Category Archives: Exits

Virticus Acquired by LSI

One of my AoA portfolio companies was acquired today by LSI Industries. http://www.nasdaq.com/article/lsi-industries-inc-announces-acquisition-of-virticus-corporation-20120319-00192

Virticus is an integrated set of products and services that reduce energy and maintenance costs by 30-50% through a communication and control system that allows the management of lights individually and collectively. It is a cost-effective solution that scales from 10 lights in a church parking lot to 10,000,000 lights managed by a city. Virticus is a great example of how modern network and software technologies can be a green way to lower energy consumption, while maintaining (or improving) functionality. Its customers were delighted with what it could do.

The decision to sell a company early in its life cycle is always a difficult one. While Virticus had enormous promise, it also participated in an industry with many mega-players. Customers, like municipal governments, are generally not very quick to adopt new technologies, even when they have the potential to safe budget dollars. Selling to large governmental customers (or large industrial ones, too) is particularly difficult for a small startup.

Virticus was completely financed by angels.

Congratulations to the Virticus team and board for building a great product, company and team. And then having the wisdom to sell at the right time.

Clarisonic – what a fabulous exit for AoA

Clarisonic, a signature Alliance of Angels portfolio company, was acquired by L’Oreal at the end of 2011 (http://clarisonic.com/about_us/press_releases/press/claire_release_12_15_11.php). David Giuliani, the CEO of Clarisonic, was an AoA member at the time and brought the deal to the group. Naturally, many AoA members immediately invested; I was among them. Those fortunate enough to be in that first round received a return over 20x at the time of the acquisition.

And when Clarisonic raised its second round, most reinvested and even more AoA members invested too. That round returned over10x.

This is a great success story for the community. David and the Clarisonic team kept the production in Western WA, creating over 500 jobs.

Partially as a result of this exit, we have also seen many of the angels begin to reinvest the proceeds in new deals. This is what angels do!

Carve Outs for Management in an Acquisition

Carve outs for management is a tool that is often overlooked by boards in angel-backed companies. It is a tool that can be a critical in making an acquisition occur, but is difficult to get right. First of all, both management and the board are often too close and emotionally involved to make a clear decision.

For those that aren’t familiar with the concept of a carve out, it is a payment to management, from the proceeds of a transaction, that is paid out before investors are paid the amount they would otherwise be due from the sale of the company.

Having served on more than my share of boards, and often on the comp committee, I am often asked about the following situation, which is typical of one where a carve out occurs:

  • A company has taken quite a bit of investment, usually from institutions and angels.
  • The deal that was struck has a liquidation preference (if you don’t know what this means, you should educate yourself). Good terms for companies meeting their goals are 1x participating preferred (sometimes capped); bad terms are 2x to 3x and usually granted when a company is in trouble and needs to raise money.
  • Acquisition seems like the best alternative, but the offers are for less than the liquidation preference (or not much more than the preference).

In this case, the common stock and options are essentially worthless. The founders, employees, and others who bet on the upside find themselves in the position of having worked for little-to-no upside (or in the case of board members or consultants who took options – nothing!).

What is the board to do?

Here is my perspective from serving on dozens of boards and many comp committees:

  • It was management’s sweat that got the company to exit. This needs to be rewarded.
  • On the other hand, the board needs to recognize that management did not deliver the value that was promised when the money was taken. (Nor did the board.) It is not fair to give management a great return, while investors lose money.
  • The board should try, as a first priority, to ensure that management gets a good deal from the acquiring company. This is good for the acquirer and allows more of the proceeds to go to investors.
  • One often hears that management is unwilling to allow a deal to proceed if they don’t make enough money. And therefore they would rather the company stay in operation, even if it means a greatly reduced valuation. If the original deal terms don’t either carry enough voting shares, or the rights to force the sale, then the investors might be screwed. This is why alignment with the entrepreneur and deal terms can matter.
  • Finding a fair solution is often difficult. Hiring an experienced person/consultant might be a good idea, if the board and management are willing to follow their dispassionate advice.
  • If a carve out is necessary, I believe that it should be graduated (like a graduated income tax). In that way, as the investors do better, management increasingly does better. This aligns incentives. For example, if the liquidation preference is $10M and the acquisition will be in the range of $5-15M, the carve out might look like this:
    • 5% of proceeds for the first $5M (which is $250k at $5M)
    • Between 5-10M, $250k plus 7.5% of the amount over $5M, which is $375k at 10M
    • $875k plus 10% (plus the value of their stock, which is now in the money) for any amount over $10M
  • This seems to give both aligned incentives and balance the reward for management with the need to get investors their money back.

