If you want to find out that you don’t know what you’re talking about, lose some money in a few deals,” instructs Michael Hyatt. The Toronto tech entrepreneur is a frequent angel investor, a backer of venture capital (VC) firms, and was one of the Dragons on the CBC web series Next Gen Den. Amongst all those opportunities for comeuppance, Hyatt claims he’s actually only lost money on one investment, involving a beverage company. “I thought I’d understand juice,” he says. “Of course, I went into retail and I lost my money right away.”
There’s one area in which it’s clear that Hyatt does know what he’s talking about: growing and exiting companies. In a deal announced last month, BlueCat Networks, a server and software firm he started with brother Richard, was acquired by U.S. private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partner for a reported $400 million. It’s the second big-ticket exit for the Hyatts, who also started risk management software-maker Dyadem International, which they sold in 2011.
The partnership between the two brothers has been a key part of their success. “My brother and I could say anything to each other and we’re still friends—we just get past it so easily,” says Michael Hyatt, who remains on BlueCat’s board. “So people underestimate the power of that resiliency.”
Not every family venture goes so well, but some of his other strategies and tactics are more broadly applicable. Here are Hyatt’s tips for growing and selling a business.
1. Look for margin, not buzz
Risk management software and server technology aren’t the stuff Hollywood movies are made off, but they’re profitable niches. “They’re unsexy,” Hyatt acknowledges. “But where there’s mystery there’s margin.”
Neither market is easily understood or widely appealing, and that allows the brothers to carve out a profitable space for themselves. “BlueCat today has a very high gross margin,” Michael says. That’s despite the fact that the company has stuck to its original value-for-money strategy.
Jumping on the latest buzzy trend makes for a poor business foundation. “Not only do you have tremendous competition, but it’s a race to zero much of the time.”
2. Pick your moment
BlueCat was founded in 2002, shortly after the dotcom bubble burst. It was a tough time for any business connected with technology. “At the time a lot of people said, ‘The Internet’s over,’” Hyatt recalls. It wasn’t a completely outlandish idea—most of what people know as the web today, like billion-user social networks and cloud-based software platforms, didn’t exist at the time.
But the brothers believed the Internet had staying power, and spotted an opportunity created by all the anti-web sentiment. “We tried to solve the big problem of the data centre, [which was that] everybody was being terminated and the resources were going away,” Hyatt explains. BlueCat’s plug-and-play servers filled the gap.
When everyone else is running away, it’s worth seeing if there’s opportunity in the spaces they’ve vacated. “It’s actually easier to start a business in a time of panic and to get something off the ground,” says Hyatt. “A lot of the big competitors aren’t worried about up-and-coming companies—they’re worried about just keeping it together.”
3. Hold off on fundraising
With tech stocks tanking, there wasn’t a lot of easy money available to startups in the sector when BlueCat got started. “A lot of VCs were going under or closing shop back then,” Hyatt recalls. That suited the brothers just fine. “[We] were a little allergic to giving up big chunks of our company early, because we knew that we would dilute disproportionately in the earliest of days.”
Too many would-be founders flit between venture capital firms toting a pitch deck but no working product or clients, Hyatt says. Entrepreneurs are expected to de-risk an investment for backers, and the best way to do that is by building up a customer base. That in turn fetches you a higher valuation on the business.
“We spent a lot of time and our own money and effort in just bootstrapping it, getting the product out and selling it to clients,” says Hyatt. (The Dyadem exit probably helped). BlueCat didn’t take on outside capital until revenues were around $5 million. “You could criticize me for growing a little slower, but we ended up owning in both our sales a majority of the company, which ended up being a tremendous outcome for us.”
4. Dance with the one who brought you
At sale, BlueCat had some one thousand enterprise clients. “I spend a lot of time building relationships with these big companies,” says Hyatt. Client retention is high, and the contracts are substantial. “I really enjoy selling enterprise software—I’d rather sell a million-dollar deal than a ten thousand-dollar deal.”
BlueCat doesn’t sell to small companies. The big-ticket sales take a lot of work and energy, but the focus pays off. “Everybody wants to run around and sell their product at all cost to everybody,” Hyatt observes. “We literally exclude a whole bunch of companies and territories [that] we’re not great at.”
5. Hire “A” Players
In 2013, Hyatt gave up the CEO chair at BlueCat, bringing in veteran software executive Michael Harris in his stead. Hyatt says it was an acknowledgment that he’d taken the company as far as he could. “Richard and I are really good at starting something in our bedroom and getting it to, say, $50 million in revenue,” he says. “But past that point we bring in professional operators.”
Founders bring the passion and guts to turn an idea into a business; operators add the structure and procedures necessary to sustain growth long-term. Both are necessary. “No one would hire Michael [Harris] for a startup, but you don’t want to hire me for the billion-dollar business either.”
Hyatt says you can never have enough great people, whatever role they’re in. Companies often worry about the salaries they’re handing out to attract talent, but Hyatt focuses more on the value they create. “It doesn’t matter what you pay them: A-players are free,” he says.
6. Keep your eyes off the exit
When Madison Dearborn first broached the topic of the acquisition, they were told BlueCat wasn’t for sale. It was only after a conversation with the banker who sold Dyadem that Hyatt agreed to a meeting. “They were willing to leave us alone and let us grow a great business,” he says, noting that the brothers remain the company’s second-largest shareholders. “That’s the kind of partner we wanted.”
Hyatt says he was recently contacted by a young entrepreneur. “[He explained] what he’s doing and that he’s going to be selling it in three to five years,” he recounts. Hyatt told him to forget about the exit. “You cannot put a timeline on your company—that’s unfair to shareholders [and] employees,” he says. Focus on building your business, and the offers will come by themselves in due course. “Companies are bought, they’re not sold.”