Liquidity for Venture Backed Companies Still Comes Largely in One Flavor—Cash Acquisitions




Denis Dougherty of Intersouth Partners was recently interviewed by Brian Gormley of The Wall Street Journal on the decade-long liquidity crisis that continues to plague the venture capital industry. Responding to the question “What do you see as the biggest investment opportunity for venture capital in 2013?”, Dougherty said, “If we have a broadly rebounding economy, the big corporations would begin to buy products and programs that they want to have, not just the ones that they have to have. Venture capitalists that have an inventory of acquisition-ready companies will do well.”

I agree with Dennis. My concern, based on my direct experience negotiating half a dozen acquisitions sine 2008 (three in 2012), both inside and outside of technology, is that the negotiating environment for such ‘acquisition-ready’ companies is fraught with challenge from the seller’s perspective.

Recent reports reveal that mergers and acquisitions still account for over 90% of liquidity events for venture-backed companies in 2012, a lamentable condition that has plagued the US innovation ecosystem for close to a decade. In my view, many acquisitions of emerging growth companies often lead to the burial of promising technologies by incumbents more focused on protecting market share than on delivering the best product or service to their customers… (think Linksys, Flip…)

It is critical to know the state of the art in merger terms leading to an acquisition and in post-merger covenants, particularly with respect to the release of cash consideration held in escrow or as a holdback by the buyer.

Shareholder Representative Services (SRS) has produced another excellent report that investors and management teams should scrutinize very carefully before engaging in merger negotiations.

I have one general comment to make about the SRS report before reviewing its key findings:

In any negotiation, just because the average term is X, you should not abdicate your responsibility to improve your position and negotiate to get a better outcome for yourself.  You may consider some terms to be acceptable in the agreement because your lawyers tell you “it’s the market” in the heat of battle.  That might be OK, but it also might be a rock that will not always be floating above your head…

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Because the current world of venture-backed exits remains dramatically and asymmetrically skewed to the advantage of the acquirer, the aggregate statistics in the SRS report reveal a landscape pockmarked by buyer-friendly terms. Challenge yourself to do better as a seller!  More on this topic to follow…

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