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Scaling a digital business

Scaling a digital business in challenging times

With no boundaries to women’s success in business and technology sectors – even in niche tech areas, such as data analytics, data science, AI, and security – you’re unlikely to come across many entirely male-dominated domains. But mergers and acquisitions is one area of business which has remained almost exclusively male until now, and offers great opportunity for female talent.

Having worked in mergers and acquisitions for five years, and entering the M&A tech scene from a previous position at Third Bridge Group, I was familiar with the concept of growth through M&A for non-profits. But being responsible for the entire M&A cycle of a business that delivers digital transformation is a whole new world with its own set of challenges for success. New companies are sprouting up every single day in super-niche sub-sectors of tech that two years ago didn’t even exist.

The challenges of digital business M&A

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the world of digital business M&A is fast-moving and exciting, hugely helped by the use of collaborative tools and technologies – and it includes a steep learning curve in tech terminology! Fast-growing digital businesses are looking to secure the right talent and tech in existing and emerging technologies to strengthen and build new capabilities. There’s much more to finding the right companies than just size and price. Key criteria range from skills, technology, language, talent access opportunities in local markets, reputation, and values such as sustainability, D&I, philanthropy, and many other considerations.

In fact, eco strategy is playing an increasing part in deciding whether two businesses have parity of vision, as tech organisations strive to be as sustainable as possible. Having this conversation early on in business engagement is vital to engender mutual respect – many businesses are looking for their future acquisitions to be green.

It’s not simply a question of finding a company that fits the business today. Growing effectively by acquisition means looking at the potential in an organisation’s human expertise and their tech assets to deliver for the future.

How to find the right opportunities

From experience leading Ascent through the company’s ambitious growth  strategy, with multiple acquisitions in close succession and in different markets, here are some recommendations on how to make that M&A strategy effective:

·        Align to business goals

Setting the right goals are critical. Sometimes M&A can be a standalone vision but it’s most successful when it is aligned to and integrated with the entire business strategy – this is the most important foundation for scaling a business effectively.

·        The right brief

Knowing what the business is looking for is vital – it’s important to set key criteria. However, too narrow a brief can sometimes mean that great opportunities are missed if they don’t appear at first glance to meet the mark. Relevant criteria could include geographic region, having a Microsoft cloud focus, something specific featuring in their tech stack, whether they are a start-up or more developed, if they are evolving with the times, or are they stuck on an on-premise software solution, and the size of the business. It’s worth being mindful that typically once companies have more than 100 employees, there are multiple buyers looking to acquire it which, with many advisors involved, makes it all more expensive and challenging.

·        Follow tech trends and comparisons

Researching tech trends in Europe and globally is a vital part of the role. You can spend an entire M&A cycle researching specific markets. In Europe alone, the German, Portuguese and Estonian markets for software and data are so different in size and scope. Understanding markets and trends is vital to finding the companies in the relevant space that align with your business and vision. Doing the due diligence is vital to offsetting potential problems further down the line.

·        Location location location mapping

Finding the right companies internationally for a fast-growing digital business to acquire is a journey and you might look in dozens of locations to establish what the talent growth is for instance in this region. Looking for the next hub and mapping markets can vary in the time it takes – it depends on the size of the territory you are interested in.

·        Engage with business leaders

I reach out to founders and CEOs of businesses to find out if our organisations are a good fit for each other. There’s a ton of companies who might be a match, but even if they are the right fit and size, are they interested in partnering and is it the right time for them? Before jumping in asking for the facts and stepping away, it’s worth remembering that CEOs and founders are human too and a polite approach with pertinent information is the best way to gain their trust. Establishing a positive relationship with them is vital for effective communication. On occasions it helps if you speak another language – particularly in the German market.

·        Use tech to find tech

The pandemic’s acceleration of using technology to enable remote working has hugely expedited the process for the M&A industry. LinkedIn, Zoom, Google Meet, Slack and Skype are my go-to methods for engaging with super-busy senior executives. With no geographic limitations to where and when we chat, we can be more nimble and rapid in the process of identifying the right business to acquire.

Gender balance in M&A

With few women in the M&A space, there’s definitely an opportunity to make M&A in tech a more gender-balanced team working environment. I’ve never been in a position previously where I was the only female in the room. On the most recent acquisition, many of the accountants, tax advisors and legal executives were male, so it has been one of the biggest adjustments for me working in this business environment. I’ve even been in a situation where probably out of 80 conversations I’ve had with founders, there’s been just one woman.

This has a big impact on the way I see myself, and I’d also say it has an effect on the way I voice my opinions – you need to advocate for yourself more – and it helps to have a few allies in your corner when you are in the spotlight.

Motivating women to join the M&A world

We’re clearly lacking a female community in M&A, as a space where women can exchange information and support each other. This is needed to promote a better understanding of M&A as a career and boost female representation in the industry.

I’d like to be a role model to show women – whether just starting out or more experienced in business – what they can achieve in M&A, and that it’s an exciting and rewarding career for women. If you’re a people person, are good at working independently, have excellent analytic skills, and are a fast learner – perhaps even speaking a second language – and have the drive to succeed, it’s a great role.

Looking beyond the horizon

M&A is a fast-paced industry which involves learning, understanding (and predicting a little) the evolving technology landscape and the changes in business acquisition processes. But patience is also a key virtue for working in this industry. M&A takes a long time and is very country-specific in terms of its duration, depending largely on the business rules for each country. But this can also be determined by how open and willing the founder is, and whether the later stages of the legal and accounting protract the process further. Every acquisition is different – there’s absolutely no cut and paste and no definitive start and end.

You might meet hundreds of business founders and CEOs before you find the right match. But if you’re always naturally thinking ‘Where can we scale next?’, you know you’re in the right place. Just as one acquisition completes, you’re looking for criteria for the next that fits now two co-existing businesses. It’s a big challenge to make it happen but as you watch the business grow in this tough tech, business, and economic climate, you can’t help but feel a huge sense of real achievement.

 Alexandra Kirezoglou, M&A Manager at Ascent

Alexandra Kirezoglou is an M&A Manager at Ascent, a European data and software company. Her experience of having lived in six countries has helped her understand the importance of communication and expanding one’s network. After starting her career in the non-profit sector working with kids and young adults with special needs, as well as helping Syrian refugees, Alexandra moved to London where she began her career in a more corporate, client-facing role working with European private equity firms. 

For the last year, she has been leading Ascent’s M&A strategy, focusing on identifying interesting founder-led data and software businesses across Europe.