The Acquihire Marketplace for Early Stage Startups is Ice Chilly. One Higher Technique? Announce You’re For Sale.


“Worst case situation we’ll promote to a bigger startup or public firm for about ~$1.5m per engineer.” Sure, this was the ‘fallback plan’ for a lot of crew within the web2 period and so they weren’t fallacious. Particularly within the early days of cell/iOS engineering, when you employed robust technical expertise into your early stage firm, you mainly created an acquisition consequence flooring. I used to be on each side of those transactions – shopping for startups for Google/YouTube and angel investing in top quality technical founders. Generally you’d even get fortunate and obtain inventory within the acquirer, which was how I gained pre-IPO fairness in excessive development stars like Pinterest and Fb.

Beginning our enterprise fund Homebrew professionalized and scaled my insights into gentle landings. Acquihire potential completely isn’t sufficient in and of itself to justify enterprise funding (we play to win!), however in sure conditions traders do discuss these items as optimistic optionality. And through our first few years we leaned in to assist groups discover the appropriate residence when it didn’t work out for them as an impartial firm. This produced two profitable intra-portfolio acquisitions the place one crew joined a bigger startup we beforehand seeded (Chime and Bowery Farming have been the consumers) and a complete bunch of different transactions. The proverbial win-win-win: founders obtained to land their firm usually with some retention premium; workers obtained job affords; and we obtained capital again, that even when it wasn’t an influence legislation return, allowed us to recycle into new investments or the present portfolio. I’d say that for a small, two particular person fund we obtained fairly good at this movement when wanted!

And now I’m telling you the world is completely different. Very completely different.

a busy metropolis intersection with plenty of big billboards and folks strolling, at night time, digital artwork [DALL-E]

In 2023 with few exceptions acquihires are lifeless as we knew them. The vast majority of typical acquirers (massive and small) don’t have incremental headcount finances. Those that do, usually imagine they’ll rent from the open market with out the effort of an acquisition. Money is at a premium so it’s not going to cap tables (most well-liked or frequent stroll away from the offers with no dinero). In actual fact, typically acquirers are asking for the remaining money readily available from the startup to be able to ‘zero out’ the wage burden they’re taking up [HW note: 99.9% of the time my answer is no fucking way]. And after they’re giving inventory to current shareholders as an alternative of money it’s at excessive 2021 valuations, buried beneath a desire stack.

None of this implies we’ve backed off serving to founders in these conditions, however we do attempt to set expectations with them and collaborate with the opposite traders. My private rule of thumb is that to the extent there’s money or beneficial IP nonetheless within the firm, we have to be sure that we’re good stewards of these belongings (per above, why I balk at giving up money in an acquisition the place there’s little bidirectional worth alternate). However when it comes all the way down to the forward-looking time of the founders and crew – eg do they really wish to go work on the potential acquirer – their alternative value and happiness is admittedly essential. No founder ought to really feel compelled to join 4 years of earn out distress simply to get their enterprise traders just a few cents on the greenback.

Instances like these name for considerably completely different methods, maybe shifting from the ‘corporations are purchased not bought’ mindset (which may be very a lot true in conditions the place the startup has optionality or at the least aggressive affords). My counterintuitive suggestion is that extra founders ought to publicly announce they should discover a residence when searching for this consequence. Put collectively an important put up or deck in regards to the scenario, high quality of the crew, what they know the way to do higher than anyone else, and why they’ve had hassle elevating further capital. Let potential acquirers discover you (who is aware of you would possibly even find yourself with some funding affords). It’s type of a litmus take a look at – when you can’t make the argument convincingly in public I’m suspect you’re going to one way or the other magically determine it out in a quiet, closed door course of. Not in right now’s market circumstances.

Downsides? Emotional I assume. However actually, “this didn’t work out the best way we hoped” is the theme track of startups so be a part of the refrain.

Giving up negotiating leverage with a possible acquirer? Once more, not likely on this market. The one method you get to barter is you probably have a BATNA, and my POV is it will enhance that chance for 80% of corporations on this place. So go speak with just a few of your most promising relationships first, however don’t hesitate to go broad while you’re not getting rapid traction.

Some VC with an operations crew ought to go construct out the template for this – make it simple for founders and normalize this course of, eradicating any stigma. As a substitute of spending your final quarter of existence digging by means of haystacks for needles, construct a magnet, and pull the needles in direction of you. If over the course of the following 12 months you see any Homebrew portfolio firm do that out, I’ll let you understand! And good luck, it’s tough on the market.


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