Why Startups Stall

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Have you ever wondered why startup companies stop growing? Sometimes they run out of potential customers to sell to or their product starts losing market share to a competitor, but there is often a more fundamental reason: the founder(s) lose the stomach for it.

When you start a business, the assets you have outside of your business likely exceed those you have in it, because in the early days, your business is worthless. As your company grows, it starts to have value and becomes a more significant part of your wealth—especially if you’re pouring your profits back into funding your growth.

For most business owners, their company is their largest asset.

Eventually, your business may become such a large proportion of your wealth that you realize you are taking a giant risk every day that you decide to hold on to it just a little bit longer.

95% Of His Wealth In One Business

In 2000, Etienne Borgeat and Olivier Letard co-founded PCO innovation, an IT consulting firm. The company took off and, by 2016, PCO had 600 full-time employees and offices around the world.

As the business grew, Borgeat and Letard started to become uneasy about how much of their wealth was tied up in their business. By 2015, the shares Borgeat held in PCO represented 95% of his wealth.

That’s about the point that aerospace giant Boeing came calling. Boeing wanted PCO to take on a very large project and Borgeat and Letard turned down the opportunity reasoning that the project was so large it could risk their entire company if it went wrong. In the early days, the partners would never have turned down a chance to work with Boeing, but the partners had changed.

That’s when Borgeat and Letard realized the time had come to sell. They agreed to an acquisition offer from Accenture of over one times revenue.

The success of your startup is probably driven by your willingness to put all your eggs in one basket. You’re all in. However, at some point, you may find yourself starting to play it safe, which is about the time your business may be better off in someone else’s hands.

5 Lessons From Home Depot’s Acquisition of Blinds.com

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Jay Steinfeld built Blinds.com into a $100 million e-tailer before selling out to Home Depot. Here are five things that made it a spectacular exit.

Win The Make vs. Buy Battle

Companies like Home Depot have a “make or buy” decision when they see a competitor winning market share. They can opt to buy the competitor or choose to simply re-create what they have built.

An acquirer will likely opt to buy your company if you are so dominant in your niche that recreating what you have built would take too long and cost more than acquiring it from you.

Blinds.com got acquired, in part, because they were a big fish in a small pond. At more than $100 million in revenue, they were the largest online retailer of blinds in America by a long shot. Even though Home Depot has close to $90 billion in sales, Blinds.com were outperforming them in their tiny niche and that made Blinds.com irresistible to Home Depot.

Run It Like It’s Public

At the time of the Home Depot acquisition, Blinds.com had 175 employees, yet Steinfeld had been running the company as if it were public for years. He had put together a top-drawer management team and taken the unusual step of assembling an outside board of directors. He had quarterly board meetings with formal presentation decks, and Steinfeld hired a Big Four firm to complete a full audit of his financials each year.

Steinfeld credits this rigorous approach to running a relatively small company as a major reason Home Depot was interested in Blinds.com and able to close on the acquisition so quickly.

Keep Most Of The Equity

Steinfeld invested $3,000 of his own money into a basic online presence for his blinds store back in 1993 and grew Blinds.com to more than $100 million in sales without diluting himself by taking three or four rounds of institutional investment, as would be typical of an internet start-up. Steinfeld took a small investment from friends and family and used bank debt to help him buy distressed companies for pennies on the dollar. It wasn’t until 2012—almost 20 years after starting the business—that he accepted his first round of “professional” money from a private equity firm who wanted to invest more, but Steinfeld refused, only taking enough to buy out a few of his original investors and pay off some debt.

Keep Investors Aligned

One of the reasons Steinfeld accepted an investment from a private equity group was that he had become misaligned with two of his original investors. The investors saw the success of Blinds.com and wanted Steinfeld to start declaring regular dividends. Steinfeld, by contrast, was focused on building a growth company and needed the cash to fuel his 25% per year growth. After a while, his investor’s expectations got so far out of whack that Steinfeld opted to buy them out.

Share The Love

One of Steinfeld’s best memories is the day he told his employees Home Depot had acquired Blinds.com. Steinfeld had made sure every one of his 175 people had Blinds.com stock options and so stood to gain financially from the sale. Steinfeld went further and gave each employee $2,000 of his own money to start an investment account as a personal thank you for all they had done.

Did Microsoft Overpay For LinkedIn?

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Microsoft’s recent $26.2 billion acquisition of LinkedIn provides an illustrative example of a strategic acquisition – the type of sale that usually garners the most gain for the acquired company’s shareholders.

You may be wondering what a billion-dollar acquisition has to do with your business, but the very same reasons a strategic acquirer buys a $26 billion business holds true for the acquisition of a $2 million company.

The financial vs. strategic buyer

A financial buyer is buying the future stream of profits coming from your business, whereas the strategic buyer is buying your business for what it is worth in their hands. To simplify, a financial acquirer buys your business because they think they can sell more of your stuff, whereas a strategic buyer acquires your business because they think it will help them sell more of their stuff.

One might argue that Microsoft overpaid for LinkedIn given that LinkedIn only generated a few hundred million dollars in EBITDA last year, meaning the good folks in Redmond paid an astronomical multiple of LinkedIn’s earnings.

But earnings are not the only thing strategic acquirers care about when they go to make an acquisition.

Microsoft‘s acquisition of LinkedIn is a classic example of a strategic acquisition. The Redmond-based technology giant has been undergoing a major transformation from being a software company focused on operating systems to a business concentrating on cloud-based software applications. Microsoft enjoys a dominant market share in the basic tools white-collar business people use to get their job done, but other software packages have begun to nip at the heels of their dominance in many product lines.

Take Microsoft Office for example. Many businesses have started to use competitive offerings from Google and Apple. Even more companies cling to older versions of Microsoft Office software, even though Microsoft is keen to move everyone over to the cloud-based Office 365.

In purchasing LinkedIn, Microsoft saw an opportunity to suck data from LinkedIn into Microsoft’s cloud-based software applications, making them irresistible. Imagine you’re a sales person and you just landed a big meeting with a new prospect. You enter the appointment as a Microsoft Outlook event and suddenly the details of the event feature everything LinkedIn knows about your prospect.

Now you can make small talk about where they went to school, the previous jobs they have held and know the scope of their current role – all without ever leaving Outlook.

Microsoft is betting this kind of integration across its platforms will compel more people to upgrade to the latest software applications. While your company is likely smaller than LinkedIn, the same thing that makes a giant buy another giant holds true for smaller businesses. To get the highest possible price for your business, remember that companies make strategic acquisitions because they want to sell more of their stuff.