Laying out a dual track for Conerstone

Contact: Brenon Daly

If current IPO candidate Cornerstone OnDemand is looking for a company to model itself on – at least in terms of the offering and after-market trading – it could do a lot worse than SuccessFactors. Both vendors sell human capital management (HCM) software, and both sell it on a subscription basis. Further, both companies were relatively small (sub-$40m in revenue) and running deeply in the red when they put in their paperwork. Not that it has mattered in the case of SuccessFactors. Shares in the company have tripled from the offer price, giving it an eye-popping market valuation of $2.3bn.

Whether Cornerstone will enjoy an equally remarkable run as a public company remains to be seen. (The company, which initially filed in September, would probably be looking at pricing in the first half of next year.) But in a recent report, we wonder if Cornerstone will even make it to the Nasdaq at all. The reason? The M&A market for HCM vendors has been hot lately. Spending on deals in the market so far this year is running at three times the level of both 2008 and 2009. And valuations, for the most part, continue to come in at above-market multiples.

In the report, we speculate on two potential buyers: one that’s obvious (ADP) and one that’s more of a stretch ( Cornerstone has some traits that would clearly appeal to both, as well as some that make a trade sale to either would-be acquirer less likely. ADP, which has already purchased a half-dozen HCM providers, currently has a five-year reselling agreement with Cornerstone, and even holds rights to some warrants in the startup. However, a closer reading of Cornerstone’s prospectus indicates that the early returns from that reselling arrangement haven’t been encouraging, with the two sides feuding over whether or not ADP has hit the agreed-upon sales targets and is, therefore, entitled to warrants that could be worth several million dollars.

Unlike ADP, which has a demonstrated interest in and appetite for HCM deals, is a much more speculative buyer for Cornerstone. But it’s a pairing that is perhaps not as farfetched as it might seem. After all, has long said that it wants to be relevant to all employees at a business, not just to those in sales. Buying Cornerstone would immediately give a high-profile presence in the HCM market, opening up an opportunity that far exceeds its core CRM market. Of course, a major acquisition like this would go against the direction that has taken as an open, all-inclusive platform provider.