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Interview: Unity CEO explains his company's unusual IPO

Unity Technologies was just one of many companies with blockbuster IPOs this week, but it took a decidedly different approach, using data rather than handshakes to decide who got to invest and at what price. CEO John Riccitiello explained why in an interview with Axios.

Why it matters: Traditionally, bankers and companies set IPO prices based on conversations and expectations, a process that has been criticized as basically leaving money on the table.

Riccitiello — along with other Unity executives, including CFO Kim Jabal — pushed a process that collected more data on potential investors, getting a sense of how much they would invest and at what price.

  • The company chose a variation on the Dutch auction process that Google and others have championed in the past. Here, investors set how many shares they would be willing to purchase at different prices, and Unity ultimately chose who it wanted to sell to.
  • The result, Riccitiello said, was not only a better price for the company, but also a better slate of investors.

Unity allowed employees to sell shares on day one, a departure from the usual lockup that prevents employees from selling shares for the first 180 days.

  • "The people who build this company are amazing and I rely on them and I wanted them to participate on the same level playing field as a banker or investor," Riccitiello said. "I’ve never understood why this wasn’t possible."

Catch up quick: Unity isn't exactly a household name, but it's well-known in gaming circles. Its engine powers more than half of all mobile games and is also being used in a growing range of non-gaming uses, including in the automotive, architecture and manufacturing industries.

By the numbers:

  • The company priced 25 million shares at $52 on Thursday night, raising more than $1 billion.
  • Unity shares still saw a first-day bump, closing at $68.35 on Friday, the first day of trading — up 31.4%.

The big picture: Beyond the unusual IPO mechanics, Riccitiello also had to contend with taking the roadshow online and other hurdles, though he noted it saved him a lot of time on planes and buses.

Between the lines: One of the questions for investors is how far Unity can grow beyond its gaming roots.

  • The pandemic has doubtlessly sped up adoption of digital technologies, Riccitiello notes.
  • "More people are engaging (digitally) and a good chunk fo them are going to stay forever," he said. "It's brought the future into the present a little faster."

Gaming is where the company gets its energy and passion, Riccitiello said, but its business is also expanding into everything from manufacturing to movies to healthcare as 3D digital worlds take center stage.

  • "The soul of this company is gaming," he said. "For us you are never going to knock the gaming out of Unity, but on that platform of strength we are building so much in so many other industries."

Meanwhile: The company is also potentially benefitting from Apple's rift with Epic Games, which not only makes the hit game Fortnite but also a Unity competitor called Unreal Engine.

  • But Riccitiello said he isn't looking to capitalize on that: "Maybe I don't have enough Jack Welch in me.... That feels like candy in a world (where) we can have more protein."

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