The M&A strategies of 10 tech giants: A founder's guide to selling your startup

For startups shopping for VC money, targeting an acquisition is one of the primary options for an exit. To help pick your targets, TechRepublic has broken down how the top 10 tech giants approach M&A.

You're a startup founder and you're about to make your pitch. You're standing there with sweaty palms, staring at a table of people who have the power to breathe life into your greatest dreams or send them, blindfolded, to the firing squad.

After a confident introduction, you explain a pressing need or problem and how you, your team, and your technology are going to fix it. Next, you give a detailed explanation of your business model, the size of the market, and how this thing is actually going to make money. It seems to be going well. You're hitting all your points.

But, this is a performance and the crescendo awaits. In the final moments of your pitch, you must present the linchpin—your exit strategy. How you frame this issue will tell investors if you have a realistic understanding of the opportunities ahead of you, and if they will be able to make money on the deal.

I've written about how some startups are holding off on the exit and remaining private companies for much longer. However, that isn't always an option. So that leaves you with two main choices: Go public or get acquired.

Going public isn't a bad choice, but an IPO requires a founder who is in it for the long haul. Also, an IPO can often be expensive, require you to jump through regulatory hoops, and is difficult to justify if your company isn't already massive.

SEE: Startups: How to know when it's time to IPO

That leaves you with the option of getting acquired. And, as we saw in last year's WhatsApp deal, there are billions of dollars on the line and the M&A market is still growing.

According to the 2014 M&A Survey from professional services firm Deloitte, 84% of corporate executives surveyed expect deal activity to remain constant, if not increase, over the next two years.

"M&A can solve time-to-market issues and talent issues far quicker than internal activities can."
Garrett Herbert

"Technology is unique in the sense that the pace of innovation is really fast, so rather than viewing M&A as a 'we have excess cash, let's buy something,' larger companies are looking at it as a tool to jump into a new market or ramp up a new technology quickly," said Deloitte's Garrett Herbert. "M&A can solve time-to-market issues and talent issues far quicker than internal activities can."

If you think an acquisition is the most likely outcome for your startup, you have to clearly articulate that to potential investors. That means you need to identify the large tech companies that are most likely to acquire your startup and make a convincing argument about why they will be interested.

To help you navigate these treacherous waters, we've put together profiles of the acquisition strategies of 10 of the top tech companies.

1. Google: The enigma

Google is one of the most prolific acquirers in the technology space. It has spent tens of billions of dollars and acquired more than 180 companies. On the surface, however, a consistent Google M&A strategy seems nonexistent.

"Google is one of the toughest companies to try and figure out their strategy," said Andrew Bartels of Forrester Research. "Because, the philosophy of Google's executives is 'try lots of things and fail fast.' So, what that means is you find them cropping up in a wide variety of different places, trying something and then deciding not to go with it."

But, there is a method to the madness. In its M&A strategy, Google goes after three things:

    1. People
    2. Businesses directly related to Google's core search business
    3. Strategic investments in the future of technology

    Let's look at the people aspect. According to a Time article about Google's acquisition strategy, it hired 221 startup founders through acquisitions it made between 2006 and 2014.

    "First and foremost, their acquisition strategy has always been about talent," said Jon Sakoda, a partner at New Enterprise Associates. "If you look at the vast majority of the acquisitions that they make—they are acquiring great people and frequently are acquiring people with domain expertise."

    nestgoogle.jpg
    Larry Page (center) poses with Nest executives when Google bought it in 2014.
    Image: Nest

    All of these people are typically behind a startup with a unique product offering and a strong value proposition. Google's core business is search and advertising, and the majority of the acquisitions it makes affect the core business in some way or another.

    Companies that are directly related to Google's core business are those in the advertising, analytics, and internet backbone spaces. Examples of this type of acquisition are companies such as DoubleClick, Teracent, and spider.io. DoubleClick cost Google $3.1 billion, making it the company's third largest acquisition to date.

