European start-ups shy away from IPO frenzy

PARIS Thu May 19, 2011 12:29pm EDT

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PARIS (Reuters) - European tech industry executives, highly skeptical about the sky-high market valuations put on U.S. start-ups, are choosing not to float their own shares for now and are instead pursuing growth in the relative calm of the Old Continent.

Executives from professional social networking website Viadeo, children's on-line games makers Mind Candy and Sulake, and navigation company Telmap told the Reuters Global Technology Summit they would not seek stock market listings despite the big money up for grabs in what some fear could be another Internet bubble.

Finland's Rovio, whose Angry Birds game has become a runaway hit on Apple devices, also said it would wait a few years before seeking to go public in New York.

Behind their reticence is a feeling they should grow their businesses more before going public, as well as a certain degree of fear that the U.S. euphoria will be followed by pain, much as it was 11 years ago after the dot-com crash.

Shares in professional online networking company LinkedIn nearly doubled in their market debut on Thursday, rising 94 percent on the IPO offer price to $87.48 to value the professional networking site operator at over $8 billion.

"I just want to keep my head down and build an amazing brand without getting too distracted by the offers of IPOs, investment bankers and discussions with media companies," said Michael Acton Smith, chief executive of Mind Candy, which makes children's game Moshi Monsters from its base in London.

"An IPO is something that we're considering but I think it's too early. There's still a huge amount of value to be built."

As Silicon Valley has flourished in recent years, Europe has often been seen as a backwater with few viable start-ups, much to the chagrin of governments seeking growth and entrepreneurs.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is hosting a meeting in Paris next week of tech industry titans including the CEOs of Facebook, Amazon, and eBay to figure out how to spur on the digital economy.

To date, Europe's biggest tech success story -- internet phone calls group Skype -- as well as other promising players like e-commerce site Net-a-Porter and online music streaming site Last.fm have preferred to sell themselves to larger, strategic buyers instead of doing initial public offerings. However, Neil Rimer, the co-founder of Geneva-based fund Index Ventures, says there is a growing pool of investors who are willing to back technology companies in Europe and believes a wave of European IPOs will eventually come.

"We look at the Nasdaq as being the bellwether," he said. "But if you talk to bankers in London they'll tell you they're working on a lot of these deals.

"I think European companies will tap the equity markets and I think some of them will be acquired."

Executives believe the lack of access to public markets during the global financial downturn resulted in a host of companies becoming strong and attracting high valuations.

Others fear that smaller start-ups are riding on the back of the soaring valuations being bandied around for such larger names as Facebook, which is expected to go public in April 2012, and LinkedIn.

Facebook was valued at $70 billion in recent sales of the company's private shares, up from $50 billion as recently as the start of the year.

In contrast to its U.S. rival LinkedIn., Europe's Viadeo, the world's second-biggest social network for professionals, is deferring its plan to go public, opting instead to focus on growing in emerging markets.

"We want to grow and not be faced with the pressure to deliver profitability right away," Chief Executive Dan Serfaty told Reuters. "There is a risk of going public too early."

Serfaty said that there was a great temptation to go public to capitalize on the fact that valuations in the United States are so much greater than in Europe. "The numbers we heard from bankers in the U.S. were much, much higher than what we heard in Europe," he said.

Meanwhile French mobile game maker Gameloft has considered a U.S. listing even though it has been listed on the Paris bourse since 2000, said Chief Financial Officer Alexandre de Rochefort.

"Lots of our U.S. shareholders advise us to list on the Nasdaq because we'd get a share (price) boost of about 50 percent," he said. "But I wonder how long this upside can last."

De Rochefort said he was observing the U.S. IPO euphoria from a bemused distance.

"I am sorry but when Zynga is worth $10 billion something is a bit strange" he said, referring to the online gaming company best known for Farmville, a popular Facebook game.

"If this is not a bubble, I don't know what is." (Editing by Greg Mahlich)

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