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What Is an IPO? How Do IPOs Work?

By Inyoung Hwang · January 17, 2024 · 12 minute read

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What Is an IPO? How Do IPOs Work?

An IPO, or initial public offering, refers to privately owned companies selling shares of the business to the general public for the first time.

“Going public” has benefits: It can boost a company’s profile, bring prestige to the management team, and raise cash that can be used for expanding the business.

But there are downsides to going public as well. The IPO process can be costly and time-consuming, and subject the business to a high level of scrutiny.

Key Points

•   An IPO, or initial public offering, is when a privately owned company sells shares of the business to the general public for the first time.

•   Companies typically hire investment bankers and lawyers to help them with the IPO process.

•   Reasons for a company IPO include raising capital, providing an exit opportunity for early stakeholders, and gaining more liquidity and publicity.

•   Pros of an IPO include an opportunity to raise capital, future access to capital, increased liquidity, and exposure.

•   Cons of an IPO include costs and time, disclosure obligations, liability, and a loss of managerial flexibility.

IPO Definition

IPO stands for “initial public offering,” which marks the first time a private corporation offers its securities for sale to the public.

In such a process, a portion of the firm’s shares are transferred from private ownership by company insiders to public markets, so that both retail and institutional investors can buy IPO shares.

How Do IPOs Work?

To have an IPO, a company must file a prospectus with the 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 financial condition.

Behind the scenes, companies typically hire investment bankers and lawyers to help them with the IPO process. The investment bankers act as underwriters, or buyers of the shares from the company before transferring them to the public market. The underwriters at the investment bank help the company determine the offering price, the number of shares that will be offered, and other relevant details.

The company will also apply to list their stock on one of the different stock exchanges, like the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq Stock Exchange.

IPO Price vs Opening Price

The IPO price is the price at which shares of a company are set before they are sold on a stock exchange. As soon as markets open and the stock is actively traded, that price begins to go up or down depending on consumer demand, which is known as the opening price.

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History of IPOs

While there are some indications that shares of businesses were traded during the Roman Republic, the first modern IPO is widely considered to have been offered by the Dutch East India Company in the early 1600s. In general, the Dutch are credited with inventing the stock exchange, with shares of the Dutch East India Company being the sole company trading in Amsterdam for many years.

In the U.S., Bank of North America conducted the first American IPO, which likely took place in 1783. A report claims investors hiding cash in carriages evaded British soldiers to buy shares of the first American IPO.

Henry Goldman led investment bank Goldman Sachs’ first IPO — United Cigar Manufacturers Co. — in 1906, pioneering a new way of valuing companies. A challenge for retail companies at the time was that they lacked hard assets, as other big businesses like railroads had at the time. Goldman pushed to value companies based on their income or earnings, which remains a key part of IPO valuations today.

Why Does A Company IPO, or “Go Public”?

Answering the question, “what’s an IPO?” doesn’t explain why a company “goes public” — an important detail in the process. Because an IPO requires a significant amount of time and resources, a business probably has good reason to go through the trouble.

Raising Money

A common reason is to raise capital (money) for possible expansion. Prior to an IPO, a private company may procure funding through angel investors, venture capitalists, private investors, and so on.

A company may reach a size where it is no longer able to procure enough capital from these sources to fund further expansion. Offering sales of stock to the public may allow a company to access this rapid influx of investment capital.


💡 Quick Tip: Keen to invest in an IPO? Be sure to check with your brokerage about what’s required. Typically IPO stock is available only to eligible investors.

Exit Opportunity

An IPO may be a way for early stakeholders, such as angel investors and venture-capital firms, to cash out of their holdings. Venture-capital firms in particular have their own investors that need to provide returns for. IPOs are a way for them to transfer their share of a private company by selling their equity to public investors.

More Liquidity

Venture-capital firms and angel investors aren’t the only ones who may be seeking more liquidity for stakes in companies. Liquidity refers to the ease with which an investor can sell an asset. Stocks tend to be much more liquid assets than private-company stakes.

