What Acquihire Really Means

I hope you had a nice 4th of July yesterday. Amy and I hid out all day in Longmont, playing with the dogs, napping, and reading. As a result yesterday was a three book day.

One of them was Semi-Organic Growth: Tactics and Strategies Behind Google’s Success by George T. Geis. If you are a Google watcher, aspire to have you company acquired by Google some day, or just want to understand Google’s approach to acquisitions (which Geis calls “semi-organic growth”) this is a must read book that is well worth the money.

Geis covers a detailed history of Google’s acquisitions along with a framework for how to think about them. It’s comprehensive and well done. We were investors in several of the companies mentioned and Geis gets the details, and the general context, correct. While I knew most of the history from just paying attention over the years, I learned a few things.

There was one construct that bothered me – Geis’ use of the phrase “acqui-hire” and his effort to categorize acquisitions as acquihires, ACQUI-hires, acqui-HIRES, and ACQUI-HIRES. His goal was to use “acquihire” as a substitute for acquisition, while emphasizing the relative importance of the product/technology or people in decision to make an acquisition.

I don’t like the use of the dash in the phrase, so I stubbornly don’t use it, just like I don’t like the dash in the word startup. I also don’t really like the word, as it has morphed to mean too many different things. I regularly hear people talk about any type of acquisition as an acquihire, rendering the nuance of the word meaningless.

While I appreciate Geis trying to use it as a framework for categorizing each acquisition, I wish he’d just come up with something simpler, like a set of things Google was searching for when they made an acquisition. The four that are most relevant in my mind are product, technology, customers, and people.

Acquihire only really refers to one of these things, which is people. The earliest use of the phrase I could find was in 2005 in Rex Hammock’s post Google acquires(?) Dodgeball.com.

Google acquires(?) Dodgeball.com: But really…When a public company with a market cap of $64.1 billion “acquires” a two-person company, isn’t that more like a “hire” with a signing bonus?

Hammock called it an “Acq-hire” and defined it as:

Acqhire – When a large company “purchases” a small company with no employees other than its founders, typically to obtain some special talent or a cool concept. (See, also: NFL first round draft signing bonus; book publishing “advance” after publisher bidding-war.)

Acquihires quickly expanded to cover deals that were more than just the founders, but clearly only talent acquisitions. In acquihires, the products were quickly abandoned as the team that was acquired went to work on the acquirers products. Often this was built on top of the concept that the acquiree brought to the table, but the core product was rarely used.

We went through a phase where acquihires were positive ways for large companies to pick up talented teams to work on a specific thing that was important to the acquirer. Then we went through a phase where acquihire often referred to the acquisition of a failing startup, just as a way to give the team a soft landing. Then acquires started using the concept of acquihire to try to shift consideration away from the cap table and instead increase the amount of “retention consideration” going to the remaining employees, independent of the capitalization of the company. If you take it to its logical conclusion, acquihire starts to be a substitute for acquisition.

I’m not a fan of this as I think it’s confusing. I like Hammond’s definition with the extension that it can include more than just the founders. But it’s clearly an acquisition of the people, not of the product, technology, and customers of the company being acquired.

I pains me as an investor when entrepreneurs talk about their goal of being acquihired by a large company. I think your goal should be to build something a lot more important and valuable than simply the team being acquired.

Holidays Can Be Hard

I’m feeling fine today. But I know many entrepreneurs who aren’t. They are under intense pressure, worrying about an endless stream of things coming at them, suffering under the weight of imposter syndrome and other sources of anxiety. And, in some cases they are depressed, but trapped by our own culture which stigmatizes depression.

Earlier this week Biz Carson wrote an excellent article titled There’s a dark side to startups, and it haunts 30% of the world’s most brilliant people. It started with Austen Heinz’s suicide (Austen was the founder of Cambrian Genomics) and then built into a wide ranging discussion about depression among entrepreneurs.

It highlighted a recent study by Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at UCSF and an entrepreneur, which is the first to link higher rates of mental health issues to entrepreneurship.

Of the 242 entrepreneurs surveyed, 49% reported having a mental-health condition. Depression was the No. 1 reported condition among them and was present in 30% of all entrepreneurs, followed by ADHD (29%) and anxiety problems (27%). That’s a much higher percentage than the US population at large, where only about 7% identify as depressed.

I’ve been very open about my struggles over the past 25 years with depression and anxiety and am quoted in the article. But after dinner last night, Amy discovered on Facebook that the son of a childhood friend of her’s had committed suicide. It reminded me that depression and other mental health issues are widespread and are often extremely challenging around the holidays.

I used to struggle mightily with three day weekend and holiday weeks. While the rest of the world slowed down, I felt like the pressures on me were speeding up. I wanted everyone to get off their butts, stop relaxing, and respond to my emails. I was impatient and didn’t want to wait until Monday to try to address whatever issues were in front of me. I felt disoriented, which just made me more anxious. And when I was in the midst of a depressive episode, time just strung out endlessly in front of me, in a very bad way.

I used to be especially cranky around Christmas time. I’m jewish and didn’t grow up with Christmas, I always thought Hanukkah was a stupid holiday, made up to assuage sullen jewish kids when all of their friends had gift orgies. I felt isolated and different, which just made my general anxiety and impatience around holidays even worse.

In the last decade this has eased. I now give myself up to the slower pace, I give myself space to feel however I want to feel, I rest a lot, and I hang out with Amy. I’m social, but not overly so, and avoid big gatherings which crush my soul. I read, spend time outside, and nap. I let my batteries recharge and I don’t try to get caught up on everything, but instead just do what I feel like doing.

