How A Cat Named Jackson Ties Into the Biggest Tech IPO in 15 Years

As we wind down the year, I’m taking a look back on the biggest tech IPO of 2020.

WASHINGTON, DC — I first ventured into nCino‘s Wilmington, NC headquarters when the pioneer in cloud banking and digital transformation solutions employed less than ten people. Today, that number exceeds 1,000. Since that first flight into ILM, I have met a number of their senior team, enjoyed myself at their annual nSight conferences and heard how cloud-based companies like theirs appeal to bank executives and their boards.

Their employment growth parallels the success of their business, one that transitioned from a private company to a public one this summer. As you can see, their IPO (code-named “Project Jackson”) made it on the cover of Bank Director magazine this summer.

I was delighted that our editorial team chose both the story name, and cover art, based on the inspiration behind “Project Jackson.” In addition, proud that we shed light on a much bigger story; namely, how the Covid-19 pandemic impacts the process of going public.

As an early New Years gift, I took this out from behind the BankDirector.com paywall and share the unabridged article, authored by John Maxfield, below.

Project Jackson

Nobody at nCino slept well the night of July 13, 2020. The company, a pioneer of cloud-based services for financial institutions, was going public the next day. Never before had the spotlight shone so intensely on the rapidly growing technology company based in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was a moment of truth. Its leadership team and employees had spent almost a decade building the company — now investors would judge it over the course of a single day. Going public is always a gamble, but never more so than in a global pandemic.

Dory Weiss woke up early the next morning. The 41-year-old vice president of engineering at nCino was scrambling to upload photos onto a mobile app. The app would broadcast images taken by nCino employees onto Nasdaq’s seven-story monitor in Times Square. What better way to mark the occasion, Weiss thought, than a picture of her cats with an nCino-themed pinata that a colleague gave her for Cinco de Mayo? There was only one problem. “Getting cats to do anything you want them to do is a fool’s errand,” Weiss laments. “So there was this laughably bad photograph of the cats and my partner, Katie, trying to stage them.”

Similar scenes were unfolding in hundreds of homes across Wilmington and around the world. Over 900 nCino employees in 12 countries uploaded more than 6,000 photos that morning. They then spent hours watching a livestream of Nasdaq’s giant monitor as it cycled through the images.

Weiss arrived at nCino’s headquarters around 8 a.m. Hundreds of her colleagues would have done the same, but for the social-distancing restrictions enacted to slow the spread of Covid-19. The few dozen who showed up that morning planted themselves in a pair of common areas on the second and third floors, with the rest patched in remotely.

Everyone was watching CNBC.

“There’s an IPO today,” announced David Faber, co-anchor of CNBC’s morning show, Squawk on the Street. “nCino, N-C-N-O. Cloud software for financial institutions — fintech.”

“I want that,” co-anchor and Mad Money host Jim Cramer responded. “What is it? nCino?”

“Yeah. N-C-N-O,” Faber repeated.

“Done. I want 10%.”

After pricing at $31 per share the night before, nCino’s stock opened for trading at $71 two minutes before noon. People erupted into cheers. By the end of the day, nCino’s stock closed at $91.59, good for a 195% surge on its first day as a public company. Only one other technology company in the past 20 years — China’s search engine giant, Baidu, which debuted in 2005 — performed better.

Had this been the height of the tech bubble in early 2000, no one would have been surprised. But this was two weeks after the close of the worst economic quarter in the United States since the Great Depression. Nearly a third of economic output had vanished. Four months earlier, 6.9 million people filed for unemployment benefits in a single week. How did nCino’s share price nearly triple in this environment? And how did its executives, employees and advisors navigate the intricacies of filing an initial public offering — from securing regulatory approval, to enticing investors, to actually listing on the exchange — when they couldn’t meet with each other, let alone investors, in person?

The story of nCino’s IPO — code-named “Project Jackson,” after CEO Pierre Naudé’s cat, which was named after the nCino employee, Reid Jackson, whose car it was found under one day in the company’s parking lot — is compelling on its own. Yet, it also sheds light on a bigger story about how the process of going public may have been permanently altered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The journey to become a publicly traded company started for nCino at a meeting on the 27th floor of Bank of America Corp.’s building in midtown Manhattan on Sept. 24, 2019. The nation’s second largest bank by assets was acting as its lead underwriter; it’s also an nCino client. “We sat down, talked about the company and mapped out the process, working backward from when we wanted to go public,” recalls Jonathan Rowe, chief marketing officer of nCino.