Hence, employees with equity options can also use IPOs as a way to gain more liquidity for their holdings, although they are usually subject to lock-up periods.

Publicity

From the roadshow that investment banks hold to inform potential investors about the company to when executives may ring the opening bell at a stock exchange, an IPO can bring out greater publicity for a company.

Being listed as a public company also exposes a business to a wider variety of investors, allowing the business to obtain more name recognition.

Pros and Cons of an IPO

As with any business decision, there are downsides and risks to going public that should be considered in conjunction with the potential benefits. Here’s a look at a few:

Pros

Cons

An IPO may allow a company to raise capital on a scale otherwise unavailable to it. It can use these funds to expand the business, build infrastructure, and to fund research and development. Public companies must keep the public informed about their business operations and finance. They are subject to a host of filing requirements from the SEC, from initial disclosure obligations to quarterly and annual financial reports.
After an IPO, companies can issue more stock, which can help with future efforts to raise capital. Companies and company leaders may be liable if legal obligations like quarterly and annual filings aren’t met.
IPOs increase liquidity, which allows business owners and employees to more easily exercise stock options or sell shares. Public companies must consider the concerns and opinions of a potentially vast pool of investors. Private companies on the other hand, often answer to only a small group of owners and investors.
Public companies may use stock as payment when acquiring or merging with other businesses. Public companies are under more scrutiny than their private counterparts, as they’re forced to disclose information about their business operations.
IPOs can generate a lot of publicity. Going public is time consuming and expensive.

Participating in an IPO: 3 Steps to Buying IPO Stock

steps to buying IPO stock

1. Read the Prospectus

IPOs can be hard to analyze: It’s difficult to learn much about a company going public for the first time. There’s not a lot of information floating around beforehand since when companies are private, they don’t really have to disclose any earnings with the SEC. Before an IPO, you can look at two documents to get information about the company: Form S-1 and the red herring prospectus.

2. Find Brokerage

If you want to purchase shares of a stock in an IPO, you’ll most commonly have to go through a broker. Some firms also let you buy shares at the offering price as opposed to the trading price once the stock is on the public market.

3. Request Shares

Once a brokerage account is set up, you can let your broker know electronically or over the phone how many shares of what stock you’d like to buy and what order type. The broker will execute the trade for you, usually for a fee, although many online brokerages now offer zero commission trading.

Who Can Buy IPO Stock?

Not everyone has the ability to buy shares at the IPO price. When a company wants to go public, they typically hire an underwriter — an investment bank — that structures the IPO and drums up interest among investors. The underwriter acquires shares of the company and sets a price for them based on how much money the company wants to raise and how much demand they think there is for the stock.

The underwriter will likely offer IPO shares to its institutional investors, and it may reserve some for other people close to the company. The company wants these initial shareholders to remain invested for the long-term and tries to avoid allocating to those who may want to sell right after a first-day pop in the share price.

Investment banks go through a relatively complicated process in part to help them avoid some of the risks associated with a company going public for the first time. It’s possible that the IPO could become oversubscribed, e.g when there are more buyers lined up for the stock at the IPO price than there are actual shares.

When Can You Sell IPO Stock?

Shortly after a company’s IPO there may be a period in which its stock price experiences a downturn as a result of the lock-up period ending.

The IPO lock-up period is a restriction placed upon investors who acquired company stock before it went public that keeps them from selling their shares for a certain period of time after the IPO. The lock-up period typically ranges from 90 to 180 days. It’s meant to prevent too many shares in the early days of the IPO from flooding the market and driving prices down.

However, once the period is over, it can be a bit of a free-for-all as early investors cash in on their stocks. It may be worth waiting for this period to pass before buying shares in a newly public company.

Things to Know Before Investing in an IPO

An IPO, by definition, gives the investing public an opportunity to own the stock of a newly public company. However, the SEC warns that IPOs can be risky and speculative investments.

