What is Privately Held?

A privately held company is different from a public company in that its stock is not traded on public exchanges like the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, American Stock Exchange, etc. Instead, shares of privately held companies are offered, owned and traded privately among interested investors.

How Does Privately Held Work?

Privately held companies are run the same way as publicly traded companies, except that ownership in the firm is limited to a relatively small number of investors. Some of the most famous companies in the world are privately held companies, including Facebook, Ikea, Cargill, and Mars.

Though privately held companies come in all sizes, a vast majority of privately held companies are small businesses. Investors in privately held companies tend to be those who are closest to the founders: family, friends, colleagues, employees and angel investors.

If a small privately held company needs to raise outside money to grow, the next round of financing often comes from venture capital (VC) firms who specialize in providing capital for high-risk, high-reward opportunities. Another option is to get financing from a few large institutional investors via a private placement.

If a privately held company is able to grow large enough, it may eventually decide to 'go public,' meaning it issues shares via an initial public offering (IPO) and shares are then traded on public stock exchanges.

The reverse process can happen if an investor wants to 'take a company private.' In that scenario, a large investor, usually a private equity (PE) firm, buys a large portion of the outstanding shares of stock and then tells the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that the shares will be delisted at some future point in time. To learn more, click here to read, Flip Flops: Going from Public to Private.

Why Does Privately Held Matter?

Owners of privately held companies are entitled to profits and dividends, just like the owners of publicly traded companies, but there are some major differences between being a shareholder in a privately held company versus being a shareholder in a public company.

First, shares of privately held companies are often illiquid, meaning it may take a lot of effort to find buyers or sellers of a private company's stock. This becomes extremely important if an owner wants to exit and cash out his or her shares. Often times, figuring out the price of the shares becomes a one-on-one bargaining exercise with the person who wants to buy the stock.

For this reason, coming up with a correct valuation of a privately held company is much more challenging than for a public company. Because shares don't trade very often, it can be extremely difficult to determine how much a privately held company is worth at any given point in time.

Finally, because its shares are not available to the public, a privately held company does not need to file the same paperwork with the SEC as its publicly traded counterparts. This makes the financial position and operation of a privately held company less transparent, with the trade-off being that the privately held company is not exposed to as much government or regulatory interference.

Certain companies stay private as a matter of choice. They tend to be more entrepreneurial because their management has greater leeway to make decisions without the public or regulators looking over their shoulders. However, this freedom also means that privately held companies can be riskier operations than their publicly traded counterparts because they're subject to less oversight.