The July 4th weekend is always one that is joyful on the surface. It’s summer. The weather is warm. People do outdoorsy things. Email slows to a trickle.

For an anxious, stressed, or depressed entrepreneur, this can be extremely uncomfortable and exacerbate whatever issues are going on.

If you are one of these entrepreneurs, try my approach this weekend. Just shut down all the stimuli. Get off your computer. Take a digital sabbath. Go outside. Lay on a couch with a book and fall asleep reading. Blow off the 4th of July party that you don’t really want to go to and just stay home and watch TV in the middle of day. Let your energy go wherever it takes you. And recognize that all the emails, all the stress, all the anxiety, and all the people will be there on Monday ready to go again.

If you are the significant other of one of these entrepreneurs, take a lesson from Amy. Be patient. Be loving. Don’t let it be all about your partner, but don’t make it all about you. Just chill. And be together. Have a vacation – from everyone and everything else.

And for everyone else, recognize that holidays can be hard. And that’s ok.

A Demo Day in Telluride

I’m in Telluride for the day. I drove from Aspen (where we are hanging out for the week) through some of the most beautiful mountains and countryside you will ever see and ended up in the magical place called Telluride.

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I’m here for the Telluride Venture Accelerator Demo Day. This is their third program and I’m looking forward to the day. While Telluride is known for being a super high end beautiful magnificent ski town, it’s also the second home to a lot of very interesting and successful people who are committed to making sure their corner of paradise has a long term sustainable future beyond just tourism.

In addition to the accelerator, there is a fascinating entity called NextLaw Labs here. At dinner last night I sat next to Joe Andrews, the chairman of Dentons (the largest law firm in the world) and heard about why he and Dan Jansen have set up NextLaw Labs in Telluride to create the future of legal technology.

In the afternoon I went for a short hike with Marc Nager, the Chief Community Officer at Techstars, who lives in Telluride with his wife Ashley (who is the program director for the Telluride Venture Accelerator). Marc, as always, is looking trim and happy in his green Techstars shirt and sandals.

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Today, I’m doing a fireside chat with Jesse Johnson (TVA co-founder and CEO) to kick things off. Then, after demo day, I’m spending 15 minutes with each company. While I know they are looking to me as a potential investor, it’s a low probability for each of them. As a result, my goal will be simple – I’ll try to do at least one thing for each of them that is helpful to moving their business along. In most cases this will be a connection (the drone company here will definitely get connected to 3D Robotics), customer feedback (I’ll become a customer), or something that is tangible that goes beyond just feedback.

And then, I’ll drive back through the mountains from the glorious place called Telluride to another spectacular place called Aspen. I so deeply love Colorado.

Oracle’s Java API Suit Against Google – Five Years Later

Five years ago, in August 2010, I asked the question Have We Reached The Software Patent Tipping Point?

Oracle sued Google over a series of Java-related patents they got when they acquired Sun.

My favorite line from the whole thing was James Gosling’s (who was one of the authors of one of the original patents and a key creator of Java) when he wrote The shit finally hits the fan.

“The shit finally hits the fan…. Thursday August 12, 2010
Oracle finally filed a patent lawsuit against Google. Not a big surprise. During the integration meetings between Sun and Oracle where we were being grilled about the patent situation between Sun and Google, we could see the Oracle lawyer’s eyes sparkle. Filing patent suits was never in Sun’s genetic code. Alas…. 

I hope to avoid getting dragged into the fray: they only picked one of my patents (RE38,104) to sue over.”

Oracle also got copyrights to the Java APIs. Remember, Java was theoretically Open Source, but like so many things in our world when lawyers get involved “it’s complicated.” Stack Exchange regularly has commentary about this. See Is Java free/open source or not? and Is java an open source programming language?

It’s not as messy as the Greek debt crisis but directionally similar. And it’s far from over. I was hoping the Supreme Court would take this on and help put an important issue around copyright to bed. But the Supremes passed, deferring to the need for a lower court to rule on the appeal.

“The justices, without comment, declined to disturb a May 2014 appeals court ruling in Oracle’s favor that reinvigorated the company’s case against Google. The appeals court, overruling a trial judge, said 37 packages of prewritten Java programs, known as application programming interfaces, were entitled to copyright protection.

Oracle has sought more than $1 billion in damages. A jury originally held that Google infringed the Oracle copyrights, but it deadlocked on Google’s defense that its copying amounted to fair use. That issue will have to be retried in a lower court.”

Patents and copyrights are different. And the courts know that. Unfortunately, it’s getting even more tangled up, especially around the critical concept of fair use. This continues to be a very important case, especially as interoperability between software has become a fundamental tenant of how software systems function, and I’m glad Google is fighting it.

At least we got the right to marry anyone we want from the Supremes.

Weekend Video Fun From Big Omaha

This weekend you can catch up on Halt and Catch Fire, Mr. Robot, or the talk I gave at Big Omaha in May.

I tell stories about my favorite investment (Harmonix), an investment we clearly missed and why (Twitter), and my worst and most heartbreaking investment (Interliant), along with lawsuits and eating babies.

I then go on a riff on Startup Communities and Fundraising, where the phrase “Any rich people around here?” popped out and got some applause.

I covered the inevitable question about dragicorns and big financings, went on my culture – competence rant, and then answered whether entrepreneurs are born or made.

I had fun at Big Omaha. While I think Halt and Catch Fire and Mr. Robot are way more interesting than me, this was a pretty good interview.