Why Acquisitions Fail

“Everything’s so green!” – line by King Louis XVI from Mel Brook’s “History of the World”

Over the years, I have worked with many clients on dozens of acquisition transactions. When I think back to the early stages of any of these deals, it conjures up this line from “History of the World.” A potential deal was like a new love; everything looked fantastic and the benefits seemed to far outweigh any issues; leading to that often-used phrase “it’s a no brainer.” For my more strategic thinking clients, this was often the case. I can still picture a mosaic one of my clients created in the early years of his company, detailing product features he thought were required to capture the market. With a solid assessment of the company’s capabilities, he conveyed a clear vision as to what the company would develop and what they would acquire. This became one of many success stories. But what about the failures?

When a client would call, and indicate they were interested in acquiring a company for reasons such as the target company was available or they could be bigger with an acquisition, my antennae would always go up. I quite honestly rarely saw what I considered non-strategic deals for the sake of growth work. By the time those deals were done, they usually started to come undone as the expected returns quickly faded. So besides being poorly conceived, what caused these deals to fail? I can think of four reasons:

  • Growth over culture. Money never trumps culture and nowhere is this truer than in the case of an acquisition. If the deal is not a good cultural fit, it will fail.
  • Poor post transaction planning. The details on how you are going to operate post-deal is a major factor in its success. Broadly addressed as Post Merger Integration, poor execution in this phase is a major cause of deal disappointment.
  • Unrealistic synergies. You can’t just eliminate bodies without contemplating the consequences. As to the market and customers, there were probably good reasons the two companies existed before the deal and thinking one can handle what the other did without a well vetted understanding is fool’s play.
  • Seller’s remorse. An independent owner gets acquired and has the chance to bring his company to the next level as part of a larger organization. Sounds good in theory, but when an entrepreneur has not reported to others in a long time and now he must, it doesn’t always work. If there is an earn out involved, this often complicates the matter.

So, consider the tough stuff in the early stages of a deal when everything seems to be great. Ask the difficult questions and complete the full due diligence including what is going to happen when the honeymoon is over. With the right work, upfront you can avoid transaction failure and everything will look green – especially your bottom line.

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Quick Test: Should I Form a Startup?

“You can do it!” – line made famous by Rob Schneider in “The Waterboy.”

Being a big fan of the entrepreneurial space, I love to encourage people to get involved in new ventures. Forming something new or making what is there bigger and better can have a profound change on the world, and being a part of that is both exciting and daunting. I talk to owners every day and for those just starting out with an idea, I have a little test that I use to see if they should be encouraged or just continue to dream. Keep in mind a true entrepreneur knows the difference between an idea and an opportunity – thank you, Jeff Timmons – and you have to determine early on which of the two describes your journey.

So here is the quick, five-step test:

  1. Do you have a viable, unique idea? A baseball mitt for ambidextrous players may be unique, but viability may be a question. You should also be able to create a logical one page summary of your idea. It is amazing what happens when you have to put something down in writing. If you doubt this, try this little exercise – write down what you would like written on your tombstone.
  2. Do you have some money? Regardless of what you want to do, it will cost money. You may be able to minimize the cost, but you need to have some available money to get started. When I went into my own consulting business, I knew the most frugal way to incorporate, register, get a website and business cards, etc. but it still took a few bucks.
  3. Would you like to do this for the rest of your life? Next to sleeping, we spend most of our time working. If this is going to be your “job,” do you really like it? And please make sure you are not running from something, like a job you hate, but to a life you will enjoy more.
  4. Can you take the heat? Being the boss is the good news and bad news. Every new hire is another family you are responsible for so you have to be ready for that role. The road is full of stories about the team and sharing responsibility, but in the end, the buck will stop at your door and some people are not built that way.
  5. Can you make money doing it? Having your own business is great, but you need profits to pay salaries and make it worthwhile. This can involve difficult decisions on resource allocations. Be ready for that eventuality.

