Red-zone M&A

So-called ‘New Europe’ is emerging as an important Web 2.0 market. Revenue growth is steady in the mid- to high-double digits compared to low-double digits for the established US web portals. That hasn’t gone unnoticed by global companies scrambling to tap into these faster-growing markets. The latest example is the rumored sale of leading Czech Republic search engine and web portal Seznam. Goldman Sachs has reportedly been tapped to head the sale. Google, Microsoft and private equity shop Warburg Pincus are said to all be serious contenders, according to the Czech media.

Seznam is closely held. Founder Ivo Lukacovic owns just over two-thirds of the company, with the rest held by investment firms Tiger Holding Four and Miura International. The 450-employee portal says it took in about $55m last year, up from about $30m the year before. Revenue is expected to reach $80m for the year. Seznam is reportedly being shopped around at a valuation of $900m. At a multiple of 11 times sales, that is a premium compared to a similar deal inked by Warburg Pincus last year. The buyout firm acquired Seznam competitor NetCentrum for $150m at a multiple of 6.5 times revenue. Nonetheless, compared to recent US Web 2.0 deals, the rumored valuation of Seznam is in line with, or at a discount to, market prices.

If a deal for Seznam gets done, the purchase will stand as one of the largest Internet deals ever inked in the former Soviet block. And as the Eastern European Internet market continues to grow, we believe so will the M&A activity from anxious companies trying to make an early land grab. Meanwhile, other search engines may look to go it alone. Yandex, a leading Russian portal, has reportedly been preparing for a US public offering for some time now, but an almost nonexistent IPO market may lead it to consider a sale, instead. We’re fairly certain that Google and Microsoft stand ready to provide the liquidity for either (or both) of these companies if the public markets can not.

Recent transatlantic search M&A

Date Acquirer Target Deal value TTM Revenues
July 18, 2008 Google ZAO Begun (Russia) $140m Not disclosed
May 26, 2008 Google (China) Not disclosed Not disclosed
January 8, 2008 Microsoft Fast Search & Transfer (Norway) $1.24bn $167.75m
December 4, 2007 Warburg Pincus NetCentrum (Czech Republic) $155m (reported) $24m (reported)

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase

‘Cuil-ing’ off Google

In the lucrative world of search, not much has changed in recent years. Google is still running away with market share, handling an estimated two-thirds of all queries, followed – at a distance – by Yahoo and Microsoft. However, some changes may be coming, with a host of new search startups coming out of beta. The latest: Cuil. The highly touted and heavily funded startup created by some high-ranking former Google search employees hopes to dethrone Google. Do we believe it can accomplish that? Of course not; in fact, due to a less-than-stellar launch, it may have already lost.

Still, there is a small opening for Cuil and the other startups. Google has been mired in controversy for the past year over privacy concerns and regulatory hurdles, not to mention its ambitions to become a software application vendor. Those distractions at Google have encouraged venture capitalists, particular the more adventurous angels, to once again put money into search. Cuil has collected about $30m, while Blekko has received $6m. (The funding at Blekko comes despite the fact that the company, as it stands now, is nothing more than a promising idea from industry veterans and an empty webpage.)

Of course, the reason this new generation of search companies is getting VC attention is that there are natural acquirers for this technology. One example: Microsoft’s purchase of Powerset earlier this month for an estimated $100m. While that valuation may seem a bit low for Powerset, which was once as hotly hyped as Cuil, keep in mind that the price was essentially twice its post-money valuation in its latest round. Not great, but not bad in this market.

We suspect other search startups will ultimately sell for much the same reason that Powerset sold: scaling up these startups to deal with millions of users, and competing with multimillion-dollar R&D budgets of the ‘Big Search’ companies is not an easy or cheap task. With a proven willingness and desire of Yahoo, Microsoft and Google to make defensive or technology acquisitions in search, we believe the end game for Cuil, Mahalo, Blekko and the like will all be the same: acquisition. The bigger picture in the Cuil saga is that there is a batch of ex-Googlers up for grabs – Googlers who helped define the core technology of early Google search technology. Though Google is rumored to already be in engaged in talks with the company, how could Microsoft and Yahoo possibly resist swooping in for the coup?