The original plan was to debut in late May. That way, nCino could benefit from the results of its latest fiscal year, which would close on Jan. 31, yet still beat the summer lull when traders and portfolio managers flee New York City for places like the Hamptons.

The biggest undertaking at that stage was drafting the S-1, the document submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission for an IPO. In nCino’s case, its S-1 ran 322 pages, densely packed with legalese, risk factors, an explanation of the business and financial statements for the preceding three years. “Drafting the S-1 is an incredibly involved process,” says nCino’s chief corporate development and legal officer, Greg Orenstein, who took the lead on the process. “Essentially, we are describing over eight years’ worth of work, product development, innovation and customer success in one document for investors to use to decide whether to invest in our company.” Hours were spent parsing the simplest terms, like how to distinguish between banks that were customers of nCino, and customers of those banks — nCino has “customers,” it decided; its bank customers have “clients.”

Everything proceeded like clockwork in the two months after nCino confidentially filed its S-1 on the Thursday before Christmas 2019. Its IPO working group responded to questions and addressed requested edits to the document from the SEC. Its financial team closed the books on the 2020 fiscal year. And its executives and advisors began preparing the presentation they would use on its roadshow, a grueling two weeks spent flying around the country pitching the company’s stock to institutional investors.

Then Covid-19 struck.

“We were moving along as the virus spread around the country, then the markets started getting hit,” recalls David Rudow, nCino’s chief financial officer. “The speed at which the stock market declined was very concerning. To me, it’s like, ‘The market is discounting some really bad news.’”

By mid-March, the stock market was in freefall. The S&P 500 dropped 9.5% on March 12 — the sixth worst drop in the history of the index. Four days later, it tumbled 12% — the biggest single-day decline since Black Monday on Oct. 19, 1987. All told, the S&P 500 had lost 38% of its value by then. Meanwhile, the Chicago Board Options Exchange’s Volatility Index, or VIX, a measure of expected future stock market volatility, spiked by a factor of five — exceeded in recent years only in the immediate wake of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy in 2008.

“The arrival of the pandemic and market volatility was really an opportunity to sit back and try to figure out what was going to happen,” says Martin Wellington, managing partner at Sidley Austin’s office in Palo Alto, California, who served as nCino’s outside counsel in the IPO process. “I’ve done IPOs and lots of other capital markets transactions in the midst of market volatility, but the thing that made this fundamentally different was the inability to have physical interactions with people.”

By late March, Rudow says, it became a foregone conclusion. “We said, ‘You know what? We’re just going to hold off.’”

The decision to delay the IPO fell to nCino’s CEO, Naudé, a distinguished-looking South African who’s built like a rugby player and speaks with an Afrikaans accent.

Sharing the stage with Frank Sorrentino (CEO of ConnectOne Bank) and Pierre Naudé at Experience FinXTech

The 61-year-old executive grew up as one of five children of a well-to-do farmer in Worcester, South Africa. From an early age, he fit the psychological profile of an entrepreneur, exhibiting a restless disdain for authority and an appetite for competition. “I always struggled with authority over me, people trying to tell me what to do,” he says. Despite this, Naudé served an obligatory year in the South African military after graduating from high school. He spent three months in basic training and two months in guerrilla warfare training before returning to his hometown for the last seven months to effectively serve as a beat cop. “Nothing ever happened,” he says. “If I think back, still to this day, I think we were as useless as you possibly could get.”

A turning point came after Naudé finished his military service. “I sat back and said, ‘What am I going to do now?’” he recalls. “I literally did not have a plan.” So he applied for a job at a bank — Boland Bank, the equivalent of a regional bank in the United States. He spent the next few months learning how to program, and then the following eight years doing just that. One of Boland’s claims to fame during Naudé’s time at the bank, and a project he was intimately involved in, was stringing together the first ATM network in South Africa. “We wrote lots of code, wrote the core, wrote teller systems, wrote deposit systems, a loan system, et cetera,” Naudé says.

