Initial public offering (IPO)

An initial public offering (IPO) is the first time a company sells its shares to the public on the stock exchange. Prior to an IPO, a company is private, with a small number of shareholders made up of founders and some key employees, venture capitalists or angel investors. Until a company’s stock is offered for sale on a stock exchange, the general public is unable to invest in it.

IPOs are also referred to as “flotations” and the process as “floating” or “going public”. It’s usually young companies who are trying to raise capital to expand or realise returns on their founder’s investments, but well-established firms also float.

Firms that are loath to float – as it involves giving up some autonomy and sharing sensitive information with the market – tend to use the debt market (bonds) for finance instead.

The advantages of going public include access to capital; the ability to use shares as a currency in future takeover deals; the ability to incentivise staff with shares; for founders to cash in value (“exit”); and to gain exposure and the credibility that goes with being public.

A privately-held company, however, does have some benefits that are forfeited by going public. For example, its owners do not have to disclose as much financial information or worry about fluctuations in their company’s share price.

These attractions, combined with the rise of plentiful private equity funding, have made going public less attractive to many founders (notably in the tech sector), at least until their companies are more mature.

This in turn has led to concerns about the shrinking of public markets, and about the fact that small investors are effectively being shut out of investing in some of the most attractive fast-growing companies around.

• See Tim Bennett’s video tutorial: A lesson from Facebook – avoid IPOs.