2015 was a big year in mergers and acquisitions for companies large and small -- nearly $5 trillion worth of acquisitions took place. And this wave of acquisitions is predicted to continue through the end of 2016 as more companies struggle to reach the next stage, a symptom of the glut in seed funding in recent years.
With the fund-raising environment tightening its belt in the later stages, many good startups are being denied funding. Instead, they’re seeking to raise bridge rounds and seed extensions, which is understandably troubling for investors with small portfolios being asked for help.
The tech space, for one, is starting to experience mergers and acquisitions across companies of all sizes; bigger-name deals have made the news, including Tesla’s buying SolarCity and Oracle’s acquisition of NetSuite. But smaller teams have benefited from acquisitions, too. Last year, Pinterest acquired a two-person startup called Hike Labs, for example, and within the last five years, Twitter has acquired Vine’s three-person team and Periscope’s 10-person team.
Read the writing on the wall. While it's still sound advice that acquisition shouldn't be your goal, if your company can’t be profitable or raise more capital, then that's pretty much your only option. There’s a range of opinion on whether it’s better to talk to potential suitors long before it’s time to sell, or wait. Whatever you decide to do, just know that it takes around six months to sell a company, assuming you want more than just an acqui-hire, the notion of buying out a company to acquire the skills and expertise of its staff.
When it’s time to start the process, there'll be some difficult steps you need to take early to smooth the process as much as possible.
1. Let key people know.
Co-founders and investors are your first port of call as you set out to face an acquisition. You need for everyone to be on board, and preferably wholeheartedly and enthusiastically so. You’re going to need their signatures when the time comes, so building consensus early is very important.
Don’t be surprised if some aren’t happy about the situation; spending time with them early in the process will pay dividends later. This extends to unresponsive people, too. If they’re needed at some point, it’s dangerous to hope they’ll fall in line when they reappear -- find a way to reach them.
2. Forge relationships early.
The best-case scenario is that you already have an interested buyer or strategic investor. But you’ll need at least two interested parties, in order to have any chance of a good outcome. The reason: All the leverage in these situations shifts to the buyer once you have an agreement. To offset this scenario, you'll need to be able to walk away to another good option -- hence the requirement for a second bidder. In SendHub’s case, our strategic investor went on to acquire a competitor, which is a good reminder not to put all your eggs in one basket.
Many of your potential options will be excluded for a wide array of reasons -- timing, price or other priorities. Invest time in the outreach that bears early fruit. Starting an acquisition process is a big commitment for the buying company, so you’ll need an internal champion to push your case. That’s easier when you have a strong relationship, and those relationships take time to build.
3. Adapt to a new vision.
When you’re talking to potential buyers for the first time, it’s crucial to determine what their vision is and where your company fits into it. Speak confidently and critically in those early conversations.
In the first interaction SendHub had with Cameo Global, the company that acquired us, Cameo saw a mismatch between its voice-based approach and our message-based one. But we saw this as an opportunity to reach a new market. “You’re a call-center company that gives great customer support,” we said. “But millennials are message-focused. They don’t use voice. How are you going to support them?”
4. Prepare to shift your day job.
Going into an acquisition, you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that the acquisition will become your day job for the duration. Start delegating your daily operations early. Your job will now entail a lot of outreach. You’ll talk to a lot of people, and the vast majority of these conversations won’t result in anything.
After reaching out to about 100 companies, we made contact with around 50. Of those, we had meetings with just under 20 and were lucky to have five or six companies show genuine interest. That can be disheartening, but remember, the more times you hear “no,” the closer you’re getting to the company that will finally match yours.
5. Sort out your finances.
Now’s the time to get realistic about what you have available and what you need. Give yourself at least six months of runway to guide your company’s acquisition process into a position of reasonable strength. Give your team enough time to deal with the potentially tough changes and manage the fallout. Instability breeds panic, so keep a calm workplace by organizing early and communicating the plan to everyone.
If acquisition is the right path for your company, these coming months will be among the best times in recent years to get a good outcome. No matter the size or shape of your startup, you can seize the opportunity -- if you’re willing to take deliberate action.