Of course, all of this looks much better when the company sells for a lot more than was invested!

AoA Results – why are they so good?

In my previous post, I noted that the AoA had a great year in 2010. (http://blog.drosenassoc.com/?p=61 or the full release http://drosenassoc.com/AoA%20results%202-23-11.pdf)

Typically, most angel groups or VCs see about 25-40% of their deals die in the first 4 years. (This is called the J curve, since the portfolio value goes negative for the first 3-5 years and gets positive when you begin to get exits in year 5 – this valuation curve looks like a J.) The AoA has what appears to be unprecedented results – almost all of our investments in the last 5 years are still alive! Many people have asked my why we did so well in a crappy market. I’ve certainly spent a great deal of time thinking about this. I believe that there are four principal reasons that caused the great year.

  1. World-class, innovative deal screening process. The AoA sees great deal flow, largely because we have a reputation of being savvy investors, who bring lots of value, and do “write checks.” One of the true core competencies we have developed over the last 15 years is our ability to take all the deals that are submitted and invest in the very best. This takes a lot of work, starting with our selection of our staff (both full-time managing director and 2 part time program managers) who have the right skills and knowledge to help startups be ready to enter our process, continues with preliminary screening by the staff, through the selection by our screening committee (the 10-15 most experienced angels in our group), and finally the presentation to our members who invest in good deals. This process is both efficient and respectful for both angels and entrepreneurs. And, it is complemented by a rather extensive knowledge base of market terms, deals and conditions. All of this leads to great companies, presenting well to our members, and being prepared for due diligence and investment.
  2. Get the deal terms right. We work with entrepreneurs to set terms and valuation that are deal and market appropriate, which allows companies to endure. In the past, too often investors didn’t understand the impact of setting a price too high, raising too much or too little money, and/or having either investor or entrepreneur-unfriendly terms. While they can often be seductive at the outset, bad terms lead to long-term problems at companies. The AoA has taken a lead role in the Pacific Northwest in bringing forward deals that make sense for both investors and entrepreneurs. By setting terms correctly, companies can survive and thrive even after market or strategic problems push the company off track.
  3. Active, engaged investors. The AoA members not only write checks, but often get actively involved in the companies in which they invest and often take board seats. As a group, we bring a ton of knowledge and experience – the kind of experience that many startups couldn’t afford or acquire any other way. This knowledge often helps our portfolio companies avoid mistakes, see them earlier, or find more innovative solutions to fix them. We are also a source for follow on rounds, especially at this time when VC financing is either not forthcoming or inappropriate. This pool of active, engaged investors helps companies survive and thrive.
  4. The right strategy, done early enough to make a difference. About 4 years ago, we realized that our investment results then were mostly dependent on a few of our most active members investing in a lot of companies, but this wasn’t sustainable. We realized that we needed to increase the “capital capacity” of the group, if we were going to remain relevant. We were fortunate to ride the trend of the “professionalization of angel capital,” where individual angels realized that working together led to better results. Over the last four years, we have succeeded in (a) reformulating our strategy, vision, and mission, with a rebranding of the AoA; (b) recruiting a continuing stream of new members; (b) putting in place education programs that help our new and existing members know how to do good deal; (c) putting in place an angel term sheet (http://drosenassoc.com/Draft%20Term%20Sheet%20for%20Alliance%20of%20Angels.pdf) that helps angels get deals done quickly and at low cost; (d) train our angels to be good deal leads, board members, and investors; and (e) be an advocate for better communication from startups to their investors.

While the ultimate measure of success is a positive return through lucrative exits, we also know that for these early-stage startups have a long period to exit – typically 7-10 years. Since our data prior to 5 years ago isn’t very good, our surrogate measure is the “J Curve.” The fact that the AoA has succeeded in dramatically changing the J Curve implies that the strategy is working.

Comments welcome.

Success! What happens now?

I am often asked: “my company has achieved its initial goal of getting to $1M in revenue and being cash flow positive. What now?”

In order to grow to be a $10M revenue company, we need to scale up sales and marketing, add new product lines, etc. We therefore need to raise $5M in the business and will need to raise if from institutional investors. When I project forward my cap table, I realize that I would be much better selling on the promise of where we are, if we can sell for a reasonable amount. The alternative: spending the next six months talking to investors instead of growing my business.

