Lise Buyer: IPO Consultant

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This week, we interviewed Lise Buyer, an IPO consultant. Don’t know what that means? Don’t worry, we didn’t either! Simply put, she helps companies go public, or become publicly traded and owned entities. You might know her for helping take Google public, but she has done so much more than that. Here, she gives great advice about when it’s time to quit, and how to watch yourself when you’re working in a demanding job. Keep reading to learn from this funny and brilliant woman about what it’s like to start your own firm, work in finance, and be the boss.

So, let’s jump right in if that works for you! What is your official job title?
I am a partner at the Class Five (ClassV) which is an IPO advisory firm, and what that means is we help emerging companies that want to go public think about the strategic decisions they need to make, everything from which bankers to hire to how much to pay them, to how they need to tell their story in such a way that it will resonate with investors, to what investors they need to meet. And kind of everything in between.

Can you elaborate on specific duties that you have at the ClassV Group?
Sure! So, I started the company in 2007, which I might add was maybe not the most perfect time to start a company dealing with the capital market. I made the decision to keep the company quite small because I didn’t really want to be a in a management position, I wanted to be in a front line position. I literally go in and meet with companies and try to figure out why they want to go public... And once I have an understanding of that, then I spend a lot of time with the CEO and the CFO, and sometimes the board, helping them figure out what kind of strategy will accomplish their specific goal or transaction.

I usually stay with a client for almost a year to fifteen months. Part of the process is sitting down with management and literally doing training on how to give the presentation most effectively. There’s dealing with the lawyers—how we say what we want to say about the company’s projected growth trajectory. I guess the short answer is that there’s lot of meetings, there’s lots of doing research about others, there’s different meetings with different groups at different times and there’s a lot of phone calls. It’s a mix of all of those.

Sounds busy! Can you take me through your career and explain how you got to be an IPO consultant?
I [was] a geology major. I wanted to go work with rocks, but the job offers that I got coming out of school were “Go visit a mobile home in Texas and read the output of something called well logs or go get a masters in geophysics.” I didn’t really want to do either of those things I thought, “Well, I’ll go to business school cause business seemed interesting.”

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[I] fell in love with being an equity trader because those people have to make decisions all day and they have 30% of the information that would be helpful, but they decide anyway. I interviewed at Goldman Sachs and they had had two females in the equity trading department. And so I thought “I can do this!” I thought that was going to be a dreadfully boring job [... but] it ended up being the job of equity analyst which I found to be fascinating.

Then I realized that there were some companies that sold technology products. The key observation was that people understood technology but they didn’t understand retail. Or people understood retail but they didn’t understand technology and how it was profitable. What happened was along came the internet, and this is early internet, this is 1995. There are no public internet companies yet. But, one time I was walking into a lecture.. and I heard these people talking about new emerging companies and things like, “a browser” and “email” and ... this was one of those moments where it just dawned on me that this was really something profound...And so that triggered in me the thought that I actually had to pick up and move to California and understand what was going on.

So I get out here (California) and I was dumbfounded to see that while Venture Capitalists (VCs) thought VCs were the pinnacle of all knowledge, in fact the vast majority of VCs at that time didn’t know any more than I did, they just thought they did. I thought, “I better go get a job in a private company. I will never be a good VC.” So I called a bunch of people. One of the people I called was a person whom I’d known at his previous job, and he’d just landed at this interesting search engine company. I gave him a call and said, “Hey, have I got a deal for you! I don’t know anything about how a finance department works [... but] If you put me to work in your finance department, I will pay you back for that education when the time comes for you to go public by helping you navigate the nuances.’” And I was very fortunate in that they hired me and of course, yes, the company turned out to be Google.

But what I didn’t know is that they would want to do an IPO that was going to be different from any IPO that had been done before. They wanted to do X and I would say, “You can’t do X!” and they would say, “Why?” and I would say, “Well, cause that’s not how it’s done!” and they would look at me as if I had three heads and say, “So what?” That forced me to take apart literally every step of the IPO process to figure out what we did because it was tradition and what we did—we meaning companies we took public—what we did because that’s what the companies before us had done.

I stayed at Google through their IPO, [and] ten years ago I set up a business...Now, I walk into buildings and say “Oh, look at those lovely granite walls!” I guess the take-away should be, “Boy was my past random but I wouldn’t change any of it.”

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Do you think there’s certain traits that you have, personality-wise, that have helped you succeed in investment banking and IPO consulting?
Yes. I think I was very fortunate to grow up in a house where you learned to ask questions about things. And then I certainly got more of that at Wellesley. Don’t take it at face value, ask questions. Don’t be obnoxious—or not more than you have to be. But I literally think my biggest skill is the ability to ask the—well, if I’m being grandiose—the impertinent question.

Another trait [I have]—I had a bad overbite as a kid. Everybody played the clarinet and I couldn’t, so I played the drums. And that threw me in the back of the room with the boys of the band because there were no girls back there. And I think that proved to be incredibly useful both in geology, where there were no women or girls, whatever, and in technology, where things are getting better but it’s always been highly skewed. You never feel like you should sit in the back of the class and not ask questions cause boys will laugh at you!        

Speaking of tech and the scarcity of women, what are some of the challenges you faced as a woman in that world and how did you overcome them?
So, we haven’t met in person, but I am not tall. I’m a whopping five feet tall. That actually plays in here, because there were very few women doing this stuff when I was doing it, and then I had the additional differentiation of [not] being a commanding physical presence in the room.

