Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Making Acquisitions

A really hard transition to make for most of us founders is the idea of paying some other entrepreneur our hard-earned cash or even tapping into the lifeblood of our equity in exchange for their inferior product that we could easy make ourselves, and do a better job of it, if we just had the time. This transition to building muscle tissue around the bare bones of a startup trips up most first-time CEOs. VCs often rely on their founders to be market and technical experts for diligencing their other dealflow, but it's often ingrained in the entrepreneur (and should be) that they have the best product and everyone else’s ideas are crap. ;-) This makes such diligence unreliable.

Clearly, it is just not possible to scale at the rate demanded by modern markets through organic growth. Especially demanding is the Internet, where innovation is unrestricted by hardware and can rapidly replicate without fear of IP infringement. I recently sat next to the VP of business development of a large Internet rollup (on a 5 a.m. out of Austin :( ) that owns most of the vacation rental Web sites, including good-old Stayz, which was founded by three of the youngest entrepreneurs in our portfolio, but I guess being in their mid-20s makes them middle-aged for Internet entrepreneurs :). This company was formed entirely to acquire these Web sites and form a conglomerate--it had no IP of its own, and interestingly did little to change the companies it bought. These guys perfected a Web acquisition model and rolled up what turned out to be a large market segment. Their key was overpaying the founders and betting on scale to make it all work. It’s a bit like the supermarket chain buying up the sole proprietorships, except you don’t end up with crap fruit and veg afterwards...

As a startup CEO you don’t think rollups, you think disruption. If you can paint a vision that other entrepreneurs will share, then you have a change to bring them under your banner to fight your cause. A lot of entrepreneurs look for “deals,” distressed assets, or companies that can't get funded, and try to do predatory deals. These usually don’t work--whatever caused the problems for the target company usually permeates the acquirer as well. Unfortunately, you have to pay up to make things happen. Now there are a few examples of companies like Visx whose internal technology failed, but became extremely successful by acquiring the core technology from someone who could not raise money. But assuming you are a successful startup, you should be abel to make 1 & 1 = 5 deals by bolting on the right pieces of product to your existing offering, and integrating them together under the hood to make them more compelling than they were separately.

There is a lot of banker wisdom in this area and a lot of people to help you formulate a financial engineering strategy. There is a lot of wisdom in this area and these guys know what is selling, who is buying, and why so they can in principle help you engineer an exit by making you the prettiest company on the block, By all means hear them out, but remember, you got to this point by focusing on one thing that you do better than anyone else--you leveraged yourself into a niche with your unique technology and you are well on the way to owning and controlling the direction of that market. You had a vision and drove it through the strength of your convictions. If your vision is accurate, you above all others can predict the direction your niche will move, and so you can build or acquire the products and technologies needed to serve that evolution. No banker or advisor can do that for you. Finally, you got here by serving your customer better than the incumbents. Stay focused on them and the acquisition will take care of itself--your company will be bought or IPO’d, not sold.