by Scott Denne
In 2018, it seemed that anyone who could buy a software company did. The reemergence of software M&A’s regular strategic acquirers, along with a continuing surge in private equity (PE) deals and a jolt from young public software companies, pushed the market for application software acquisitions well past its 2016 record.
According to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase, acquirers picked up 1,191 application software companies worth a combined $90.5bn. This marks the first time we’ve recorded more than 1,100 software companies sold in a single year, and represents a 42% increase over the previous record (from 2016) for total value of acquisitions in the category.
While there were certainly outstanding deals – SAP’s $8bn purchase of Qualtrics being the largest – it was the volume of acquirers willing to make big purchases that drove the year’s total to its heights. Since the end of the dot-com bubble, there have only been two years that have had more than 10 application software deals to print at or above $1bn, and never more than 14. This year, buyers announced 28 of them.
SAP bookended the year with a pair of such transactions: the $2.4bn acquisition of Callidus Cloud and the $8bn purchase of Qualtrics in November. Prior to that, you have to go all the way back to SAP’s 2014 acquisition of Concur for its last 10-figure deal. It wasn’t the only one of its peers to return to market in a big way this year. Adobe printed two $1bn application software deals (Magento and Marketo) – its first since 2009. At the same time, Cloudera, Twilio and Workday all printed their first-ever 10-figure deals.
Vertical software targets – companies building software for specific markets, such as construction, pharmaceuticals, education and government – took an outsized share ($30.4bn) of the annual total. Those targets continued to be a private-equity favorite, while attracting interest from companies outside the software industry. Roche, the pharma giant, opened the year with a $1.9bn purchase of electronic health records company Flatiron Health, while industrial conglomerate 3M closed the year with a $1bn acquisition of clinical documentation software developer M*Modal.
Even amid the return of the old strategics and the emergence of new cohorts of software buyers, PE continued to influence the software M&A market. More than one in three (37%) application software acquisitions was made by either a PE firm or a PE portfolio company, up from 33% in 2017 – the highest level up to that point. Still, the reemergence of strategic acquirers helped push up prices on those deals. The median multiple paid by a PE firm for a software company last year came in at 4.1x trailing revenue, clocking in above 4x for the first time on record.
Across the software market, rising multiples spurred the growth in deal value. Buyers paid a median 7.6x trailing revenue across $1bn-plus deals in the category last year, compared with each of the four preceding years, where median multiples on such deals fluctuated between 3.9x and 4.8x.