On Private Vs. Public Companies, Unicorns and Cannabis

Would you like to invest in Uber? Or how about Airbnb? Well it turns out that you can’t. If you’re a regular Joe or Jane investor, there are no shares to buy for either company, or for companies like Pinterest and SpaceX.

Which is strange considering that Uber, for instance, is valued at over $40 billion dollars … that’s more than the publicly-traded value of Chipotle (NASDAQ: CMG) and Whole Foods (NASDAQ: WFM) put together.

So why isn’t Uber public? Why isn’t Snapchat or Flipkart? The simple answer is because they don’t need to be. It used to be there was a phase of growth that required companies to conduct an IPO, and gain the commensurate benefits and burdens of a public stock listing. In order to get to the next level, you just had to reach out to the mass public and ask them to invest.

 

Economic Factors Changing the Rules

Several trade-winds have merged to make this not so true over the past few years. First and foremost, the technology and intellectual property-heavy business models we increasingly see today are able to scale immensely off a small starting point. Companies don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars in capital in the way they would if they were building say, cars or semiconductors.

Also, thanks to six years of monetary stimulus to help grow the economy, there is more money floating around looking for things to invest in than we’ve ever seen in our lives. That money looks around and sees bond rates at multi-generational lows. It sees stock valuations at the high end of historical ranges. It’s looking for a place to park and in the past few years it’s increasingly been finding its way to private companies.

 

The King of the Mountain is Behind the Curtain

Take Privateer Holdings, for instance. The private equity firm houses a supremely attractive collection of cannabis assets, run by top-flight managers and recently flush with cash after a high-profile $75 million capital raise. Unofficial valuations on Privateer Holdings, around $400 million, are equivalent to being worth more than any other publicly-traded company that deals directly in cannabis today.

So why aren’t they public? Should investors worry that they won’t ever be able to buy shares in the company that owns British Columbia-based cannabis producer Tilray, analytics site Leafly, and has exclusive 30-year rights to the Marley Naturals cannabis?

All potential investors in cannabis should be following the trend of public versus private company growth. With the cannabis industry just starting to take its first baby steps it would be a true shame if the best companies and ideas stayed trapped in private markets, where only the richest, best-connected people get to participate in most deals. By the time these companies went public, most of the huge investment gains would already be had.

The term “Unicorn” describes a billion dollar private company. It used to be that you didn’t see that sort of thing, hence the name. Now there are over 80 of these companies. Not only is that more than have ever existed at one point in time, it is more than twice the number that existed just last year. Several Silicon Valley power players have voiced alarm that this trend is going to end badly. It may be best to remain agnostic on their calls,  but there are fears that a clampdown on new private capital could happen right around the time that cannabis is ready to perform on the national and global stages.

 

Will Cannabis Industry Follow the Trend?

Unfortunately, right now the compass doesn’t clearly show which path the cannabis industry’s leaders will want to follow in coming years. Cannabis is already an outlier in many ways—illegal on the federal level, fragmented by state and no real banking support.

It also is a more capital-intensive industry than say, social media. This supports the notion that most cannabis companies, especially those looking to “touch the plant”, could look to have IPOs in a future where prohibition has ended on the federal level. By accessing public markets, these companies could raise large amounts of capital quickly, which they will likely see as the best way to fend off competition from new, larger entrants—Big Pharma/Tobacco/Alcohol.

 

The Downsides of Going Public

When a company goes public they subject themselves to the demands of shareholders. They have to compete for investor dollars with every other company out there. And if an investor doesn’t want to be around anymore, they can leave in an instant. Anyone who’s invested in the multitude of “penny stocks” within cannabis in the past year is well aware of this.

A company that chooses to stay private might not be able to raise quite as much cash, but they also won’t be forced to answer as many questions about what they’re doing with it, and when the fruits of prior plantings need to be evident. Yes, as an investor you can usually still “cash out” of private stock, but it takes extra time and effort, and there isn’t going to be any real liquidity to get you a fair, market-based price.

By staying private for as long as possible, cannabis companies can also help to protect their nascent intellectual property, and save millions on listing and regulatory fees. They may be growing like gangbusters, but if staying private is the best thing for the company itself, investors will have to respect that. It puts the onus back on the individual to gauge the overall growth of the industry and look for the best ways to benefit from the broad trends that will take decades to play out.

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