One big difference between this decade and the 1990s dot-com boom is that the swells are making the big profits and the small investors are just getting trickled on. Risky IPOs seem to be increasing.
This was never truer than in the recent Uber (NASDAQ:UBER) IPO. Beyonce Knowles, who took a $6 million fee for an Uber corporate event in stock three years ago, had $300 million, despite the IPO’s failure to achieve lift-off.
Meanwhile, unless they took me seriously and shorted the thing, small Uber investors remain under water. The shares were due to trade May 16 at about $41.40, still below the $43 they were offered at. The stock chart of rival Lyft (NASDAQ:LYFT) remains a ski jump, the shares trading almost $25 below its first trade.
The question now is whether this “Uber Effect,” as I’m calling it, will cause other unicorn IPOs to be “down rounds.”
Risky IPOs Are Part of the Deal
A lot depends on whether investors can see the unicorns making a profit.
WeWork, which filed its S-1 under seal in December, calls its $264 million loss during the first quarter, on $728 million in revenue, “investments.” If you buy that I have a bridge over the East River to sell you. WeWork had “investments” (losses) of $1.9 billion last year. At its present rate it will lose another billion this year.
Not all this year’s risky IPOs have been failures. Zoom Video Communications (NASDAQ:ZM) literally zoomed out of the box after its IPO, up 28% from its first trade. It opened May 16 with a market cap of $20.6 billion.
Zoom is a web conference service, something that’s been around for decades. What made Zoom a caviar dream and Uber a pile of fish eggs? Profit! Its S-1 showed that Zoom made $7.584 million, 3 cents per share, for the fiscal year ending in January, on revenue of $330 million, double the figure of the previous year.
Not all successful IPOs make such plain good sense.
Beyond Meat (NASDAQ:BYND) has jumped 30% from its IPO on May 3, despite reporting a net loss of $4.75 per share for 2018. People may be confusing it with Impossible Meat, still privately held, whose non-meat patty got rave reviews from Burger King, a unit of Restaurant Brands International (NYSE:QSR), which itself is up 27% so far this year.
Uber and Lyft have always been contradictions, taxi companies whose profit promise was based on getting rid of the drivers. The idea is that the data from the cab rides would let them dominate the rental of autonomous vehicles when they finally arrive.
The Bottom Line on Risky IPOs
The IPO calendar is crowded with unicorns whose investors want to cash out. These include Luckin Coffee (NASDAQ:LK), the Chinese coffee chain and three biotechs — Peloton Therapeutics (NASDAQ:PLTX) Ideaya Biosciences (NASDAQ:IDYA), and Bicycle Therapeutics (NASDAQ:BCYC).
Coming up behind them are data-mining company Palantir, backed by German-born Trump fan Peter Thiel, Pinterest, the web site as clipboard metaphor, workplace messaging company Slack, and Robinhood, a mobile-first brokerage that failed to become a bank last year.
In all these cases, my advice is the same. Read the S-1 carefully. Ask if the company is making money and, if not, when it will. Pretend you’re a skeptical banker, not a hungry speculator.
Because in all these cases, that’s what you are. The speculators are the ones looking to sell their stock. The fast profit they’re looking for is your money.
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of a new environmental story, Bridget O’Flynn and the Bear, available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned shares in QSR.