Get Ready for ‘the Best IPO Market Since the Dotcom Boom’

After years of avoiding the public markets, Silicon Valley suddenly has IPO fever. Snap’s (SNAP) successful debut, paired with solid early performances from MuleSoft (MULE) and Okta (OKTA), has investors—both the Wall Street kind and the Sand Hill Road kind—making squee sounds of excitement.

They’re so exuberant, one VC even declared on CNBC that this year “could be one of the best for the IPO market since the dotcom boom.” It may be the first time anyone has referenced the 1999–2000 tech bubble as aspirational.

But pinch-yourself valuations aren’t the only thing today’s IPO candidates have in common with their dotbomb forebears: They’re also losing money. Snap, which lost $515 million last year but is currently valued at $24.5 billion, is a particularly egregious offender. But enterprise technology companies Cloudera, Okta, and MuleSoft also disclosed 2016 losses of $187 million, $83.5 million, and $50 million, respectively.

And as in 1999, more often than not, no profit is no problem. On its first day of trading, Okta stock surged 38%. Public-market investors are desperate for a growth story (any growth!), and these highly valued, venture-backed startups are giving them exactly that.

That any CEO at a hot startup is willing to consider going public is a stark turnaround from the past five years. On the stages of posh tech conferences, when asked “Will you IPO?” the CEOs of billion-dollar startups would answer, essentially, “Why?”

For the money? They didn’t need that. Investors like sovereign wealth funds, family offices, mutual funds, and hedge funds—relative newbies who didn’t dabble in startups before the current boom—were keeping startups flush and well stocked with free organic snacks.

For the attention? Startups’ billion-dollar valuations and resulting membership in the “unicorn club” got them plenty of that (see the aforementioned posh conference stages, as well as magazine covers and TV hits).

Meanwhile, there were plenty of reasons not to IPO: To startup founders, going public meant jumping through hoops to get a bunch of bean-counting Wall Streeters to see their world-changing vision, diluting their ownership, and paying massive banker fees for the privilege. And if it was successful, their reward would be earnings reports, every quarter, for the rest of time, while a bunch of high-frequency trading bots threaten to tank the stock anytime the company ­misses its overly lofty revenue projections or an employee tweets something dumb.

Some startup execs have discussed perma-private scenarios like reverse IPOs or dividends for investors. What if they never had to go public, just like Peter Pan never had to grow up?

And yet today the IPO pipeline for venture-backed tech companies looks healthier than it has in years. Part of the reason is that there aren’t as many buyers willing to tolerate big losses from unicorns as there are unicorns losing money. Some founders have tried to sell their startups and found no buyers willing to pay their inflated valuations. And some venture investors are losing patience waiting for a return on their investments. Even the “new money” investors are becoming more selective—that’s forcing all but the top-tier companies to turn to the public market for cash.

For regular investors, this means they can now get a piece of these rarefied high-growth startups and all the risk and reward that entails. For startups, it means more disclosure, perhaps leading to greater accountability for the Valley’s disrupters. And it signals a sea change in the tech world. So far this year, six startups have left the billion-dollar unicorn list, while a paltry 10 have joined it, according to CB Insights. The Age of Unicorns appears to be coming to a close.

The IPO Status Report


Snap: With a $24.5 billion market cap after its March IPO, Snap could pave the way for more tech unicorns to make public debuts.

Okta: Shares of the cloud-software provider were up 38% during its first day of trading, in April.

MuleSoft: The software firm went public in March and is now worth nearly $3 billion.


Spotify: The music streaming giant reportedly aims to go public before the end of the year, but may use a direct listing to do so rather than an IPO.

Blue Apron: The meal-kit titan has hired Goldman Sachs to lead it to the public market by year-end.


Dropbox: It’s not official, but the company is reportedly meeting with banks in preparation for its IPO filing.

Palantir: CEO Alex Karp has said that he’s “philosophically” opposed to an IPO but that it now may be the “simplest” thing to do.

Qualtrics: The enterprise survey company just completed a “pre-IPO” round of funding.

Maybe Next Year

Uber: Recent bad press could further delay an IPO at the company, whose CEO has said he wants to stay private for as long as “humanly possible.” (Click here for more on Uber.)

Airbnb: The company turned its first profit in the second half of 2016. But Airbnb’s leadership says it will ­probably wait at least another year to go public.

A version of this article appears in the May 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Goodbye, Unicorns. Hello, IPOs!”

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