After months of negotiation, you’ve signed the acquisition papers. It’s a job well done, and a result of a meticulously thought-out approach.
In 2014 I launched Experiment Engine, a platform that enables enterprise companies to scale their experimentation programs. The goal was to help customers to “always be testing”, and my mission was to grow our company into one of the world’s leading conversion optimisation platforms powered by human expertise.
As most founders would agree, building an enterprise from the ground up is no easy feat – and I definitely experienced a few bumps in the road. However, the biggest challenge I faced as a founder came later, when I had to ensure that the company I built would be passed into capable hands through a successful acquisition.
The reason to sell stemmed from my belief that three years on from its establishment, the vision for my business could at that point be better achieved by merging with another, very specific, company. The company in question was Optimizely, the world’s leading digital experimentation platform.
The first stages of an acquisition can be difficult to navigate. From a practical perspective, it’s worth being mindful of the outcome. For example, will the team need to relocate and will you be requiring a new office? Anticipating (within reason) the practical outcomes of the acquisition will allow you to remain as organised as possible and provide much needed peace of mind.
From an HR perspective, it’s not uncommon that some of your team will voice their concerns when you sell; these employees signed up to work for you, not another company, and might choose to take the next steps in their career elsewhere. For me, I knew that I wanted not only a future for myself at Optimizely once the acquisition was complete, but one for my whole team. Their success was a priority for me and I needed to ensure that they would have opportunities to grow their careers post-acquisition. In times of uncertainty people appreciate honesty, so being clear about both your and your team’s future and establishing transparent communication from the outset is vital.
Once the status of your team in the new company is settled, you can think about your product, which will likely take on a different form in the new company. For us there was huge opportunity if we could propel our product into the hands of Optimizely’s comprehensive customer base, and I didn’t want this to unravel during the technical integration. We had all the ingredients for success, so a well thought out plan helped us ensure we didn’t fumble the opportunity to bring something very special to market.
Looking at the bigger picture
Throughout the acquisition I was conscious of focussing on the bigger picture. I honed in on the three things that mattered to me: did this help us bring forth our vision for the company & our customers? Were the terms of the acquisition exciting to our investors, the team, and myself? Did Optimizely have a culture and team that I could see myself a part of, long term? With a hundred small things to consider, focusing on what mattered to me most overall clarified my decision making.
An acquisition is a big undertaking, and this was my first, so seeking insight and advice was critical. I looked at previous mergers and acquisitions in my industry to see how the bones of mine compared. I spoke with our investors and trusted advisors on how to evaluate the terms of the deal and what flags to watch for. However much advice and data I sought, however, I knew that the ultimate call was mine, and that I would need to confidently and independently come to a decision.
One consideration that isn’t always mentioned in acquisitions is the personal impact. I began discussions to sell my company when I was seven months pregnant, got a final term sheet when I was nine (!) months pregnant, and signed the deal while nursing my three-month old. I moved my family from Austin to San Francisco shortly after. An acquisition can create radical shifts in your personal life, and it’s easy in the mix of negotiations, lawyers, investors, and due diligence to lose track of what this means for you personally. It’s important to have a friend or partner that you can trust through this process to say: is this good for you–not as a CEO, not as a shareholder, but as a person?
The outcomes of selling
The decision to be acquired by Optimizely came three years after I’d launched Experiment Engine, and on reflection was an obvious choice for both parties at the time.
My decision to sell was in part informed by the excitement of seeing how our product could become one of Optimizely’s biggest differentiators, and the impact it would have on larger companies which were running tens of thousands of experiments a year. My decision was vindicated when positive customer feedback on the new capabilities came flooding in and the the adoption of our combined product went through the roof.
Looking back, I am confident in the knowledge that our acquisition with Optimizely was the best decision for the future of my business, and gave us access to countless untapped opportunities. I realise that there is a certain skill to leading a successful acquisition, and both my team and I discovered the many secrets of a successful acquisition along the way.
Claire Vo is vice president of product management at Optimizely and founder and CEO at Experiment Engine.