So there it is. If you have answered yes to these questions – and I think they all have to be yes answers – then you are ready to seriously commit to forming your new venture. Harness your passion and enthusiasm and get started. Just keep in mind that “you can do it.”

Go to the Light – Start Exit Planning Now

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m making good time.” – Quote from a former client.

I just completed a series of discussions with some mature business owners on potential exits from their businesses. As usual, I tend to take away common themes and I thought of this quote from a former client. He used it to describe people he had encountered who were so absorbed in what they were doing, they thought they were making progress.

Through his eyes, he thought they were lost. The latter tended to describe these owners. Each had a valid reason to address the need for exit planning – age, paradigm changes, timing – these were all present and culprits in raising the very thorny question as to “What’s next?” There is an abundance of tools to help an owner through the exit process, but getting started – now there’s the rub.

I hear loads of excuses as to reasons to delay. Many who advise in this space have what are perceived of as ulterior motives – money managers who want owners to sell so they can manage their liquid assets, life insurance sales people who want to make sure owners and their families have the annuity or insurance to cover them as they go on their journey, etc. Unfortunately, while well intended, they give the owner an out by raising questions regarding true intent. I have had some success in this space because I do not care what the result is, I just want to make sure that an owner has all the facts before they make their decision. But I will admit, it is a tough battle.

Having said that, I believe the major reasons for delay are psychological. Fear is often downplayed and yet I think it is one root cause of most owners becoming part of the majority who either have no exit plan or start to plan too late. In his 2000 Year Old Man albums, Mel Brooks cited fear as the great motivator for everything from transportation to the development of the handshake and dancing. One problem for the owner is often the absence of someone they can confide in to discuss their fears. Often seen as the patriarch or matriarch, showing fear is often perceived by them as a sign of weakness. So, they seek solace in finding a solution. This keeps them busy and avoids the need to discuss the obvious – starting an exit plan.

The absence of a “life” after the business is gone is also an issue. Often left with little time to develop hobbies or other interests, the lack of something to go to leads the owner to complacency about staying where they are. Making the business stronger is a great defense and considered “progress” perhaps ignoring at times risks like the paradigm shift which may be too great to overcome.

So, to owners, I say start the process now. Have others tell you it is too early, but I never think it is. My advice has always been not to get into a business without knowing how you will get out. Also, find an advisor you can trust. They do not have to be skilled in the exit process, but they have to be capable of listening and telling you things you may not want to hear. With some guidance, you will know where you are going and have a successful completion to your journey.

You Have to Be Fiscally Responsible

“Friends don’t do this to friends.” – quote from a new client CEO when told his CFO was “taking” money.

For those of you who follow this blog regularly, you know my background as a long-time audit partner with EY. That experience has allowed me to be a trusted advisor to many business owners of all types and to see first-hand the issues I use as content here. I use few, if any, “geeky technical topics” and I usually leave the ugly side of the business out. But there is a disturbing trend I see with too many of this generation’s entrepreneurs that I feel is worthy of exploring. First, let me provide some background.

There is a popular acronym called KPI (Key Performance Indicators) that many owners today rely on to gauge the health of their business. KPIs may include average sales per day or employee, days of sales in receivables, unique users to a site, etc. Many come into favor as early-stage companies may not have revenue but need some objective data to monitor progress. All understood. But this tool is not so new. As a young manager (yes, before the internet but not quite when people used quill pens), I was always interested in what data owners of established businesses used to manage their company. Interestingly, while some referred to monthly financial statements, most used daily information on shipments, cash collections and weekly payroll. As to the last item, even the most unsophisticated owners always knew their weekly “nut” or payroll. They would leave the full accounting and finance function to the CFO but they always had a handle on KPIs. So why the trip through accounting history?

I notice more and more a bifurcation of tasks and responsibilities by today’s entrepreneurs. Once a financial manager of any type is hired, it seems everything finance related is delegated to that hire. Someone in an owners’ blog somewhere must have said this is the right thing to do; that administrative tasks just bog you down and you should abdicate your fiscal responsibility and only spend time on activities that bring value (product development, team and customer building, etc.) to make your venture a success. Not true.

