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By Lauren Hirsch
March 1 (Reuters) - Snap Inc, owner of popular messaging app Snapchat, will price its initial public offering after the U.S. stock market closes on Wednesday in the most eagerly awaited technology IPO since Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba went public in 2014.
The pricing will be the first test of investor appetite for a social-media app beloved by teenagers and 20-somethings but which has yet to turn a profit. The company’s losses widened last year, and it is experiencing decelerating user growth in the face of intense competition from larger rivals such as Facebook.
Despite the challenges in converting “cool” into cash, Snap is targeting a valuation of between $19.5 billion and $22.3 billion from listing on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday, the richest valuation in a U.S. tech IPO since Facebook in 2012.
Snap is looking to price 200 million shares on Wednesday night at a range of $14 to $16 dollars a share.
The sale, which aims to raise around $3 billion, has the advantage of favorable timing. The market for technology IPOs hit the brakes in 2016, the slowest year for such launches since 2008, and investors are keen for fresh opportunities.
A successful launch could encourage debuts by other unicorns, the moniker given to tech start-ups with private valuations of $1 billion or more.
Early indications for selling shareholders and the company have been positive. The IPO book is said to be over-subscribed with orders coming in at the high end of the range or higher. At least one new investor indicated it was willing to buy a large chunk of the IPO and not sell it for a year, a rare commitment to make.
The company cut its price range last month from an original target of between $19.5 billion and $22.3 billion after investor concern over its unproven business model. It had been valued at up to $20 billion in nine separate private funding rounds over the past five years.
Although Los Angeles-based Snap is going public at a much earlier stage in its development than social media giants Twitter Inc or Facebook Inc, the five-year-old company is valuing itself at roughly 49 times revenues at the top of its suggested range, nearly double the 27 times revenue Facebook fetched when it went public in 2012.
To justify its suggested valuation and fend off concerns about slowing user growth, Snap has highlighted how much time its users spend on the app and the revenue potential of the emerging trend for young people to communicate with video rather than text.
The company has been vague on its specific plans to lead and monetize image-driven conversations, but it has suggested investors have faith in the vision of its co-founder Evan Spiegel, whom it introduced in its investor roadshow as a “once in a generation founder.”
The 26-year-old will walk away with a roughly 17 percent stake valued at as much as $3.8 billion.
Spiegel and co-founder Bobby Murphy will each be selling 16 million shares in the IPO that could earn them $256 million apiece. Spiegel will also receive a bonus equivalent to 3 percent of its market capitalization or up to $669 million.
Dozens of other Snap investors could become overnight millionaires.
Spiegel and Murphy will maintain tight control over Snap’s stock through a unique three-share class structure. The structure will give Spiegel and Murphy the right of 10 votes for every share. Existing investors will have one vote for each of their shares, while new investors will have no voting rights. (Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Cynthia Osterman)