The rise of low-margin, no-margin unicorns

Yesterday evening, Vroom, a digital used car retailer, priced its IPO at $22 per share, a figure that was a full $7 above the low end of its first proposed IPO price range. The venture-backed firm first proposed a $15 to $17 per-share IPO price range, which it later raised to $18 to $20 per share.

Pricing at $22 per share meant that there was strong demand for the company’s equity during its IPO process. Pricing strength doesn’t guarantee performance as a public company, but it does provide a proxy for investor interest.

TechCrunch has covered a few IPOs lately, noting along the way that some recent offerings have featured heavy financial backing and incredibly slim margins. Not profit margins, mind, those don’t exist for the firms we’re talking about — we’re discussing gross margins, the most basic element of corporate profitability.

Gross margins are part of why software companies are so valuable. Their incredibly strong gross margins make their revenues, and therefore their operations, attractive to investors; higher gross margins mean more money left over to cover expenses and redistribute to shareholders via dividends and buybacks. Lower gross margin businesses, in contrast, have less money once they are done paying for revenue costs, making it harder for those companies to cover operating costs, let alone give away leftover funds to their owners.

So it has been to our surprise that Kingsoft Cloud, Vroom, and, soon, Lemonade are seeing such strong responses. It’s perhaps even more surprising that these companies managed to raise as much private capital as they did in their youth, despite not sporting gross margins that track with what we expect from venture-backed, tech and tech-ish companies.

With markets at all-time highs — and thus comparable valuations contentedly stretched — it’s probably a great time to take low-margin, growth-y companies public. But that doesn’t mean the situation makes perfect financial sense.

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