Startup Grind Vienna: Oliver Holle

Startup Grind Vienna kicked off two weeks ago and invited Oliver for a truly personal interview about his entrepreneurial path. If you couldn’t make it to the party at Sektor5 you now have the chance to watch the video online.


The exit: Fear and Loathing in M&A for founders

This post appeared first on Venturebeat.

You’re sitting in your office late on a Friday, alone. Hot wet tears are streaming down your cheeks. Your mobile phone rings constantly. Your CTO, shareholders, and everyone else is calling to learn how the meeting went. The COO who joined you on the conference call has already left and is taking Monday off.

And, of course, now there’s a dilemma.

After months of prep, tech and business development meetings, megabytes of pre-due diligence material, an ambitious joint business case, synergies, frank and open discussions about feelings and lifelong goals, dinner with the proposed acquirer’s leadership team, and a process that seemed to be going so smoothly, you have just hung up on the buyer’s VP of corporate development. They are excited about your joining the family, fantastic opportunity, etc. and they are happy to offer you precisely 40 percent of what you were sure your company was worth.

How do you explain this to your shareholders? Your co-founders? Who is to blame for this life altering disappointment? Why you? Why now?

Fear is a powerful negotiating tactic

There are a few important things to be learned from this scenario. First, Bovee’s law of mergers and acquisitions: if there is going to be bad news it always comes late on Friday afternoon, just as you are making plans for the weekend. You receive a call from the chairman of the board at 4:53 p.m., and you know, immediately, from the tone of her voice what she is going to say. It always happens on Friday.

Second, driving value in an acquisition has nothing to do with all that stuff you were working so hard on the last few months. Value in an acquisition is driven by fear. Period. What is going to motivate a CEO to spend top dollar for an acquisition? Feelings? Synergies? A really, really good imaginary business case? No. The threat of being heckled on stage at her keynote because she publicly lost a perceived major advantage to a competitor at the last moment. I’m not going to name names, but I just saw this happen a few weeks ago, and it sucked.

Let’s go quickly back through the list I gave you in “The Exit” part 2: you have an ambitious global expansion plan, a data room, protected your IP, cleaned up your cap table, and made sure key people are happy. You have been practicing the pitch and the story relentlessly, obsessively with your co-founders, and have set up your internal corp dev team and “wargamed” all the scenarios and negotiating points. You were ready for this. You were so ready, but now it looks like it will be impossible to close a 60 percent gap. The buyer is willing to issue a term sheet, and wants 30 days exclusivity, but the only alternative seems to be to back away from the table. And the disappointment is going to hit your team hard.

Everything that you did is important, but the key piece is to manage the acquisition so that you can create significant and true leverage. And the best leverage is to have other acquirers sitting eagerly at adjoining tables.

Timing is everything

Timing your discussions with competitive bidders is absolutely essential, and it is by far the hardest part. This is where investors and board members come into play. In certain cases, you might even want to consider retaining an M&A professional, because this piece requires full-time dedication. In the early stages, you, as a founder, shouldn’t be too aggressive, and if you are the CEO, and particularly if you are also heavily involved in sales for your company, you may want to hand off the early M&A outreach to someone else. You’ll get involved soon enough.

This part of the process is very much like enterprise sales, except the beginning is much easier. And the middle is much, much harder. You need to open a big pipeline of potential acquirers, and reach out to them all systematically. There are a few factors that are working against you here, and which make acquisitions rare (and which make timing an acquisition to maximize your leverage not only rare, but nearly impossible): there are probably only one or two dozen companies who are realistic acquirers for your company, but among this set there is a high probability that the subset having both budget and having earmarked companies in your sector as strategic targets for that year is zero. That funnel gets so narrow so quickly that you really need to put energy into the early stage.

Making the initial calls is easy. Many people, battle-hardened from years of enterprise software sales, will be familiar with negotiating access to decision makers. That doesn’t happen so much in M&A. Get your chairman of the board or one of your VCs to call their CEO. ‘This is about a potential acquisition…’ There, that stage is done. You have negotiated access to the power person.