Startup search engines

Company Year founded Funding
Cuil 2007 $30m
Mahalo 2007 $20m
Blekko 2006 $6m
ChaCha 2006 $16m
Hakia 2004 $21m

Source: Company reports

Netezza’s bogeyman

When Microsoft gets into a new market, the impact on the existing vendors tends to be in line with the software giant’s gargantuan size. After all, fears among startups over getting ‘Netscape-d’ have often been realized. That’s particularly true in the days before the convicted monopolist started putting on a softer face on its business. Gone are the days when Microsoft would threaten ‘to cut off the air supply’ of other companies, as it famously did to the Internet browser pioneer. Maybe it’s middle-aged softness at the 33-year-old company, but Microsoft’s bite often seems a little toothless these days. (Does anyone really think Microsoft – with or without spending $45bn on Yahoo – will be able to narrow the gap to Google in search advertising?)

Still, there was a moment last week when it appeared the Redmond, Wash.-based behemoth once again looked like it had the power to scare the bejesus out of a company (and its investors) by buying its way into a market. Last Thursday, as it was holding its annual meeting with Wall Street, Microsoft said it was purchasing Datallegro, a data-warehousing startup that we estimate was running at about $35m in sales. A market source indicated that rumors of the deal started percolating late Wednesday, a day before official word of the acquisition. Almost immediately, shares of data-warehousing vendor Netezza came under pressure. After hitting an intra-day high of $13.36 on Wednesday, Netezza stock slumped as much as 8% and closed basically at the low of the day. It opened even lower Thursday and sunk the entire day, finishing the session at $11.48. From its peak to its trough in those two sessions, Netezza lost 14%, with trading on Thursday about 50% busier than average.

However, as easy as it may be to point to Microsoft’s competitive move as the reason for Netezza’s decline, the two events are linked only by coincidence rather than causality. According to two market sources, Netezza actually distributed shares back to its VCs, meaning the stock’s slump can be attributed to the supply side, rather than demand side. (There have been no SEC filings about the move, and calls to the company to verify the information weren’t immediately returned.) Maybe Microsoft isn’t the big, bad company we all thought it was?

Should Ask prepare to get Answers? – a subsidiary of IAC/InterActiveCorp – closed its acquisition of Lexico Publishing Group last week. The 16-person company, which includes, and, reportedly went for $100m in cash, representing a multiple that we estimate at 10 times its trailing twelve-months revenue, or more than $6 per monthly unique visitor. This acquisition comes after a tumultuous ride for the profitable Lexico. The company was almost acquired by Answers Corp ( in 2007, but after Answers failed to drum up proper financing, the deal turned sour. It was officially terminated in February, presenting an opening for to swoop in. Besides being a happy ending for Lexico, which has been chasing an exit for a while, this fits well with’s restructuring strategy of returning to its roots as an answer facilitator after its short but decidedly failed attempt to out-Google Google in the search engine department. has openly said that more acquisitions are forthcoming. So who might the company buy next?

Among others, we see itself as a potential acquisition target. Despite a growing base of about 20 million loyal users, the provider has had a tough time monetizing its page views and has been bleeding cash for more than a year now. Incorporating’s user base and content could solidify as the leader in the answer-search business. And with Amazon and Yahoo moving in on’s turf, it is necessary for the company to continue to grow its market share. Indeed, we’ve heard industry rumors that had made overtures to its rival well before the failed Lexico deal. And interestingly, Redpoint Ventures recently pumped $6m (with an option for another $7m) into That is the same Redpoint Ventures that helped fund during its early days and that still has a stake in the IAC division.’s former CEO Jim Lanzone also happens to be an entrepreneur-in-residence at Redpoint.