So, the genesis of this quote. We recently landed a new early-stage client and as part of our process did some simple diagnostics. The CFO was a close friend of the CEO founder with complete charge for finance and a few other functions. Without going into details, the CFO was paying himself unauthorized bonuses. No accounting tricks; they were right there on the payroll register; the CFO just felt he deserved more money. We were astonished to find the founder never reviewed payroll; did not know what his nut was. He was devastated. In addition, the bond company is giving them a hard time about covering the shortfall citing inadequate supervision.

So, a simple lesson for owners of all businesses. It is perfectly fine to leave the core of the finance function to others but always have some minimum KPI type of checks and balances in place as your predecessors did. Take the advice from Chris Anderson as relayed in David Kidder’s “Startup Playbook” – “engage in the whole process.” Because in the end, it is a real challenge to be a success if you are not fiscally responsible.

Buy Out Values – Hail the Willing Buyer

“How the hell did he come up with that number?” – quote from a new client reacting to his partner’s price to be bought out.

Almost every week, I get the chance to see a number of potential transactions among partners — mostly negotiating buying each other’s shares or debating what value to use in a buy-sell agreement. All different types of markets with the operative words being “fair value.” So I have been in the middle of this before and I have a solution that I have used, but it involves some education and “faith” by both parties if it is going to work. Let me explain.

Fair market value is used in a somewhat cavalier fashion in these type of deals but there is little focus on the key aspects of the definition of this term which is a value based on what a knowledgeable, willing and unpressured buyer would probably pay to a knowledgeable, willing and unpressured seller. Valuation experts use common tools to arrive at a number or range, but in the end, most importantly, you need a “willing buyer.” So what is the problem?

When you go to sell your business, the willing buyer may be a financial sponsor of some type (hedge fund, private equity, venture capital, etc.) or even your competitor or someone who wants to get into that market (often called a strategic buyer). Most of these willing buyers have another way to measure the results of their transaction. For example, I had a client sell a significant division of his company to a strategic for about 15 times earnings. This was a great deal for him, but the purchaser was public, selling at 25 times earnings; and my client’s ongoing $10 million in earnings increased the buyer’s market value by $250 million. Not bad. However, this does not translate into the private company market of “willing buyers.”

Using this example, if my client wanted to sell to his partner who wanted to continue to run this business for a long time and not sell, that partner would have to fork over all earnings (at current levels) for 15 years before he would see a plug nickel. What willing buyer is going to do that? Yet, it is a problem I confront quite often. So in this case, the “willing buyer” will only offer something a bit more reasonable from a pure cash-on-cash recovery basis – say 3 to 5 years. Many buy / sells I see have a price of 3 to 5 times EBITDA which gets you to the same place.

So I often suggest that the offer be based on projected cash flow for a 3 to 5 year period. I also suggest that a provision be added such that if the company is sold in say a 5 year period, there is some form of “claw back” – that the previous owners are paid in part as if they still owned some shares (all negotiated). The alternative is to wait for that outside purchaser to come along and prolong an important exit event. So while fair market value is a sacred term, please remember when in comes to partners, it is governed by the provisions of the “willing buyer.”

Madagascar – Where Being an Entrepreneur is a Way of Life

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” – old English proverb

My wife and I recently visited Madagascar. It is a beautiful country with unbelievable landscapes, great people and of course lemurs. As I am prone to do, I saw this world through my own “colored” glasses and personally believe there are more entrepreneurs there than anyplace I have ever been. Now before you think I may have stayed in the sun too long or had too many THB’s (Three Horses Beers), please bear with me.

