Venky Ganesan, a venture capitalist at Menlo Ventures, said a Dropbox I.P.O. would be seen as a harbinger for start-ups. “Will unicorns realize they have to grow up and grow out of their Peter Pan mentality?” he asked, adding that a public offering for Dropbox would also help set the scene for whether other unicorns “reignite and grow, or do they fade away?”
Dropbox filed confidentially with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which companies that are generating less than $ 1 billion a year in revenue can do, affording it time to make its preparations away from the glare of potential investors. It has hired Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase to help underwrite the initial offering, said the people briefed on the matter, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Dropbox plans to hire more banks as advisers, they said.
The company is aiming to begin trading on a stock market in the spring, one of these people added, cautioning that the timing of an I.P.O. is fluid and may change. The timing will partly depend on the receptiveness of investors who may have been burned by market debuts that later soured.
Over all, 2017 proved to be relatively robust for initial offerings, with 160 companies raising $ 35.6 billion in the United States, up significantly from 2016, according to Renaissance Capital, a research firm. But bankers and analysts said many of the biggest potential market debutantes would likely sit on the sidelines for another year, having already raised enormous sums in the private markets.
Representatives for Dropbox, Goldman and JPMorgan declined to comment on the filing, which was reported earlier by Bloomberg News.
Founded over a decade ago by Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi when they were students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dropbox was one of the first companies to popularize file storage via the web.
The service, which is based in San Francisco, has grown enormously. It claimed some 500 million users in the spring of 2016, the company’s last publicly disclosed figure. Mr. Houston, the company’s chief executive, said last January that Dropbox was on a pace to collect $ 1 billion in sales on an annualized basis and had positive free cash flow. (It was also profitable if one stripped out interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.)
“What Drew and the team have accomplished is something that we are proud of in the tech community and should be proud of as a country,” said Ben Horowitz, a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz, which has not invested in Dropbox.
But Dropbox’s road has also been bumpy. The company’s fast growth was accompanied by free spending and efforts to diversify into other businesses, like a stand-alone photo app, that proved unsuccessful. Mutual fund investors at times marked down the value of their stakes in the company.
Since then, Mr. Houston and his management team have focused on containing costs while building out features like collaboration services and shared document creation.
One big question that hangs over a potential I.P.O. is what sort of valuation Dropbox would command as a public company. Its closest point of comparison is Box, another Silicon Valley online data storage provider, but one that focuses more on big corporate clients like General Electric and Procter & Gamble. (Dropbox has taken aim at smaller companies, but has argued in the past that it spends less to acquire new customers.)
Box trades at about six times its sales for the last 12 months, according to data from Standard & Poor’s Global Market Intelligence, giving it a market capitalization of about $ 3 billion. It reported having 57 million users as of the quarter that ended Oct. 31, though it has lost money every year since going public three years ago.
Dropbox is likely to argue that its bigger user base and greater reliance on word of mouth to gain consumers should mean that it is valued higher than Box.