Acquisitions of tech start-ups have fallen dramatically this year

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(This post originally appeared on The Washington Post)

It used to be that you could start a tech company, grow its value, then sell it for millions, even billions. Not so much nowadays.

According to this report on TechCrunch just 17 “well-funded” private technology companies were acquired for more than $100 million so far this year. Last year the same number were sold with valuations of $500 million or more. Through the end of July, there’s been on only one big “unicorn” ($1 billion valuation) deal — Cisco’s $3.7 billion purchase of AppDynamics. In 2016 there were six such deals.

So why the slowdown in tech acquisitions? “It could be happenstance,” David Blumberg, managing partner at early-stage firm Blumberg Capital told TechCrunch. “Or some sectors may be running into resistance due to high multiples.”

It’s not as if the money isn’t there. TechCrunch reports that more than 450 companies in many sectors each raised more than $20 million or more this year with 94 companies able to raise more than $100 million. That’s up more than a third over last year.

Big companies aren’t acquiring tech start-ups this year for a few reasons — and these apply to any business owner looking to sell this year.

Some are waiting to see where tax reform goes in Washington, where there’s talk of a potential dramatic reduction in tax rates on cash repatriated back to the United States (Apple, for example is sitting on more than $250 billion in cash overseas). Many venture-backed companies are choosing to stay private for as long as possible and avoid “sub-optimal” offers and return more to their original backers who hold shares. A few, like the real estate brokerage platform Redfin have opted for initial public offerings – although some – like Snap and Blue Apron — have been beaten up in the markets so far.

[For IPO-chasing upstarts, Snap and Blue Apron offer cautionary tales.]

But another, perhaps bigger factor is today’s tight labor market. With the unemployment rate at pre-recession lows, tech firms who hold out longer from being acquired can see the growing valuation of their company as a big carrot to keep employees motivated and reduce turnover. That’s a good strategy too.


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