Preparing for the transition should begin early since responsibilities, financial structure, and management policies are fundamentally different before and after an IPO.

The following are some of the issues you will need to address during the planning stage:

FINANCIAL INFORMATION

You will need audited financial statements for two or three years depending on your filer status. If you have made significant acquisitions in the past or have significant equity investments, audited financial statements of the acquiree/investee may also be required. Preparing these just before going public can be time-consuming, costly, and sometimes impossible because information is missing or audit procedures (e.g., physical inventory observations) were not performed at the appropriate time. It is best to bring in qualified registered independent public accountants to work with you as soon as going public appears likely. The accountants must be aware of the more stringent independence requirements necessary when dealing with a public company so that they may be independent in fact and in appearance. Providing certain non-auditing services, such as bookkeeping or executive search, for the company precludes the accountant from being associated with the financial statements in an SEC filing. Additionally, the accountants must be registered with the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board.

TIMELY AUDIT

A timely audit of your financial statements can provide several additional benefits. It lends increased credibility to your financial statements, which can help you obtain credit or bring in more private investors. It will also give you a clearer picture of your company’s operating results and how they will appear to investors. The ability to generate accurate and timely information is important not only for your internal accounting function, but also to generate quarterly and annual reports and certifications that are required by the SEC and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Such information is also needed by investors and analysts studying your company.

CORPORATE GOVERNANCE

If you are going to list on a national stock exchange, your company must meet certain corporate governance standards. Your company must have a board of directors comprised primarily of independent outside directors. The governance requirements resulting from the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Dodd-Frank Act must also be met. These requirements, including those implemented through the stock exchanges, follow:

  • Your audit committee, compensation committee, and nominating committee must be comprised of independent outside directors.
  • One member of the audit committee must be a ‘financial expert.
  • Your CEO and CFO must certify the financial statements.
  • Your external auditors are prohibited from providing certain non-audit services.

The national stock exchanges allow companies going public to phase in compliance with independent committee requirements as follows: (1) at least one director on the nominating, compensation, and audit committees must be independent as of the date of listing, (2) a majority of directors on the audit committee must be independent within 90 days of the registration statement being declared effective, (3) a majority of directors on the nominating and compensation committees must be independent within 90 days of the listing date, (4) the audit committee must be fully independent within one year of the registration statement being declared effective, (5) the nominating and compensation committees must be fully independent within one year of the listing date, and (6) a majority of the board must be independent within one year of the listing date.

MANAGEMENT TEAM

Your management team should appeal to the investing public. Registration statements are required to identify senior executives, including a five-year work history for each individual. The capital markets view a strong management team, one that can maximize a company’s potential, as a major selling point. This group should satisfy three basic requirements:

  1. They should be professional. Individuals with experience in your industry are essential. Family members without the proper credentials may not be suitable.
  2. They should have depth. Key management functions must be adequately covered. One entrepreneur is not enough to run an entire business.
  3. They should be sensitive to shareholders’ goals. It is important to consider how business decisions will be viewed by investors.

EXECUTIVE COMPENSATION

You will need a sensible executive compensation program. It should be designed to attract and retain executives while avoiding any sign of overcompensation or favoritism. Compensation specialists can help structure compensation packages based on their broad knowledge of the tax, financial, and business implications of various strategies and experience with similar companies.

PUBLIC AND INVESTOR RELATIONS

A public and investor relations program for your company should begin at an early stage. For a successful IPO and continued market strength, your company should have a positive image with the financial community and business press. The public relations program should take into account that name recognition takes time to develop and should begin at an early stage.

CAPITAL STRUCTURE

A suitable capital structure will need to be set up. Certain structures designed to meet the needs of a closely held business and its owners may not be right for a public company. For instance, a small number of outstanding shares with a consequent price per share that is too high for marketability or special voting privileges favoring the entrepreneur’s family group may not be appropriate.

RELATED-PARTY TRANSACTIONS

It will be necessary to clearly document related-party dealings. Arrangements and transactions your company has with affiliates such as officers, directors, or major shareholders should be disclosed in the registration statement. Therefore, such dealings should be identified, documented, and reviewed with your attorney and lead underwriter to anticipate problems that could delay the SEC registration process or make the shares unattractive.

ADVANCE PREPARATION

You should consult with your accountants and attorneys to identify any information needed for disclosure that is not readily available. Preparing information such as audited financial statements of any predecessor, acquired companies, or significant equity method investees may be time consuming. By planning in advance to obtain this information, you may avoid costly delays in the IPO process or even a possible termination of the offering.