    Additionally, strategic bets on future-oriented companies and technologies help diversify—if only slightly—Google's revenue stream, and they help expand the reach of the core business itself. For example, Nest and other IoT acquisitions provide more data endpoints for Google's existing services. Android is, perhaps, the greatest example of this in that it provides key data and insight into mobile behaviors primarily, but also makes a little money as well.

    Moonshots are, by far, the most interesting aspect of Google's M&A strategy. Makani was one of the only self-contained companies in Google's lineup as it typically purchases companies to supplement the work done by one of the moonshot projects. For example, Google recently purchased a host of robotics companies that could end up as part of bigger robotics project.

    The bottom line is this: If your startup can get more people on the internet, or more data about people and the world they inhabit, it is potentially valuable to Google.

    Another interesting observation from Todd Antonelli, a managing director at Berkeley Research Group, is Google's geographic focus.

    "They stay really close to their roots — 60%+ of their acquisitions are California-based," Antonelli said.

    Google will leverage both the power of its brand and the strength of its management team when it comes to acquiring startups to advance its mission. And, according to Dave Welsh of Adams Street Partners, they've got a voracious appetite.

    "I would consider Google to be, if not the most aggressive, definitely one of the the most aggressive in the tech landscape in terms of using M&A as a strategic imperative to continuing their growth," Welsh said.

    2. Facebook: The shepherd

    Shepherds—one of the oldest professions in the world—are those who care for and watch over a flock of sheep. In addition to feeding and herding the sheep, the shepherd also uses his or her crook to rescue sheep that have gone astray and bring them back into the fold.

    If you see Facebook users as analogous to a flock of sheep (no pun intended), than Facebook's corporate acquisition arm is its shepherd's crook. As users migrate to other platforms, or new generations forgo joining Facebook altogether, Facebook goes after the platform or services they are using.

    "I think they have seen around the corner and have looked at companies who are competing for the demographic, and the mindshare, and the engagement that they are used to having," Sakoda said. "And, when they see somebody that could erode either their growth or could take away a part of their audience, they are aggressive about trying to acquire the asset."

    Instagram and WhatsApp are the two best examples of this strategy. Instagram was about recapturing lost users and making an investment in the future. Facebook executives no doubt knew that photos were the content with the highest engagement, especially on mobile, and they targeted the top mobile photo-sharing application.

    WhatsApp, on the other hand, helped Facebook gain a stronger international audience they couldn't capture with their Messenger service. But, it ended up costing them almost $22 billion with the additional rise in Facebook's stock value.

    facebook.jpg
    With WhatsApp and Instagram, Facebook has made very large, very strategic acquisitions.
    Image: James Martin/CNET

    Welsh's opinion is that Facebook is driven by the fear of being bypassed by an up-and-comer. They saw the other social networks fade away and that fuels their desire to acquire innovative new companies.

    "They're really focused, in my opinion, on just making sure they're covering everywhere that their audience is going," Welsh said.

    User growth and maintenance, or the tending of the flock, is merely one facet of a three-sided strategy. According to Max Dufour, a partner at Harmeda, Facebook is also focused on making money and exploring the frontier.

    "Within the next few years, we will start seeing more investments in companies supporting monetization, should they support advertising, mobile experience or e-commerce," Dufour said. "We will also see a continuous push to acquiring companies able to connect new users in emerging and developing markets."

    Victor Sunyer, ‎Director at the Corporate Finance division at Delta Partners said that acquisitions of companies such as LiveRail, a video advertising platform, and Onavo, a mobile analytics platform, have brought specific expertise in monetization. All that said, Facebook still wants to stay the king of social media.

    "Going forward, we expect Facebook to do more transactions in the social media space, particularly related to new/innovative platforms, with the intention to remain the point of reference in this space," Sunyer said.

    Virtual reality is Facebook's most public play at one of these emerging markets. With virtual reality finally coming into its own, their investment in Oculus Rift could prove a shrewd business move.