And there were certainly plenty of events that I was left out of... I was interviewed for Barron’s (a financial magazine) at one point time ago and talking about advantages and disadvantages of being a female, and one of the things I said was “Hey look, you know, I miss out on all the conversations in the men’s room, on the other hand, I’m the only red dress in the sea of grey suits.” So when the CEO calls on “Yes, you! Hey Liz!” they all knew who I was and that was a real advantage. Anyway, it was an advantage and a disadvantage. I think I was such an oddity that some of the bigger issues people are facing right now we didn’t face.

What’s been one thing you didn’t expect you’d have to do in your current role but you do?
I think it might be dealing with competitors who out and out lie. I expected competitors and I expected people to compete on the basis of work they’ve done. Last year, one of my competitors started sending emails to journalists that looked like they were from me, only they were spoofed. It was such disgusting behavior. I didn’t expect I’d have to be dealing with that.

That’s crazy! Wow. Ok, is it true that in your type of career job comes before everything, including personal life? How did you negotiate between the two?
Two answers. I love what I do. So it doesn’t really feel like I have to make that decision these days... That said, back when I was working for the bank and I was getting four hours of sleep every night and was sleeping—literally—on the floor underneath my desk, so you wake up with that perfect imprint on your cheek. You do give up stuff. But I think I knew why I was doing it, and I was learning a lot. Then you reach a point—in all things—when you say, “Wait, if I’m not getting more from this than I’m giving, then it’s time to move on.”

My high school graduation speaker talked about two items, and one of them I keep in my office at all times—one of them was a wheelbarrow, which I do not keep in my office, and a brick. And here’s the thing about a brick: you can have a brick and sometimes have to gently file away at some of the corners to make it fit into the wall you’re building. But if you ever crack it’s structural integrity, then it’s worthless. I found that a super helpful lesson when I was working on Wall Street, where I found people behave in ways that integrity came second.

I’ll be very direct: I don’t have any kids. I always figured, on the kids thing, if I ever woke up one day and thought, “Oh my God, I forgot to have kids,” that would be the day I would really have to think things through. But I love playing with my friends’ kids. And when they start to cry, I give them back. So from the outside it might look like I have made some big sacrifices, but if I had the whole thing to do again, I would do the thing exactly the same.

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Is there any place for quitting in your career?
Absolutely. Absolutely. If a job is going to force you to do things that make you wince when you look at yourself in the mirror at night, you better quit. If you’re not learning new things and growing, you better quit... And if you find that you are increasingly isolating yourself from the people and things that make you happy, then make a plan: “I’m going to do this for three years, make enough money to move to wherever.” Or whatever it is. So yes, there is tons of place for quitting.

Most and least favorite part of your job?
Favorite part of my job is helping the CEOs and CFOs really take control of their own process. It’s the joy to be working with these people that are mostly so cool. The worst part of my job—actually, I kinda like arguing with the banks about how much they’re not going to get paid. That’s kinda fun. The part I like least, I guess, is the gross gathering of data, which is necessary.

What types of roles are needed in a team to be an IPO consultant?
Whenever I go into work for a company, they are already working with a team of investment bankers, lawyers, and accountants. So, one of the things I have to do, frankly, is herd them. Make sure that everyone plays nicely in the sandbox and make sure that everyone is contributing and able to contribute.

Does the company looking to go public set their own worth or do you?
They may have an idea but it doesn’t matter. The thing is that it isn’t what I want or they want, it’s what the market says works. So they may have an idea and say, “If this is trading at X, then I should trade at that.” I have to come in and say, “Let’s look at why that is trading at X, and now let’s look at how you’re similar, and let’s look at how you’re different, and now let’s try to craft the story that will lead investors to conclude that you’re like the one you wanna be like.” So it’s something we work on interactively, but we don’t set prices, the market does. Our job is to try and get the market to think the “right” way.

This sounds like we’re in persuasive storytelling territory. What’s a recurring, convincing element that you find appearing over and over in company stories?
The pragmatics is that they’re going after a big market, they have a sustainably unique solution and they’ve found a way to make money off of it. But the fourth piece, and the single most compelling, is the authenticity, the believability, and the grit of management... The companies where the leadership—this is going to sound so hokey—is passionate about what they’re doing, that comes across. I think that the companies that are most challenging are the ones where you get a sense the people are in it for the payout.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining to your ten-year-old self.

 Caption: This may sound dull, but actually it is really fun. I help companies navigate the nuances of an IPO. I make sure that the people who built the company, those responsible for early success and those aiming to lead for future success, control the details and as much as possible, the outcome. That work involves a lot of sitting around corner cubicles and board room discussing, planning, analyzing and strategizing with really cool, mighty impressive entrepreneurs.

Caption: This may sound dull, but actually it is really fun. I help companies navigate the nuances of an IPO. I make sure that the people who built the company, those responsible for early success and those aiming to lead for future success, control the details and as much as possible, the outcome. That work involves a lot of sitting around corner cubicles and board room discussing, planning, analyzing and strategizing with really cool, mighty impressive entrepreneurs.

Thanks so much, Lise! You were a pleasure to talk to and we learned so much! (Photos provided by Lise Buyer)