As Robinhood goes public, it’s worth reexamining the company’s initial mission: To “democratize finance for all.”
That phrase has been repeated endlessly ever since the app took off in the wake of the pandemic, usually used against its founders, Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhatt. While the app began life as a platform for amateur traders to participate in the stock market, scandal after scandal slowly turned users against its founders.
Now, Robinhood’s IPO could make the company worth $35 billion. At $42 a share, which would be at the upper end of the IPO price range, Tenev’s stake in the company could be worth $2.23 billion, and Bhatt’s could be worth $3.32 billion. Meanwhile, Tenev is being investigated by regulators for not being licensed by FINRA, which the company revealed Tuesday evening. The IPO could be a volatile one considering the large allotment of shares set aside for its users, something larger institutional investors have expressed concerns about according to The Financial Times.
Robinhood is led by Tenev as the sole CEO — Bhatt stepped down as co-CEO last November. Tenev and Bhatt first met as physics undergrads at Stanford in 2005 — according to Forbes, the two bonded over being only children of immigrants. They stayed friends for years, then when Bhatt was working on a startup in 2011, he invited Tenev to come aboard. By 2013, they had launched Robinhood.
The story goes that the idea to make commission-free trading possible was a direct result of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Tenev and Bhatt felt the need to make a product that didn’t just help the rich get richer, but allowed anyone to make money. That commission-free trading policy helped Robinhood become massively popular upon its 2014 launch on the App Store. When brokerage firms cut their fees one by one, Robinhood was hailed as exactly what its name suggests: A vigilante hero stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
By the time the pandemic began, Robinhood was more popular than ever. Quarantine left Americans with nothing to do, so many of them turned to trading stocks, even while the market was tanking. In the first four months of 2020, Robinhood amassed 3 million new users, which brought its then-total to 13 million.
By August 2020, its valuation hit $11 billion, up 50% pre-pandemic. But the Reddit group r/wallstreetbets, which had embraced Robinhood as its trading platform, propelled “meme stonks” like GameStop and AMC to preposterous heights before they came tumbling down.
The list of scandals plaguing Robinhood is seemingly endless: Trading halts, Senate hearings, a whopping 49 lawsuits brought against it, the suicide of a 20-year-old user, a $65 million SEC fine for failing to disclose its revenue sources, and, most recently, a $70 million FINRA fine. Robinhood agreed to pay the fine to settle a probe into its widespread outages and approval process for placing trades on margin. Although it’s the largest FINRA fine on record, Robinhood’s enormous valuation means it’s more than capable of paying.
Robinhood’s IPO may be enough of a success to put it back in public favor, but the company doesn’t have to worry about a lack of users. While monthly active users skyrocketed in February during the memestock craze and dipped back down, the overall number as of Q1 is still far higher than it was in 2020.