    3. Microsoft: The spendthrift

    Microsoft is almost as active, as measured by the number of companies acquired, as Google is in the M&A space. They consistently acquire new companies, but they seem to lack a strategic vision in terms of their M&A strategy.

    "The question with Microsoft is really more of a corporate strategic one," Welsh said. "You can only make a great acquisition roadmap when you actually know what your own strategic roadmap is. I think, right now, Microsoft is really trying to figure out what is their long-term strategic roadmap, where do the few things they really want to focus on fall."

    For years Microsoft existed as the provider of the Office software suite for the enterprise and consumer. With the shift to the SaaS delivery model, and the cropping up of new options like Google Docs, the company can no longer rely as much on that aspect of its identity.

    According to Dufour, Microsoft has completed 175 M&A deals in its history and has even taken a stake in other major tech players—including Apple and Facebook. Early acquisitions were all about maintaining the company's dominance as a software provider, but from the late 1990s on, the company began to broaden its approach.

    Despite its long list of acquisitions and its ability to support big moves with its financial reserves, Sakoda said the company should have bought some more companies by now. He said they haven't done enough in cloud, mobile, or social, which are key areas that Microsoft needs to compete in.

    "They've missed photo sharing, they've missed file sharing, they've missed 140 character sharing," Sakoda said. "There's a lot of things that they've missed and it's not for lack of having a balance sheet to be able to pursue these opportunities."

    "I think, right now, Microsoft is really trying to figure out what is their long-term strategic roadmap."
    Dave Welsh

    Microsoft has proven its willingness to make big deals. As Dufour points out, the company is willing to put its money where its mouth is and make big bets on what it perceives to be game-changing companies. It shelled out billions for Nokia, Skype, Yammer, and Minecraft creator Mojang, but these choices don't seem to be a part of a cohesive strategy.

    Presently, though, Microsoft is facing a pivotal point in its corporate development. At the time of this writing we're not yet 18 months into Satya Nadella's tenure as CEO and he has the potential to change the trajectory of the company's approach to M&A.

    "Under its new leadership, we can expect more deals on the mobile and cloud fronts, as Microsoft reinforces its product suite and solutions while pivoting towards a cloud first and mobile first strategy," Dufour said.

    A quick look at Microsoft's recent acquisition history confirms Dufour's projections. Within mobile, the company has gone after BI, crash analytics, calendar productivity, and mobile email startups. It has also acquired a few big data analytics companies and machine learning startups as well.

    For cloud, the company tends to go after startups that can help build out its Azure platform and make it more competitive against its two major cloud competitors in Amazon AWS and Google Cloud Platform.

    4. Oracle: The enterprise spender

    During its early years as a company, Oracle's investment in M&A was virtually nonexistent. But, in the mid-2000s, the company went on a ravenous shopping spree that hasn't stopped.

    "Their stance, as far as I'm concerned, has been very aggressive M&A in almost all enterprise-related sectors," Welsh said.

    This new strategy, developed over the last decade, has proven successful for Oracle. Welsh said it's gotten them into new markets and helped expand their footprint. They've made strategic moves in analytics and big data, and now they're playing in new verticals like hospitality and financial services.

    Oracle is known as one of the tech giants that is willing to drop billions of dollars to get into new markets that it covets. The best examples of this are Oracle's acquisitions of BEA Systems, Siebel Systems, and PeopleSoft. According to Bartels, Oracle goes after companies with healthy maintenance revenue streams.

    Lately, the company is facing slowing revenue growth and it needs to find new revenue streams like it has acquired through past deals. The cloud is the thorn in Oracle's side and it has the potential to disrupt some of the company's main product offerings.

    oracleoffice.jpg
    Image: Oracle

    "They're racing to regain share and visibility in that space," Antonelli said.

    So, what do you do if you have a ton of money and are facing potential upending from a market? You buy the companies that could challenge your rule. You buy the disruptors.

