Looking back on the path of business experience that brought me to where I am today, I always smile when I think about the two-year whirlwind I spent working for a venture-backed Internet startup in my hometown of Seattle. With my freshly-minted MBA in hand, I decided to ditch the “old economy” and join the excitement of what later became known as the dot-com bubble. Regardless of the low pay, long hours and worthless stock options it was a great learning experience, not to mention a heck of a good time.
Lately I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic, as business and finance headlines seem to have taken a page straight out of the 1990’s. Just when you thought mind-boggling technology acquisitions had finally gone the way of the nudist on the late shift, along comes another that tops them all.
Last month Facebook set a new record with its purchase of Internet messaging service WhatsApp for $19 billion: The largest-ever acquisition of an Internet company in history.
WhatsApp is a messaging service that allows users to avoid text-messaging charges by moving texts across the Internet instead of going through your wireless carrier network. This can save people who travel, or who live in emerging markets, hundreds of dollars a year. This is presumably why WhatsApp is adding one million new users per day.
At the time of the acquisition, WhatsApp had acquired some 450 million users. Their business model is to charge a subscription of $1 per year after their first full year of service. Even if all 450 million WhatsApp users were already paying, that is still less than half a billion in revenue. Why would Facebook acquire WhatsApp for a number that is somewhere north of 40 times revenue?
Nobody knows for sure what is in Mark Zuckerberg’s head, but we can only assume that at least part of the opportunity Facebook sees is the opportunity to sell more Facebook ads because of the information they glean from WhatsApp users. Global advertising giant Publicis estimates 2013 online advertising spending in the US alone to be around $500 billion. Presumably Facebook believes they can get a larger chunk of the global online ad buy because they know more about its users by owning WhatsApp.
And therein lies the definition of a strategic acquisition. Most acquisitions run a predictable pattern of industry norms, but a strategic can pay a significant premium for your business because they are looking at your business for what it is worth in their hands.
There are several good reasons why you may want to sell your business to a strategic buyer. Here are a few to consider:
1. To control their supply chain
In 2011, Starbucks announced it had acquired Evolution Fresh, one of their providers of juice drinks, for $30 million. Now Starbucks is no longer beholden to one of its suppliers.
2. To give their salespeople something else in their briefcase
Also in 2011, AOL announced the acquisition of The Huffington Post for $315 million, even though HuffPo had just turned its first modest profit on paper. AOL wanted to give its advertising sales people more inventory to sell and HuffPo had 26 million unique visitors a month.
3. To make their cash cow product look sexier
Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5 billion dollars even though Skype was losing money. The good folks in Redmond must have assumed they could sell more Windows, Office and Xbox by integrating Skype into everything they already sell.
4. To enter a new geographic market
Herman Miller paid $50 million to acquire China’s POSH Office Systems in order to get a beachhead into the world’s fastest growing market for office furniture.
5. To get a hold of your employees
Facebook reportedly acquired Internet start-up Hot Potato for $10 million, largely to get hold of the talented developers working at the company.
When the time comes to sell your business, most buyers will base their value on the cash that your business has historically generated with you in charge. You may, however, be able to sell your business for a premium if its value goes up in someone else’s hands.
Many thanks to our friends at Sellability Score for contributing to this post. If you’re curious about the sellability of your business, fill out this 15-minute questionnaire and we’ll send you a 27-page report — including a Sellability Score — for your business.
Author: Barbara Taylor
Barbara is co-founder of Allan Taylor & Co. and a former New York Times blogger. She has been a small-business owner since 2003. Barbara lives with her husband, Chris, and their two sons in Northwest Arkansas.