It may not be the end of the big "concept" IPO, but the We Co.'s announcement Monday that it is shelving its IPO plans for the time being casts a pall over all the billion-dollar startups that were going to bring liquidity of various sorts to industries large and small.
We Co., parent to office leasing giant WeWork, said, a week after co-founder and CEO Adam Neumann relinquished the top spot, that it will "postpone our IPO to focus on our core business, the fundamentals of which remain strong."
The cessation of IPO efforts, at least for the moment, likely will lead to pressure on We's ability to invest, as TheStreet related last week. And the ripple effect in venture capital will surely be to put more pressure on a number of startup companies that have been betting on large amounts of funding for ambitious and costly business plans that aim to upend whole industries.
That could hit prominent IPO candidates, the so-called Silicon Valley "unicorns," those with valuations of a billion dollars or more, of which there is lately a glut, according to reports. Of course, that could mean Airbnb, the most prominent unicorn still not public, but it might also include smaller unicorns such as Rent the Runway, Keep Truckin, Sonder and Turo.
"Scaled-down ambitions by WeWork will have an impact on all the private companies that were looking to follow in its footsteps," says Pierre Ferragu, a partner with New Street Research in New York who has studied the investments of SoftBank (SFTBY) , the largest investor in We Work.
"As WeWork seeks a new growth profile in the private market, it will reduce the ambitions of all the unicorns that had been expecting to get a WeWork-sized valuation." Some startups, Ferragu suggests, may stay private for longer.
The startups most affected could be the biggest names, but the ripple effect may be focused on the common theme of creating liquidity in a variety of markets. We's big bets on real estate leases were an attempt to create a second marketplace for property that would enable tenants to move in and out of spaces. It's rather like how ride-sharing firms Uber (UBER) and Lyft (LYFT) create a more nimble inventory of available rides to bring greater supply to the marketplace.
One can see that kind of re-invention of supply in some of the more prominent unicorns. Airbnb, recently valued at $31 billion, according to reports, has of course up-ended the rental market by inducing people to place their owned or rented properties on its site for short-term occupancy, a shadow rental market. The company announced in mid-Sept. that it expects to go public in 2020.
There are also less-prominent names that have fired the imagination of investors with similar attempts to re-invent commerce. New York City-based Rent the Runway, for example, creates a permanent rental market for haute couture clothing by big-name fashion brands, allowing ordinary people to use garments they couldn't ordinarily afford. Another one is San Francisco-based Sonder, which is similar to Airbnb in finding short-term occupants, in this case for remnant hotel room inventory.
Yet another is San Francisco-based Turo, a car-sharing network that is an alternative to the car-rental business. It lets car owners advertise the short-term availability of their vehicles online to make extra cash from those who wish to use the vehicles for quick stints.
All these startups have something in common, which is that they view themselves as the future of various industries by taking remnant inventory, such as cars that would be in the garage or clothing that would be on the rack, and finding a new way to monetize it. That may be a very good thing for the economy over the long term, if it builds wealth in general.
But in order to fund those operations, companies doing similar things, such as We and Uber, have thus far required billions and billions of dollars and have yet to turn a profit. That kind of largesse may be less forthcoming in the wake of the We implosion. Which means all these supply-side reinventions are going to be re-assessed as far as their capital needs. The days of easy funding are over.
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