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Toronto Stock Exchange. (Sami Siva/Sami Siva/For The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Stock Exchange. (Sami Siva/Sami Siva/For The Globe and Mail)

Exit: John Warrillow

The entrepreneurs guide to going public Add to ...

The entrepreneurial fairy tale goes something like this: you and a few friends tinker with some new technology, and people start to discover you. Customers flock to your new creation. After a few years of hyper-growth, you go public, stuffing your jeans with millions, and everybody lives happily ever after.

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I’ve had three friends take their companies public, and their experiences were less than idyllic. I asked them (they requested anonymity) to share the Top 10 curve balls they weren’t expecting

10. Friends and neighbours get jealous.

When going public, all of the major shareholders need to disclose their holdings. Your neighbours can quickly multiply your closing stock price with the number of shares you own and figure out how much you’re worth.

9. Some of your money gets stuck in escrow.

Some of your proceeds from a sale will be stuck with an escrow agent for months, if not years.

8. Employees start fighting.

An initial public offering (IPO) can create an “us versus them” culture with everybody in the company immediately aware of each other's stock holdings. Employees with little or no stock become resentful of stockholders, and the feeling of everyone pulling together for a common goal can be undermined.

7. The fees are sunk money.

By the time you pay for the lawyers, accountants and underwriters, the cost of a listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange can run into the hundreds of thousands — or even millions — of dollars in fees. This, of course, is sunk money. If you go through the process of preparing for an IPO and decide to cancel it because of market conditions or a change in strategy, you’re left with a pile of legal and accounting bills and none of the liquidity you expected.

6. You spend your time reporting to others.

Individual and institutional stockholders are entitled to a fair amount of background, so you risk spending too much time preparing reports and not enough time talking to customers.

5. Competitors see what you’re up to.

Being public means not only your shareholders know what you're doing, your competitors might too. They can easily listen in on your conference calls or read your public statements and figure out how you’re doing and what you’re planning for the future.

4. You risk becoming too big for your britches.

You may get the illusion that you’re worth a certain amount based on the public price of your stock holdings when in fact you’re not because your stock is thinly traded or closely held and any attempt to sell your shares would result in a dramatic decline in your stock price.

3. You may need to fire old friends.

You may have built your business with the help of a trusted accountant or lawyer whom you’ll need to fire in favour of a bigger and more expensive accounting or law firm that is recognized by the exchange.

2. You risk becoming thinly traded.

If your company is small, you may not be big enough to list on the big board. The smaller the stock exchange, the less liquidity and trading it offers. You’re left with all of the downside (publicity, disclosure) of being public and none of the upside (liquidity).

1. You have to deal with analysts.

The entrepreneurs I know covet their freedom, which is why they find it so hard to report to financial analysts. As a public company, you need analysts to follow you, but they demand information, which can feel much like a boss constantly looking for answers. So now you’re answering to a board and a group of inquisitive analysts.

What would you add to this list? If you run a public company, what else is frustrating? If you have decided to remain private, please use the comments section to tell us why.

Special to The Globe and Mail

John Warrillow is a writer, speaker and angel investor in a number of start-up companies. He writes a blog about building a valuable – sellable – company.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnWarrillow

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