From the notebook: musings about so-called ‘acqhire’ talent acquisitions


So-called “acq-hires” (when a company will buy a startup solely/mostly for the talent rather than the product itself) recently came up in a discussion amongst friends and industry peers.

In my consultancy practice I tend to work with larger corporate/enterprise technology clients who want me to help inject a bit of ‘startup mentality’ into their innovation and engineering processes. Having the right execution team is often crucial to anything I do so getting like-minded employees on board is often one of the challenges to be faced as part of a project.

And so here’s the bottom line: talent acquisition deals almost always baffle me as it seems like the same amount of money could be used to just pull and retain A1 talent from your (more sexy?) rivals instead. Take the following scenarios for example:

Scenario 1
BigCo buys BombedStartup for $4m as an acqhire deal. The two founders probably get < $500k each and a $150k salary at BigCo - maybe with a 1-2 year handcuff (ie they only see all of their $500k if they stick around for the handcuff period). The rest of the 8 employees get their tiny %age (maybe enough for a new car or a nice vacation) and the investors get the rest of the cash (with liquidation preferences, low exit compared to amount raised, etc that might mean $3m+). 1/2 of the employees don't accept BigCo's job offer and leave, and by end of the two years no one from BombedStartup is still there - they're all entrepreneurs and want to get back into the game.

Compare with

Scenario 2
BigCo wants to hire 4 key, strategic engineering hires from RivalCo. They would normally be paying folks like them $150-$200k anyway, so they take the $4m they would normally have spent on the ‘acqhire’ and offer each of them $1m cash over 4 years plus their base salary (ie $450k/y cash salary, guaranteed for 4 years, perhaps with the non-base as a performance/vested structure). This is in addition to any stock grants.

In scenario 2, with that kind of comp on offer you could probably treat Google’s engineering roster like a menu at a restaurant and just pull who you want out. Ditto for later stage Facebook employees who don’t have quite as nice an equity comp. I’ll assume BigCo has something going for it, in terms of being a relatively attractive place to work even if it isn’t Google or Facebook.

There are all sorts of additional upsides with scenario 2 too.

Firstly, you’re going to get precisely who you strategically need (data scientists, virtualization gurus, mobile developer rock stars, etc). In scenario 1, perhaps one of the founders was working with big data, but he may not be ‘guru’ status. Scenario 2 lets you pick who you want.

And because none of your budget has gone to investors (who to you, add nothing to the equation) you’ve got all this extra capital to retain the talent over a longer period of time. Halo effect also means that once these strategic hires are in place you’re also going to be able to attract more talent because of who is already on your bench.

Finally, as a final win, you’re going to cause your rival a world of pain because they lost the key talent. (Machiavelli dotBen strikes again)

In both instances BigCo spent the same amount of money, but to me the second option looks way more attractive, useful and sustainable in terms of getting talent to stick around.

In reply to a draft of this post, Dave McClure points out this is also about obtaining teams that have a proven record of executing together. I totally agree, but there is no reason why you couldn’t try to pull all 4 strategic hires out of the same team at the same company.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “From the notebook: musings about so-called ‘acqhire’ talent acquisitions

  1. I think you’re bang on Ben … Dave’s right about sometimes needing a team but peppering a handful of rock stars throughout your org can sometimes have a much bigger impact than creating a new team.

    I guess it depends ultimately on why you’re doing the acq-hire in the first place.

    Good post.

  2. Ben, nice, rational analysis. But did you notice the stories last year about the agreements between Silicon Valley’s largest companies not to poach from each other? They are “hand-shake” agreements but real all the same, and now under government investigation. And this is backed up by the fact that there is very little higher level transfer of staff between the giants, further proof of some artificial barrier.

    Acquiring teams is a proven strategy. The giant companies have a terrible track record for integrating large M&A businesses but they have no problems integrating teams of proven worth. And a team acquired can be kept loyal through timed payouts of the acquisition. It’s a type of reverse stock options, and much better since you know what you’ll get. With stock option grants the stock might be underwater by the time it’s vested — a real problem for large public companies in their ability to retain talent.

  3. I agree with your comment on being able to persuade and retain talent this way.

    There is an assumption however, that the company knows where to find the talent and from what company. It’s been my experience that most of these “acqhire” conversations begin with the investor suggesting it.

    The investor has someone in their portfolio companies that would love the talents of this “new” startup they just invested in. So they make the introductions, and suggest to the acquiring company that they have key talent that would benefit their organization.

    Both investor, acquirer, and acquiree are financially motivated for the deal to move forward. In fact, it is in the investors best interest to make as many “acqhire” introductions as possible. It is a simple way for the investor to continually take money off the table.

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