In any real acquisition process—and I say “real” because there are instances when you might receive unsolicited emails about people buying your company (be careful there!)—you’ll know it can potentially go somewhere when the leadership team of the company looking to acquire yours sets up a fairly formal meeting with you (and likely your executive team). They’ll want to spend time talking about your business and they will express enthusiastic interest in what you could do together. This is before any diligence begins and likely well before you get an official term sheet or offer.
While this meeting is a very early step in a fairly long process for an acquisition, as the founder, you have more ability to predict the next couple of years for yourself and your team than you might think if you ask the right questions.
In that initial acquisition discussion, there is one simple question that might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how few of us actually ask it early enough for the response to make a difference in the heat of the moment. Remember, if you wait too long, you will likely be out of time to adjust the process or the outcome.
Remember to ask: “In other successful acquisitions that you have completed, how did you incorporate the founder, the team, and the product into your company?”
Here’s why each word in this question really matters:
• The word “other” is important so that you can determine if you are the first acquisition they have done or if they have a playbook for how this will go. Either is fine, but you should know which it is, as the answer will likely determine whether they will partner with you on the result or have a set method for “how they do things.”
• Including the “successful” part in your question is really important as it will tell you a lot about what they value. Is it culture, long-term success, or a short-term earnings boost? Those are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but you can find out pretty quickly what “success” looks like for the leader of the acquiring firm in this early conversation.
• Companies will most likely either have a culture of acquiring companies and churning out the founders and their team, or they will genuinely see them as long-term assets that are important to the overall success of the larger business. Understanding right away how they plan to “incorporate” you and your team is important. The difference is night and day, and as a founder, you should be clear on what’s happening for yourself and your team.
• Their response when asking about the “founder” will tell you if they love the company and the culture enough to have the founder stick around to be involved in the larger mission, or if it is a transactional acquisition and they prefer to move on quickly.
• Their response to the “team” part of the question will likely tell you if team members of other acquired companies have a career path within the larger company. Do they have great examples of people rising up through the ranks at the larger company over the years to become leaders of the combined firm? Or do the teams break up and leave the acquiring company quickly?
• There is no right answer when it comes to “product.” In some cases, keeping the product is the best solution. In others, pulling it into the larger company is much more strategic. It’s just great to know what’s been done previously to get a sense of the way the acquiring team thinks about the technical aspects of the two companies coming together.
In my own experience of having my company, Honest Buildings, acquired by Procore Technologies in 2019, this was one, if not the single most important, aspect of the wildly successful outcome of the merger. From that first meeting, Procore’s leadership team valued my team and me. The onboarding path to becoming a part of Procore was clear, and we genuinely felt like we were on the same team with the same dream. Two years later, I’m still with the company, along with many others from our team, and we’ve continued to grow in our responsibilities and careers.
In our case, both teams worked together to create a cross-functional group to bring the two products together collaboratively, achieving a true 1+1=3 result, which is what we set out to do. I know from many of my founder peers that this is not the norm, and I have an incredible amount of respect for my Honest Buildings team and the great Procore Technologies team, which came together to create such a lasting result.
Many times, mergers and acquisitions (M&As) don’t work because the teams don’t come together. I think you can get a good idea of how that will look for your company based on the leadership team’s response to this simple question. As a founder or member of the executive team at a company thinking about an acquisition, make sure you get a great handle on this early.
Riggs Kubiak is an Entrepreneur in Residence at Procore Technologies, supporting CEOs & Founders in the ConTech and PropTech ecosystems to accelerate growth.