Surely the struggling company could be had for much less than the revenue multiple accorded to Lexico, which reported a healthy EBITDA of about $3m for calendar 2006, the last data made public. While the revenue multiple and price-per-user metrics of the Lexico deal would suggest a $100m-plus valuation for Answers, the company, which reported an operating loss of about $3.7m in the first quarter of this year, is clearly going to be valued at a steep discount. It’s currently trading at a 52-week low, with a market cap of just above $23m, or just a bit more than two times trailing revenue and a little over a dollar per user. With more than three times the number of employees as Lexico, Answers clearly has a much more labor-intensive model than its peer. That may change, though.’s fast-growing new service offers a lower-cost community-based answer site and is expected to exceed the more labor-intensive service in revenue by the second half of 2008.

At a minimum, we estimate that would have to shell out somewhere in the neighborhood of $30m, or roughly $3.80 per share, for the company – a 30% premium to the current price. It’s certainly not a question of whether IAC can afford the deal – it currently has a little more than $1.2bn in cash and a market cap of $4.7bn – but how much it could leverage the deal by cutting costs, monetizing the user base and expanding the WikiAnswers business. Indeed, for, an acquisition by may be just what the company and its desperate shareholders have been looking for.

On a final note,’s new strategy of no longer trying to beat Google at its own game is in stark contrast to that of Microsoft, whose recent investments and acquisitions put it on a head-on collision course with Google. However, Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Powerset at least gives it technology that is capable (within Wikipedia, at least – it is yet to be tested publicly on a large corpus) of providing answers to both questions and keyword queries and could end up being a major challenge to the Q&A format favors. That is, of course, if it doesn’t get lost in the mix if Microsoft should buy Yahoo’s search business.

M&A for HR

Last February, EMC made the curious purchase of a tiny Seattle-based information management startup, Pi Corp, which had yet to release a product. We scratched our heads over the acquisition, in no small part because the release announcing the deal spent as much time talking about Pi’s leader Paul Maritz as it did about the company itself. That shopping trip in Microsoft’s neighborhood makes a lot more sense now that we know Maritz is taking over at VMware. Call it M&A for HR.

A 14-year veteran of Microsoft, Maritz is replacing Diane Greene, the founder and undisputed queen of VMware. (A person who worked under Greene but moved on to another virtualization company recalled recently that she had a say in essentially every aspect of the firm, down to picking out the door handles at its headquarters.) An engineer, Greene built one of the fastest-growing software companies. Just nine short years after its founding, VMware was able to push revenue to more than $1bn, finishing 2007 at $1.3bn.

Greene managed that tremendous growth despite an often tense relationship between VMware and its parent EMC. About the only knock on Greene’s leadership was her decision to sell VMware to EMC for $625m – a transaction that allowed EMC to reap billions of dollars of value creation at VMware, while essentially leaving the latter to operate on its own. Maritz is now charged with navigating that relationship, as well as parrying ever-sharper competitive threats, principally from his old employer and its release of Hyper-V. In terms of compensation, we can only hope Maritz didn’t load up his contract with VMware options. Otherwise, the new CEO may well find himself underwater during his time in the corner office. VMware shares sunk to their lowest-ever level in midafternoon trading Tuesday, plummeting 27% to $38.75.

Location-based stalking?

Nokia has been going navi-crazy lately. Last week, the Finnish conglomerate bought location-based social networking company Plazes for an estimated $30m. This comes as the company is wrapping up the largest acquisition in its history – the $8.1bn purchase of Navteq. We believe this is just the beginning for Nokia and others in the excessively hyped mobile location-based services (LBS) space. The question arising from this acquisition, as well as Vodafone’s $48.7m acquisition of Zyb in May, is what these acquisitions mean for the rest of the market. One implication is already clear: GPS technology has been commodified. (Just ask shareholders of Garmin, who have seen the stock skid to a two-year low.) With this technology popping up on dozens of devices, we expect hardware vendors to be even more active in snapping up LBS startups.

