Acquiring a company? 10 lessons on strategic acquisitions.

strategic acquisition
strategic acquisition

In Silicon Valley, it’s often argued that large companies can’t innovate. I want to share an alternative perspective. Over the past three years, I’ve been lucky enough to observe how an enterprise, despite its size, is able to create breakthrough innovations and substantial value. As the Chief Strategy Officer for IIG, I had the opportunity to drive the Syncplicity by Axway strategic acquisition and ran the business post-acquisition as EMC embarked on a journey to SaaS. EMC was particularly good at doing the hard things that most companies don’t, and it has made all the difference.

10 things that EMC does right to ensure the success of a new strategic acquisition:

1. Acquire pearls, not gorillas – I lifted this phrase from Joe Tucci. It means that you should look for young companies that have a combination of IP and DNA that can bring hyper-growth to the portfolio. Older companies bring a lot of technical debt to repay from a core architecture standpoint. By acquiring pearls, your R&D investment will create more value for the customer. 

2. Ensure Cultural Alignment – if there is a genuine congruence in the viewpoint that the acquisition transaction is not the destination, but scaling the idea is, success is more likely. Motivate the founders to continue to do great things and allow the original team to be invested in and allowed personal growth, autonomy, and fulfillment. Aligning cultures and value systems is harder to than you might think but it dramatically improves your odds of success.

3. Just Enough Integration – every strategic acquisition has a certain amount of integration that needs to happen—the payroll, financial, back office, and LOB systems, etc. But time spent on integration diverts attention from innovation. Minimize that diversion by integrating only the things that help you scale the business. Your sales force and marketing automation systems may have different operating dynamics than the parent company. If integrating them doesn’t add value to the business, then don’t do it.

4. Preserve independence – let acquired companies operate with the freedom to innovate in ways that are best for them. It’s important that acquired technologies work best with the parent company’s but they should also work with competitors’ products. Giving the team ownership over those decisions will ensure they’re able to continue solving customer problems and improve the success of acquisition in a hyper-growth market that is well funded by VC’s.

5. Provide Scale and Leverage – support the necessary scale and investment in key functions of the business like R&D and customer success, and ensure full GTM leverage of the parent’s sales and marketing engine. Enabling a new acquisition across multiple sales channels within the parent company can ensure rapid scale in large-enterprise and mid-market customers.

6. Coaching and Oversight for the Leadership Team – with Syncplicity by Axway’s acquisition, EMC senior staff members Rick Devenuti, Jeremy Burton, Dave Martin, Sanjay Mirchandani, and others formed an oversight board of directors (OBOD) for us—and they have been invaluable. Similar to what you’d see in a start-up, the OBOD provides guidance and assistance to acquisition’s leadership team. Their guidance on product decisions and GTM strategy, and their ability to unlock roadblocks can help an acquisition execute in a very nimble way while operating in a new and unfamiliar corporate environment.

7. Encourage Doing the Right Thing – doing the right thing isn’t always easy. And sometimes, doing right for a newly acquired company isn’t the same as doing right for its parent. Solving a customer problem might mean integrating with competitor’s products. Long-term investments might mean short-term losses. It’s important to align the objectives and incentives of sales, R&D, and operations teams, and to look holistically at the goals and needs of both the parent and acquisition.

8. Find balance in acquiring talent – good talent is hard to find. Create the right environment for ownership and growth and bring in great people from the parent company. Strike a balance between people who understand the parent’s systems and know how to navigate its processes with fresh thinkers from the industry. And a cardinal rule of mine is to err on the side of hiring for potential versus experience.

9. Eat your own dog food – a parent company is a great trial ground for acquired technologies. With thousands of employees, geographic diversity, and a corporate IT team, the parent company can test acquisition products and ensure that they meet the highest standards before bringing them to customers. If your acquisition is a startup, its competitors probably don’t have access to an entire enterprise for R&D and product testing. Use that access to continuously innovate and improve your products.

10. Measure the Leading Indicators – it’s easy to get hung up just on trailing indicators like ACV and ARR. At EMC, everyone from our President and COO David Goulden on down place emphasis on leading indicators. In SaaS, for example, it takes a while to achieve profitable scale, and historically VC’s do a much better job than large companies because they can wait longer to show a return (13 years vs. every quarter). Being able to look ahead as well as behind you helps your acquisition focus on building great products, which is really what you want them to do.


Learn more about empowering your team with Syncplicity by Axway.


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