January 8, 2020

IPOs: WeWork a Game Changer for 2020’s Unicorns?

I’ll admit to a certain bias here, but to me 2019’s two greatest fiascos were the performance of my Cleveland Browns & the aborted WeWork IPO.  While early returns suggest that nobody affiliated with the Pumpkin Helmets has learned anything from their disastrous 2019 campaign, this recent PitchBook article says that VCs actually may have learned a thing or two from WeWork.  The article suggests that their hard earned wisdom may be a game changer for the IPO class of 2020:

The collapse of WeWork shook up Silicon Valley, and it will likely mean elevated levels of scrutiny for any unicorn that’s planning to go public in 2020, a list that could include names like Airbnb, DoorDash and GitLab.

Taken as a whole, the debacle was the single biggest cause of a reckoning among VCs and startups that occurred in the final months of the year. It brought a renewed focus on profitability (or at least the potential thereof), as well as questions about whether VCs have become too founder-friendly and pushback against SoftBank-style excess used to finance explosive growth at all costs.

Silicon Valley seems to be embracing a newfound austerity, and WeWork deserves much of the credit—or much of the blame.

With its hockey-stick growth, heavy losses and extremely founder-friendly share structure, WeWork was a lot like some of the other unicorns that went public earlier in the year (including names like Lyft and CrowdStrike), only more so. In recent years, VCs had accepted that red ink and bowing at the feet of founders were the prices they had to pay to get in on rounds being raised by the hottest startups. But WeWork showed what can happen when those trends reached their logical endpoint.

The article says that Wall Street’s new-found unwillingness to buy into the fever-dream valuations of these companies appears to have woken VCs up to the risks associated with dumping piles of cash into money-losing ventures with governance provisions designed to cater to the whims of diva founder CEOs. If so, good for them.

On the other hand, I guess we’ll just have to see whether the Browns have learned anything about catering to the whims of their own underachieving divas. We fans have two decades of reasons to be skeptical about that.

SOX 404: Point & Counterpoint on Auditor Attestations

Over on Radical Compliance, Matt Kelly recently blogged about the status of the SEC’s proposed changes to the accelerated filer definition – which would have the effect of increasing the number of companies that would not have to comply with SOX 404(b)’s auditor attestation requirement for their reports on ICFR.

The blog notes that Corp Fin Director Bill Hinman’s recent comments at the AICPA suggest that a final rule should reach the SEC soon, and also acknowledges that proponents of the rule change have a point when they talk about the disparate impact of compliance costs on smaller companies:

Smaller companies devote much more of their revenue to audit fees. For example, if you’re a firm with $10 million in annual revenue, for every $1,000 that comes in the door, $29.70 goes back out to your audit firm. For a company with $50 billion in revenue, that amount is just 57 cents.

What’s more, the burden on smaller companies has increased substantially over the past decade. The blog says that in 2007, a hypothetical $10 million firm devoted only $17.73 to audit fees for every $1,000 in revenue. But it goes on to say that the increase isn’t necessarily just attributable to SOX 404 compliance – there have been substantial changes to financial reporting over that same time period.

While acknowledging the cost disparity, the blog also says that smaller companies are more likely to have weaker internal controls than larger firms, and that’s what Section 404(b) audits are meant to address. So, while changes may decrease some companies’ audit costs, they’re also likely to lead to more restatements – the cost of which will be borne by investors.

Materiality: Executive Health Disclosures

Over on “The Mentor Blog,” I recently blogged about a WSJ opinion piece by 2 Stanford profs addressing disclosures about executive health.  Now Fenwick & West has prepared this 12-page memo diving into the details of the various issues surrounding whether disclosure about executive health is appropriate & suggesting some best practices for dealing with these issues.  It’s definitely worth reading.

Tomorrow’s Webcast: “The Latest – Your Upcoming Proxy Disclosures”

Tune in tomorrow for the webcast – “The Latest: Your Upcoming Proxy Disclosures” – to hear Mark Borges of Compensia, Alan Dye of Hogan Lovells and, Dave Lynn of and Morrison & Foerster and Ron Mueller of Gibson Dunn discuss all the latest guidance – including the latest SEC positions – about how to use your executive & director pay disclosure to improve voting outcomes and protect your board, as well as how to handle the most difficult ongoing issues that many of us face.

John Jenkins