Assembling the Team

During the IPO process, you are likely to spend more time with the group of people involved in your offering than with your family, friends, or employees. Not only is it essential for this group to be qualified from a professional standpoint, but there also needs to be a high level of trust and communication among the participants in order to accomplish your objectives.

Keep in mind that the four major goals in an IPO are to:

  1. Complete the registration process without major delays;
  2. Time the offering so it reaches the market at the most opportune moment;
  3. Obtain the best price; and
  4. Establish a strong market for the shares after the IPO.

To achieve these goals, you need a team of knowledgeable and experienced professional advisors, including independent accountants, attorneys, and the underwriter and its attorneys.

SELECTING YOUR FINANCIAL AND LEGAL ADVISORS

Your independent accounting firm will play a key role in the IPO process. It will be responsible for auditing the financial statements that will be included in the registration statement, issuing comfort letters to the underwriters, assisting in organizing and participating in any pre-filing conference with the SEC staff on financial statement matters, and reviewing your response to the SEC staff on financial statements issues. It should be selected based on its knowledge of your industry and experience in SEC matters. SEC rules require that your independent accounting firm must be registered with Public Company Accounting Oversight Board to serve as your auditor before you can include your financial statements in an IPO filing. That is, once you plan to file a registration statement, your financial statements must be audited by a registered firm.

Select a law firm based on its experience in meeting the technical and legal requirements of initial securities filings, as well as subsequent reporting. Your lawyers should also be capable of evaluating whether your corporate documents and agreements, such as bylaws, are appropriate for a public company. You should select a firm that has adequate resources to perform the tasks required by you and the managing underwriters. Your law firm should have experience in your industry and understand your business.

CHOOSING THE UNDERWRITER

The lead underwriter is one of the most important elements of a successful offering. The underwriter will help you prepare your offering, create a market for your stock, provide support in the “aftermarket” to ensure that the price of your stock remains strong, and keep you informed of how your company and industry are perceived by the market.

Furthermore, the underwriter is the primary source of advice on marketing and pricing your shares and deciding when to approach the market. Look for a respected lead underwriter, one who is knowledgeable in your industry and has handled IPOs for similar companies. Your accountants, consultants, and attorneys are good referral sources, as are other companies in your industry which have recently gone public. Ask the following questions in the selection process:

Letter of intent (LOI) – a non-binding letter from the underwriter to the company confirming the intent to proceed with an offering and stating the general terms of the underwriting.

Reputation: Does the firm have a strong reputation in the financial community? The degree of confidence investors have in your stock is affected by the underwriter’s reputation.

Distribution network: Does the firm have the kind of distribution network you are interested in? Match your needs with the firm’s ability to manage your offering. For example, if yours is a regional company looking for individual long-term investors in your geographic area, you probably would not need an investment banking firm with a worldwide client base of institutional investors and speculators.

Industry experience: Does the firm have experience with companies in your industry? This experience bears directly on the underwriter’s ability to price your stock accurately and identify the best time to approach the market.

Aftermarket support: Will the firm provide support in the “aftermarket?” This includes supporting the price of your company’s shares after the IPO by making a market in the stock and advising you on how the market views your company and its industry. For larger offerings, consider whether the underwriter has respected analysts on staff to generate research on your company and its industry.

Pricing record: Does the firm have a good track record in pricing IPOs? Having the right price when you reach the market is crucial to the success of an offering and the strength of the aftermarket. It may be tempting to select the underwriter with the highest preliminary pricing estimate. But, an unrealistically high initial price may weaken in the aftermarket, which could negatively affect the investing public’s perception of your company.

WHAT THE UNDERWRITER WILL LOOK FOR

The lead underwriter will study your company closely before agreeing to take it public and will carefully examine the following key areas:

  • The health of your industry, the quality of your products or services, and the strength of your market position and potential for growth;
  • Your sources of supply, distribution channels, and types and number of customers;
  • The stability of your company’s financial position, including its capital structure and asset utilization;
  • Your earnings record and prospects for future growth;
  • The strength of your business plan;
  • Your ability to plan and control operations, including your ability to prepare and meet budgets;
  • The experience and leadership of your management team and board of directors; and
  • Your reputation with customers, suppliers, and competitors.

In assessing your company, the underwriter will interview your top management, independent accountants, and attorneys. You can expect this interview process to be fairly rigorous, because the underwriter assumes substantial risk in taking your company public. This assumption of risk necessitates a certain amount of skepticism on the part of the underwriter during the investigation.