    "It is now a very good time for Oracle to pursue much larger deals as it used to—Peoplesoft, Siebel—and target successful cloud vendors to boost the top line and deliver on growth again," Dufour said. "Overtime M&A activity will support the full transition to Saas/cloud-based solutions and diversification into new high growth markets."

    If you are a B2B-focused cloud company, Oracle should be on your list. The company can't afford to not invest in that space and you might be able to offer a compelling reason for the money they spend to be on your company.

    Still, it's not just all about the cloud. If you are an enterprise startup in almost any capacity, you should consider how you might fit into Oracle's business. Dufour noted that Oracle has paid special attention companies in applications, middleware, industry solutions, and infrastructure as well.

    In fact, if you're into infrastructure, another enterprise company you should consider is Cisco, which gobbles up lots of networking, data center, and cloud startups.

    5. SAP: The integrator

    A steady buyer, SAP consistently makes acquisitions that give them a competitive advantage in the enterprise.

    "Most of the things that they've acquired have had a fairly strong enterprise business slant to them," Welsh said. "They've done that because they recognize that's really where the core of the SAP brand resides."

    The company makes few small deals and tends to drop big cash on companies that can give them a foundation in a particular market. Good examples of this strategy are the deals made to acquire Concur, Ariba, SuccessFactors, and Sybase.

    They are often compared to Oracle, but there are a few key differences in their approach to M&A. The first is how they integrate the acquired company.

    "Their difference is they roll it up and integrate it into the SAP stack of offerings," Antonelli said.

    "Going forward we will see SAP reinforcing its transition to the cloud to renew its growth"
    Max Dufour

    Dufour said that SAP also tends to go after products that broaden their scope in a particular market or further strengthen a particular product line. They've done this to stay competitive, but SAP realizes that it needs to make more moves in the cloud space, and it will likely cost them.

    "Going forward we will see SAP reinforcing its transition to the cloud to renew its growth drivers, as well as innovation-oriented acquisitions to expand those solutions, which is likely to require several high value acquisitions and potentially bidding wars," Dufour said.

    SAP recently dealt with a drop in revenue and operating profit, but is finally starting to see growth in cloud revenue, mostly due to its acquisitions in the space. If this is any further indication, SAP will be going after more cloud companies, especially big ones, in the foreseeable future.

    Additionally, the success of SAP's HANA means that the company may be in the market for a few more high performance data analytics or database companies to further develop and maintain the product.

    6. Apple: The silent killer

    If you were to ask most technology pundits to describe Apple's M&A strategy, they would most likely respond with the question, "What strategy?"

    The reason for this is two-fold with the first reason being that Apple simply doesn't make a lot of acquisitions relative to its balance sheet.

    "Their business is just so good right now that they're too busy making money to buy anything," Sakoda said.

    And, when they make deals, they rarely ever advertise their acquisitions or reveal their plans. Antonelli said that might be a strategic play on Apple's part.

    "In one sense you could say that's brilliant because the speculation surrounding why they bought this firm, or what they're building, is a form of advertising you didn't have to pay for," Antonelli said.

    applebeats.jpg
    Apple acquired Dr. Dre's Beats Electronics in 2014 in a $3 billion deal.
    Image: Apple

    Apple's M&A strategy is directly in line with its business strategy of hiring great people and building great products. According to Bartels, Apple invests in both software and hardware companies in small, incremental deals, and he thinks they will continue with this philosophy. Of course, this stems from Steve Jobs' focus on design and simplicity.

    "If you make a big acquisition that is somewhat different from your core, that is inelegant. It ends up creating an ugly beast of different things you have to stitch together," Bartels said.

    When it comes to the type of companies they buy, Apple is focused specific technologies and tools that are additive to its core products and strategy. Typically, they buy the business, shut it down, and integrate it into one of their product lines. Prime examples of this are the acquisition of Siri in 2010 for iOS devices and the acquisitions of Beats in 2014 for their music services.

