Are You an Acqui-Hire?

There has been some criticism of Yahoo’s acqui-hire strategy. There are those who believe that it clearly sends the wrong message to existing staff. Rather than work for a meager salary, one should simply quit to become part of the acqui-hire bandwagon. Yes, that is clearly the advice that staff should follow for the right reasons.

Contingent workers are becoming the norm in the US. It is estimated that 50% of the workforce will be contingent workers by 2020. The trend is that there will be fewer full time employees and most workers will be self-employed and have multiple clients to make a full week. Workers have nothing to lose by going out on their own and potentially a lot to gain. Will everyone win the lottery by selling their company? Of course not, but we should look at business ownership for what it is.

When a startup is acqui-hired, there are assets other than the people that are transferred. These assets could be servers, and patents among other things. The buyer is getting a complete company as part of the deal. The technology may be integrated into the buyer’s offerings or it may simply be shut down. In the latter case it is clear that the acqui-hire was purely for the talent and not the technology; however, the assets still have value and can remain on the buyer’s balance sheet continuing to add value.

A commodity small business such as book keeping or project management is less likely to have patents, lots of source code, and tons of servers. That does not diminish the value of what they have to offer. The value of the owner’s investment is different, but not less. Most small businesses will not have an early exit strategy. Instead they become lifestyle businesses that will maintain the founder for many years.

When starting a small business, the founder must consider what the exit strategy (if any) will be. A business is a form of investment in terms of time and capital. Since a business is an investment we should consider the various types of investments in one’s time to illustrate the various value propositions.

  • Employee – employees can be seen as investment-grade bonds. Investment-grade such as high rated corporate or certain government bonds are considered a safe investment for the long-term. They tend to pay very little interest, but it is unlikely that the investor will lose their capital. Working at a traditional day job is a low risk opportunity because the employee has little to no capital invested in the business.
  • Commodity Business Owner – this class of worker represents the next and most common step in entrepreneurship. They can be seen as high yield bonds. High yield bonds do pay more, but they have a higher probability of losing money. This represents the higher professional rate that a commodity business owner can charge. The downside is there is volatility risk such as lack of steady work that the Employee (investment grade bond) does not face. There is also the possibility that the investment in the high yield bonds could be worth less than the initial investment. This would occur where the business fails and is worth cents on the dollar in liquidation when the owner shuts down.
  • Acqui-Hire Business Owner – the acqui-hire business owner invests time and energy with the expectation that the sale of valuation will increase in the future. The acqui-hire is like an equity investment. The value is based on the appreciation of the asset and the expectation that someone will pay more in the future than the previous investor.

Most entrepreneurs will set out to be the commodity business owner. While it does not have the safety and routine of being an employee, it does have the potential to be a medium to long term investment in one’s time and energy. In the world of bonds this is referred to as the hunt for yield. All things being equal, an investor will sell a bond and replace it in a portfolio with a bond that pays a higher yield. A commodity business owner will replace lower paying customers with higher-paying customers. It does lack the excitement of being an acqui-hire, which is the equivalent of seeing a stock portfolio double, triple, or more. On the other hand it can be the best of both worlds in terms of having an easy to manage investment strategy.

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