IPO Market Price

To understand why investing in an IPO can be risky, it is helpful to know that the business valuation and offering price have not been determined not by the market forces of supply and demand, as is the case for stocks trading openly in a market exchange.

Instead, the offering price is usually determined by the company and the underwriters who negotiate a price based on an often-competing set of interests of involved parties.

Post-IPO Trading

Purchasing shares in the market immediately following an IPO can also be risky. Underwriters may do what they can to buoy the trading price initially, keeping it from falling too far below the offering price.

Meanwhile, IPO lock-up periods may stop early investors and company executives from cashing out immediately after the offering. The concern to investors is what happens to the price once this support ends.

Data from Dealogic shows that since 2010, a quarter of U.S. IPOs have seen losses after their first day.

IPO Due Diligence

Investors with the option to invest in an IPO should do so only after having conducted their due diligence. The SEC states that “being well informed is critical in deciding whether to invest. Therefore, it is important to review the prospectus and ask questions when researching an IPO.”

Investors should receive a copy of the prospectus before their broker confirms the sale. To read the prospectus before then, check with the company’s most recent registration statement on EDGAR, the SEC’s public filing system.

IPO Alternatives

Since the heady days of the dot-com bubble, when many new companies were going public, startups have become more disgruntled with the traditional IPO process. Some of these businesses often complain that the IPO model can be time-consuming and expensive.

Particularly in Silicon Valley, the U.S. startup capital, many companies are taking longer to go public. Hence, the emergence of so many unicorn companies — businesses with valuations of $1 billion or greater.

In recent years, alternatives to the traditional IPO process have also emerged. Here’s a closer look at some of them.

Recommended: Guide to Tech IPOs

Direct Listings

In direct listings, private companies skip the process of hiring an investment bank as an underwriter. A bank may still offer advice to the company, but their role tends to be smaller. Instead, the private company relies on an auction system by the stock exchange to set their IPO price.

Companies with bigger name brands that don’t need the roadshows tend to pick the direct-listing route.

SPACs

Special purpose acquisition companies or SPACs have become another common way to go public. With SPACs, a blank-check company is listed on the public stock market.

These businesses typically have no operations, but instead a “sponsor” pledges to seek a private company to buy. Once a private-company target is found, it merges with the SPAC, going public in the process.

SPACs are often a speedier way to go public. They became wildly popular in 2020 and 2021 as many famous sponsors launched SPACs.

Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding is collecting small amounts of money from a bigger group of individuals. The advent of social media and digital platforms have expanded the possibilities for crowdfunding.

The Takeaway

Initial public offerings or IPOs are a key part of U.S. capital markets, allowing private businesses to enter the world’s biggest public market. Conducting an IPO is a multi-step, expensive process for private companies but allows them to significantly expand their reach when it comes to fundraising, liquidity and brand recognition.

For investors, buying an IPO stock can be tempting because of the potential of getting in on a company’s growth early and benefiting from its expansion. However, it’s important to know that many IPO stocks also tend to be untested, meaning their businesses are newer and less stable, and that the stock price can fluctuate — creating considerable risk for investors.

Whether you’re curious about exploring IPOs, or interested in traditional stocks and exchange-traded funds (ETFs), you can get started by opening an account on the SoFi Invest® brokerage platform. On SoFi Invest, eligible SoFi members have the opportunity to trade IPO shares, and there are no account minimums for those with an Active Investing account. As with any investment, it's wise to consider your overall portfolio goals in order to assess whether IPO investing is right for you, given the risks of volatility and loss.


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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.

New offerings generally have high demand and there are a limited number of shares available for distribution to participants. Many customers may not be allocated shares and share allocations may be significantly smaller than the shares requested in the customer’s initial offer (Indication of Interest). For SoFi’s allocation procedures please refer to IPO Allocation Procedures.


Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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