Planning Your Exit Should Begin When You Launch

Partner early on with the people you think will buy your business.


6 min read

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Entrepreneurs may not want to think of their companies as “products,” but the truth is, the vast majority of successful startups end in acquisitions. In 2017, mergers and acquisitions accounted for 93 percent of the 809 venture capital-backed exits, yielding a total of $45.6 billion in disclosed exit value, according to the National Venture Capitalists Association’s 2018 NVCA Yearbook.

A recent Silicon Valley Bank survey revealed that more than half of today’s health and tech startups are “hoping for an acquisition.” But hope isn’t enough to make it happen. From the beginning, entrepreneurs need to think about the profiles of companies that might potentially acquire them, and align their strategies, team hires and products with these companies to build the right foundation for mutually beneficial acquisitions later on.

To achieve this alignment, entrepreneurs should start by creating the Ideal Customer Profile (ICP), Ideal Employee Profile (IEP) and the Ideal Buyer Profile (IBP). As operations develop, the next step is to develop partnerships with some of those potential acquirers — ideally, innovative companies likely to perceive the emerging startup’s worth and that might eventually consider buying the company. When it’s time to exit, those longer-term partners will rate the startup’s value higher than if the relationship just began at the bargaining table.

Related: How to Position Your Business for a Strategic Acquisition

Establish your target audience.

At fast-paced startups, standard operating procedure for entrepreneurs is to take a “ready, fire, aim” approach instead of practicing “ready, aim, fire.” It might surprise many entrepreneurs to know that, according to research by Crunchbase, many exit opportunities come early — the overwhelming majority before a company’s series B funding.

The profile for your ideal customer is the person or entity that needs your product or service the most; your job is to determine what that prospect is not getting from your competitors, or the marketplace in general, and how you can best fill that void.

When thinking about employees, it’s important to determine — before you start the hiring process — what kind of training, experience and expertise your team will need to build and market your product most effectively. Hiring the right talent can be a huge draw for potential buyers, some of which purchase companies in order to acquire teams, a process commonly referred to as “acqui-hires.” According to the Huffington Post, Mark Zuckerberg told an audience in 2010 that “Facebook has not once bought a company for the company itself. We buy companies to get excellent people.”

Once you’ve nailed down the attributes of your ideal customers and employees, you will be better equipped to develop prospects for your optimal buyer pool. The key is to find companies that serve similar markets, so you can design your product and business model to address unmet needs within that customer base. If a company perceives the importance of that need but, for one reason or another, does not serve it, it could be much more likely to consider an acquisition in the future.

Related: How to Make Your Startup’s Acquisition a Beginning, Not an End

Partner with the right people.

Your company may offer an essential product or service that a potential buyer is missing, but it is also crucial for the two of you to be on the same page strategically, culturally and philosophically. Nearly 45 percent of respondents to a survey of corporations and startups by MassChallenge and Imaginatik cited “strategic fit” as the most important factor in success or failure of a startup relationship.

Disruptors should seek out companies that are truly driven by innovation — perhaps those that have already established or partnered with innovation labs or accelerators. Those types of organizational environments typically feel much less “corporate,” and leaders are often more receptive and open to collaboration with startups.

Entrepreneurs should also look outside of their own industries. Approximately 70 percent of all tech deals in 2016 involved buyers from outside the tech sector, according to management consulting firm BCG.

Before defining a shortlist of potential corporate partners, entrepreneurs need to ask themselves several questions: Where could my company fit in the larger organization? Will the company’s existing team be able to sell and service my product? Will its customer base see (and pay for) the added value of the product I’m offering? Aligning your startup to a partner based on these attributes will improve the likelihood of a potential acquisition — and, ultimately, your startup’s value — if that company moves forward with a purchase.

Related: Why Prioritizing Company Culture Is the Key to a Successful Acquisition

Reap what you sow.

Once you’ve found potential corporate partners and have raised your initial funding, spend the time really getting to know them. What is a given company’s standard of excellence? What exactly will it pay for, and how much will it pay? And, perhaps most importantly, what do you offer that your partner company can’t produce itself?

Although most interactions between startups and corporations traditionally begin at the negotiation table, corporate players increasingly recognize the benefits of earlier interactions. The MassChallenge and Imaginatik survey found that 67 percent of companies prefer working with startups in earlier stages, mainly “to explore new technologies and business models.” And it found that a full 82 percent of corporations view interactions with startups as “somewhat important” to “very important,” with 23 percent indicating that these interactions are “mission critical.” Innovation efforts are no longer on the fringe of most corporations.

Corporate partnerships are essential for forward-thinking young startups. During the most critical phase of development, startups can derive significant benefit from their partner’s resources, mentorship and insights. Building strong professional relationships between these organizations can also set the stage for a smooth transition if a merger or acquisition ultimately takes place.

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