I get a lot of questions from founders about trying to quantify the early M&A process: what is Google buying this year? How much did they spend on companies in our sector? What about Apple? And you can quantify these things to a certain extent, but they don’t help much beyond building the initial pipeline. M&A is particular for each company, and is tightly wound with company culture. It’s a real black box, in many cases. For instance, Google does spend lots of money acquiring early stage companies. And they do lots of deals, but they are also quite well known for acquiring talent. In general, the deals are not often big. And if you are talking to a large acquirer like a Cisco or Yahoo!, they have often developed their shopping list for that budget period long before your conversation started. You will have limited visibility or influence. I’m sure your technology/team/market is amazing. The VP of corp dev probably doesn’t care.

Sorry, no intermission for M&A

For similar reasons, the middle part of your M&A pipeline development gets hard. This is where you should be personally involved, or someone who pitches your company really, really well. In the best case, the acquiring CEO will delegate representatives from corp dev, the CTO team, business development/strategy and possibly product in early meetings to assess the opportunity. In the worst case scenario, you will find yourself talking to a corp dev associate who was an investment banker two years ago. In this latter case, it probably isn’t a deal. You found yourself outside the core acquisition bucket for that budget year, and they kicked it to an associate. It’s not a priority, or your first pitch was really poor.

When you find yourself on track with the right teams, schedule your time very carefully so that you can bring them up to speed in tandem. If you need to slow things down, don’t delay responses or deliverables: make sure you appear totally on the ball, and have your material prepped. Respond to data requests within 24 hours. But push meetings out if you need to. You are very busy. Your schedule doesn’t open up for 2.5 weeks.

If this process works out well, you might find yourself in acquisition discussions with 2 or more competitors, and this is the ideal situation. If you have a growth scenario (fundraising and maybe an IPO somewhere down the road) that is nice, too, but the threat of a competitive acquisition drives the strongest leverage. But you do also need to handle these discussions diplomatically. Don’t be too aggressive. Figure out ways to signal, discreetly, and as early as possible, that you are in discussions with other buyers. But don’t throw it in anyone’s face. They will back off quickly. If you can signal this well it should help you avoid the ‘disappointing initial offer’ scenario as much as possible. It can save you some tears and a ruined Friday night.

What to do about a disappointing offer

If you do receive a disappointing offer you can back off graciously. And often a clearly worded email restating the positive sides of the acquisition, the synergies (technical and cultural) the palpable excitement among your founding team, and the significant upside in the joint business case, can work late-stage miracles in pre-term sheet discussions, particularly (and often only) if coupled with some serious competitive leverage. If you have the guts to walk away the buyer will sense it, and you can quickly qualify or repair the deal.

But also be aware that there are limits. I’m sure you have done your homework as part of the development of your M&A pipeline, but look carefully at annual M&A spend and deal sizes of your potential acquirer. You have already agreed on an internal strike price. Reality check it, and if it looks like you could be headed for disappointment, get together with your team immediately and explore alternative scenarios.

At this stage, all the elements should be in place to start with a reasonable offer. There will be some verbal back-and-forth, standard negotiating, and you will probably spend a week or two arriving at what both parties consider a fair price and high-level terms. This is when the buyer will issue a term sheet.

Term sheet time

The term sheet is often surprisingly light after all of the process you have been through. It comprises an outline of the deal, is usually non-binding, and gets you ready for the final purchase agreement which is where the real fun begins.

Things to pay attention to in the term sheet: the buyer will almost always ask for a ‘no shop’ period, during which you can’t talk to other acquirers while the term sheet is negotiated. Obviously, push to keep this as short as possible. If you can get two weeks, that is awesome.

The term sheet should also include the purchase price, deal structure, escrow and ‘hold backs’, if any; there might be some HR stuff, termination, governing law and a few other points. You will spend the ‘no shop’ period negotiating all this. One important consideration: make sure that the terms are crystal clear, and do NOT under any circumstances, assume that you can change agreed terms simply because the document is non-binding. Attempting to do this gives a very bad signal to the buyer.

The buyer’s perception of risk will rise considerably in later stages of negotiation over the purchase agreement, and screwing up early communication and then attempting to backtrack during later, expensive legal wrangling can kill deals. Fast.

