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The Road to IPO: CFO Greg Henry on Steering Couchbase Through its Public Debut
When Greg Henry joined Couchbase as CFO in 2016, he had considerable experience as a finance leader, having spent 14 years in various FP&A and divisional CFO roles at General Electric. Greg didn’t realize at the time that he was about to embark on a long and career-defining journey helping lead Couchbase through its public market debut on NASDAQ in July 2021.
Like many private company CFOs who had never taken a company public before, Greg found the IPO process to be a wholly different experience than his past leadership roles. He likened it to moving from the passenger seat to the cockpit, where he had to “fly the plane” himself. Learning valuable lessons along the way about how to get a company “public market-ready,” Greg focused on building buy-side and sell-side relationships, gathering the right people, honing processes, and preparing himself to lead as a public company CFO.
Greg received a lot of peer advice and support during his IPO journey from The Circle, and he was excited to share his knowledge back with his beloved CFO|Circle community. Here’s a recap of his “Ask Me Anything” conversation with his CFO peers.
Shifting the Narrative from IPO to Public Company Readiness
An IPO was on the horizon even before Greg arrived at Couchbase. The leadership team knew that a public debut was crucial for driving the next stage of company growth.
Because of this, Greg saw that there was a lot of internal anticipation around going public, which he felt might have been an unhealthy distraction for the company. Instead, he wanted to shift that narrative away from the IPO itself to focus more on “public company readiness.”
“For two years, we were constantly challenging the business and different teams – from IT to product to marketing and even physical security – to think about what they were doing to get the company public-market ready. We made it a key theme for the business.”
Greg added that he also challenged team members to think about what an IPO meant to them personally – with responses uncovering a lot about whether employees saw it purely as a financial liquidity event or something much more significant in their own career journey. As a leader, Greg knew that an IPO should be focused on taking the company and everyone in it to the next level of growth and that the team’s mindset was critical to their collective success.
Building Out the Finance and Legal Infrastructure
Greg knew that several pieces needed to be in place from a process perspective before an IPO could happen. Similar to what we heard from Robinhood about their IPO experience, Greg focused first on building out the finance leadership bench, specifically a rockstar Head of FP&A and Controller. Once those two key roles were in place, he helped them build out their teams, from the stock admin to the individuals that handle SEC reporting and equipped them with best-in-class systems for maximum leverage. Couchbase had experienced strong growth, but Greg felt it was critical that the sales and finance teams be able to accurately forecast several quarters of performance, “to know that when we put a number out there that we could deliver on it.” People and software were key ingredients in accurate forecasting.
Legal was the next big area Greg needed to tackle. When he joined, there were only a handful of people on the legal team. Over the next two years, he would nearly quadruple headcount, including an experienced Chief Legal Officer and four commercial and corporate attorneys. Looking back, Greg believes you can never have enough legal support in the lead up to an IPO.
Finding Co-Pilots Inside and Outside the Organization
Going back to his airplane analogy, Greg admits that being in the pilot’s seat for the first time during the IPO process was daunting. Despite his large public company experience, he was now in a position to see and influence every decision about the company.
“When you get into the IPO process, you’re not just doing air traffic control anymore; you take ownership of a lot of things you might not have ever been involved in.”
To help him navigate this process, Greg leaned on guidance of many people both inside and outside of the organization – including past and current board members, advisors, and his peers in the CFO|Circle.
“We’ve all experienced those gnarly situations where you didn’t want to go to just anyone for advice for fear that person might leak sensitive information. Having a list of good confidantes you can call up at any time with a question is really, really helpful.”
One of the key things that CFO peers and advisors helped Greg optimize was how best to leverage his CEO in the IPO process. By identifying what the CEO was amazing at – in this case, articulating the company’s business strategy and long-term vision – Greg was able to focus his CEO’s efforts in a particular swim lane of a very complex process.
The Importance of Establishing Buy-side and Sell-side Relationships
One of Greg’s biggest learnings from the IPO process (and one shared by Kim Jabal, former CFO of Unity) was the importance of building relationships with both the buy-side and sell-side.
On the buy-side, spending time with investors early can pay off in the long run. Hosting roadshows is a great way to test the waters of investor sentiment while also allowing you to pitch the story and evolution of your company. The earlier you begin the process, the easier those investor conversations will be down the road.
Similarly, on the sell-side, you’re going to want to spend a lot of time with the analysts that will ultimately be part of your underwriting syndicate. Performing that due diligence will help you be more strategic in establishing the lead managers and determining the proper allocation of shares between co-managers. You may also want to think through the dynamics of your syndicate, including any perceived inequity on the co-manager line that might sour relationships down the road.
Last but not least, Greg also encouraged his peers to develop relationships with counterparties that can help establish a more diversified cap table – especially when diversity is a key tenant of your company culture. Diversification could mean buy-side firms that work with underrepresented minority investors or even geographical areas like the Mid- or Southwest that the big banks tend to overlook. The focus on diverse board of directors representation is ever-growing, so thinking early about this transition is critical.
Congratulations to Greg for earning his wings and joining the growing class of CFOs that have taken their company public! If you’re interested in discovering more insights about IPO readiness and other topics private company CEOs and CFOs of growth stage companies care most about, we encourage you to apply to join The Circle.