If anyone ever decides to script a drama on the tech industry’s greatest decade – that’s always the most recent decade from any point in time by the way – they could do worse than look at the bio for firewall-cum-UTM company Watchguard for some inspiration.
No insult intended to the current management, but Watchguard’s history sums up the fashions, and in some cases misguided thinking, that has made the decade running from around the mid-1990s to today such a fascinating period of hyper-capitalism gone loopy.
The company was founded in Seattle in 1996 as a few software guys, a water cooler, and a room. The following year, it caught the wave of venture and private funding that came out of the Valley and US west coast, and set off on its journey to be a pioneer of new-wave firewalling. Then around 1999, like so many other small tech outfits, its management (or investors) decided to take a short cut to riches by jumping on the IPO train before working out where that bandwagon was heading. For a while, it was said to be worth a billion dollars.
Last year, exhausted by quarter after quarter of bad feeling from Wall Street, it was taken private again by Francisco Partners and Vector, added a new CEO, and so it moved almost full circle in ten interesting years.
You could say that the management failed, or that the company just lacked the scale necessary to manage itself as a public company without that draining energy better used to develop and sell its products. Why did companies like Watchguard go public? Because whatever else it did it rewarded the investors and management without the need to graft (which is not to say that they didn’t).
Was Watchguard wrong to IPO? Probably not. It got its hands on the R&D investment that helped make its products worth buying today, but it looks like a happier company now that it is free of clutches of the analysts and their reports.
The punchline is that in the week that the market had one of its worst days since 2001, the privately-owned Watchguard put out an abbreviated and glowing statement on its recent performance - even though it no longer has to. Old habits die hard for a company that is trying to rebuild its image.
I’m not sure if there’s a moral in this story. Should companies remain private until they reach a certain size? Should they go public at all? Perhaps the moral is this: the technology industry needs diversity of ownership, both privately funded, private with growth coming from sales in the old-fashioned way, and public too in some cases. It’s when it convinces itself that the mould has been broken in favour of only model that it risks frittering its long-term interest.