Four Factors That Increase Exit Odds

In the classic Steve Martin bit from early Saturday Night Live days, he’s a pitch man with a compelling hook: “How to make a MILLION DOLLARS and NEVER PAY TAXES!” After dramatically repeating the offer several times, he pauses to reveal the answer: “First, get a million dollars. Then…”

This post might be called “How to BUILD A VALUABLE COMPANY and SELL IT FOR A FORTUNE!” The first easy step? “Build a valuable company.” Assuming that you’re already doing that and your exit strategy centers on being acquired, four factors will impact success:

  1. Strategic importance of your product/technology/service
  2. Intensity of the competitive environment
  3. Existence and visibility of urgent, unsolved customer problems
  4. Presence of an insider relationship

Strategic Importance

Gauging the strategic importance of your offerings to a potential acquirer’s portfolio of capabilities is critical. Imagine all acquisitions resting along a value continuum. On the left end are low value (for the seller!) types of acquisitions like asset sales. Moving toward the right are transactions whose value is based strictly on financial parameters (e.g., discounted cash flow).

At the extreme other end of the continuum are companies whose value is so strategic to the acquirer that revenue and profitability are of little consequence. An example I’ve seen is a small software company with technology that uniquely solved an urgent problem for a multi-billion dollar enterprise. The valuation received was such a high multiple of the acquired company’s revenue that its financials were almost irrelevant to its value.

A common mistake in identifying potential acquirers is casting too narrow a net. Try listing 20 potential acquirers. Listing the first half dozen will be easy, but most of those are likely more financially-driven than strategic. Building out the list of 20 can lead to a discovery of previously unrealized strategic value in adjacent spaces. 

 

Competitive Environment

A company in a highly competitive environment is motivated to move quickly to close gaps in its offerings. The trick is connecting during the time when the potential acquirer begins to realize it has to act. Wait too long to engage, and they will solve their competitive challenges through internal efforts, or by partnering with or acquiring another company. Getting on their radar at the right time is critical.

 

Urgent Customer Problems

An acquirer with a strategic competitive need is caught in a situation characterized by two attributes:

  1. A high-impact opportunity or threat exists.
  2. The company has a weak ability to respond.

Nothing will drive the acquirer forward faster than demands from customers having problems solvable by the incorporation of your company’s products, technology, or services. An effective way to validate value to the potential acquirer is to engage them in a proof of concept to solve a real problem.

 

 

 

 

Insider Relationship

The presence of an insider relationship is often the single most important success factor in getting and staying on the acquirer’s radar. Developing an internal champion who is already convinced that the companies should be working together for mutual competitive reasons optimizes the odds of success.

If you have an insider relationship with a target acquirer, use it; if you don’t, get one. Having already built a strong industry network will pay huge dividends at this point.

 

When to Prepare

Early in the life of a company, management has to focus on building a strong business. Deep analysis in preparation for an exit can be a distraction at this point.

Waiting too long to apply exit strategy thinking, however, is also a mistake. Once the business starts to prove itself, begin investing for the future by creating a valuation framework for your company. Build and maintain a list of 20 potential acquirers. Understand what clusters of acquirers need in order to grow. Fill gaps in your offerings to fill those needs and increase your value to potential acquirers.

Start building your exit strategy 12 to 24 months in advance of searching for an acquirer. By the time you decide to enlist an investment banker’s help, you’ll understand the universe of potential acquirers, you’ll have moved into a strong position that maximizes your valuation, and you’ll arm your investment banker with maximum ammunition and motivation.

Part 2: 2014 Issues for a 2016 Exit

If you liked Part 1 of our guest post on The American CEO (“2014 Issues for a 2016 Exit”), you don’t want to miss the exciting climax in Part 2. Feel free to post comments – The American CEO does respond!

2014 Issues for a 2016 Exit

Joel Trammell requested a guest post for his American CEO blog, and it’s called 2014 Issues for a 2016 Exit. You’ll find many other great thoughts for CEOs there, and since it’s a two-part article, subscribe there and/or here to make sure you get the second half next week.

Self-Fueling Partnership: Apple and AT&T

“In this new wave of technology, you can’t do it all yourself; you have to form alliances.”                           -Carlos Slim Helu 

Addressing startup entrepreneurs at RISE Week Austin, I asked, “If the richest man on the planet thinks alliances are critical, shouldn’t you?” (As a four-time startup survivor – 1985, 1995, 2000, 2002 – I’m driven to give CEOs the knowledge and passion they need to accelerate growth through partnerships.

The Apple/AT&T partnership was a classic: Apple sought broad distribution while AT&T needed new technology. Together they demonstrated how to create a self-fueling partnership, i.e. one that is structured such that positive results for the first party drives it to act in ways that increase positive results for the second party, and vice versa.

