The first half of 2016 saw an initial set of acquisitions that will only accelerate in the next 12-18 months. From now through the end of 2017, we will see an increased wave of large M&A sweeping through the technology industry. This will be following in late 2017 through 2018 with a wave of IPOs.
The driver for the 2016-2017 M&A cycle is a few fold:
1. Valuations have been coming down, and raising money has gotten harder.
Companies can no longer rely on new investors coming in with ever-larger amounts of capital and ever higher valuations. With 6-12 months of cash left, and the inability to raise an up round, companies will exit.
Founders realize a $100M exit is a big deal and a $1 billion exit is a huge deal. With an ever-inflating valuation it is easy to think that the company and team is unstoppable and that a $10 billion valuation is the new normal. Expectations are getting re-set as people realize it takes many years and a lot of luck to reach a sustainable valuation in the hundreds of millions or low billions of dollars.
Many founders will be tempted to exit when faced with a tougher fundraising environment or down round. People forget that even great companies like Facebook ended up doing down rounds at some point (Facebook did one with DST right after their $15 billion valuation with Microsoft). I know a number of companies who are not closing financings due to ego around valuation. Unfortunately this only causes risk to the company and may not end well.
2. Big non-tech companies are realizing that they need to buy technology driven companies, or companies using new distribution platforms (like Dollar Shave Club).
The acquisition of Drive by GM shows how a set of traditional companies are seeing their business change dramatically due to the latest waves of mobile, cloud, and machine learning. Examples include BlackRock's acquisition of FutureAdvisor, and Visa buying TrialPay. Similarly, new ways of distributing product via online platforms is continuing to change how commerce works, leading to the Dollar Shave Club buy by Unilever. Between these two trends, companies in the automotive, food, healthcare, and other segments are realizing they need to participate in the latest technological innovations. This will drive a new set of acquisitions in the next year and a half.
3. Large, old-school technology companies want to participate in the latest wave of technology.
The recent purchase of LinkedIn by Microsoft demonstrates the value of the latest wave of social products to large incumbents like Microsoft. Similarly, older enterprise companies will want to participate in the massive shift to the cloud and SaaS, as well as the rise of AI/machine learning technologies. This will lead to a flurry of deals in the next year as Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, HP, Salesforce, and others will want to accelerate their businesses or shift more to the cloud. Similarly, Google, Apple, Baidu, Facebook, Tencent, Alibaba, Softbank, Samsung, and others will be battling across mobile, cloud, commerce, ads, consumer and other major platform wars leading to additional major acquisitions.
Small Acquisitions in 2016-2017
In 2016-2017, we will also see a shift in both who the most active acquirers are, as well as the acceleration of machine learning / AI as a major talent acquisition category.
1. The companies doing acquihires / small M&A will shift.
In recent years, Twitter, Facebook, and Yahoo! had been amongst the most acquisitive buyers of teams, the mantle has been passed as these companies matured. Uber, Lyft, Dropbox, Pinterest, and AirBnB are all likely to become more acquisitive. As markets cap rise and companies grow their engineering and design teams rapidly, the use of M&A as a recruiting function tends to scale. Given that funding is becoming ever harder to obtain, now is a good time for breakout companies to double down on M&A. If your breakout company does not have an M&A person, you should hire one.
Depending on how it strategy evolves under new leadership, Microsoft is one to watch in terms of M&A volume and directions.
2. AI & machine learning M&A will accelerate.
During the social era when smart phones were still a new phenomenon, a company could get acquired by Twitter or Facebook solely for having e.g. strong mobile talent. The next 18 months will be the best time to have a machine learning / AI company from an M&A perspective as both new breakout companies (Uber, Pinterest) as well as older incumbents (Apple, Google, Facebook) will continue to buy great machine learning and data centric talent. Large non-tech companies will also buy more machine learning talent to augment their engineering or commerce divisions. I would not be surprised if companies like WalMart of Visa go in this direction.This machine learning shift is ongoing and fundamental.
If you want to build a startup for a fast small flip, machine learning targetted to a specific vertical is your best bet over the next 2 years.
2018 As The Year of IPO
As major M&A unfolds in 2016 and 2017, we will finally start to see major IPOs occur for technology companies in (perhaps) late 2017 and (for sure) in 2018. Big breakouts like Uber have both near exhausted many private sources of capital, but will also see increasing demands to provide liquidity to investors and employees. Additionally, they will realize the additional benefits of liquidity for M&A, equity & debt raises, and hiring. An interesting side effect of these IPOs will be the creation of new classes of angels and entrepreneurs due to more people having liquid cash. 2018 and 2019 will be interesting years indeed.
 I am making this prediction with no inside knowledge. Rather, once you hit a certain market cap and growth rate as a company, you tend to buy more stuff.
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