I’ve been reading a lot lately about Google and the anticipation surrounding its IPO, and I just can’t help but wonder something.
Why?

What do I mean, why? Just that. Why do an IPO? Why go public? What do they gain?

I remember, what seems like a million years ago, I saw a segment on 60 Minutes about software maker SAS. I vaguely remember SAS because they made a–what am I talking about? THE ONLY–highly regarded C compiler for the Amiga. But 60 Minutes wasn’t talking about Amigas. They were talking about how in an era when companies are universally cutting benefits, working for SAS continues to be more like living on a resort. Need to see the doctor? The company doctor is down the hall. Free day care for your kids on campus. You’re encouraged to eat lunch with your family. You’re encouraged to work 35 hours a week. All sorts of exercise equipment, including a pool and a track. Massages. We’re talking the kinds of excesses Netscape was infamous for here. Once you work for SAS, you never, ever leave. When the interviewer told the president he was crazy, he laughed and asked what’s crazy about treating your people well. And he pointed out the company has always been profitable, has never had to lay anyone off. His employees are happy and productive and they do good work. When the interviewer asked why, he said part of it is because there are no investors. He’s accountable only to himself. The investors don’t like the resort-on-campus because that costs money that could be going to dividends. He doesn’t have to worry about that.

Investors don’t think about much of anything but dividends. Except when the time comes to cash out the stock, which is often. Executives need to think long-term, but that’s hard when your main job is to please the investors, who come in with a Las Vegas mentality. And why should you be accountable to investors? Just because they have money doesn’t mean they know anything.

That’s not to say all investors are clueless people who make you question whether mammals really are the highest form of animal. Some companies do just fine in spite of their investors. But how many good companies turned bad once they had vast herds of greedy investors to answer to? Google is cool because it’s so anti-commercial, so unubtrusive, so… Well, have you ever wondered how Google makes its money? I have.

My fear is that the minute after some investor starts asking how Google makes its money, we’ll be seeing X10 popunders when we go there.

Yes, $15 billion is a lot of money. I’m sure Google could come up with lots of cool things to do if it had it. But I remember someone asking once what your soul is worth. Does $15 billion really seem like a lot when compared to the value of Google’s soul?

For some companies, the IPO is the next step on the way to greatness. But for a larger percentage, it seems to be the first step toward mediocrity. If I’d invented Google, I wouldn’t take that chance. Do the IPO after I retire.

But I didn’t invent Google, so I guess that’s not my decision, eh?