Shakeout looming in MDM sector?

Contact: Ben Kolada

The crowded mobile device management (MDM) sector is likely to see a shakeout in the near future. By one account, there are already more than 80 firms vying for space in the growing MDM market. As the sector’s more notable vendors increasingly advance ahead of the competition, we expect laggard firms will either shutter their doors or be picked off one by one in small bolt-on technology acquisitions. But as the sector narrows, the future may shine brighter for firms that are making names for themselves.

As the smartphone and tablet take more overall computing share from laptops and desktops, the need for MDM will accelerate. Increasing adoption of tablets, in particular, is driving MDM demand. According to a report by ChangeWave Research, the survey arm of 451 Research, 23% of respondents said they plan on purchasing tablets for their employees in the first quarter of 2012, up from just 5% in the fourth quarter of 2010.

As the largest acquirers continue to consolidate the software stack, we expect to see them move into the MDM market. IBM has already announced a couple such acquisitions, picking up BigFix in July 2010 for an estimated $400m and Worklight in January for an estimated $70m. Dell and BMC are also expected to be eyeing this market, and would likely look at the frontrunners – firms like AirWatch, BoxTone, Good Technology, MobileIron and Zenprise, to name a few – as their top acquisition choices. But these firms aren’t likely to be had for cheap. We’ve already heard rumors that one of them is looking for a $400m-plus exit, and that another was previously in the sights of a $250m deal. Meanwhile, valuations will likely rise as these vendors continue growing. In 2011, Zenprise tripled its headcount, while MobileIron doubled its employee base. AirWatch’s headcount hit 400 last year, and it expects to double that this year.

In the dark on Big Blue’s buys

Contact: Brenon Daly

At the risk of stepping into a Kantian dialectic on ‘materiality,’ we can’t help but comment on the fact that when IBM does a deal – even a semi-large deal – mum’s the word. So far this year, Big Blue has picked up two companies that were large enough to consider going public at some point, with each acquisition costing the company around $400m in cash (according to our estimates). Yet in both the purchase of Initiate Systems and BigFix, IBM declined to disclose the price.

Viewed from the Big Blue side, it’s understandable that a startup like Initiate or BigFix, both of which were generating less than $100m in sales, is hardly a significant addition to a tech giant that’s going to post about $100bn in sales this year. Further, even though $400m sounds like a lot of money to most of us, we have to remember that IBM generates that much in cash roughly every two weeks. So, the thinking goes, Big Blue is well within its rights to not disclose ‘immaterial’ transactions. (That’s a view shared by Apple, for instance, which we have taken to task in the past for being run more like a private fiefdom than a public company.)

However, as is often the case in arguments based on relativism, there’s a distinct lack of accountability in it. After all, IBM is spending other people’s money. Shareholders own the company and, at least theoretically, the executives and management at the company – including all those who had a hand in the deals – work for shareholders.

Not to get overly sanctimonious about it, but in deals like Initiate and BigFix, IBM’s true owners are in the dark about how their employees are spending their money. And we’re not talking about dipping into the petty cash jar, but emptying hundreds of millions of dollars from the corporate treasury. That seems to us to be a fairly significant event.

The Big Blue erasure

Contact: Brenon Daly

In addition to the current snarling bear market and the onerous regulatory requirements, we’ve noticed yet another hurdle IPO candidates have to clear to get to the public market: IBM. With last week’s purchase of BigFix, the tech giant has gobbled up two private companies this year that were both tracking for an IPO. In February, Big Blue snagged Initiate Systems, a master data management vendor that had filed to go public in late 2007 but pulled its prospectus in mid-2008.

As we understand it, BigFix wasn’t nearly as close to an offering as Initiate. But the security management startup certainly had the financial profile to become a public company. (In fact, we’ve listed the Emeryville, California-based vendor as a possible IPO candidate in our outlook for the security market in each of the past two years.) BigFix was tracking to $65m in revenue for 2010, up from $52m in 2009, according to sources. (Bookings were closer to $85m last year.) The company also generated some $14m in free cash flow in 2009, a surprisingly large amount for a 13-year-old startup that had only raised $36m in venture backing.

In both of the deals, IBM paid a fairly rich multiple. Although terms weren’t disclosed, we understand that Big Blue handed over $425m, or 5.3 times trailing revenue, for Initiate. And we hear from multiple sources that IBM paid $400m, or nearly 8x trailing revenue, for BigFix. The multiple in both deals is substantially higher than the median price-to-sales multiple (1.8x) that we recently calculated for all tech transactions in the second quarter.

As a final thought, we highly (highly, highly) doubt that if either Initiate or BigFix came public right now, it would garner anywhere near a $400m valuation. (We recently put out a special report on the dreary IPO market.) More likely, skittish investors would discount the debut valuation to around $250m, give or take. Add in lockup periods and other considerations in an IPO that draw out the path to liquidity, and it’s no wonder both Initiate and BigFix took a rich, all-cash offer from IBM.