So, in a perfect world, you have managed a competitive acquisition process, it is Friday afternoon, and you just got off the phone with the acquiring VP of corp dev. The offer was only 17% off the strike price you had agreed with your internal corp dev team, and there is every certainty you can close the gap. And, in case you can’t, Acme SaaS and Widgets want to schedule a corp dev call next week. You give your COO a big hug and you both stroll off into the night to have a drink and plan your weekends.

Warum Österreich nicht das nächste Silicon Valley wird

Oder: Auf dem Weg zu Silicon Alps

Ein unauffälliger Landstrich zwischen zwei Gewässern, entlang einer vielspurigen Autobahn, ist die moderne Traumfabrik. Silicon Valley hat längst Hollywood abgelöst, wer heute von Berühmtheit und Erfolg träumt, hat Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk oder Steve Jobs vor Augen. Visionäre und begnadete Unternehmer, die dank der Entwicklung der Informationstechnologie reich und berühmt wurden.

Warum keine Österreicherin, kein Österreicher? Fehlt es an Talent? Unternehmergeist? Vorbildern? An allem ein wenig und doch auch wieder nicht. Die Stars unter den IT Unternehmern von morgen sind schon geboren und kommen auch aus Österreich. Und dazu braucht es nichteinmal ein „Silicon Valley“ Österreichischen Zuschnitts. Aber zuerst zurück zum Anfang.

Startups sind eine spezielle Form des Unternehmertums

Wenn es als Unternehmer darum geht seinen Lebensunterhalt zu verdienen und einige MitarbeiterInnen zahlen zu können, meistens im Dienstleistungsbereich aber auch in der Produktentwicklung, dann ist Österreich schon jetzt voll mit IT Entrepreneuren. Eine dichte KMU Landschaft mit lokalen Kunden ist Status Quo. Auch gibt es schon einige internationale Stars, Leuchttürme, wie Altova oder Automic (früher UC4), die ganz im Stillen erfolgreiche Unternehmen aufgebaut haben.

Was sich in den letzten Jahren entwickelt hat, ist eine Form der IT Startups internationalen Zuschnitts. Diese Unternehmen versuchen nicht nur einen Business Plan umzusetzen, sondern suchen nach einem nachhaltig, skalierbaren Businessmodell, also entweder einem neuartigen Produkt oder einem neuen Prozess, der sich überdurchschnittlich schnell skalieren lässt. Also genau jene Modelle die Mark Zuckerberg & Co. bekannt und berühmt gemacht haben. Diese Form des Unternehmertums braucht andere Kompetenzen und Erfahrungen.

Internationalität von Beginn an, schnelle, iterative Produktentwicklung um den so genannten „Product-Market-Fit“ zu finden (jene Nachfrage die Skalierung ermöglicht) und der Umgang mit Investoren gehören zu einigen der wichtigsten Merkmale. Startups sind also eine andere Form von Unternehmen, brauchen daher eine andere Art von Entrepreneur.
Diese Unternehmer, die bereit sind einen solchen Weg zu gehen, sind in Österreich noch rar. Es fehlen die Erfahrungen, die Rollenbilder und die Grundlagen. Alles eine Frage der Zeit, denn auch im Silicon Valley liegen die Grundlagen dieser „Industrie“ weit in der Vergangenheit. 1969 machten sich zwei ehemalige Intel Mitarbeiter auf, einen neuen Chip-Hersteller zu gründen: AMD. Mit der Unterstützung und der Finanzierung des Intel Gründers Robert Noyce wollten die beiden Gründer die wachsende Nachfrage nach Mikroprozessoren befriedigen. Ihr Erfolg ist Legende und führte zu einer Haltung, die das Neue, die Innovation, die Gründung als festen Bestandteil der Firmenkultur und Gesellschaft etablierte.

Bestärkt durch ihre Erfahrung und den finanziellen Erfolg, gründeten die ersten Mitarbeiter der Chiphersteller auch die ersten Venture Capital unternehmen, jene Risikokapitalgeber die ganz wesentlich für dieses Ökosystems sind. Wer auf der Suche nach eine stark skalierenden Geschäftsmodell ist, schafft das nicht ausschliesslich mit Erspartem, sondern benötigt ausreichend Kapital.

