Hans Leybaert slept surprisingly well the night before taking his company Unifiedpost public; the biggest moment of his career.
By then, he was out of juice, with the lead up to the initial public offering (IPO) having tired him out.
“We felt the threat that there would be a global correction on the stock exchange just before we went public”, says Leybaert, speaking a week after Unifiedpost’s listing — Belgium’s first tech IPO. "That created some pressure.”
As it goes, Leybaert didn’t need to lose any sleep. Although European stock markets dropped 4% the day before the listing, UnifiedPost — which offers cloud platform solutions for identity and payment services — raised €252m and left Leybaert in high spirits. He even got to ring the bell in person, with Belgium having partially relaxed its coronavirus restrictions.
A week later, with the IPO adrenaline settling down, Leybaert spoke to Sifted about the gamble of taking his company public, which was the culmination of three years prep.
Here are his top lessons and takeaways.
Step 1: Get the team ready
Unifiedpost began preparing for a public listing back in 2017, when it enrolled on the TechShare pre-IPO programme, run by pan-European stock exchange Euronext.
The programme was a year long, encompassing several workshops on everything from legal to governance. According to Leybaert, TechShare helped the various attending team members begin to conceptualise a future as a public company.
“For them, it was a real introduction of what this could mean for the company,” Leybaert says.
“Of course, after you’re in the programme, it’s a lot of hard work… The process takes a while. But [the programme] is a good introduction. Colleagues could feel the impact.”
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Unifiedpost began preparing for the IPO within months of finishing the TechShare programme, and says it would have listed earlier if it hadn’t been for coronavirus.
So far, seven alumni from TechShare's different cohorts have gone public.
Step 2: Think first. Don’t do an IPO if it’s just for the exit
The IPO route was the only real option to fuel turbo-growth at Unifiedpost, which is reported to turn over €70m in annual revenue and counts BMW and Nike among its clients (as well as thousands of SMEs).
Meanwhile, an acquisition was off the cards because of the nature of the business, says Leybaert.
“One of the main reasons for doing an IPO was we wanted to stay an independent company. Our model is based on a lot of partnerships, so being bought would not fit the agenda,” he told Sifted.
The only other consideration was to raise a large amount of growth equity from private capital firms. But that was not attractive either because, Leybaert says, “you are not in the driver’s seat anymore.”
For Unifiedpost then, the decision to IPO was clear, despite some of its peers — including Funding Circle — having faced a tough time on the public markets.
“On Euronext Brussels, we are the first [fintech listing]. So there's not a lot of examples here,” Leybaert laughed
“But I don't look to other companies, we look to ourselves… The investor base we have selected [to buy public shares] is one with a long-term agenda. So we try to avoid hedge funds who play with the stock too much.”
Leybaert insists that the company's early investors did not put pressure on the team to list in order to cash out, noting that many have retained their stake since it went public.
“If you see [an IPO] just as an exit, it's dangerous,” he tells Sifted, arguing that companies should only go public if they believe they’re on a growth journey.
“It's really important you believe you will be a growing company... If you do it for the wrong reasons, it becomes a disaster.”
Step 3: Choose the exchange wisely
The next big consideration after deciding whether to do an IPO is where to list.
US exchanges have growing appeal among European tech companies like Checkout.com and Klarna, who already say they would rather list stateside than in local exchanges.
Certainly, American public investors have historically been more bullish than in the UK, meaning tech companies have often secured higher valuations in New York than in London or Paris.
But there are signs of a changing tide after The Hut Group’s record-breaking listing in London last month, and Unifiedpost’s early signs of success on the public market.
Leybaert says the decision to list locally in Belgium with Euronext made perfect sense.
"We are a Belgian company, so for us, it was a logical step to go public on the Brussels stock market. That local aspect in combination with the international allure of Euronext made it obvious for us that a listing here is the most interesting, now and for the company’s future ambitions,” he says.
“[In fact] the book building filled up immediately... The commercial interest was there."
Step 4: Sit back and enjoy the music… but not for too long
Unifiedpost may only be one week into life as a public company, but Leybaert is already keen to knuckle down.
“Everyone says you have to celebrate. That's ok for one or two days but then it’s back to business,” he laughs.
The IPO, Leybaert reminds himself, is just the start of a more gruelling growth journey.
For now, even the celebrations have been an understated affair, with coronavirus precautions limiting the afterparty to a small group of just 30 team members.
But party or not, Leybaert knows he has plenty to celebrate.
The IPO has proven an early success; he’s received clear endorsement from new stakeholders to continue as CEO — and, of course, he’s finally gotten his sleep back.
Euronext is the leading pan-European exchange, covering Belgium, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal, with close to 1,500 listed issuers worth €3.8tn in market capitalisation as of end June 2020. Euronext is also the largest listing venue for tech companies in Europe with 477 tech issuers. Euronext’s mission is to support and help companies through and along their financing journey from before the listing through to the completion of the operation.