After traveling to the United States to train and scout technology for Boland, Naudé immigrated with his wife and infant daughter to America in 1987. He moved first to Philadelphia, where he worked as a consultant. He then moved to Iowa, working while going to school at Upper Iowa University, before a former colleague from Boland recruited him to work at S1 Corp., a software development company near Atlanta. It was at S1, which specialized in payment processing and financial services software, that Naudé made the connections that later brought him to nCino.

Naudé is a popular leader by all accounts. “Why do I always tear up when this man talks,” commented an nCino employee in an internal chat log provided to the author from a company “all-hands” meeting in April 2020. “For those of you who are starting on your career paths and are fortunate enough to be part of the nCino family,” wrote another, “embrace it and appreciate it. There is no other company that even comes close in culture to what we have here.”

This is intentional. “The thing I want to make sure you understand is that we have never paid a consultant to come and tell us about culture and values and those things,” Naudé says. “I think the benefit of being 30 years old, coming to America, starting at the bottom again, and working for a variety of managers — that experience gave me a deep understanding of the value of people. And so when we started the company, literally after about six months, we probably had 20 people, I thought, ‘Well, it’s probably time to get our values together.’ So I drew them up. They’re the same values that drive us today.”

Among Naudé’s colleagues at nCino, Orenstein probably knows him best. “I’ve been fortunate to know Pierre for 15 years and I consider him a dear friend,” says Orenstein, who had previously worked with Naudé at S1. “Pierre is just Pierre. There’s no pretending to be someone he’s not. He’s just an extremely transparent person, and as you spend time with him, you pick up on that.”

While Naudé decided in early March to delay nCino’s IPO, the project’s working group of executives, legal advisors and investment bankers continued laboring behind the scenes. It was never a matter of if nCino would go public, only a matter of when. One question looming over them was whether it was even possible to pull off an IPO in a pandemic, given that they wouldn’t be able to meet prospective investors in person.

It was proposed in early April that they start testing the waters with investors over video-conferencing platforms like Zoom Video Communications and BlueJeans by Verizon. The initial reaction, Wellington recalls, was, “We’ll never do that. Let’s just wait for this to pass, and then in May, when we can get back together with people, we’ll go around and do the usual testing-the-waters meetings.” Within weeks, however, their perspective had shifted. “We were like, ‘Okay, we’re doing this virtually,’” says Wellington, who advises regularly on IPOs. “The bankers were saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve done one or two, and it seems to work pretty well. But of course, we’ll wait for this to pass before we can do the roadshow, because no one would ever invest in an IPO without being able to meet the management team in person.’”

After the federal government declared the Covid-19 pandemic a national emergency on March 12, the IPO market froze. Not a single company went public for the rest of the month, compared to nine IPOs over the same period in 2019. The market started thawing in April, with new listings slowly trickling out. The pace picked up in May, with seven IPOs in the first week alone. But the breakthrough moment came on May 21.

That day, shares of direct-to-consumer insurance company SelectQuote climbed 35% on its first day of trading. That opened the floodgates. Thirty-seven companies went public in June, nearly a dozen more than in June 2019. Among those was ZoomInfo Technologies, which closed 62% higher in its debut. Far from being an IPO apocalypse, 2020 had become a bonanza.

“We thought in late March and early April that you would never get an IPO done in this market,” Wellington says. “But not only were IPOs getting done, the receptivity to them was surprising, frankly.”

The Federal Reserve is largely to thank for this. By March 15, it had cut the federal funds rate to 0%. That same day, it announced a round of quantitative easing, an unconventional monetary policy tool first deployed in the financial crisis of 2008-09 that floods capital markets with liquidity in order to drive down long-term interest rates. Over the next two and a half months, the Fed purchased $2.8 trillion worth of government bonds and other long-term securities. This lowered bond yields and triggered a deluge of capital into equities — especially technology stocks. Throughout the following four months, despite a steep drop in economic activity and sharp increase in unemployment, the S&P 500 recovered most of its lost ground, led by the likes of Amazon.com, Microsoft Corp. and Apple.

These events coincided with auspicious developments within nCino, too. On May 18, it completed its first-quarter review, capturing the company’s success with the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program administered by the Small Business Administration designed to help small businesses survive the pandemic. All told, banks originated over $50 billion in PPP loans using nCino’s cloud-based Bank Operating System. New customers purchased its software; existing customers subscribed to new services. The coronavirus crisis had become a proving ground for nCino.

The moment was ripe, nCino’s executives concluded. They decided to pull the trigger after Memorial Day. The company would go public in mid-July.

