Unicorn exits augur poorly as Justworks delays IPO, citing ‘market conditions’

Justworks, a venture-backed software startup focused on the HR market for small and medium-sized businesses, announced earlier today that it would delay its IPO. In a statement to TechCrunch, Justworks said that it “decided to delay its IPO due to market conditions at this time.”

An IPO delay is just that, a public debut pushed back. But Justworks’ decision to put its public offering on temporary hiatus comes on the heels of rapid declines in the value of recent technology debuts employing traditional IPOs, SPACs and direct listings. Even more, Justworks’ now-delayed IPO follows a selloff in the value of software and technology shares more generally.

Is there something bigger afoot than one company’s stumble?

Reading the tea leaves

The Justworks IPO delay is the latest data point in what could be a worsening exit market for unicorns. Otherwise, we wouldn’t make a fuss.

Why? Sometimes when a private company wants to go public, it finds that public-market investors are not willing to buy its shares at the price it had in mind. By taking more time, the IPO hopeful can tidy up its numbers, perhaps answering some of its critics head-on with results or business tweaks. Once the company has tuned its performance and image, it can try to float once again.

Such a private-public disconnect can stem from a gap between a company’s results, what it thinks they are worth, and the public market’s view of the particular firm in question. Alternatively, a similar disconnect can arise from the public markets simply being on a different page regarding valuations than the private markets. Our read of the Justworks news is that it’s likely dealing with at least the latter issue, and perhaps the former as well.

The possibility of a gap between how private investors value growth-focused tech companies and how the stock market values those companies matters because of how many richly valued tech startups need to find an exit in the coming year. In bad news for those companies, a number of factors likely made Justworks’ IPO timing difficult, hinting that other unicorns could also struggle to exit in today’s investing climate.