The best founder/CEOs want to build long-lasting, strong companies. But this isn’t just a want, it’s necessary— especially today as companies stay private longer.
CEOs who expect their companies to be acquired as a “quick exit” aren’t going to have it easy. It’s especially hard for those CEOs and advisors who never had to learn how to build a full-fledged, well-governed company — with sustainable sales, marketing, HR, legal, customer support, accounting, and finance — without losing their sense of urgency. They “simply” needed to build a winning product, merge with a larger company, and then let others take care of the rest.
This is both tough and good news for today’s founders/CEOs.
The good news: You have a bigger opportunity than ever before to build a long-lasting, fundamentally important technology company.
The tough news: To do so, you must grow — personally and professionally — to a higher level than you might have experienced in your life before. Doing so means committing to building a company that can go “all the way” on its own.
Below, I share some things I learned on my own journey here. When I ran SuccessFactors, we used to say “we’re building the company like Lambeau Field” (Lambeau Field stadium in Green Bay, Wisconsin, is the home field of the NFL Green Bay Packers, who under their coach Vince Lombardi were known for their winning streak and ability to grab crucial wins even in the worst snow, because their team was built to handle tough weather conditions).
When you are building for long term — as opposed to a quick exit — it becomes obvious very quickly that you’ll have to make very different decisions, on every level from hiring and culture to how you treat sales and customers. You need to test every decision that’s obviously meant for immediate results with “will it also strengthen us in the long term?”
Successful companies are bought, not sold
Even if your company does end up getting acquired, building your company well is the best you can do for the price you get. When we negotiated selling SuccessFactors for 11X revenues (which at the time was the highest multiple on sales in a decade), if we didn’t like where the value or discussions were going, we knew we could just stop negotiations and keep on building the company. And we weren’t bluffing, which you cannot fake. Because good companies are bought … not sold.
Just as a dog can smell fear, any experienced M&A team can smell a mile off if you want to sell your company, and consequently the price goes down. If you are not selling, and you have the power to stay independent because you are well-built and can handle “bad weather”, you can hold out longer than the acquirer, and the price of your company goes up to what you know it’s worth.
So how do you build such scale, without shortcuts? To start, there are at least five areas I believe a founder must focus on:
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