We wanted to be one of the companies that helped open the IPO market,” Rowe explains. “We’ve always seen ourselves as a leader in cloud banking, so we brought that same mentality to the IPO process — not only from the perspective of the financial services industry, but for the economy overall.”

The success of nCino through the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who had followed the company. Amongst its founding software benefits, as it incubated within Live Oak Bancshares in 2010, was facilitating remote work.

The Wilmington-based bank specialized in originating SBA loans to veterinarians, which minimized credit risk because the loans were backed by the government. But to generate enough scale to earn a respectable profit, the strategy had to expand nationwide. In lieu of branches, Live Oak bought a pair of corporate jets — “branches in the sky” — to shuttle loan officers around the country winning business. There was just one catch. To make the vision a reality, the bank needed software that enabled its loan officers to remotely complete loan files from end to end.

Of the millions of lines of code embedded in nCino’s software, Nathan Snell wrote the first one. Even on a video conference call, the 34-year-old chief innovation officer of nCino emits the peculiar breed of confidence that’s born from a union of acute intelligence and knowing success from a young age. As the son of an engineer, Snell grew up surrounded by technology in Santa Cruz, California. His earliest memory is of using a soldering iron to build computers. He taught himself how to program and, at age 11, convinced a popular talk radio host in San Francisco to hire him to design her website.

Snell eventually made his way to Live Oak in 2010, after graduating from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and getting to know the bank’s founder and CEO, James “Chip” Mahan, and president, Neil Underwood. “I wasn’t actually sure if I wanted to join them fully, so I did some consulting to start,” Snell says. “About a week in, I was looking at how they were operating and was like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of opportunity here.’ I spent a lot of time with Chip and Neil, and they were both just phenomenal. As a budding entrepreneur, I was like, ‘Wow, it would be amazing to be able to work directly with these guys and learn from them.’ So I shuttered what I was doing and joined them full-time.”

In doing so, Snell became nCino’s first employee.

From its earliest days, nCino had grand ambitions. Naudé hung a sign in its makeshift office space declaring it the global headquarters of the worldwide leader in cloud banking. “Every day you walked in and you’re like, ‘Wow, we’re the worldwide leader with only 10 people,’” recounts Rowe, who joined the company eight years ago as one of its earliest employees.

The year 2012 proved to be a seminal one for nCino. After other banks expressed interest in Live Oak’s software, nCino, a play on the Spanish word for “oak,” was spun out as a separate company. By the end of that year, the newly independent company had raised $9 million in capital, hired more employees and signed on 25 customers. It followed that in 2013 by raising $10 million from Wellington Management Co., a prominent institutional investor in the banking space, and hosting its first user conference, nSight, which long-tenured employees look back on as the company’s coming-out party. Over the next five years, nCino would grow to 130 customers and 270 employees.

Originally, nCino focused on the smaller institutions that populate the financial services industry — community and regional banks as well as credit unions. But that changed in late 2014, when SunTrust Banks, a $205 billion bank at the time, became its first enterprise banking client. (SunTrust has since merged with BB&T Corp. to form Truist Financial Corp., the sixth largest commercial bank in the United States. It remains an nCino customer.)

SunTrust was spending north of $20 million a year to digitize its commercial lending system. That’s when Pam Kilday, head of operations for its wholesale bank, came across nCino. “I thought, ‘This is exactly what I’m trying to build for not only commercial loans, but all of business banking,’” Kilday recalls. “We decided to investigate the feasibility of bringing nCino in, doing kind of a co-development, which flew in the face of everything we had been doing. At first, just about everybody wanted to fire me.”

(A year after retiring from SunTrust in 2018, Kilday joined nCino’s board of directors.)

The technology wasn’t the only thing that attracted SunTrust to nCino, Kilday says — it was also the people. “I thought Pierre was the real deal,” she says. “Everything we saw, every commitment they made to us at that time, they delivered. Whether it was documentation on their security setup, whether it was their contractual agreements with Salesforce at the time. Everything they told me was true. If they could do something, they would say it. If they couldn’t, they would tell me.”