    "They do tend to acquire what we call 'bolt-on' acquisitions that may help them pick up talent or capability that they don't have," Antonelli said. "Hard to find, hard to imitate people, and intellectual property that can help advance their existing portfolio or help bolster their desire to drive a market or transform a market."

    For startups, Apple is a good fit for pitching a small to medium-sized acquisition if your product can be readily integrated into the Apple ecosystem, or if you bring the potential to add a killer feature to an existing core product.

    Historically, Apple had a culture of investing in its own people and resources, which also contributed to the smaller size of its acquisitions. But, the $3 billion Beats acquisition could be the signal of a new aggressiveness in Apple's strategy and we may see them making bigger plays in the future, Welsh said.

    7. IBM: The old guard

    As with many of the incumbent technologies companies, IBM is racing to the cloud in order to stave off disruption until it can get its feet under itself in the new world that's being created by the so-called SMAC stack—social, mobile, analytics, and cloud.

    The company is seeing double digit growth in both cloud infrastructure and SaaS, according to Dufour, and this is due, in part, to their acquisitions in the space. As IBM continues its focus here, Dufour said we will likely see fewer investments in the company's on-premise business offerings.

    Although the company is growing in these spaces, Sakoda said that the company would need to buy an open source company to truly understand where it stands in the market.

    "There's a lot going on in open source and SaaS that is eroding a lot of their market share," Sakoda said.

    Outside of cloud, IBM is focused on analytics acquisitions to support Watson, and security startups. IBM has made many recent purchases in the security sector, with Trusteer being the billion-dollar standout of the last few years.

    However, security is a recent strategy for IBM. Welsh said that IBM was behind in security for some time, and many argued they should have started investing in it much earlier. When they decide they want to get into an area they don't have expertise in, they are willing to use M&A to establish themselves. However, he said, it might take them a while to understand they need to be there.

    Despite the company's willingness to spend, it is on a budget. Right now, Bartels said IBM tends to like companies that are in the $25 to $100 million revenue range. So, keep that in mind if you are shopping them as a potential acquirer.

    "Their ability to do acquisitions is limited to date, because they only have $8.8 billion of cash and securities on their balance sheet," Bartels said. "They're carrying about $34 billion of long-term debt, so they don't really have the resources to finance many acquisitions that cost more than a billion dollars."

    8. Salesforce: The SaaS king

    Salesforce is considered one of the first and most pre-eminent SaaS companies. And, their M&A strategy is directly tied to their goal of remaining the king in that market.

    "The company typically purchases companies to expand functionalities and its product line, with investments grouped by theme throughout the years, such as social and mobile recently, and with deal sizes going from a few millions to several billions—to purchase small startups to established vendors," Dufour said.

    Because of the company's growth, Welsh said he believes they are less driven by the fear of being overtaken, and he would bet that they will be less concerned with M&A over the next couple years.

    salesforce.jpg
    Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff
    Image: James Martin/CNET

    However, Sakoda said that we will probably see Salesforce doing more of both small acquisitions to expand the platform and big moves to expand the market.

    Much like Apple, Salesforce is looking for companies that can be quickly integrated into existing product lines. Bartels said that they typically make acquisitions "in sales-side technologies that complement its historic cores in sales cloud, service cloud, marketing cloud."

    Additionally, Bartles said that he wouldn't be surprised if Salesforce acquired an e-commerce company to complement its core products as well.

    Recently, M&A talk around Salesforce has been directed at the company itself. There are several potential suitors—including some of the other companies on this list—but the Salesforce stock price could indicate that selling to a rival isn't in the cards for the near future.

    9. Twitter: The young gun

    For as young a company as it is, Twitter has a pretty decent track record of M&A. The company has closed more than 35 deals and seems to focus its acquisitions in social tools, analytics, and advertising.

