Direct Listings vs. IPOs: How Are They Different?

By Laurel Tincher · May 18, 2024 · 7 minute read

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Direct Listings vs. IPOs: How Are They Different?

When you hear of a company “going public,” one route is via an initial public offering, or IPO — but a company can also go public through a direct listing, where no new shares are created and underwriters are not required.

Direct listings, also known as the direct listing process (DLP), direct placement, or direct public offering (DPO), are a way for companies to raise capital by selling existing shares without the complexity of engaging investment banks and other intermediaries.

While a direct listing is typically less expensive than an IPO, and typically there’s no lock-up period, there is a risk in direct listing shares without the support of underwriters.

Key Points

•   Direct listings allow companies to go public by selling existing shares without underwriters.

•   Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) involve issuing new shares and usually require underwriters.

•   Direct listings can be less costly and avoid lock-up periods unlike IPOs.

•   IPOs provide companies with support from underwriters, which can help stabilize share prices.

•   Direct listings offer immediate liquidity for existing shareholders, allowing them to sell shares directly to the public.

What Is the Difference Between Direct Listings and IPOs?

A direct listing is one method by which a company can list shares of stock on a public exchange such as the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) or Nasdaq directly, without using underwriters to create new shares, as you might with an IPO.

While some listing choices involve selling shares of stock to investors, IPOs and direct listings have many differences. The main difference between the two is that with an IPO a company issues and sells new shares of stock, while with a direct listing shareholders sell existing shares.

Comparing the Direct Listing and IPO Process

The differences between using a direct listing vs. an IPO to take a company public are pretty straightforward.

How a Direct Listing Works

If a private company is interested in going public, but doesn’t want the hassle of working with underwriters, they may choose to do a direct listing. With a direct listing, anyone who owns shares in the company can sell them directly to the public once the new company is listed on a public exchange. Shareholders may include investors, promoters, and employees.

By choosing a direct listing over an IPO, a company can avoid using an underwriter, which potentially saves money and time. Underwriters fulfill multiple roles in the IPO process, including working with the fledgling company to meet regulatory standards and set the initial price per share. These are important steps, but not necessary if a new company is only selling existing shares.

Further, because no new shares are created with a direct listing, existing shares won’t get diluted.

💡 Quick Tip: Access to IPO shares before they trade on public exchanges has usually been available only to large institutional investors. That’s changing now, and some brokerages offer pre-listing IPO investing to qualified investors.

How an Initial Public Offering Works

When a company offers shares of stock to the general public for the first time, it’s known as an initial public offering (IPO).

Before an IPO, a company is considered private, which means that shares of stock are not available for sale to the general public. Also, a private company is not generally required to disclose financial information to the public.

To have an IPO, a company must file a prospectus with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The company will use the prospectus to solicit investors, and it includes key information like the terms of the securities offered and the business’s overall financials.

Initial public offerings are a popular choice for companies looking to raise capital. The company works with an underwriter (typically part of an investment bank), who helps navigate regulations and figure out the initial price of the shares. They may also purchase shares from the company and sell them to investors (such as mutual funds, insurance companies, investment banks, and broker-dealers) who will in turn sell them to the public.

One benefit of working with an underwriter is the greenshoe option. This is an agreement that a company can enter into with the underwriter in which the underwriter has the right to sell a greater number of shares during the sale than they originally intended to, if there is a lot of market demand. This can help the company gain additional investment.

Working with an underwriter creates some security for the company, which is one reason so many companies go the route of the IPO.

Pros and Cons of Direct Listings

There are advantages and disadvantages for companies and investors when it comes to direct listings vs. IPOs.

Pros of a Direct Listing

Less expensive than an IPO for the company

Unlike IPOs, direct listings do not require underwriters, since no new shares are being created. Typically, an underwriter charges a fee between 3% and 7% per share. Depending on the scope of the IPO, these fees can add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

In addition, underwriters often purchase shares below their agreed-upon market value, so companies don’t receive as much investment as they may have had they sold those shares directly to retail investors.

No lock-up periods for shares

If a company goes through an IPO, existing shareholders are generally not allowed to sell their shares to the public during the sale and for a period of time following the sale. These lock-up periods are required in order to prevent stock prices from decreasing due to an oversupply.

The direct listing model is essentially the opposite, in which existing shareholders sell their stock to the public and no new shares are sold.

Provides liquidity for existing shareholders

Anyone who owns stock in the company can sell their shares during a direct listing.

💡 Quick Tip: Before opening any investment account, consider what level of risk you are comfortable with. If you’re not sure, start with more conservative investments, and then adjust your portfolio as you learn more.

Cons of a Direct Listing

There are also some potential drawbacks when it comes to direct listings.

Risk that shares won’t sell

With a direct listing, the amount of shares sold is based solely on market demand. Because of this, it’s important for a company to evaluate the market demand for its stock before deciding to go the route of a direct listing.

Companies best suited to direct listings are those that sell directly to consumers and have both a strong, recognizable brand and a business model that the public can easily understand and evaluate.

No help from underwriters with marketing and sales

Underwriters provide guarantees, promotion, and support during the listing process. Without an underwriter involved, the company may find that shares are difficult to sell, there may be legal issues during the sale, and the share price may see extreme swings.

No guarantee of stock price

Just as there is no guarantee that shares will sell, there is also no guarantee of stock price. In contrast, having an underwriter can help manage potentially extreme price swings.

This chart outlines the main points covered above.

Pros of Direct Listings

Cons of Direct Listings

Less expensive than an IPO Potential for initial volatility
No lock-up periods Risk that shares won’t sell
Liquidity for existing shareholders No help from underwriters
No stock price guarantee

The Takeaway

Direct listings are an appealing alternative to IPOs for private companies who want to go public, thanks in part to lower costs and reduced regulations. A direct listing may also be appealing to retail investors who want to purchase shares from companies that are going public.

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Why would a company do a direct listing?

A direct listing offers a more direct path to going public on a stock exchange. The company doesn’t have to issue new shares, as only existing shares get sold in a direct listing. This eliminates the need for intermediaries like underwriters.

Can anyone buy a direct listing stock?

Yes, investors can buy a direct stock listing as they would any other stock listed on an exchange.

Is a direct offering good for a stock?

Since direct listings bypass the middleman and eliminate the need for underwriters, they can be less expensive for a company vs. IPOs, but the lack of marketing support could hurt the stock price and initial sales.

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Investing in an Initial Public Offering (IPO) involves substantial risk, including the risk of loss. Further, there are a variety of risk factors to consider when investing in an IPO, including but not limited to, unproven management, significant debt, and lack of operating history. For a comprehensive discussion of these risks please refer to SoFi Securities’ IPO Risk Disclosure Statement. IPOs offered through SoFi Securities are not a recommendation and investors should carefully read the offering prospectus to determine whether an offering is consistent with their investment objectives, risk tolerance, and financial situation.

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