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Startups Face Skepticism As They Move To Sell Shares To The Public

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

WeWork is putting off its initial public offering, meaning it will not be selling shares of its stock to the public anytime soon. The company leases office space and then rents that space out to other businesses. Not too long ago, it was seen as full of promise. But as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, investors are rethinking their love of new, high-growth companies with slim chances of making a profit anytime soon.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: WeWork has always had a definite Silicon Valley vibe. Its charismatic co-founder Adam Neumann favors black T-shirts with frayed collars. And when he speaks about the company's business, leasing workspace to young entrepreneurs and mature businesses, he has a casually messianic zeal. Here he is in 2017 at a conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM NEUMANN: Being surrounded by a group of like-minded individuals, being part of something bigger than yourself inspires people to work harder, spend more time at work and just have fun doing it.

ZARROLI: When WeWork announced its initial public offering, it generated lots of excitement. Then investors began looking at its books, and they didn't like what they saw. Not only was WeWork burning through billions - much more than anyone thought - but its corporate structure and Neumann's leadership were fraught with problems.

Lise Buyer is founder of Class V Group, which advises companies about IPOs.

LISE BUYER: The terms were so egregious. The governance was an embarrassment. And it took magic - it took a leap of faith greater than the Grand Canyon to see how that business could be profitable anytime soon.

ZARROLI: Last week, Neumann was ousted as CEO. And today, the company said it was shelving its IPO.

IPOs are supposed to be a way for new companies to raise a lot of money in the stock market. But lately, some high-profile offerings have become duds. The Hollywood power player Endeavor Group also scrapped its IPO last week. Companies such as ride-hailing giant Uber and Peloton, which streams exercise classes, started with a lot of buzz. But almost right away, their stock price fell victim to gravity.

Lise Buyer says investors have become much more skeptical about young companies that aren't turning a profit and don't know when they will.

BUYER: Investors are less willing to believe in the smoke and mirrors and, trust us; someday this will happen. And they want to understand what needs to happen between today and Day X.

ZARROLI: This shift in sentiment calls to mind the dot-com boom of 20 years ago, when investors threw all kinds of money at young startups, only to lose their shirts when the market crashed. The IPO market is nowhere near that bad today.

Renaissance Capital has an IPO investment fund, and it's still up for the year, but it's fallen 12% since the end of July. Renaissance co-founder Kathleen Smith says the mood on Wall Street has definitely changed.

KATHLEEN SMITH: Investors basically said, no more. And I would characterize it as an IPO buyers strike or a boycott of IPOs that look like the ones that have been failures so far.

ZARROLI: Smith says this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Investors are getting more realistic. She says, eventually, the IPO market will rebound, but it will take a while.

SMITH: We anticipate that the IPO market will be pretty much virtually shut down for the next couple months.

ZARROLI: As for WeWork, the company says it plans to do another IPO later, though it's not saying when. That means it's not going to get the huge infusion of cash that it was hoping for anytime soon. And The Wall Street Journal reported today that it will have to compensate by laying off thousands of employees and selling off Neumann's $60 million corporate jet.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.