This was originally posted on Swedish Startup Space.
In 2008 I was the Head of Fraud Analytics for FraudSciences, an Israeli startup developing fraud prevention solutions for eCommerce. One evening in January of that year, we convened to talk about our annual plans. Our COO, a quiet guy in his 50s, said: “First thing’s first: the PayPal test results are in. They want to work with us. But they want us to bear their logo”. Then he let out a small smile, and went silent.
The room was completely silent, too. We’ve never contemplated an acquisition. Everything was going great. Last summer, we ran our system on PayPal’s data as part of due diligence for our impending C round. We were geared for war, and we felt like we were going to win. Nothing was going to stop us.
Other than a $169,000,000 acquisition offer from PayPal, that is.
ALWAYS HAVE A NUMBER.
Fast forward to 2011. I was the VP of Analytics for Analyzd, a predictive analytics shop I started with my brother, Yuval, after leaving PayPal in 2010. Our staff of four flew in to Stockholm from Israel, San Francisco and Berlin and we were running full speed with Klarna’s Risk team, trying to rethink strategy for Klarna’s European expansion as part of a consulting project. It’s been a few good months since we started working and spirits were high – the home team was open to our suggestions, and making a lot of progress. At the same time, Yuval was pitching VCs on an innovative merchant risk product Analyzd was working on. When Sebastian, Klarna’s CEO, asked me to join him in a meeting room, I was preparing for a status report.
If you ever saw Sebastian, you know what his selling technique is. More than 190 cm tall, bright blue eyes, he stares directly at you as he makes his proposition. Now he was staring at me. And he was basically asking, “how much for the whole team?”
Were we planning to get acquired? Not really. We had a lot of incoming opportunities, and a brewing funding round. We knew that high growth startups are almost never valued the same way by founders and potential acquirers. We also knew that this wasn’t our last venture, and Klarna was a rocket ship destined for greatness. So we gave an audacious number; Klarna had to want us bad enough to agree, but wouldn’t feel ripped off if we delivered.
For better or worse, Sebastian accepted.
HOW DO I SELL MY STARTUP?
I get asked this question every few months, interestingly, never by people in the Bay area. The large number of talent acquisitions by Facebook, Google and Yahoo, driven by an incredible competition for talent, is misleading. A group of engineers getting acquired before releasing anything isn’t the norm, but rather the exception, and if you’re looking to flip a company before creating value, I can’t help you. This post discusses getting the offer and deciding whether to sell or not.
ARE YOU TIRED?
Tired founders are one of the most common reasons for selling. At FraudSciences, our team of 3 years was interested in fighting, but the founders had a 4 years’ lead on us, having started working on the technology as early as 2001. They were tired, and they wanted to cash in, and it was their right to do so.
If you’re tired and want to rest and vest, take the offer. Enjoy the short-lived fame of an acquired founder. Recharge, rethink, and then move on to your next thing. Leaving to start something new becomes much easier after some liquidity.
Before you sell, though, consider why you’re tired. Is the company doing well, but you’re tired of your role as CEO or CPO? Maybe getting a strong operator to help you can take some load off. Are you financially strained? VCs have become much more sophisticated in providing liquidity to founders and executives. Neither are reasons to sell if you don’t really want to.
IS THE ACQUISITION ROCKET FUEL FOR YOUR PRODUCT?
Why did you start this company? For many of us, the answer is that there’s a problem we’re passionate about and want to solve. When the acquirer is the right one, joining forces with them can supercharge your business. PayPal with eBay, Android with Google, there are many incredible examples.
In Analyzd, though a much smaller team, we wanted to build a think tank for risk management that will change the way the industry thinks about itself, its goals, and the way it operates. Driven by Klarna’s tremendous growth, we reached amazing achievements in two years, while Yuval built the company’s Product organization from scratch. Would we have reached the same goal going at it alone? I want to believe so. But we made it so much faster with Klarna, and were also able to participate in its amazing success. That’s an all-around win.
MONEY COMPETES WITH MONEY.
If you’re not tired, don’t view an acquisition as supporting your long-term goals and generally tend towards not selling, make sure you make the most out of it. A good acquisition offer effectively gives you a price. It may be a good opportunity to raise your next round and end up with a bigger war chest, with lower dilution than you would have otherwise. Money competes with money. Use the offer to jack up your price, stuff your coffers, and grow your business.
If you received an acquisition offer, congratulations! You already created value that someone is interested in. Startups don’t get sold, they get bought, and someone wants to buy you. Price negotiations aside, are you ready to sell? Should you sell? What are good reasons to sell? Don’t discuss an acquisition for the wrong reasons; negotiating the sale is much more than just the price, and it will wear you out and kill your business if it falls through at a too late stage. Consider your options, understand what you set out to achieve with your company, and go do it.