One of my first jobs out of college in the late 90s was with a company that went public two months after I started. It was an interesting phenomenon to experience and observe. Everyone at the company was living lavish lives, the exuberance of the excess.
And then the bubble burst.
I walked away with a general belief that has grown stronger with time: No matter how successful your startup is, you should never rush into going public and be at the whims of Wall Street without a very compelling reason, and this reason should primarily involve having limited options to accelerate your business’ growth.
There is a general perception that being a public company is desirable. The media love to feverishly cover IPOs because they can be unpredictable and volatile. Sometimes, there is a mass of newly minted millionaires, and other times, there can be huge disappointment and a debate over “what went wrong.” Those are the extremes, and they are indeed interesting to observe.
The reality is being a public company is often not desirable. Public companies are judged on quarterly performance, so in many ways, you are running your business with quarterly objectives as opposed to longer-term, more customer-centric goals.
Public company stocks, particularly if technological disruption is involved, go through extreme volatility. This occurs for reasons that can be traced back to internal execution, but also reasons that have only to do with the economy or other external forces out of your control.
There is inevitably great focus on the stock, and the multitude of related variables can create huge distractions that detract focus from the company, product and customer. Major and minor product and investment decisions must be explained in great detail, and pleasing shareholders can initiate decisions made to manage the volatility. This can have a lot of negative implications on time, resources, customers and employees, but most of all, your core business and product.
The first thing to note is that many companies are public because they didn’t have a choice. They needed capital or needed to repay a debt.
Oftentimes, companies use private capital to get started and achieve initial growth, but then that structure becomes unmanageable, and they need to raise equity capital. At times, in order to continue developing or scaling, taking the company public may be the only good option.
Other companies do it for the brand halo. Because IPOs garner so much attention from the media, having a moderately to highly successful IPO–even a not-so-successful IPO–can create awareness or a new level of interest to accelerate business growth. And at times, this growth can be enough to make the intense quarterly scrutiny worthwhile. But I think the companies that achieve this boost in growth are fewer and further between. It’s a difficult thing to bank on.
I started Credit Karma to help consumers understand and leverage their credit. The consumer credit industry is riddled with opaqueness, massive incumbents, and other players who are notorious for their bait-and-switch tactics, and this extensive history and general consumer distrust has created a paradigm ripe for disruption. We’re trying to change that.
But that sort of change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s been seven years since the company was founded, and while we’ve made great progress toward achieving our goals, there is still work ahead. The changes that we want to continue to instigate require slow and steady implementation, forging relationships that take time through trust and proof of concept.
This means that despite the facts that our user base and revenue could create a rather compelling IPO, it’s not in the company’s or the consumer’s best interest for Credit Karma to be public. If we had to focus on shareholders driven by quarterly reporting in the way that a public company does, our mission could be jeopardized.
Being privately held allows us to explore and experiment with our approach and product offerings, in order to ensure we’re doing what’s best for the consumer as opposed to best for the bottom line.
People sometimes ask what kind of culture I strive to develop at Credit Karma (a common Bay Area question), and it occurred to me that in many ways, I’m trying to recapture my youth and great pre-IPO times.
There is something exciting and incredibly rewarding about focusing, as a company and a team, on the purity of a bigger mission at hand. When everyone is focused on that and palpable success, it’s so exciting that the obstacles, challenges, or long hours don’t seem like bad things at all, because you’re surrounded by friends who are all in the same mindset you are in.
Some of my best friends today came through these experiences. That, to me, is the best thing about being at a startup, and the best thing about being a private company.
My advice to those of you wishing your company would or could go public is: enjoy the now.
—Ken Lin is the CEO and Founder of Credit Karma, a pro-consumer company dedicated to helping consumers better understand the power of their credit and overall financial health. Ken started Credit Karma, because he was tired of paying to see his own credit score. He knew there had to be a better, more transparent option for consumers.