Let’s dissect this well-known business case to identify a few principles of “self-fueling partnerships”:

Principle #1   “Partner when the impact of a threat or opportunity is high, and your ability to respond is weak.” 

Apple had an innovative product that needed to be deployed rapidly in order to grab the top spot in the emerging smartphone market. The opportunity was huge, but the carriers controlled access to the customers. AT&T, on the other hand, wanted to grow its data services revenue, and a killer product would help to capture more subscribers.

Principle #2   “Develop a compelling approach before approaching the other party.” 

Apple based their approach to AT&T on its need to capture new subscribers by raiding other carriers. Since people are reluctant to change carriers, AT&T could afford to heavily subsidize the iPhone in exchange for the long-term annuity they’d build from people who switched to their network.

Principle #3   “Be willing to provide exclusivity if you can limit the time and geography.” 

While Apple wanted to grab the #1 spot with rapid deployment, they knew they’d later have to extend distribution through other carriers after significantly penetrating AT&T’s base.  A good bet is that Apple agreed to extend exclusive access to iPhone for as long as AT&T continued to meet aggressive growth goals, then at a later date, Apple would be free to sell through other carriers.

If you have other interesting partnership examples, let us know!.  

 

Acquisition: Result of the Original 20/20 Outlook Process

The original 20/20 outlook process evolved while I was CMO at Infoglide a few years ago. In early April the company was acquired by FICO (Fair Isaac Corp.), one of the top potential acquirers identified during the process in 2009. The acquisition resulted from a partnership formed between the two companies as suggested by the analysis.

In early 2010, I founded 20/20 Outlook LLC. The original 20/20 Outlook process is now the second of four processes used to identify and create conditions that lead to growth and acquisition:

  1. CLARIFY:  create bulletproof Strategic Positioning
  2. COMPREHEND:  develop a Valuation Framework
  3. CONNECT:  engage in Self-Fueling Partnerships
  4. COMPLETE:  develop Mutual Accountability to move from strategy to execution

At our upcoming RISE Austin session on May 17, we will focus on how to develop self-fueling partnerships built upon a solid valuation framework. (RISE session locations can be fluid, so please make a note to double check this link a day or so in advance.)

Hope to meet you there!

UPDATE: The Self-Fueling Partnerships session for RISE Austin (4pm, 5/17) will take place on the second floor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, 2300 Red River Street. You may want to arrive early to find parking. 

 

What You Think You Know May Blind You To Growth Opportunities

TexasCEO magazine just published my latest thoughts about partnerships. In addition to correcting myths about partnerships in general, it describes major types of self-fueling partnerships and the series of steps you can employ to accelerate the growth of your business.

As always, let’s hear your feedback, either below or the TexasCEO web site.

 

How Infoglide Enhanced Its Acquisition Options

How does a company get acquired? FICO’s acquisition of Infoglide provides an excellent example of applying deliberate steps to increase the odds and accelerate the process.

CEO Mike Shultz graciously allowed us to describe the backstory in a short case study. Read it to discover what you can do to attract potential acquirers. 

 

>> CASE STUDY: How Infoglide Enhanced Its Acquisition Options

 

 

Is Your Company Geared Up for Growth?

“Gear up” means “to prepare for something that you have to do” or “to prepare someone else for something” (source: Cambridge Dictionary). To assess whether your company is prepared to grow, ask whether your management team has clear answers to 4 questions:

1. Does the company offer something special enough to compel customers to spend money?

The instinctive answer is “of course it does.” After all, a customer base exists and the company is stable, even if growth is slow. But can the management team relate a shared, crystal clear vision of the company, its category, and its primary benefit? The kinds of companies it sells to? The roles of people within those companies that are involved in purchasing? Other unique qualities that differentiate you from competitors? Answers to these questions comprise a company’s strategic positioning, and a lack of team alignment on it leads to huge inefficiencies.

2. How does the company fit into the bigger picture of the market served?

Understanding which companies are competitors and which are potential allies is essential for sales success. Companies often assume competition exists when there may be a chance to partner effectively instead. Understanding the needs of other key companies leads to a clearer understanding of current opportunities, where value exists in your market space, and the potential to leverage the success of potential partners to provide better customer solutions.

3. What relationships with other companies can accelerate growth?

Most CEOs are skeptical about partnering with another company because it’s perceived as too difficult to be successful. While most partnerships fail because of poor analysis, poor planning, and poor management, a well-planned partnership can enable a company to leapfrog its competitors.

