The purpose of this article is to present earnouts to sellers of technology companies as a method to maximize their transaction proceeds. Sellers have historically viewed earnouts with suspicion as a way for buyers to get control of their companies cheaply. Earnouts are a variable pricing mechanism designed to tie final sale price to future performance of the acquired entity and are tied to measurable economic milestones such as revenues, gross profit, net income and EBITDA. An intelligently structured earnout not only can facilitate the closing of a deal, but can be a win for both buyer and seller. Below are ten reasons earnouts should be considered as part of your selling transaction structure.
1. Buyers acquisition multiples are at pre 1992 levels. Strategic corporate buyers, private equity groups, and venture capital firms got burned on valuations. Between 1995 and 2001 the premiums paid by corporate buyers in 61% of transactions were greater than the economic gains. In other words, the buyer suffered from dilution. During 2002 multiples paid by financial buyers were almost equal to strategic buyers multiples. This is not a favorable pricing environment for tech companies looking for strategic pricing.
2. Based on the bubble, there is a great deal of investor skepticism. They no longer take for granted integration synergies and are weary about cultural clashes, unexpected costs, logistical problems and when their investment becomes accretive. If the seller is willing to take on some of that risk in the form of an earnout based on integrated performance, he will be offered a more attractive package (only if realistic targets are set and met).
3. Many tech companies are struggling and valuing them based on income will produce some pretty unspectacular results. A buyer will be far more willing to look at an acquisition candidate using strategic multiples if the seller is willing to take on a portion of the post closing performance risk. The key stakeholders of the seller have an incentive to stay on to make their earnout come to fruition, a situation all buyers desire.
4. An old business professor once asked, “What would you rather have, all of a grape or part of a watermelon?” The spirit of the entrepreneur causes many tech company owners to go it alone. The odds are against them achieving critical mass with current resources. They could grow organically and become a grape or they could integrate with a strategic acquirer and achieve their current distribution times 100 or 1000. Six % of this new revenue stream will far surpass 100% of the old one.