Europa und Österreich brauchen eine eigene Haltung zu Unternehmertum

Wenn wir also fast 50 Jahre Geschichte im Silicon Valley in nur 5 Jahren nachvollziehen wollten, bräuchten wir wohl eine Zeitmaschine und eine fundamentale Veränderung im Markt (zB Einführung des Computers) die als Trägerwelle dienen kann. Nicht unmöglich, aber unwahrscheinlich. Was also tun? Aufgeben? Nicht nötig. Es braucht nur eine neue Haltung zu Unternehmertum und Gründung.

Golden Gate Bridge

Dazu braucht es neue UnternehmerInnen, die ihr Vorhaben von Beginn an international ausrichten, aus dem reichen Erfahrungsschatz anderer Unternehmer schöpfen und die mittlerweile reichlich vorhandenen Best Practices nutzen. Durch Bewegungen wie „Lean Startup“, die iterative Ideenfindung und Businessplanung mit allen dazugehörigen Werkzeugen als Rahmen bieten, wird Unternehmensgründung gerade für Startups entzaubert und wird methodisch nachvollziehbar. Denn gründen ist keine Hexerei, auch wenn eine Portion Glück nie schadet.

Solche GründerInnen gibt es bereits in Österreich. Doch es braucht noch mehr. Haltungen verändern sich über Vorbilder, „Role Models“, die Einzelne ermutigen, andere Wege zu gehen. So hat Dietrich Mateschitz und Red Bull sicher mehr Menschen in Österreich zu Unternehmern gemacht als jedes Wirtschaftsförderungsprogramm. Es müssen also auch die erfolgreichen IT Unternehmer vor den Vorhang treten und damit andere inspirieren.

Auch eine solide Entrepreneurship Ausbildung an der Universität schadet nicht. Auch wenn jene die sich eine solche Ausbildung als Spezialisierung wählen wohl schon grundsätzlich eine Unternehmensgründung in Betracht ziehen, hilft die Auseinandersetzung mit Methoden und Werkzeugen der Erfolgsquote und damit zu mehr erfolgreichen UnternehmerInnen.

Blieben noch zwei Probleme: zum Einen fehlt es chronisch an technischen GründerInnen. Während viele der grössten amerikanischen IT Unternehmen von technischen Gründern, oft direkt aus der Universität, gegründet wurden, gehört das Berufsbild des Entrepreneurs bei heimischen Physikern, Software Entwicklern oder Mathematikern noch nicht zum Alltag. Dabei sind bewusst nicht jene gemeint, die sich oft bereits neben dem Studium „selbstständig machen“ um mit eigenem Gewerbeschein erst recht für ein Unternehmen zu arbeiten, sondern jene die tatsächlich ein skalierbares Unternehmen aufbauen wollen.

In vielen Gründungsteams fehlen daher die technischen Kompetenzen und müssen entweder teuer eingekauft werden oder von den Gründern selbst aufgebaut werden. Dabei ist gerade das eine Stärke im internationalen Vergleich: Österreich und Europa verfügt über ausgezeichnetes technisches Talent und hervorragende Ausbildung. Wir können vielleicht nicht jene 50 Jahre Historie des Silicon Valley aufweisen, sind aber ohne Weiteres konkurrenzfähig wenn es um Innovationsfähigkeit und technische Problemlösung geht. Kopf schlägt Kapital.

Womit auch der zweite wichtige und leider problematische Faktor genannt wäre: Risikokapital. Nach erfolgversprechenden Ausmassen rund um das Millenium, ist das vorhandene Risikokapital in der Region auf ein beschämend niedriges Niveau zurückgegangen. Die meisten Venture Capital Fonds in Österreich haben kein Investmentkapital oder existieren de facto nicht mehr. Damit fehlt aber eine wichtige Zutat für ein erfolgreiches Ökosystem, denn um ein funktionierendes Geschäftsmodell in der Realität zu etablieren, braucht es Risikokapital. Ohne Investment, keine Entrepreneure.

