Going Public: Creating and Communicating the Very Best IPO Experience
By Carol Wentworth
Not even a global pandemic can stop IPOs, assuming market trends and financials align. But the pandemic adds new wrinkles to the complex process of managing communications around an IPO, as the talented communications leaders at two companies well know. In September 2020, Unity Technologies and Sumo Logic went public; but years before, Amanda Taggart (former global director of PR and communications, Unity) and Melissa Liton (senior director of global communications, Sumo Logic) began the long process of planning out how the event would be communicated, including bringing employees into the eventual IPO celebrations.
We asked Taggart and Liton for their lessons learned in planning out a successful IPO launch and how to make it special for employees, especially in a year when most of them can’t join the stage and ring the bell themselves.
Demonstrate that we’re “In It Together.”
The pandemic served as an opportunity for Unity executives and employees alike to breathe life into one of the company’s key company values: In It Together. This was never more apparent than with the Unity IPO, which was dubbed, the “UPO” and put employees first by allowing them to sell shares on day one, and celebrate together online with a virtual bell ringing.
Create an inclusive virtual bell-ringing experience for all employees.
“I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t personally hoping that our teams would go to New York, be on the podium, ring the bell, and experience the excitement of the New York Stock Exchange,” Taggart says. “But our CEO recognized that the moment shouldn’t be celebrated by a select few, but rather, all 3,500 employees who got us to this moment.” Taggart and her colleagues partnered with the NYSE to create a 3D on-screen visual that looked just like the NYSE’s podium — complete with the bell. Employees were able to hit their computer space bar to ring the bell. “Being able to not only ‘ring’ the bell together, but to also virtually ‘sign’ the book that’s usually reserved for those on the podium was a great celebratory experience,” Taggart says.
IPO planning takes years. Really.
“We spent a lot of years establishing our story and our cadence and getting ourselves on the map,” Liton says of the road to Sumo Logic’s IPO. “Then we shifted to honing the story and getting validation from our influencers and working towards breakthrough storytelling. Then we had to shift to operating like a public company from a communications perspective — what kind of stories do we want to tell, how do we firm up our press release process, and also, how should we work with legal and investor relations (IR).” It’s only in the year and a half before the IPO that the process of going public really takes over the communications leader’s job, she adds.
Quiet doesn’t mean silent.
The quiet period doesn’t mean communicators have to completely clam up. “It’s easy for teams to get freaked out and think they can’t do anything,” Taggart says. “It’s a quiet period — not a silent period. Keep in mind that any major news like an acquisition or anything that will impact the bottom line should be held until post IPO to avoid the risk of getting flagged by the SEC.”
The S-1 becomes your bible.
“There’s a lot more scrutiny, in terms of knowing what you can and can’t say externally anymore,” Liton says. “We tightened up our boilerplates and corporate statistics to align with the S-1, and these need to trickle down throughout your communications and external assets at IPO. And while we’re still operating as though it’s business as usual, every announcement, product launch, messaging exercise, industry analyst briefing, webinar, must map to that S-1. It becomes the bible.”
Taggart agrees that the S-1 trumps all. “I had the S-1 bookmarked,” she says. “People were coming to me and my team with so many questions. And I was like, ‘The S-1 is public. If it’s not in the S-1, you can’t say it.’ Literally, you’ve got to fact-check everything against the S-1.”
Creating the S-1 will take over your life for a while.
“I remember when I started drafting the Prospectus Summary,” Taggart recalls. “I had my cute little eight pages, and I sent it off to our executives, lawyers and the bankers. Well, 300 pages of a fine-tooth combed S-1 later …” One particular sentence became the subject of an hour-long meeting, she remembers, with 45 people on the phone. “You definitely have to keep in mind that this is an extra job on top of the job you already have,” she says. “Getting the company ready to go public is very time-consuming — but oh so exciting.”
It’s never too soon to plan your first earnings call.
“You can’t start this too early, or at the very least start talking about the process,” Liton says. “We’re all celebrating, we’re all coming off the high of the IPO, and that earnings call comes around fast.”
Put that earnings call on your pre-IPO to-do list, even if everyone else wants to bask in the post-IPO glow. “Push on the IR and exec teams, and confirm the plan for earnings,” Liton suggests. “Get clarity early so you can tackle earnings and ensure a smooth transition from the IPO. You want those first media calls out of the gate to be really successful.”