Underwriters will also be concerned if the existing shareholders intend to sell a significant portion of their shares in the offering. From a marketing standpoint, underwriters generally prefer that the IPO consists primarily of newly issued shares, with the proceeds going to the company. Otherwise, there may be a perception that the sale of a substantial number of shares by current shareholders reflects their lack of faith in the company.

TYPES OF UNDERWRITING ARRANGEMENTS

Once you have chosen an underwriter, you will ordinarily sign a letter of intent outlining the terms of the underwriting agreement, such as compensation and estimated price. The draft underwriting agreement contains these terms in detail. It also may require your independent accountants to perform a variety of special procedures for the benefit of the underwriter. Therefore, it should be reviewed by both your accountants and attorneys. The final underwriting agreement itself usually is not signed until just before the stock can be sold to the public. So, the underwriter can change its mind if the stock market declines or the company’s fortunes change.

The two basic types of underwriting arrangements are: the firm commitment, in which the underwriter agrees to buy all the stock offered and resell it to the public at the underwriter’s own risk; and the best efforts agreement, where the underwriter has no obligation to purchase any shares that the public does not buy. In a best efforts offering, the underwriter may agree that if all or a minimum number of shares are not sold, the offering will be cancelled. From the company’s standpoint, the firm commitment is the most desirable arrangement. However, in small initial offerings, a best efforts agreement is sometimes used.

You can also structure your offering using the Dutch auction process in which the underwriter bases public offering price and the allocation of shares on an auction. Investors, both large and small, receive their “place in line” to buy shares based on the number and price they bid in an auction conducted by the underwriters. That is, the investors with the highest bids for the greatest number of shares receive the best place in the buying line. The underwriters then determine the actual public offering price based on the clearing price which is the highest price at which all shares in the offering can be sold.

Underwriting agreement – an agreement by which an underwriter, generally a brokerage firm, agrees to purchase an issue for resale to the public.

The Registration Process

Once your team is assembled, the registration process can begin. The timetable, from the first all hands meeting with the IPO team to the day your securities can be sold to the public, the effective date, usually covers from four to six months.

Broadly speaking, your company becomes “public” when the SEC permits it to sell securities by means of a registration statement. The process towards this goal is complex and often exasperating. This section provides an overview of what you can expect.

FEDERAL SECURITIES LAWS AND THE ROLE OF THE SEC

The IPO process itself is strictly regulated by the federal securities laws. Specifically, the Securities Act of 1933 regulates the sale of securities to the public, and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 regulates the public securities markets and financial reporting of public companies.

The 1933 Act is intended to prevent fraudulent or misleading representations in the sale of securities in interstate commerce or through the mail. But there is also a broader purpose. The public must have confidence in the integrity of the capital markets so that investment funds can be channeled to business enterprises from a wide range of sources. By keeping the market for publicly traded securities open and competitive, the SEC helps promote the ideal of an efficient capital market, where the public can make investment decisions rationally on the basis of all available information.

The SEC has the authority to bar the sale of securities if fraud or misrepresentation is involved in the offering, but the Commission will not refuse to clear an IPO solely because it might be a poor investment. The philosophy underlying federal securities regulation is to require full disclosure and let investors evaluate the quality of an investment. The SEC review process is designed to ensure that the buyer is provided with all material information necessary to make an investment decision.

THE FIRST ALL HANDS MEETING

The registration process begins with the first all hands meeting. The participants include company officials as well as the independent accountants, the attorneys, and the lead underwriter and its attorneys.

Time is of the essence in the registration process. An IPO must reach the market under favorable conditions. A drawn-out process may result in major alterations to the registration statement to explain any material changes in the company’s operations.

To ensure that the registration progresses smoothly, a detailed timetable should be prepared for discussion at the first all hands meeting. Its focal point is the targeted effective date. Tasks should be programmed to meet that deadline. Close coordination among team members is critical, so the registration statement can be quickly amended to reflect SEC comments or changes in the company’s circumstances.

DRAFTING THE REGISTRATION STATEMENT

Throughout the process, the registration statement is continually modified and thoroughly analyzed to determine whether company information is presented factually, fairly, and meets all SEC disclosure requirements. Each member of your team is responsible for providing specific information during the drafting process. Some of that information includes the following:

Attorneys: Your attorneys are often in charge of preparing the nonfinancial sections of the registration statement.

Company management: The CFO and other key personnel provide detailed financial and analytical information about the company, with the CEO providing an overview of the company’s business plans.

