Pando

The best hope for reviving tech IPOs is... Twilio?

By Kevin Kelleher , written on June 1, 2016

From The IPOs Desk

What's it going to take to get the tech IPO market moving again?

A brand-name company going public? A startup thriving in a growing market? A compelling story of growth? A well-known CEO? A profitable company? All of the above?

In the past couple of years, underwriters have ushered in startup after startup into the public markets, but none of them – GoPro, Box, Fitbit, Square – managed to whet investor appetite the way Netscape did in 1995 or Google did nearly a decade later. Instead, interest in tech IPOs ground to a halt earlier this year during a period of global financial turmoil.

Now the stock market is starting to look stable again. In April, SecureWorks ended the tech IPO drought with its offering and has since traded sideways. In May, Acacia Communications debuted and has since risen 70 percent from its $23 a share offering price. Two other recent IPOs are sometimes counted as tech and sometimes categorized in other industries: Yintech Investment, which operates commodity exchanges, and Cotiviti, which offers payment solutions for healthcare companies.

In the past three weeks, 13 companies have gone public on US exchanges, including Acacia and Cotiviti. All of this suggests there's a growing if tentative interest among investors in returning to IPOs. Now if underwriters could just find the right company to get momentum started, it could pave the way for more tech IPOs. While the best known private candidates, like Uber and Airbnb, still aren't having trouble raising capital in private markets, there are likely second- or third-tier of companies struggling to arrange new private rounds and therefore more willing than ever to try for an IPO.

Breaking any such logjam means taking public a new Netscape or a new Google -- or failing that, a company with a foot in a growing market and a compelling case that it can grow profits for a long time. SecureWorks failed to generate much interest, especially after it priced at $14 a share, below its initial offering range. Now the best hope for reviving tech IPOs is Twilio.

Twilio isn't a household name, but its technology can be found inside the apps or services of many well known companies. It offers messaging, voice, video and authentication as add-on services the way Amazon offers cloud computing as a service – as a set of building blocks that can scale up or expand globally as needed. In the past, companies would often need to arrange their own communications infrastructure and deal with different carriers as they moved into new markets.

Uber uses Twilio to update customers about their ride requests, according to Twilio's S-1. WhatsApp uses it to authenticate new users round the world, OpenTable to receive and remind users of their dinner reservations, Nordstrom to handle customer service through texts, the American Red Cross to text emergency responders during crises. A group of clinicians relied on Twilio's technology to set up a service that detects via phone calls early signs of Parkinson's.

People may be using Twilio's communications platform without ever having heard of the company's name. It's better known among developers. Twilio has signed up 900,000 developer accounts and has 28,000 active customer accounts. That has contributed to rapid revenue growth. Revenue in 2014 grew 78 percent to $88 million. That growth rate accelerated slightly to 88 percent in 2015 as revenue reached $167 million. In the first three months of this year, revenue grew by 78 percent to $59 million.

What Twilio doesn't have is a profit. That's not unusual for growing startups planning an IPO, but whether investors accept or reject such losses often depends on the broader market's health. In Twilio's case, the company has an accumulated loss to date of $152 million. The loss as a percentage of revenue is declining. Net loss was equal to 11 percent in the first quarter of 2016, down from 26 percent a year earlier.

Twilio is planning on expanding internationally, which could keep its revenue growing but also delay profitability longer than many investors would like. One encouraging sign is that Twilio's core operations, which had been burning cash for the past three years, swung to being cash flow positive in the last quarter. If that continues, Twilio could fund part of its expansion with its own operations. Another encouraging sign: While Twilio is looking to raise more cash with the IPO, the company has $103 million in cash on hand after raising $130 million in a Series E round last July.

The biggest risk facing Twilio may be its increasingly competitive environment. Cisco and Avaya offer similar services. In fact, Cisco bought Tropo, which has its own cloud-communication platform, last summer. A major customer like WhatsApp, which accounted for 17 percent of Twilio's revenue last year, could be gone in an instant if Facebook took authentication in-house or switched to another vendor.

For now, Twilio has an early foothold in a growing area of the enterprise cloud. Communications is becoming a more important part of the corporate workplace, whether it's in-house collaboration or communicating with customers. Twilio isn't the blockbuster IPO Wall Street may have been hoping for: It lacks the strong brand and profit growth investors prefer. But if might be enough to get the tech IPO market into a higher gear. Which, considering the standstill of early 2016, may not be the worst thing.