incredible success of private equity over the past couple decades has made
clear to many aspiring company owners and investors, if you can find and
acquire a decent company, its possible to earn great returns. This has fueled a
new class of individuals seeking to launch their own search funds. What exactly
is a search fund and how do you become successful at it? Let’s explore.
The Stanford Graduate School of Business Center for Entrepreneurial Studies explains search funds this way: “The model offers relatively inexperienced professionals with limited capital resources a quick path to managing a company in which they have a meaningful ownership position.”
professionals? Limited capital resources? It doesn’t exactly sound like a
recipe for success.
But it can be.
At the beginning of my career, I was involved in a lot of startups. I was starting with nothing – zero, zilch — so I’ve always had a lot of respect for entrepreneurs because you start from an idea and not much else. To be honest, in the beginning, I somewhat discounted my friends who were inheriting family businesses. When they’ve been at it for generations, I thought ‘well, how hard can this be?’
Thing is, the older I get, the more I’ve gotten to know various family offices and family run businesses and now, I’ve come to realize that running a family business is harder. Much harder. It’s a legacy that in some ways can be so overwhelming to continue to build, and not screw up, whereas with startups you have the luxury of low or no expectations.
Compare that with the legacy/obligation/burden handed to the second, third, or fourth generation, and there can be incredible pressure on the business and family to do well. And it’s even harder now, when no business – no sector – is immune to the kind of disruption, to the kind of disintermediation that technology has introduced into every industry and market. Nothing can be taken for granted, regardless of longevity.
As an executive who has spent his career growing companies, taking companies public, and successfully selling businesses, Charlie Shalvoy says the first thing he does when he parachutes into a company is begin with an assessment. Whether the company is venture-capital backed or private, or in manufacturing, energy, semiconductors, or industrial equipment, figuring out the current state of operations is always the first step. Charlie divides the stages an interim executive goes through in taking action in a new company into four phases:
Phase 1: Taking Hold (90 Days)
When a company seeks to expand into new markets or scale operations to support current and future growth, Charlie takes on a role ranging from Interim CEO to Executive Chairman, where he coaches and serves alongside the CEO and management team. He describes that in the taking hold phase, an interim executive identifies what’s broken – even fast growing companies need repairs. What is getting in the way? What is causing distress?
No organization is immune to challenges, not if it has any ambition. But how do we as owners and leaders put our strategy hat on to see down the road, or attempt to see, to predict where markets will go, how customers will act and react? To play the great game of chess in the real world – which is strategy.
Sometimes that is easier said than done. The eloquent Mike Tyson put it so well when he said, “everybody has a plan until I punch them in the mouth.” We would do well to remember how limited our brilliant strategies in fact are, how fragile in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty and future black swan events.
Just look to history to see how companies have been blindsided with the punch they never saw coming. Kodak invented the first digital camera in 1975, but put launch on hold in fear of cannibalizing their film business. We all know the story from there….Kodak who? Or take Blockbuster – which failed to pivot when Netflix showed up. And then Borders and Barnes & Noble, crushed under the Amazon onslaught. And the examples of business strategy gone wrong go on…
The best, truest, and most bleak line I’ve heard from a mega-successful company founder was Dave Becker telling me: “we have all had the sleepless nights, when it’s 2am and you’re staring at the ceiling.” Dave is the founder of a number of companies including First Internet Bancorp (Nasdaq: INBK), the granddaddy of online banking.
From the outside, we see a successful entrepreneur with multiple home runs and think they must be sitting on easy street. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer is: everything. It always appears easy or obvious once a company has made it, but what we often don’t hear about are the trials and tribulations that happen at every stage of a company’s growth from young and unknown, to in between, and then big and ambitious. The sleepless nights. The questions of can you make payroll. The we-almost-went-bankrupt moments. This is real and it’s no surprise that many of our inquiries for help from owners show up in our inbox after the 9-5 employees have gone home.
The world of mergers and acquisitions can be complex for owners focused on building their companies.
We’re often asked by owners about their options to exit and sell the company. Often, work needs to be done to prepare – in advance of any sale process – to ensure maximum value is realized. Owners may opt to bring in an outside perspective like an interim executive to provide an operational roadmap to improve operations and package the company for eventual sale. This process, however, typically begins with two types of targets in mind:
Strategic buyers (Strategics) are companies who are already operating in the field/industry where acquiring your business will be complementary to their business, expand their customer base, or give them a competitive advantage.
Financial buyers include private equity funds, family offices, and individual investors who provide their own equity funding and borrowing to acquire businesses as a path to future gains.
Let’s dive in to the difference between strategic buyers and financial buyers:
The Olympics are the perfect example of the difference between champions who win gold, silver or bronze, and everyone else who goes home empty handed. The winner could be winning by just one ten thousandths of a second.
Why do you think you or I are any different in our work – if we could improve our performance just a couple percentage points, we’d stand out from the masses clear as day.
Steve Jobs was genius at nuance, the subtle improvement that could cause massively asymmetric outcomes in favor of Apple. Thirty companies had MP3 products delivering hardware, software and content for streaming music. The category was done. Then along came the iPod. Not major changes, but so much better!
I was having a conversation with company founders in a healthcare startup who made the comment: “we’re new to being entrepreneurs.”
That was their opening for free advice. It’s hard building and scaling a business when most startups fail or have a tough time and that’s not celebrated enough. Instead we just marvel at the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and aspire to be like Uber, Facebook, Google.
The truth is that most every new businesses – it’s a slog. A grind. A tough battle at some point in their existence, if not in fact for many years. Steve Ballmer of Microsoft had a phrase for this: the long middle. He said its fairly easy to be creative, think up a brilliant new product, and decide to charge forward. Then comes the middle: the long slog.
Software runs the world but hardware and physical products are still part and parcel of our everyday experience. Bill Fienup and his co-founders set out an ambitious goal to help new manufacturers launch and grow. He started small with Catalyze Chicago, a nascent manufacturing innovation hub. Risking their own capital they rented 2,000 square feet, which quickly expanded to 8,000 square feet in five months, serving member companies who had raised $28 million from investors, generating $56 million in revenue.
But that wasn’t enough, and Bill’s plans became what is now mHub, an innovation center focused on physical product development and manufacturing.
We got the chance to do a Q&A with Bill, where we dove into his growing innovation hub and the future of manufacturing:
The overriding, ever present recurring theme of PE fund managers is dealflow. What keeps a PE fund manager up at night? Dealflow. What gets a them up in the morning? More deals. What drives them to stay connected and answer the phone while on vacation? That would be more deals.
And dealflow’s brother is price. As dealflow becomes more pressured and harder to come by, prices of companies go up. And seemingly everything gets shopped since fund after fund are grabbing for the same opportunities.
Proprietary access to deals is the holy grail. Into this challenge, how does a professional investor win, if you can’t even get to the start line?