Underwriter: The underwriter and its attorneys critique the registration statement.

WHAT IS IN THE REGISTRATION STATEMENT?

The registration statement consists of a prospectus, distributed to potential investors, and supplemental information. The supplemental information is available for public inspection at the SEC’s main office in Washington, D.C., but is not distributed to potential investors. Registration statements can also be accessed online at both the SEC’s website: http://www.sec.gov/edgar/searchedgar/webusers.htm and the company’s website.

Although the prospectus is a selling document, it is also a legal disclosure document, so it requires a delicate balance in the drafting process. From a marketing standpoint, you will be eager to show how you enjoy unique advantages over the competition, and that your future prospects are bright. From the legal standpoint, however, you are required to fully disclose all important negative information and give a complete picture of the major risks of investing in your company. Consequently, the registration statement should not contain any laudatory phrases that could mislead the investing public.

IPOs are generally filed on the SEC’s Form S-1, including IPOs for smaller reporting companies and emerging growth companies. Companies that qualify as smaller reporting companies or emerging growth companies require only two years of audited financial statements instead of three, and some of their other disclosure requirements are less extensive than those of larger registrants.

In 2017, the SEC staff updated its guidance to address circumstances in which annual and interim financial statements may be omitted from registration statements. Whether financial statements may be omitted depends on whether (1) the registrant is an emerging growth company or not, (2) the financial statements are annual or interim financial statements, and (3) the document is a confidential draft submission or a publicly filed registration statement.

Smaller reporting company – a company that has less than $250 million in public equity Information about your business: This could include information about products, market factors, competition, industry trends that may influence your company’s future prospects, significant business segments (i.e., separate lines of business), and financial information about operations in geographic areas. Segment information may be troublesome for some companies if the information is considered confidential. If your company has to disclose financial information about segments, your accounting systems should be capable of generating the required information. Specific information should also be included on the availability of raw materials; patents, trademarks, and licenses; seasonal cycles; concentration of customer base; government contracts; factors influencing working capital requirements; backlog; employees; foreign operations; and historic growth factors.

Company background: Information about predecessor companies and mergers should be incorporated as part of this section.

Risk factors: Both business and financial factors need to be covered. Some of these risk factors encompass: volatile industry conditions, an unproven product line, a highly leveraged capital structure, dilution in book value per share to public shareholders, or the lack of operating history.

Offering proceeds: How the proceeds of the offering will be used when shares are to be sold by the company itself (in a “primary” offering) is a key factor. Examples of how proceeds will be used are: repayment of debt, expansion of product lines, purchase of additional facilities, etc. The use of proceeds is not relevant, of course, for any shares to be sold by shareholders (in a “secondary” offering).

Company officers and directors: Details about the identity and experience of the company’s directors and officers will also need to be disclosed. Specific information will include their compensation, business experience, family relationships among them, and any involvement in legal proceedings. A compensation discussion and analysis that analyzes material factors underlying compensation policies and decisions for company officers is also required.

Related-party transactions: Any related-party transactions between the company and its officers, directors, or major shareholders and their immediate families should be disclosed in the registration statement.

Shareholders: The identity of principal shareholders and management who own stock and the number of shares owned also need to be disclosed.

Management’s discussion and analysis (MD&A): Management’s discussion and analysis of financial condition and results of operations for the number of years covered by the financial statements is a critical element of the registration statement. MD&A should summarize in plain English, by business segments and in total, the trends in important financial areas such as the company’s liquidity, operating results, capital structure, commitments, and future sources and use of capital.

Financial information: This includes selected financial data for five years and three years of audited financial statements, supporting schedules, timely interim financial information, and audited financial statements of significant acquired companies, joint ventures/equity investees, or predecessors. If a company qualifies as a smaller reporting company, only two years of audited financial statements are required, and the five-year summary of financial data and financial statement schedules may be omitted. If a company qualifies as an emerging growth company, only two years of audited financial statements and summary financial data are required.

Dilution: The dilution to public shareholders, which will occur because the IPO price per share is higher than the book value per share, must also be disclosed.

DUE DILIGENCE

Under the Securities Act of 1933, the company and its expert advisors, including independent accountants, attorneys, and underwriters, are generally liable for any material omissions and misstatements in the registration statement. While the liability standard differs for each group, it generally follows the following guidelines.

Company: The company’s liability is absolute and cannot be avoided with defenses such as good faith error. Historically, companies insured their officers and directors to protect them from being personally liable for actions taken on behalf of the company, although the premiums for this insurance may be expensive or difficult to obtain.