Nokia plans to roll Plazes into its Nokia Maps division, which itself was formed from the acquisition of gate5 in late 2006. It is part of Nokia’s overall strategy to have GPS technology play a large role in expanding beyond just being a mobile hardware company. Nokia claims it will sell upward of 37 million GPS-enabled handsets this year alone. The approaching worldwide release of the GPS iPhone, as well as Research in Motion’s push to include the technology in most of its BlackBerry devices, make it clear why high-profile backers such as KPCB and Sequoia Capital are so excited about LBS applications.

Beyond being a simple technology purchase, however, Plazes and other future deals will likely bring another important component to the apps: users. Despite their hype and position as leaders in the space, services such as Palego’s Whrrl, Loopt and Brightkite have fewer than a million users combined. Compare that to the hundreds of millions of users that ‘traditional’ social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace command, and one wonders what the hype is all about. By pairing up with larger companies, however, the services get instant access to millions of users. It is the technology and expertise that rumored suitors such as Facebook, Microsoft, Google and now the mobile carriers and hardware manufacturers are interested in. With continued consolidation, the fear of being left behind in a potentially important market will drive many to acquire first and ask questions later. Nokia might have just lit the fire in the M&A race to dominate the LBS market.

Seven signs of a consolidating LBS industry

Announced Acquirer Target Deal value
June 2008 Nokia Plazes $30m*
June 2008 Polaris Hughes Telematics $700m
May 2008 Vodafone Zyb $48.7m
October 2007 Nokia Navteq $8.1bn
July 2007 TomTom Tele Atlas $2.8bn
July 2007 Springbank Resources Location Based Technologies (fka PocketFinder) $50m
August 2006 Nokia gate5 $250m*

*estimated, Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase

Microsoft makes meaningful buy

Since shelling out nearly $10bn in a year and a half to reinvent itself as an online contender, Microsoft, on July 1, confirmed reports of its purchase of online search and natural language vendor Powerset. Microsoft aims to add Powerset’s Web search linguists, engineers and technology to its Live Search division. On the heels of its $1.2bn purchase of enterprise text analytics giant FAST Search and Transfer in January, Microsoft inked this much smaller deal to enhance its consumer Web search.

Founded in 2006, Powerset released its Web search technology earlier this year. In partnership with Xerox’s PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), the San Francisco startup, which has raised some $12.5m in funding, has been developing search software that reads online text and discerns semantics as well syntax. So far, Powerset’s semantic technology has been publicly tested only on Wikipedia and fellow open source encyclopedia Freebase, both of which have a solid structure that Powerset leverages. The company has also been in talks with major publishing companies about an ad-supported service it has in the works.

With Powerset having been sold to an established technology company to realize its plans, we wonder what that will mean for the rest of the semantic technology companies. Currently, the poster child of the market is Radar Networks, which is backed by $18m in VC. It is developing a semantic social networking application, Twine, which is still in private beta and due to be released this fall. There’s also New York-based semantic search engine Hakia, also in private beta, which has landed over $20m in funding. However, if Powerset, which was often referred to as ‘the next Google,’ got picked up for just $100m (as the rumors have it), then what’s the exit picture for the two remaining rivals, both of which have raised more money than Powerset? Maybe we need to Google the answer.

Selected Microsoft search acquisitions

Date announced Target Deal value Target description
July 1, 2008 Powerset $100m (reported) Semantic Web search engine
January 8, 2008 Fast Search and Transfer $1.2bn Enterprise search software

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase

A chippy deal

After more than two months of discussions, Cadence Design Systems put a bear hug on Mentor Graphics on Tuesday, June 17, offering roughly $1.6bn in cash for the smaller chip-design vendor. Under terms of the unsolicited offer, Cadence would pay $16 for each of the roughly 91 million Cadence shares. Cadence said it would cover roughly one-third of the purchase with its available cash, while borrowing an additional $1.1bn. Deutsche Bank Securities is advising Cadence.

