Hard times for software M&A

Contact: Brenon Daly

Software M&A has fallen on hard times. Spending on application software deals has dipped to its lowest level in recent years, with the value of purchases so far in 2017 dropping to less than half the amount in the comparable period of each of the past three years, according to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase. The reason? The bellwethers aren’t buying big.

Salesforce has only done one small acquisition so far this year, after a 2016 shopping spree that saw it ink 12 deals at a cost of $3.2bn, according to an SEC filing. Similarly, Oracle’s largest print in 2017 is less than one-tenth the size of last year’s $9.5bn consolidation of NetSuite, which stands as the largest-ever SaaS transaction. (Subscribers to the M&A KnowledgeBase can see our proprietary estimate on terms of Oracle’s big print this year, its reach for advertising analytics startup Moat.) SAP has been entirely out of the market in 2017.

Since large vendors are also typically large acquirers, their absence has left application software a dramatically diminished sector of the overall tech M&A market. Application software accounts for just $7.7bn of the $132bn in announced deal value so far in 2017, according to the M&A KnowledgeBase. On an absolute basis, that’s the lowest level for the opening half of any year since the recent recession.

More tellingly, however, application software’s ‘market share’ has fallen to only about a nickel of every dollar that tech acquirers across the globe have handed out so far this year. Our M&A KnowledgeBase indicates that the 6% of total tech M&A spending in 2017 for application software is just half its share over the previous five years.

LendingTree’s uncommon interest in internet M&A 

Contact:  Scott Denne

A sudden streak of dealmaking for LendingTree has culminated in today’s purchase of MagnifyMoney.com as the financial comparison site angles to accelerate its growth beyond mortgages. That streak makes LendingTree an outlier as few other Internet companies have been in a buying mood lately.

MagnifyMoney marks LendingTree’s third acquisition since November, when it bought CompareCards, a deal that ended a 12-year M&A drought for the buyer. In the waning years of that drought, LendingTree’s top line has expanded (up 51% last year to $384m) while new lines of business have sprouted. Five or six years ago, almost 90% of revenue came from its mortgage comparison product – now it’s less than half. MagnifyMoney, which aggregates offers from multiple types of financial services, further diversifies the business – as did CompareCards and last week’s reach for DepositAccounts.com.

The kind of transactions that LendingTree has been printing – adding new services while soaking up smaller competitors – has become rare. According to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase, consolidation among consumer internet vendors has declined. Only 66 deals have been inked this year, compared with 101 at this point last year, a number that itself was down 50% from 2015.

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Soft start to sales-enablement M&A 

Contact: Scott Denne

Startups developing sales-enablement software have been the targets of a recent spate of acquisitions after indulging in readily available venture capital for the burgeoning category. But the early deals appear modest and bigger exits still seem a ways out.

Among the startups in this category, three have sold in the past two months – all of them with modest headcount after several years in the market, suggesting equally modest growth. Two of those, KnowledgeTree and Heighten Software, were lightly funded. The third, ToutApp, raised $20m, making it more representative of the two dozen or so venture-backed startups selling software that enables sales teams to automate processes, share content and analyze their pipelines.

Gobs of venture money combined with an early, confounding market has meant that revenue traction comes via cash-burning investments in evangelism and marketing. Such a situation isn’t likely to draw the most natural acquirers – the largest CRM companies (Salesforce, Oracle and Microsoft) that today address the nascent need for sales enablement mainly through their app stores.

When other categories of sales software have come into their own, those would-be buyers made big purchases. Take configure, price and quote (CPQ) software: both Oracle and Salesforce inked nine-figure acquisitions in that sector. But sales enablement hasn’t yet become as widely embedded into sales workflow as CPQ, so there’s little motivation for CRM vendors to make a strategic-sized investment in a sales-enablement startup until those offerings gel into an obvious complement (or threat) to CRMs.

Still, there’s potential for a steady stream of modest exits for sales-enablement providers. As Marketo did with ToutApp, other B2B marketing software companies could look to this category to build products that connect marketing and sales processes. Likewise, vendors in enterprise content management, file sharing, conference calling and collaboration could reach into this category for software to target a key vertical.
Source: 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase

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Trust-busting in the Trump era

Contact: Brenon Daly

Despite President Trump often positioning himself as ‘dealmaker in chief,’ his administration just cast a chill over M&A. The Federal Trade Commission has said that it plans to block the proposed combination of DraftKings and FanDuel, the two largest websites for betting on fantasy sports. The deal was announced last November, just two weeks after the election of Trump supposedly signaled a more business-friendly climate in Washington DC.

That expectation has helped drive Wall Street to record highs, with the broad-market US indexes all surging about 20% since the vote. The confidence in the stock market was initially expected to extend to the M&A market, which has historically been closely correlated with Wall Street. In April, for instance, a plurality of respondents to the M&A Leaders’ Survey from 451 Research and Morrison & Foerster said Trump’s economic policies have stimulated dealmaking. The 41% who reported a ‘Trump bump’ to M&A was almost twice the level that said the president’s policies have slowed acquisition activity.

And yet, regulators are moving to spike a combination of two startups that just might represent the only way for either of them to survive. It sounds a bit dramatic, but then, the landscape is littered with startups that have spent their way out of business. Even raising $1bn in venture backing — as DraftKings and FanDuel combined to do — doesn’t guarantee survival. Not when startups with low-margin transactional business models spend money hand over fist on advertising against each other in what is a barely differentiated service.

While the two companies decide whether to fight the FTC ruling, some startup executives and their backers may need to reconsider their potential exits. For the most part, regulators during the Obama administration didn’t trouble themselves with the rare bits of consolidation in Silicon Valley. (The two largest VC-backed sites for freelance work — oDesk and Elance — got together in 2013 without any review from Washington.) Based on the DraftKings-FanDuel decision, however, dealmakers might need to plan on more trust-busting in the Trump era. For instance, the far-fetched talk about a pairing between Uber and Lyft should now be considered dead before it ever gets born.

Don’t bet against Bezos

Contact: Brenon Daly

A day after Amazon’s Jeff Bezos put out an open-ended tweet to the world asking where he should donate his money, we now know at least one early recipient of his philanthropy: Whole Foods Market. OK, the $13.7bn acquisition of the grocer isn’t exactly charity, but nor is it an example of a hardened dollars-and-cents M&A strategy.

Instead, it might be most accurate to think of the Amazon-Whole Foods pairing as a blend of giving and buying, a deal that’s being attempted by one of the few CEOs who could possibly get away with spending billions of dollars of shareholder money to effectively take his company backward in time. For lack of a better term, think of Bezos’ move as a ‘patronage purchase.’

Whole Foods, which was being stung by a gadfly hedge fund, needed a buyer for the 430-store chain. (From our side, we were half expecting the grocery chain’s CEO, John Mackey, to try a Kickstarter-funded management buyout.) Amazon — or more accurately, Bezos — is convinced that the world’s largest online retailer needs a brick-and-mortar presence.

Undoubtedly, there’s a certain logic to building up the distribution network for physical goods, which account for the bulk of Amazon’s revenue. However, those sales aren’t particularly attractive, at least economically. To put some numbers on that, consider the operations for Whole Foods, a real-world business that Amazon is buying, compared with AWS, a cloud business that Amazon has built. Conveniently, both businesses generated roughly the same amount of revenue in the most recent quarter, $3.7bn. Leave aside the fact that AWS grew 43% while Whole Foods flatlined and just look at the operating margin: Whole Foods posted just $171m of operating income, only one-fifth the $890m that AWS generated.

Conventional corporate strategy would typically encourage a company to allocate resources to the business with the highest return (AWS), rather than spending billions of dollars to buy its way into a low-growth, low-margin adjacent market. But then, Bezos has never been conventional.

Historians will remember that Bezos pushed ahead with a $1.25bn convertible note offering for Amazon in 1999. At the time, the deal — the largest-ever convertible by a tech vendor — flew in the face of conventional corporate finance, giving those investors bearish on the money-burning company even more reason to mock ‘Amazon dot bomb.’ However, given that those notes converted at a price of $156 each, compared with the current market price for Amazon shares of nearly $1,000 each, it’s fair to say that Bezos has created a certain amount of goodwill on Wall Street. (Investors gave him the benefit of the doubt on the Whole Foods pickup, nudging Amazon shares slightly higher after the announcement.)

Similarly, by all accounts, Bezos’ purchase of the existentially threatened The Washington Post in 2013 has brought renewed growth to that stalwart newspaper. And while that $250m acquisition was done from Bezos’ own pocket (rather than Amazon’s treasury), it actually lines up fairly closely with the proposed reach for Whole Foods. Both groceries and newspapers represent once-thriving industries that have been decimated by a combination of technology and shifting consumer consumption patterns. In contrast, Amazon has built a half-trillion-dollar market cap on both of those trends, making it hard to bet against Bezos.

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The one and only exit for infosec’s unicorns

Contact: Brenon Daly

In just the past month, four different information security (infosec) startups have all pulled in single rounds of funding that typically would have only been available from an IPO. In addition to filling company coffers, however, the roughly $100m slug of capital raised by each of the quartet — CrowdStrike, Tanium, Netskope and Illumio — may also influence company strategy, at least when it comes time to seek an exit. Rather than pursue a sale of the business, which is the most likely outcome for any startup, these infosec unicorns will likely eye the door that leads to Wall Street.

In other words, when it comes to the two exit options available to these security startups, they should be modeling themselves more on Okta than on AppDynamics. The reason? Of the 17 sales of VC-backed vendors valued at more than $1bn since January 1, 2014, not a single startup has come from the infosec market, according to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase. Mandiant came close to a 10-digit exit in its early 2014 sale to FireEye, but the announced value of that deal stands at $989m. (Of course, FireEye paid for the vast majority of that in stock, which lost half of its value within four months of the transaction and has never regained its early-2014 level.)

Infosec is conspicuous by its absence among the big-ticket purchases of venture-backed companies. Virtually every other major tech sector has realized some unicorn exit, including mobility (WhatsApp, AirWatch), e-commerce (Jet.com), storage (Cleversafe), the Internet of Things (Jasper Technologies) and cloud (Virtustream). The largest sale of a VC-backed infosec firm over the past three and a half years, according to the M&A KnowledgeBase, is Trustwave’s $810m sale to Singtel in April 2015. (Although Trustwave did raise venture money, notably from FTV Capital, it hardly fits the classic definition of a startup. Instead, it is more accurately viewed as a rollup, having consolidated 16 other businesses since its founding in 1995.)

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @451TechMnA.

The vanishing internet acquirer 

Contact: Scott Denne

One of the most active acquirers of internet companies goes dark as Yahoo settles into its recess at AOL (now known as Oath). To be sure, the disappearance of Yahoo from the M&A scene happened well before the recent close of its sale to AOL. Yahoo hasn’t printed an acquisition in nearly two years, yet its official exit dampens an already stagnant environment for consumer internet deals.

Yahoo’s M&A machine shut down in 2015 – first through shareholder displeasure, then by its impending sale. In each of the two years before that, it printed an average of 24 transactions. Its more successful peers haven’t been much more aggressive lately. According to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase, last year saw 383 acquisitions of consumer internet businesses worth almost $60bn. Almost halfway through this year, we’ve tracked barely one-third as many deals and one-sixth of last year’s value.

Albeit for different reasons than Yahoo, the bigger and more successful internet giants have shied away from major purchases, despite seemingly ideal conditions. Amazon, Apple and Google have each inked five acquisitions this year. Facebook hasn’t done any. The stock prices of all four have run up this year – Google, the laggard of the bunch, sits 23% higher than where it was last year.

Yet not a single one of them has printed a $1bn deal since 2014. Back then they were chasing ancillary markets. Facebook shelled out $19bn for WhatsApp to push its social network into mobile messaging; Google, imagining synergies between mobile phones and smart homes, paid $3.2bn for Nest Labs; Apple wanted a new look for its accessories and headphones business so it bought Beats Electronics for $3bn; and Amazon stretched its (then) burgeoning presence in digital video into live videogames with the pickup of Twitch for $970m.

Today they’re still chasing ancillary markets, but the opportunities on their radar are too raw for them to make a large purchase. They’re pushing into self-driving cars, virtual reality and artificial intelligence assistants, markets that are too nascent to offer many big strategic targets.

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @451TechMnA.

Private equity’s latest venture 

Contact: Scott Denne

The bulging coffers of buyout funds are delivering a record amount of exits to venture capitalists, providing some measure of relief as strategic acquirers scale back dealmaking and the IPO market remains a selective venue. Yet relying on a different category of buyers could have venture investors rethinking how to value the products – startups – they sell to them.