Obwohl die öffentliche Förderlandschaft in Österreich Einiges zu bieten hat und vielen Unternehmern die Gründung erleichtert, hat diese Form der Finanzierung Tücken und Lücken. Lange Entscheidungszyklen und oftmals rigide Projektvorgaben, die eine rasche Veränderung wie Startups sie benötigen, nicht ermöglichen, sind nur zwei der Nachteile. Die Definition von Innovation als Förderbedingung ist aus Sicht der öffentlichen Hand nachvollziehbar, hilft aber bei der Schaffung von Role Models nicht. Denn auch ein Startup mit wenig technischer Innovation, kann erfolgreiche Unternehmer hervorbringen. Zum Glück entwickelt sich eine kleine, aber feine Szene erfahrener Unternehmer, die als Business Angels ihr Geld und ihre Erfahrungen weitergeben, anstatt in Immobilien oder Aktien zu investieren.

Wir stehen am Anfang einer spannenden Epoche

Warum das alles relevant ist? Weil es genau jene UnternehmerInnen sein werden, die in den nächsten Jahrzehnten die Gestalt der Welt wie wir sie kennen, entscheidend beeinnflussen werden. Mark Andreesen, einst Netscape Gründer und jetzt angesehener Risikokapitalgeber, sagte richtigerweise: „Software eats the World“. Die Veränderung die durch Digitalisierung in allen Bereichen unseres Lebens stattfinden, stehen erst am Beginn.

eCommerce wird weite Bereiche des Handels noch dramatischer verändern als bereits geschehen, Medien stehen vor einem substantiellen Wandel, inklusive neuen Geschäftsmodellen, Mobilität wird sich ebenfalls radikal wandeln und die vielen Möglichkeiten neuer Hardware, egal ob am Körper (Wearables), in den eigenen vier Wänden (Home Automation) oder in der Luft (Dronen), sind noch gar nicht vorstellbar. Vielleicht heben wir in 10 Jahren tatsächlich am Bitcoinautomat unsere neue Weltwährung ab, wer weiss?

In dieser Welt als kreativer Unternehmer schöpferisch tätig zu sein, ist eine der spannendsten Herausforderungen unserer Zeit. Mit ein wenig Mut zum Risiko, den richtigen Methoden, internationaler Ausrichtung, erfahrenen Unterstützern und Risikokapital lassen sich Ideen entwickeln, die die Welt verändern. Oder wie Steve Jobs sagte: „We’re here to put a dent in the universe.”

This post appeared first in OCG Journal.


Exit: Someone probably wants to buy your company. Get organized!

This post appeared first on Venturebeat.

While knowing the basics of building a successful tech business with an eye toward getting acquired is important, what it comes down to is organization. Now is the time that you need to prepare carefully in order to exercise as much control over this process as possible. Things you do in the early stage have an inordinate influence on valuation and later negotiating topics.

You have a soft offer for your company, your shareholders are delighted and a few of you are already thinking about opening the champagne. Stop! Before you drive any acquisition conversations further, you need to get all shareholders together, and on the same page. Not only must you be in agreement, but you must all know the negotiating parameters, road map, business case and talking points absolutely by heart so there is no perceived disconnect when things get heavy. And things will get heavy.

This is the main error made by founders exiting for the first time. Sure, everyone knows the business plan. They know the cap table. You have more or less agreed on a price, but is your CTO a little nervous about delivering against the published roadmap? Will the time travel feature really be ready by October? How will it be ready, and which customers will pilot it? Your shareholders are delighted with an exit, but is your COO happy with an acqui-hire, while your VC has a hard requirement for a 10x return? Get this all on the table, and get it ironed out immediately. What does the story need to look like, internally, to assure you fall between 10x-12x? Does everyone know it by heart?

Here are some steps:

  • Organize an internal corp dev team (assuming you don’t have one already). These will be the people responsible for preparing materials, and for negotiating with the buyer. Build the story together. Above all, agree on a solid strike price: what is the threshold where everyone agrees you walk away from the table? And what are ‘no go’ terms – are you all OK with milestones? Are you all OK with a large escrow component? Will you consider an asset sale even when you really want a share sale?
  • When the story is built, rehearse with everyone and ‘war game’ it. Practice your positions. Practice your arguments.
  • Set up a very regular touch-point meeting with all stakeholders (weekly). Even in the early stages, when you aren’t in due diligence, you still want to get in the habit of keeping everyone in synch.

