Have job, will buy your firm: Tech's 'acqui-hire' trend

Jackson Burke
Yahoo! headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif.
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Silicon Valley companies are getting acquisitive, but not necessarily in the traditional sense.

In recent months, some investors and observers have taken aim at "acqui-hiries"—wherein a big company buys a start-up for the sake of raiding its talent. Major tech players argue that buying smaller firms helps to blunt the dreaded "brain drain" effect that sees employees jump ship to other companies–or even become future competitors.

Still, giants like Yahoo and Google have found themselves in the crosshairs of naysayers, who argue such deals are a waste of money and don't do much for the bottom line.

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One of those critics is prominent activist investor firm Starboard Value. Last month, the firm issued an open letter to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to stop the company's pricey and "aggressive acquisition strategy" dead in its tracks.

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"The $1.3 billion spent on acquisitions has clearly not delivered value to shareholders," Starboard said in a pointed letter to Yahoo's board. "Not only do we believe that many of the acquired companies were, and still are, losing a considerable amount of money, but we also believe that these acquisitions, on a combined basis, have failed to deliver material revenue growth," the firm added.

With a few high profile exceptions like WhatsApp, the majority of acqui-hire firms do not boast wide user bases or eye-popping valuations. In some cases, the goals of the startup may have nothing to do with the core business of the company acquiring it.

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That, however, hasn't stopped some of tech's biggest names for which buying season never seems to wane. Yahoo and Facebook snapped up at least 6 different small fish in 2014 alone, which dwarfed by the 29 swallowed whole by Google.

Industry watchers say critics like Starboard better get used to the trend, because it's not likely to go away as competition for talent tougher.

"The normal recruiting marketplace is fighting over the most skilled workers, so there is other no easy channel left to recruit talent," said John Sullivan, a management professor at San Francisco State University and former Chief Talent Officer at Agilent Technologies.

Sullivan added that acqui-hiring served another purpose: Getting employees at smaller companies entry into tech behemoths that might not consider them. "There are more startups every day and their talent will often not even consider larger firms, except through the acqui-hire process."

For its part, Yahoo insists that it approaches its acqui-hire strategy with an eye on the big picture.

"In order to build beautiful inspiring products, grow engagement, and ultimately revenue, everything starts with having the best people," Mayer said on Yahoo's earnings conference call last month.

"Talent acquisitions were the best way for us to gain functioning teams in key areas who are accomplished, responsible, accountable, collaborative and visionary and to do so quickly," she added.

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Once acquired, a team must be carefully integrated into the larger structure of the organization, notes Dan Portillo, VP of Talent at venture capital firm Greylock Partners.

"The team you're bringing in doesn't work as well if you break them up, diffuse them throughout the company. It also doesn't work if teams get isolated–if they only work with the people they know, they may develop an "us-versus-them" attitude," Portillo said.

"You want to keep them together. It's so important to have a person who owns bringing them in from beginning to end, who can help them become as effective as possible as quickly as possible," he added.