That may sound trite, but it’s a frequent refrain of nCino customers. “Our relationship with nCino developed before I got to know Pierre, though I’ll say he sealed the deal as most CEOs can do when they get into a high-pressure situation,” says Frank Sorrentino III, chairman and CEO of ConnectOne Bancorp, a $7.6 billion bank based in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. “But the nCino organization sold the relationship on its own. There’s a great group of people there. They’re committed to building a better mousetrap to help banks provide a level of service that clients will expect in the future.”

By the time nCino publicly filed its S-1 with the SEC on June 22, 2020, it boasted more than 1,100 bank and credit union customers, over 900 employees spread across seven global offices and $138 million in annual revenue.

On July 14, the morning of nCino’s IPO, Rowe woke up at 4 a.m. and walked three blocks to the beach. Nine years earlier, he left a position as a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington to join the embryonic nCino team. Rowe is a study in contrasts. He masks intensity with levity. He’s an executive at nCino yet takes video calls during the pandemic in the unfinished basement of his house, framed by hastily constructed shelves and insulation falling from the ceiling.

Sitting on the beach that morning waiting for the sunrise, Rowe was more reflective than ecstatic. He had been involved in Project Jackson since the beginning. And now, despite nCino’s decision to go public in a global pandemic, there was little doubt that it would be a success. The evening before, 8 million shares of nCino’s stock, equal to 8.5% of its total outstanding share count, were allocated to institutional investors at $31 per share. The demand for the offering was 49 times oversubscribed. Far from being a hindrance, conducting a virtual roadshow, consisting of more than 50 meetings over five days, proved to be a blessing in disguise. “I didn’t think about it until now,” says Rudow, “but because you’re touching so many more people, it probably helped build the book.”

But Rowe and the marketing team’s work wasn’t done. They mailed over 900 swag boxes to employees, packed with miniature nCino-themed bells to mark the occasion. They repainted and reconfigured Naudé’s office to serve as a makeshift studio for the media interviews he would conduct that day. And along with Nasdaq, they co-hosted an internal broadcast giving nCino employees a behind-the-scenes view of the day’s events, walking them through exactly how a company goes public.

While the stock market opens for trading at 9:30 a.m. EST, it isn’t until later in the morning that newly listed companies on Nasdaq start to actively trade. “We do not open up our IPOs at the same time as the broader market,” explains Joe Brantuk, chief client officer at Nasdaq. “There’s about 8,000 publicly traded companies in the United States and we want to give portfolio managers and traders an opportunity to position their existing holdings at the market open before turning their focus to new listings.”

Instead, Nasdaq reserves a “quotation window” for each new listing on the morning it debuts. This is the on-deck circle, if you will, just before a company’s stock begins trading. During this window, which can last from 10 minutes to multiple hours, Nasdaq’s market makers work with a stock’s underwriters to find an “indicative price” at which there’s a balance between buyers and sellers. If there are too many sellers relative to buyers, the stock could dramatically fall. If there are too many buyers relative to sellers, the reverse will happen. Neither is ideal. To minimize volatility, the goal is to find the price at which approximately 10% of the newly listed shares will trade hands — nCino’s magic number was 800,000 shares.

The quotation window for nCino opened at 10:10 a.m.

At 10:15 a.m., Nasdaq’s market makers were fielding buy orders for 4.7 million shares versus sell orders of 200,000 shares.

At 10:48 a.m., 486,000 shares were paired off at $62.

At 11:00 a.m., 708,000 shares were paired off at $65.

At 11:15 a.m., the threshold had been reached: 931,000 shares paired off at $70.

Still, they kept going.

By 11:40 a.m., 1.5 million shares were paired at $71 — about 20% of the total raise.

At 11:55 a.m., Jay Heller, head of capital markets at Nasdaq, gave the two-minute warning.

At 11:58 a.m., nCino’s stock opened for trading at $71 per share.

By 4 p.m., when the market closed for the day, nCino’s stock stood at $91.59 per share.

There is no single answer to the question of what makes for a successful IPO. The timing must be right. The story must be right. The market dynamics must be right. And, especially in the case of nCino, which went public in a pandemic, you must make the most of a challenging situation.

There is no question that nCino prevailed on all accounts. It is a company that is leading the digital revolution of one of the biggest industries in America. Its culture and story appeal to investors across the board. And its nimble response to the restrictions imposed on the IPO process from the pandemic — from negotiating the inability to meet with investors in person to orchestrating an IPO experience that nearly 1,000 remote employees could participate in — made it, in many ways, bespoke for this moment.

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