One thing to keep in mind when in the early stages of preparing a sale of your company: senior corp-dev people on the buy-side have probably done 5 of these deals this year alone. They are all experts in ninja mind control. Even though your company is awesome, they will be on the lookout for disconnects, and they will often add negotiating points into the early discussions that appear crazy, but are designed to test your team. If they sense something is wrong, in the very best case it will be used against you as negotiating leverage. The price will drop heavily if you aren’t careful. In the worst case, it will kill your deal.

Open the M&A Pipeline…carefully!

You have a soft offer to acquire the company. How do you make that a hard offer? And how do you assure you maximize your valuation? There are a lot of fuzzy variables that quickly come into play, and understanding and managing them is essential. If you are a first-time seller, you have a handicap immediately. You are unfamiliar with the process, and you also don’t have the brand name that would add value and a sense of urgency to the buyer. You may not have a big network in the Valley, and if your last name isn’t ‘Jobs’ or even ‘Houston’ or ‘Hoffman’, you will have limited cards to play. The key is understanding your cards and counting them carefully.

First comes the messaging — use your VC and board members to open conversations with potential buyers. But do it carefully. If you are too aggressive, potential buyers might opt-out early. They don’t want to be pushed around. Your ‘plan A’ should be growth, delighting you customers and acquiring new ones. And probably raising funds (and valuation) to achieve this. You aren’t ‘for sale’, but, yes, the conversation has been initiated, and the chairman of your board thinks it is fair that all potential partners participate.

Here are a few variables that you can control, and you should be aware of while in the early stage of the acquisition process (pre-term sheet):

  1. US operational plan – if you are from outside the US, then you already have US customers (or a US pipeline), and you have elaborated a business plan to support this. Ideally, you have a US entity, and are hiring to support growing revenue and pipeline, but at least you should have a credible plan. Talk to a lawyer. Talk to an accountant. Build the plan if you don’t have it already. Execute early.
  2. Early due diligence items – It’s a simple thing, but if a potential buyer approaches and wants to start the conversation, it is MUCH better to say ‘We have a data room. I’ll give you access credentials and you can see business plan, etc. immediately.’ Than to say, ‘ummm… We’ll need two weeks to prepare all that stuff.’ Being prepared early, and developing these materials is not only good for your business, but is also a non-aggressive sign that the process is moving ahead.
  3. Intellectual Property Strategy – have you filed US patents yet? Do you have an IP strategy? Non-US founders will often take the approach of spending TONS of money filing an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ PCT patent with a German lawyer, for example. Sure, that’s cool. But I would strongly suggest considering quick US patent filings. If you are already in an acquisition conversation, getting a filing date early, and protecting your assets directly in the US is a very, very good idea. If you aren’t protected in the US, and you have a US buyer, this may cause problems. Cross-border patent treaties are nice in theory, but I suggest you read up carefully here, and consider filing a quick US provisional patent to put a stake in the ground.
  4. Human resources – pay very careful attention to key employees as early as possible. Do you have three engineers upon whom the fate of your company rests? Make sure they are happy. If required, make sure there is a plan to include them in the process, or at least protect them and yourself at the critical stage. Look carefully at everyone’s contribution to the code base. If you do this too late, the buyer might already have sniffed them out, and this becomes an acqui-hire. If key employees will be part of the process (and they might be at a later stage), coach them carefully.
  5. Cap table – make sure it is super clean. I’m sure you already bought out your university roommate’s shares, but make double sure there is nothing weird here. Buyers hate complications, and even if you are awesome, any unresolved complexity might kill your deal at that late stage when the buyer’s attention to risk becomes really, really high.
  6. Confidence – this is fuzzy, but probably one of the most important things. And it relates to your whole team. Make sure that everyone on the team understands the plan, and can tell ‘the story’ perfectly, with excitement and energy. As a founder, you need to lead by example. Watch some YouTube videos of Steve Jobs’ keynotes. Do some Zen meditation. Practice the story over and over again in your head: the growth, the IP, the roadmap, the laser-focused execution. Honestly, non-US founders often suck at this, so you need to practice. A lot.

This is a lot to digest, so I am going to leave it here for now. If you have covered the above points well, you are in an excellent position to start working with a term sheet. In the next two posts, I’ll go into further detail about what you need to do when you have a solid offer, and particularly managing the risks that appear during term sheet negotiation, due diligence, and finally closing.

This is part two of a four-part series on start up exits by SpeedInvest partner Erik Bovee.