4. How can the company operate more effectively to bring the CEO’s vision to reality?

Having the right growth strategy is important, but execution ultimately determines success. Once a company reaches a certain size, growth can be limited by having outmoded or inappropriate processes in place. “We’ve always done it this way” is not an acceptable answer. Outside help may be required to drive the strategy into successful execution.

The chart below illustrates three levels of “gearing up” that a company can find itself in: stalled, moving, and accelerating.




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning how to accelerate your vision and take your company from “stalled” to “accelerating” will be the topic of a subsequent post.

Too Broad, Too Narrow, or Just Right

Driving down a major boulevard in a city where we lived at the time, my wife spied a new restaurant in a place where many others had failed. In the window, it advertised food from multiple ethnicities, including both Mexican and Chinese! I’d be surprised if “Bueno Wok” lasted long.

There’s a truism about how a lack of focus can kill an enterprise. Being “a mile wide and a quarter inch deep” is widely recognized as a cause of failure.  Typically, a desire to increase revenue leads to pursuit of business that doesn’t leverage the company’s strengths and results in lower margins and muddled branding. But, are there instances where too narrow a focus can be just as harmful?

The diagram below categorizes organizations according to two attributes, focus and potential. The Focus axis ranges from single domain to multiple domains through all domains, while Potential ranges from restrictive to growing through saturated. Companies focused on several verticals are distinguished from those whose offerings are truly horizontal (i.e. domain-independent). Of course, each axis represents a continuum so that an infinite set of combinations is possible, allowing for the unique positioning of any specific company.

Back to the original question: is it possible to be too focused? Consider the example of a company providing a niche offering to several vertical markets. In the diagram it would be classified as “saturated domain-specific.”

Suppose you’re advising a new CEO hired to grow this “plateauing” company, Your first inclination may be to assess each of the company’s currently targeted vertical markets in hopes of focusing on the one with greatest growth potential. However, if the frequency of opportunities within each vertical domain is found to be sporadic and sensitive to changing business cycles, it may make more sense to remain diversified. Finding additional verticals that the company can target may represent a more fruitful direction.

So a key factor in opting to narrow or broaden our focus ia available market opportunities. Other factors include strength of brand, plus the company’s ability to execute (e.g. capitalization), integrate, partner, and acquire. These affect companies in each of the diagram’s nine categories in different ways. (NOTE: future posts will consider how, so if one of the nine categories is of particular interest, let me know when you sign up on this page to be notified by email when the next post is available.)

Translating the CEO’s vision for growth into breakout strategies requires careful thought to determine the best way to target and deploy finite corporate resources. Too often a new direction is based on an unrealistic view of the company’s position and capabilities. While it takes an optimist to run a company, it takes a realist to lead one toward its highest value.

 

Stuck? 5 “Non-Urgent” Paths to Growth

In companies who have plateaued, the leader may be absorbed with urgent matters like managing finances and addressing operational issues, while neglecting less urgent but critically important issues. In our work advising CEOs, five common “non-urgent” factors repeatedly arise that can hinder or accelerate growth.

Take a few minutes to think about where your company stands on these 5 issues:

  1. Clarify (who are we, and what sets us apart?)   A shared understanding of purpose and unique assets increases efficiency. With a crystal-clear picture of who the company targets, what problems the company uniquely addresses, and other elements of strategic positioning, managers and employees can act faster while reducing the number of meetings and emails; in short, more gets accomplished.
  2. Comprehend (what direction will lead to increased value?)  Finding the right direction in a complex and competitive market accelerates growth. By comprehending the needs of potential acquirers, acquisitions, and partners, you can identify and target those market segments with the highest growth potential.  
  3. Communicate (what key messages will attract prospects?)  In an interconnected world filled with noise, every business needs a brand that associates the company with its unique qualities. Identifying key messages that flow from the strategic positioning and repeating them frequently will reinforce existing customer relationships and open new ones.
  4. Connect (which relationships will help increase our reach?)  Too often CEOs have been burned by partnerships that fail due to poor planning, unrealistic expectations, and unmonitored execution. Self-fueling partnerships with potential acquirers and industry leaders drive new revenue through access to new markets, extended geographies, enhanced product and service offerings, and staff augmentation.
  5. Convince (how can we improve sales execution?)  Too often significant time is wasted on non-buyers. Eliminating them early through rigorous qualifying saves time and money. Based on clear positioning, high potential markets, strong messaging, and self-fueling partnerships, the right qualifying questions lead to rapid elimination of “no’s” and enable a focus on “maybes” – real prospects.

Obviously, other important factors (e.g., operational excellence, product and service strategy, customer relationship management) impact success, but less obvious, non-urgent issues are often the root cause of stagnation.  Dealing with them may be the shortest path to getting your company unstuck.

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