Sunday, August 12, 2018

Merger & Acquisition Failures

Also available on Twitter.

Sometimes when two companies love each other very much... Companies buy other companies. Maybe it’s to pump marketshare or shut down competition. Sounds like a boring transaction as long as regulators don’t mind. Or maybe it’s to get technology and people.

Those are exciting projects, full of hope and dreams. And yet, so much of the time the technology is shelved and the people quit. Why is that? Because acquisition alters the delicate chemistry of teamwork and product-market-fit.

Maybe the acquired company continues to operate as a wholly own subsidiary and little changes for a long time. Or maybe the acquired company is quickly integrated into the mother ship so that all that goodness can be utilized ASAP.

I’m no expert on corporate acquisition, but I’ve had a front row seat for some of these. A few of them could even be called successful. Let’s generalize heavily from after-hours conversations that clearly have nothing to do with any of my previous employers.

The fateful day has come! Papers are signed, the Tent of Secrecy is taken down, and the press release is out. Acquiring teams are answering questions and testing defenses. They’ve got to retain key team members, integrate technology, and align the sales teams before blood spills.

At the same time, they’ve drawn political attention and are certainly facing some negative buzz. In a really challenging environment, they’re also facing coup attempts. M&A is as hard as launching companies, so it’s easy for others to snipe at.

Meanwhile, acquired teams are all over the emotional map. Excited, sad, suddenly rich, furious at how little they’re getting. Are friends now redundant, immediately or “soon”? Who's reviewing retention plans on a key team members list, and who's not: it won’t be private for long.

After an acquisition one might assume headhunter attention. When better to check in on someone’s emotional state and promise greener grass? Churn commences. The network starts to buzz, people are distracted, and some leave.  Of course, lots stay!

And maybe the folks that stay for retention bonus are a little more conservative. Bird in the hand, part of a bigger safer company, and there’s so much opportunity because everyone else in the big company is beat down and burned out. Sour like old pickles.

It seems that there’s more engineers and salespeople that make it through the acquisition. The acquired executives disappear into other projects or out of the company. Resting and vesting, pivoted into something new, but unlikely they’re still guiding their old team. Who is?

The middle managers who stay all drift up to fill recently vacated executive slots, where they either grow or flame out. Their attention is diffused into new teams and new problems. PMO steps in heavily, since the acquired company didn’t have one. Devs are largely on their own.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and someone steps in to fill this one. With luck they maintain product-market-fit and mesh with internal requirements. Or they fail and introduce interpersonal conflict to boot. Is this is the end of the acquisition road? Or does engineering lead itself?

There’s bugs to fix, and everyone knows what the old company was planning. The acquiring company has lots of new requirements too, like ADA compliance and Asian language support. Who needs customer and market input anyway? After a while the old roadmap is consumed.

There’s layoffs of course, and new requirements keep coming. “Please replace these old frameworks with a more modern workalike.” “Please rescue this customer with a technical fix for their social problems.” “Please do something about our new global vaporware initiative.”

The challenge of doing more with less is sort of fun. There’s some friends left. And the acquired person feels big. They talk with important customers and executives and they can spend more time on their home life. More folks have left, the remaining acquirees are authorities.

But the recruiter calls stopped. A temporary market slowdown, or is it personal? Can they get a job outside of the big company anymore? So they reach out and do a few interviews, pass up on some lower-paying opportunities, get shot down by something cool.

Better take more projects in the big company. By now the tech they came in with has lost its shine. Put a cucumber in brine long enough and it’s just another pickle. They’re helping new engineers with weird tools and pursuing new hobbies.

The street cred of being from an acquisition is gone, and they’re neck deep in big dull projects. “Lipstick this pig until it looks fashionable.” “Squeeze more revenue from the customer base.” “Tie yourself into the latest silly vaporware.”

Or even “Propose an acquisition to enter a new market with.” If this is success, who needs competition? When the game is no fun but you have to keep playing, people will change the rules — and that is whycome politics suck. Good luck out there, but don't stay too safe.