    Twitter's deals are relatively small, capping at hundreds of millions, and Dufour said they are using these acquisitions to provide new features for the platform and bring in great talent to integrate with existing teams.

    "The company has also purchased advertising and payment solutions which could help with monetizing the platform," Dufour said.

    Much like Google, Antonelli said, many of Twitter's acquisitions are of California companies. Additionally, he said, Twitter's network with other young companies means that accelerators like Y Combinator seed a lot of talent into Twitter. According to the Y Combinator website, Twitter acquired YC alumni Posterous, Backtype, AdGrok, and Moki.TV.

    For a company with a small market cap relative to the others on the list, Sakoda said they are making thoughtful moves.

    "I think everybody would like them to make a bigger move, but I think you have to crawl before you walk before you run," Sakoda said. "And, they're a relatively new public company so I think, unquestionably, they are heading in the right direction."

    However, Twitter is now at a size where they will be expected to branch out and offer new products soon. The only way they'll be able to do that, Welsh said, is through M&A. Now that the company is getting more established, Welsh said they might be more aggressive in their acquisitions soon.

    10. Yahoo: The laggard

    Once one of the kings of the internet, the past decade has been a tough journey for Yahoo.

    "I see a company that is still trying to reinvent itself," Sakoda said.

    Yahoo is on the cusp of being a few acquisitions away from being seen as relevant and progressive again. After Alibaba's IPO, the company has the balance sheet to support a go at reinventing itself, but it has to decide on a path first.

    According to Welsh, the company is struggling to figure out what it wants to be—a big consumer internet company or one that provides internet backend infrastructure and services. Their recent acquisition of Brightroll, an ad technology company, would point toward the backend route, but it is still uncertain. Yahoo is stuck in the middle ground between the fear of making a bad acquisition and the fear of missing out.

    "They made some acquisitions that didn't necessarily pan out perfectly for them," Welsh said. "Yet, they recognize that they could quickly get tagged as irrelevant if they aren't careful."

    yahoo-ceo-marissa-mayer
    Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer
    Image: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

    Their $1.1 billion acquisition of blogging site Tumblr is one of the best examples of this conundrum. The site had a short run of popularity, but Yahoo bought it too late to make much use of it.

    Lately, there have been rumors that Yahoo could acquire Foursquare. If the deal does indeed happen, it could be another example of buying a company past its prime with minimal value left to mine, similar to the Tumblr deal. In Foursquare's case, the biggest value would likely be location and local directory data that could be used in Yahoo search or other future services. However, Yahoo acquisitions have more recently focused on raw traffic and inventory.

    "[Yahoo CEO] Marissa Mayer has spent more than 80% of acquisition value on companies which add immediately to traffic and revenues," Dufour said. "Given the investors' pressure and downward trend for revenues, acquisitions with short-term impact will be preferred, with less emphasis on expensive longer term or uncertain bets."

    On an earnings call at the end of 2014, Mayer defended her M&A strategy by pointing to $200 million in mobile revenue, which was 17% of total Yahoo revenue at the time. The talent Yahoo gained through recent acquisitions, she said, led the company's results in mobile.

    Because of this, Dufour said, we are likely to see Yahoo target mid-sized content companies with good traffic and fast growth. He also expects Yahoo to continue to go after mobile tools, mobile analytics, and advertising startups.

    The exit

    Most of these technology companies are sitting on big piles of cash, which may sound like a safe place to be. But, stagnant money in a fast-moving industry is a ticking time bomb. If it's not investing in innovation and growth, an industry leader can leave itself vulnerable to being leapfrogged by competitors.

    And, if these companies need to buy startups to help them stay relevant, there's no reason your company can't be one of them.

    Get the IT leadership resource that will help you keep business support systems running smoothly, with advice on staffing, morale, and dealing with day-to-day challenges. Subscribe to our Tech Decision Maker newsletter.

    About

    Conner Forrest is News Editor for TechRepublic. He covers startups and enterprise technology and is passionate about the convergence of tech and culture.