Team of advisors: The liability of the team of independent accountants and the underwriter can be avoided with the defense that they exercised due diligence. This means they acted responsibly in attempting to ensure that the registration statement contained appropriate information.

Attorneys for the company and the underwriter will normally require officers and directors to complete written questionnaires confirming information in the registration statement. They will also interview them to ensure that they understand the questionnaires. This also serves to verify business-related disclosures, such as product descriptions, manufacturing, distribution, and marketing activities.

Independent accountants perform subsequent events procedures after the report date through the filing date. This is done to determine whether their report on the financial statements is still appropriate, or whether the financial statements or disclosures need to be changed. They will also review the registration statement for any inconsistencies between the financial and nonfinancial portions.

The underwriter relies on the independent accountants to help ensure the adequacy of financial disclosures and may request comfort letters at various stages of the IPO process. A comfort letter in draft form is issued early in the offering process. Once the underwriting contract is signed but before the point of sale, the first comfort letter, covering the preliminary prospectus, may be issued. After the final prospectus is filed, an updated comfort letter is issued covering the final prospectus. This letter is updated at closing when the net proceeds are remitted to the company (the closing date). The comfort letter discusses the results of the accountants’ inquiries regarding financial information that became available after the last audit; highlights certain adverse developments such as declines in working capital, sales, net income, or other financial trends; and describes the results of special procedures that the underwriter requested them to perform on other data in the prospectus.

Comfort letter – letter written by the independent accountants for the underwriters which serves to give them “certain financial and accounting data.

THE QUIET PERIOD

The SEC does not define the term “quiet period” that historically extended from the time a company begins substantive discussions with investment bankers regarding the offering until the SEC staff declared the registration statement effective. During that period, SEC rules limited what information the company and related parties could release to the public. However, all companies have a 30-day safe harbor before filing a registration statement in which they can communicate information regarding anything other than the securities offering. Additionally, if a company qualifies as an emerging growth company, the JOBS Act permits communications between the company and certain potential institutional investors before and after the filing of the initial registration statement. Regardless, during the quiet period, it is generally advisable for all communications to be reviewed by your attorneys.

SEC REVIEW

When the team is satisfied with the draft of the registration statement, it is filed with the SEC. All companies conducting an initial public offering of their common equity securities are able to submit their IPO registration statements on a confidential basis with the SEC.

Registration statements are generally reviewed by the staff of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance, which includes accountants, financial analysts, valuation experts, attorneys, and engineers. The review of the initial filing generally takes approximately 30 days. The SEC’s review focuses on whether the registration statement contains adequate disclosures and complies with the rules. The filing is analyzed, not only for the information it contains, but also in the context of current business developments, business practices, and accounting policies prevailing in the company’s industry and specific economic environment.

At the end of the review process, the company receives a comment letter from the SEC requesting changes in, or explanations of, the registration statement. If extensive changes are required, it can seriously delay the offering. The extent of SEC comments can be minimized if potential accounting, disclosure, or other problems are anticipated and dealt with in advance of the filing.

The SEC staff’s comments generally are resolved through a response letter that provides supplemental information to the staff. You may find a telephone conference with the SEC staff helpful in resolving more complex issues. The SEC staff offers advice on interaction with the SEC staff at: http://www.sec.gov/info/accountants/ocasubguidance.htm. The staff is usually cooperative in discussing its comments, and if you respond with sound arguments, the staff may modify the original comment. You and your counsel usually prepare responses to the SEC comments on legal and other matters. You, in consultation with your independent accountants, generally respond to the comments on accounting and financial reporting matters. All SEC comments ultimately require a written response.

Your response to the SEC comments will be either to change the filing or to obtain the staff’s acceptance of your written response. The staff informally acknowledges acceptance by letting your filing proceed. If you change the filing as a result of the comment letter, the registration statement will be amended and resubmitted or refiled. Minor changes will generally not result in changes to the registration timetable, however, extensive changes may delay the offering.

After the SEC staff’s final review, the registration statement will be declared effective. SEC rules allow the registration statement to become effective without the actual price of the shares to the public, the expenses of the offering, and the net proceeds to the company. This information is then inserted when the final prospectus is printed.

THE “RED HERRING”

After the initial SEC review, the prospectus is distributed to the members of the underwriting syndicate as a preliminary prospectus and then distributed to interested potential investors.

