Uber, other unicorns flopped on Wall Street

Uber, other unicorns flopped on Wall Street
Andrew Kelly/Reuters via CNN
In a year when the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen almost 20%, shattering one record after another, some newly public companies have been left in the cold.

In a year when the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen almost 20%, shattering one record after another, some newly public companies have been left in the cold.

Uber, Lyft and Slack all struggled due to questions about when (or if?) they will turn a profit. Beyond Meat and Peloton have endured some growing pains, too. WeWork blew up before even making it to Wall Street.

Will the Class of 2020 fare any better? The market is clearly looking to Airbnb, which is likely to be the most prominent unicorn to go public next year.

“Airbnb wil be next year’s Uber. The attention, hopes and dreams will all be put on them,” said James Gellert, chairman and CEO of RapidRatings, a research firm that analyzes the financial health of companies. But Gellert thinks Airbnb should fare better than Uber because it has stronger fundamentals and less competition.

Investors are also betting that food delivery service Postmates, trading app Robinhood and mattress seller Casper could make waves if they debut on Wall Street.

“2020 could be a good year for the IPO market. There is a tremendous pipeline. IPOs are not broken but the bar has changed. Before there was no bar,” said Santosh Rao, head of research at Manhattan Venture Partners, in an interview with CNN Business.

“Investors are now more demanding and want sustainable business models,” he added.

Rao is bullish on the prospects for Airbnb and Postmates if they go public next year. He’s also keeping a close eye on Postmates rival DoorDash, payments company Stripe, Big Data giant Palantir and Chinese ridesharing firm Didi.

But how these companies do will depend a lot on whether they give investors more of a say in how they are run.

Strong corporate governance is key

The WeWork debacle may have been the final nail in the coffin for start-ups that let their founders and CEOs set the agenda. For that reason, Gellert said, corporate governance will be an even more important issue than profitability in 2020.

“Tech companies have pushed the edges of the envelope with dual class stock listings and CEO/founder control,” Gellert said in an interview with CNN Business. “If you buy a share of a public company, you should have a vote and know what’s going on. So many tech IPOs flaunt the concept of transparency and shun investors’ rights. The market has gotten pretty sick of that.”

Lonne Jaffe, managing director of Insight Partners, a venture capital firm that backed Twitter and Shopify, agrees with that view.

“There is definitely an increased focus on governance and integrity. It’s front and center for all senior management teams at late stage companies,” Jaffe said, adding that start-up investors are also focusing on cybersecurity and privacy issues.

Pay attention to profit margins

Wall Street will still be paying close attention to the numbers as well as governance.

“Looking back at a couple of IPOs this year, some companies had a mismatch with regards to their growth expectations,” said Kevin Bianchi, an assurance partner with tax and financial advisory services firm BDO.

“Profit margins are going to be increasingly important for the next wave of unicorns. Growth at all costs will be ratcheted back,” he added.

Jaffe echoed that sentiment.

“The companies that are doing well are the ones where you look under the cover and they have strong fundamentals,” he said. “The markets are valuing fast growth but there’s nuance. They want quantitative metrics and not experimenting.”

Jaffe is looking for companies with high profit margins as well as declining costs.

Ultimately, the health of the IPO market depends largely on how the rest of Wall Street does. Some top unicorns struggled this year even though the Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq continue to power on to new record highs.

“Interest rates, recession fears and the bond markets…all of that is important. We escaped this year without major problems,” Gellert said. “But IPOs will be impacted by the broader market.”