So what is a “reasonable amount?” Most businesses in this state (if they have been reasonably capital efficient) will have raised about $1M or so and have a post-money valuation of less than $5M. Therefore, even at a sale price of $5M, the investors could make 2x, if there is a 1x liquidation preference, and the entrepreneur will make $3M. The investors would get a 3x return if the company sold for $10M (if there is a 1x liquidation preference). At a sale of $20M, the return is spectacular.

But how does this happen?

One major problem is that is it exceedingly difficult to sell small companies to large acquirers. When I was at Microsoft and Bill still approved all acquisitions, regardless of size, he once chastised me for doing a $3M acquisition of a UW spinout tech company. “It’s just as much work as a larger one and your time is too valuable. Do bigger deals.” That was true then and even more true now with increased government regulations and widespread use of open-source software in the products that small companies sell (which causes enhanced scrutiny of the code base for any infractions).

But even more importantly, small companies that are angel-backed and therefore “capital efficient” (meaning run very cheaply!), don’t tend to build the same infrastructure that a company with more capital would build. This is what makes them such attractive angel deals. But it is also one of the root causes of what makes them difficult to acquire.

The typical first-time successful startup CEO will build a great product, get their initial customers on board, and build marketing and sales to sell that product. This is very different than marketing and selling a company.

Selling a company to a large acquirer necessitates several other factors:

  • A vision about the company’s importance to the acquirer that clearly shows where the initial product leads;
  • A coherent and believable business plan that clearly shows the impact of the acquisition on the acquirer, as well as the costs;
  • Clean legal and financial docs, prepared by experienced and believable people, so that the acquirer won’t have to spend six months in due diligence;
  • Well-documented IP and code, that allows for rapid due diligence;
  • A well-honed understanding for the acquisition process, its key touch points, timing, and sensitivities.

Generally, these things can be provided by the company management team, board, or paid advisors. But in small, thinly capitalized companies, they are missing more often than they are present.

Therefore, selling a small, but valuable, angel-backed company seems akin to selling a beautiful home by placing a “for sale by owner” sign in the yard and hoping people will decided to call and make an attractive offer.

Aprimo – what a wonderful year-end surprise

I was the founding managing partner for Frazier Technology Ventures (http://www.fraziertechnology.com/), which unfortunately was founded in May 2000, possibly the worst time for starting a new venture fund. Up until last week, the fund’s performance was in the middle of the pack (and therefore did not come close to returning capital). This was a financial, professional, and personal disappointment for me.

After more than 10 years, the fund had only one surviving company that was still private and alive, Aprimo (http://www.aprimo.com/), an integrated marketing software company. The founder and CEO, Bill Godfrey, started with a vision that marketing professionals needed a strong and consistent platform that supported their needs and aspired to fill that need. He was supported by good investors, who shared that vision and stood by the company in the lean times as well as the flush ones. The FTV board member, my partner, Gary Gigot, had consistently forecasted that Aprimo was creating a new category, would dominate that category, and therefore would be a very valuable company.

And then on December 22nd, Teradata announced that it would acquire Aprimo for “approximately $525 million” (http://www.aprimo.com/TD/). The transaction is expected to close sometime in 1Q2011. Well done Bill and the Aprimo team! This is a spectacular outcome for Aprimo, Bill, and the investors, as well as for Teradata.

And this acquisition wraps up Frazier Technology Ventures I on a high note, placing FTV I in the top quartile of its peers in that vintage. For all of my friends that invested in my fund, I am thrilled that your faith in me turned out OK.

Merger of Angel-backed Companies

Most startups first create a feature. If they are smart, it will be a unique feature that fits a demonstrable customer need in the market and they can have many customers adopt their technology. If the company is really good, they will transform this feature into a product. If that works, they might get to create a series of related product and make a product line. Rarely will the startup create a full-fledged company.

It is when a startup grows its business to the Company stage that it can get exceptional value (<$100M). In general this takes experience and skills that aren’t usually found either in a startup or on their board.

Most angel-backed startups have trouble making it beyond the feature or product stage. In the past, many startups counted on VC funding to grow to the product line and company stage. This is now exceedingly rare, given both the number of angel-backed startups and the limited activity of VCs (see some of my previous posts).

So what does that mean? One outcome is that we move our angel-backed startups to profitability and they grow organically. This can lead to an acquisition, but more often than not, exits are rarer than we would like. (I will be doing a post on this soon.)

I predict that we will begin to see a wave of mergers between successful angel-backed companies. This makes perfect sense.

When two companies are in alignment and have products/features that can satisfy a broader set of customer needs, builds revenue and a customer base that exceeds critical mass, and gives the combination the chance to get to the company stage – creating a lot more value than the two companies separately.