However, since the prospectus has not yet been declared effective by the SEC, the securities can be offered for sale, but not sold. So, the SEC requires a “subject to completion” statement on the preliminary prospectus cover. At one time, the SEC required that the warning be printed in red ink which resulted in this document being referred to as the “red herring.”

If you need to make extensive changes to the registration statement as a result of SEC review comments, recirculation of the red herring may be considered necessary. The decision to recirculate is made by you, your attorneys, and the lead underwriter.

Declared effective – when the SEC has cleared the registration statement and indicated that the STATE “BLUE SKY” LAWS

The SEC is not the only regulatory agency to review your filing. Public offerings also must qualify under the so called “Blue Sky” laws governing the sale of securities in every state where they are to be sold. The purpose of these laws is to prevent the sale of securities that have no more basis than “blue sky.” Blue Sky qualification is generally handled by the company’s attorneys when you file with the SEC. Companies that list on a national securities exchange are exempt from Blue Sky laws.

The requirements of Blue Sky laws vary from state to state. While the regulations of individual states vary, almost half the states have adopted the Uniform Securities Act or have based their laws on that Act. In some states, notifying state regulatory authorities of the intention to sell securities in that state is sufficient; in others, it is necessary to file a separate registration statement. Unlike the SEC reviews, Blue Sky reviews consider the merits of the offering, and states have their own acceptance parameters about such matters as dilution, voting rights, and cheap stock sold to corporate insiders.

LISTING THE SECURITIES

While you are registering your securities with the SEC, you must also decide where you would like them to be traded after the offering and submit a listing application. This decision should be based on several factors, including comparing the access and visibility your securities will need to that provided by each market, and considering the relative costs. You should consult with your underwriter in selecting a market.

The largest U.S. securities trading markets are the New York Stock Exchange LLC (NYSE) and The Nasdaq Stock Market LLC (Nasdaq). The stock exchanges each have requirements that a company must meet for its securities to be listed. The initial listing requirements for these exchanges are both quantitative (such as minimum shareholders’ equity, profitability, and market capitalization requirements) and qualitative (such as corporate governance requirements). The NYSE Initial Listing Standards are available at http://www.nyse.com/publicdocs/nyse/listing/NYSE_Initial_Listing_Standards_Summary.pdf and the Nasdaq Capital, Global Select, and Global Market Initial Listing Standards are available at listingcenter.nasdaq.com/assets/initialguide.pdf.

THE ROAD SHOW

While the registration statement is under review by the SEC, the underwriter may decide to arrange a “road show.” This is a tour of various target cities and is designed to give financial analysts, major investors, and others the opportunity to question management. Companies who elected to submit their registration statement confidentially with the SEC must publicly file their registration statement, any of its amendments, and related exhibits no later than 15 days prior to the road show.

Your presentation to the financial community at road show meetings is critical to generate interest in your company. You work closely with your attorneys, the lead underwriter, and possibly a public relations advisor to prepare your presentation and anticipate the nature of questions that will be asked. This presentation should help create a favorable impression for financial analysts and prospective investors. You should guard against making misleading statements, which could later result in litigation. You should be just as cautious about what you say in public as you are in drafting the registration statement.

Cheap stock – common stock sold before a public offering at a price which is less than the pub

THE FINALE

Just after the registration statement becomes effective, the underwriting agreement is signed. After that, the final prospectus which indicates the actual offering price of the securities is printed and distributed to the members of the underwriting syndicate for distribution to prospective investors who received a copy of the red herring. In addition, a tombstone ad is published, usually in The Wall Street Journal and other newspapers in targeted markets, to let investors know where they can get a copy of the prospectus.

The closing takes place a week or so after the effective date. At the closing the underwriters receive funds from their customers, and the company in turn receives the net proceeds after the underwriters’ compensation. However, if the underwriting agreement required a minimum level of shares to be sold and that level was not reached, the offering period may be extended or the offering withdrawn.

OTHER OPTIONS

Besides the traditional IPO approach, companies also have options for a Direct Listing as well as use a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) to raise capital but each has their own advantages and disadvantages.

It’s Your Move

The decision to take your company public will be among the most difficult in your business experience. It is a highly personal decision, requiring an exhaustive analysis of all relevant factors, including the opportunities and drawbacks of a public offering and whether your company is able to fulfill the responsibilities of a public company and the expectations of the market.

Because preparation is the key to a successful IPO, we hope this guide gives you a clear overview of the process and places some of the more significant factors in proper perspective. Regardless of your ultimate decision, we would be pleased to assist you during this most critical time for you and your company.

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