The deal – if it gets approved by Mentor shareholders and survives regulatory review – would combine two of the three largest electronic design automation (EDA) companies. Cadence and rival Synopsys are roughly the same size at about $1.6bn in sales last year, which is twice as big as Mentor. (Various pairings of these three players have been discussed over the years.) However, Mentor said later Tuesday that it was not interested in a pairing with Cadence.

Cadence’s approach, which we would characterize as ‘opportunistic consolidation,’ continues a recent trend toward unsolicited offers for underperforming rivals made in a very public way. (Although Mentor has recently trimmed its rather bloated cost structure, the company’s operating margins are less than half the level at Cadence.) The outcome of these ‘bear hugs’ has spanned the possibilities: Iomega recently accepted a raised offer from EMC; Microsoft walked away from its unsolicited bid for Yahoo; and Electronic Arts took its bid for Take-Two Interactive hostile.

EDA deal flow, by year

Year Deal volume Deal value
2005 5 $298m
2006 6 $888m
2007 13 $225m
YTD 2008* 11 $2.7bn

*includes announced Cadence-Mentor transaction. Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase

Buyout blues

Three years ago, the buyout barons shook up the technology M&A market with the $11.3bn LBO of services giant SunGard. At the time it was the largest tech buyout, equaling basically half the money spent on all LBOs in the previous year. Even as financial acquirers became more active – increasingly their spending sevenfold from 2004-07 – the SunGard buyout stood as the third-largest tech LBO.

SunGard’s brozen-medal placing seemed unlikely to hold at this time last year. There seemed to be a new multibillion-dollar LBO every week, with the targets getting bigger in every transaction. (Remember the half-serious speculation that Microsoft could be taken private?) All that changed in late summer, when debt became more expensive, sending the LBO market into a funk from which it hasn’t recovered. So far this year, LBO firms have announced 49 deals worth $10.3bn, down from 59 deals worth $97bn in the same period last year, according to The 451 Group’s M&A KnowledgeBase.

The change in climate isn’t lost on the financial deal-makers. Underscoring the difficulties in the current credit market, SilverLake’s Alan Austin said at the recent IBF VC Investing Conference in San Francisco that his firm couldn’t pull off a deal like SunGard right now. The buyout firm put in $3bn of equity and borrowed the remaining $8bn. ‘We could never do something like that today – never mind the terms (of the debt)’, Austin said at the conference.

PE deal flow

Period Deal volume Deal value
Jan. – June 2008 51 $11bn
Jan. – June 2007 59 $97bn
Jan. – June 2006  35  $17bn
Jan. – June 2005 25 $24bn

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase

Deal-making in a desert

Exactly a year ago, SonicWall handed over $25m in cash for Aventail. The deal looked like a ‘last-gasp’ transaction in a number of ways, not the least of which was that Aventail’s purchase price was less than one-quarter of the venture funding the company had raised over the years. Beyond the money-in/money-out gulf at Aventail, we would note that in the year that has passed, not a single significant SSL VPN deal has been reached.

Since the big-name consolidation in this market began in mid-2003, most of the large security acquirers have gone shopping here. SSL VPN deal flow hit its high point early on, with NetScreen shelling out $265m, mostly in stock, for Neoteris. (A half-year later, Juniper Networks threw $4bn in stock at NetScreen, in a deal that Juniper has yet to recognize much of a return on.) Other tech giants quickly inked deals of their own, including Cisco, Citrix and Microsoft.

In contrast, the handful of companies that have acquired SSL VPN technology since mid-2007 have been tiny outfits, with a number of consulting shops doing the buying. That hardly suggests top-dollar acquisitions. The SSL VPN vendors that missed out when the big buyers came through the market may need to scale back their exit expectations. We would drop PortWise and Array Networks, among others, into that bucket. 

Significant SSL VPN deals

Acquirer Target Date Price
F5 Networks uRoam July 2003 $25m
NetScreen Neoteris Oct. 2003 $265m
Cisco Twingo March 2004 $5m
Citrix Net6 Nov. 2004 $50m
Microsoft Whale Communications May 2006 $75m*
SonicWall Aventail June 2007 $25m

*estimated, Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase