Friday, February 20, 2009

Bridgewater Systems: The Challenges of Mature Start-Ups

I’ve been fascinated by the recent press surrounding Ottawa-based Bridgewater Systems, whose current circumstances illustrate well the challenges of a public start-up.

Bridgewater is one of the last Ottawa telecom start-ups to attract significant venture capital, from Vengrowth, EagleOne/Newbury, Terry Matthews’ Wesley Clover and even from strategic investor Alcatel-Lucent, among others. The company had been publicly contemplating an IPO since the early 2000s, before finally biting the bullet in 2007, driven in part by the desire of some of its VCs to generate some cash from their investment.

Here’s where things get interesting. Despite becoming a public company, Bridgewater’s board post-IPO looks more like a private board - comprised of VC nominees, management and in one case a strategic consultant to the business. Great set of board members, but their strengths all appear to lie on the operational side. Which perhaps explains why the Company appears to have left itself without any defensive mechanisms to stave off the overtures of hedge funds such as Crescendo Partners.

Why is being a target an issue? It’s not, if you think your company’s stock is trading at a reasonable value. But whose is at the moment? Even in the best of cases, boards today who have received attractive offers from hedge funds find themselves unable to make a recommendation to their shareholders, due to the reluctance of advisors to give fairness opinions in support of that recommendation.

Public company boards often have in place tools that allow them to slow down or discourage proxy fights to ensure that the best price is obtained in these kinds of circumstances. At our firm, we try to ensure that our public clients understand the kinds of shareholder defenses that can be put in place from day one following an IPO - from the simplest (staggered board terms, which make it hard to replace the entire board in a proxy fight) to a shareholder rights plan and beyond.

As more and more start-ups making the transition to the public markets to accommodate the liquidity needs of their VCs, shareholder defenses are becoming a start-up issue, too. Public company boards differ from those of private ones in that they must split their focus between (a) oversight of operations and (b) awareness of stock market dynamics and how they might affect shareholder value. It’s important to expand the skill set of any company as it transitions from private to public to include someone who understands proxy fights and market dynamics.

The irony here is that companies like Bridgewater, who spent their formative years working towards an exit for their first backers, may well find themselves on the liquidity merry-go-round once more. Hedge Funds generally seek the same return on investment within the same time frame as VCs. Stay tuned.