So far this year, private equity (PE) firms have spent $4.8bn on 40 companies that have taken venture money. That nearly matches last year’s record dollar total ($5.2bn), according to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase, and is on track to pass the number of such deals in 2016.

Returns from both PE shops and strategic acquirers range from prodigious to paltry, although usually at vastly different multiples on the high end of the market. Take the two largest VC exits this year, Cisco’s $3.7bn acquisition of AppDynamics and PetSmart owner BC Partners’ purchase of Chewy for an estimated $3.4bn. Both delivered outsized returns, but Chewy went off at nearly 4x trailing revenue, which is above market for an e-commerce transaction although not in the same neighborhood as the 17.4x AppDynamics garnered.

In AppDynamics, Cisco is gambling that the application performance management vendor will mature into that lofty price. PE firms are less inclined to make such a wager. While PE shops are buying venture-backed companies – they account for a record 14% of venture exits so far this year – they’re looking for proof, not potential. Those tougher standards could start to trickle down to valuations in venture fundings as PE firms determine a larger share of the outcomes.

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Onapsis on the block?

Contact: Brenon Daly

Enterprise application security startup Onapsis quietly kicked off a sale process about a month ago, according to our understanding. Several sources have indicated that Onapsis, which focuses on hardening security for SAP implementations, has hired UBS to gauge interest among buyers. And while there undoubtedly will be acquisition interest in the startup, Onapsis may ultimately prove to be a bit of a tough sell. The reason? The most obvious buyers for the company don’t typically pay the type of valuations that Onapsis is thought to be asking.

In many cases, the heavy-duty SAP systems that Onapsis helps secure were implemented by one of the big consulting shops. So at least theoretically, it’s not a big leap to imagine one of these consultancies buying Onapsis and offering its platform, exclusively, to help safeguard these mission-critical systems and the data they generate. (Indeed, Onapsis already has partnerships with many of the big consulting firms, including KPMG, PWC, Accenture and others.) While that strategy may be sound, M&A always comes down to pricing. And that’s why we would think it’s probably more likely than not that eight-year-old Onapsis remains independent.

According to our understanding, Onapsis is looking to sell for roughly $200m, which would be twice the valuation of its September 2015 funding. The rumored ask works out to about 8x bookings in 2016 and 4.5x forecast bookings for this year. For a fast-growing SaaS startup, those aren’t particularly exorbitant multiples. Yet they may well price out any consulting shops, which have typically either picked up small pieces of specific infosec technology or just gobbled up security consultants. Any reach for Onapsis would require a consulting firm to pay a significantly richer price than the ‘tool’ or ‘body’ deals they have historically done.

 A taste of the unexpected 

Contact: Scott Denne

Blue Apron has taken the lid off its burgeoning food-delivery business, and uncertainty is on the menu. The company publicly unveiled its IPO prospectus on Thursday night, showing a rapid rise in annual revenue for the quasi-subscription grocery supplier but a lack of clarity on customer retention that Wall Street might not be able to stomach.

Last year’s annual revenue popped 2.3x above 2015’s total to $795m. And its improving gross margins already outperform traditional competitors. The 31% it posted last quarter puts it on par with its high-end cousin, Whole Foods, while traditional grocers are typically in the 20% neighborhood.

But other costs – administrative, development and technology – moved in tandem with revenue. In that way, it looks like a typical tech offering. Yet on a quarterly basis, its expenses – particularly marketing – are lumpy, which will likely be scrutinized.

Marketing costs jumped 63% sequentially in Q1 after a 25% decline in Q4. Even on a year-over-year basis, the growth of its marketing doesn’t fit a discernable pattern. On top of that, the returns on that investment are diminishing. Blue Apron’s revenue grew just 42% last quarter and for every dollar it spent on marketing, it notched $4.04 in revenue, the lowest return of any quarter in its history and $2 less than the previous average.

Declining ROI would be digestible if it were temporary. Blue Apron runs a no-commitment subscription service, so high upfront marketing costs to land customers with large lifetime value is part of its model. The company claims that 92% of Q1 revenue came from repeat orders. But it’s not clear how many of those already are, or will continue to be, regular clients. It’s also not clear whether Blue Apron faces rising retention costs or rising acquisition costs, or both. Any way you slice it, Blue Apron could struggle to build the kind of predictable business that won’t give investors heartburn.

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