I am not sure about the official unemployment rate, but we spoke to dozens of people from all walks of life while we were there. Except for one, all were what we would call in the US, independent contractors. They were paid when they worked (office and factory workers, those in tourism, etc.) and not paid when they didn’t. So to survive, almost everyone has their own “business” – from performing some type of service to raising crops to clothing boutiques. Every town we visited had a plethora (thank you Three Amigos) of vendors selling everything from food to clothing to kindling wood. So I contrast this with what I see here every day and realize there are two big differences.

First, Madagascar is very poor so there are no “friends and family” to help support you as you go off to develop some new product or service. They need their venture just to survive; to pay the rent or barter to get food for their family. They are the ultimate risk takers – figuring out what they need to do to make it through the day – they are not living comfortably at home (or with friends) writing code for what hopefully will be the next killer app.

Second, they are unbelievably resourceful. Now I meet smart startup founders every day and they certainly know how to deal with limited resources. In fact, when I hold sessions and ask participants to describe an entrepreneur, one of the most common responses is they know how to get the most done with the least. But there, this concept is taken to a different level. There is little money and scarce natural resources, yet we visited “businesses” that:

  • Made aluminum pots (the same my Mom used for pasta) out of 100% recycled aluminum. They used everything from old building siding to car parts. By the way – no kilns for heat; just charcoal and the molds were formed out of silica sand.
  • Created inlaid wood pieces from recycled wood. Here the key tool was a saw; the body of which was constructed from car parts and the saw blades from the steel found in recycled steel belted radial tires.
  • Produced miniature model bicycles from 100% recycled bike parts – everything from hand brake cable to old tire spokes.

So now perhaps you can see what I admired about the entrepreneurial spirit there. Necessity for them is the mother of invention – both the need to survive and the need to make the most from what is available. Perhaps this “way of life” will inspire you to work even harder to make your venture a success because as tough as you think it may be, you are probably not as burdened as the entrepreneurs of Madagascar.

Profit is Not an Ugly Word

Leo Bloom: “Heh, heh, heh, amazing. It’s absolutely amazing. But under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit.” – quote from the movie The Producers by Mel Brooks.

Some of you may recall this memorable line which was the premise of this classical movie. The plan was to raise a significant amount of money, find a play that would “flop” on opening night and keep the unused funds. An ingenious ploy; save for the fact that the play was a hit, more than 100% of the equity had been sold and the main characters ended up in prison.

So, let me begin by apologizing for the somewhat dour tone of this blog. I think of this line as I see pitches that seek to raise more and more capital with an apparent disregard for the spend or “burn rate,” with entrepreneurs chalking up their expenses to the investment needed to grow. Every entrepreneur I ever met believed they could grow faster with more dry powder. But the successful ones realized that just like one’s personal finances, at some point, you must “pay the piper” (face the music, come to Jesus, yada, yada, yada).

I would have thought we learned our collective lesson from the dot com boom / bust. Back then, despite substantial losses, valuations were sky high and investors began to focus on other “metrics” which soon took the place of the old reliable P & L. Just like the Cabbage Patch Kids, one day someone decided that these companies were in fact ugly, and shortly thereafter, most were trashed and entrepreneurs were sent home to live with their parents.

I want to be clear here; if you are running any type of business, you need a clear path to profitability. I saw a recent article with an entrepreneur calling out investors for just asking when the company would turn a profit, which the author interpreted as just stifling growth. How dare they? Well I ask, how dare you build a business model without such a pathway and put your stakeholders (especially employees) at risk with the hope that someone will be smitten with your traction or stickiness and rescue you with an acquisition deal? That’s not building a viable business; that’s the equivalent of legalized gambling.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not implying that one must be profitable to attract investors. If I believed that, I would not be so respectful of angels and VCs that make the early-stage ecosystem work. Thank goodness for them. But if you think investors do not believe that a sustainable business is nirvana, you just have not asked the right questions. That path to profitability must not only be clear but in sight.

The great entrepreneurs I know are better than that. They realize that this not a Max Bialystock shell game. They need to seek profitability and realize the clearer the path to this goal, the more likely it is their journey will be successful.