Aug
23
2021
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How Cisco keeps its startup acquisition engine humming

Enterprise startups have several viable exit strategies: Some will go public, but most successful outcomes will be via acquisition, often by one of the highly acquisitive large competitors like Salesforce, Microsoft, Amazon, Oracle, SAP, Adobe or Cisco.

From rivals to “spin-ins,” Cisco has a particularly rich history of buying its way to global success. It has remained quite active, acquiring more than 30 startups over the last four years for a total of 229 over the life of the company. The most recent was Epsagon earlier this month, with five more in its most recent quarter (Q4 FY2021): Slido, Sedona Systems, Kenna Security, Involvio and Socio. It even announced three of them in the same week.

It begins by identifying targets; Cisco does that by being intimately involved with a list of up to 1,000 startups that could be a fit for acquisition.

What’s the secret sauce? How it is going faster than ever? For startups that encounter a company like Cisco, what do you need to know if you have talks that go places with it? We spoke to the company CFO, senior vice president of corporate development, and the general manager and executive vice president of security and collaboration to help us understand how all of the pieces fit together, why they acquire so many companies and what startups can learn from their process.

Cisco, as you would expect, has developed a rigorous methodology over the years to identify startups that could fit its vision. That involves product, of course, but also team and price, all coming together to make a successful deal. From targeting to negotiating to closing to incorporating the company into the corporate fold, a startup can expect a well-tested process.

Even with all this experience, chances are it won’t work perfectly every time. But since Cisco started doing M&A nine years into its history with the purchase of LAN switcher Crescendo Communications in 1993 — leading to its massive switching business today — the approach clearly works well enough that they keep doing it.

It starts with cash

If you want to be an acquisitive company, chances are you have a fair amount of cash on hand. That is certainly the case with Cisco, which currently has more than $24.5 billion in cash and equivalents, albeit down from $46 billion in 2017.

CFO Scott Herren says that the company’s cash position gives it the flexibility to make strategic acquisitions when it sees opportunities.

“We generate free cash flow net of our capex in round numbers in the $14 billion a year range, so it’s a fair amount of free cash flow. The dividend consumes about $6 billion a year,” Herren said. “We do share buybacks to offset our equity grant programs, but that still leaves us with a fair amount of cash that we generate year on year.”

He sees acquisitions as a way to drive top-line company growth while helping to push the company’s overall strategic goals. “As I think about where our acquisition strategy fits into the overall company strategy, it’s really finding the innovation we need and finding the companies that fit nicely and that marry to our strategy,” he said.

“And then let’s talk about the deal … and does it make sense or is there a … seller price point that we can meet and is it clearly something that I think will continue to be a core part of our strategy as a company in terms of finding innovation and driving top-line growth there,” he said.

The company says examples of acquisitions that both drove innovation and top-line growth include Duo Security in 2018, ThousandEyes in 2020 and Acacia Communications this year. Each offers some component that helps drive Cisco’s strategy — security, observability and next-generation internet infrastructure — while contributing to growth. Indeed, one of the big reasons for all these acquisitions could be about maintaining growth.

Playing the match game

Cisco is at its core still a networking equipment company, but it has been looking to expand its markets and diversify outside its core networking roots for years by moving into areas like communications and security. Consider that along the way it has spent billions on companies like WebEx, which it bought in 2007 for $3.2 billion, or AppDynamics, which it bought in 2017 for $3.7 billion just before it was going to IPO. It has also made more modest purchases (by comparison at least), such as MindMeld for $125 million and countless deals that were too small to require them to report the purchase price.

Derek Idemoto, SVP for corporate development and Cisco investments, has been with the company for 100 of those acquisitions and has been involved in helping scout companies of interest. His team begins the process of identifying possible targets and where they fall within a number of categories, such as whether it allows them to enter new markets (as WebEx did), extend their markets (as with Duo Security), or acqui-hire top technical talent and get some cool tech, as they did when they purchased BabbleLabs last year.

Jul
11
2018
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Box opens up about the company’s approach to innovation

Most of us never really stop to think about how the software and services we use on a daily basis are created. We just know it’s there when we want to access it, and it works most of the time. But companies don’t just appear and expand randomly, they need a well defined process and methodology to keep innovating or they won’t be around very long.

Box has been around since 2005 and grown into a company on a run rate of over $500 million.  Along the way, it transformed from a consumer focus to one concentrating on enterprise content management and expanded the platform from one that mostly offered online storage and file sharing to one that offers a range of content management services in the cloud.

I recently sat down with Chief Product and Chief Strategy Officer Jeetu Patel . A big part of Patel’s job is to keep the company’s development teams on track and focused on new features that could enhance the Box platform, attract new customers and increase revenue.

Fundamental beliefs

Before you solve a problem, you need the right group of people working on it. Patel says building a team has a few primary principles to help guide the product and team development. It starts with rules and rubrics to develop innovative solutions and help them focus on where to invest their resources in terms of money and people.

Graphic: Box

When it comes to innovating, you have to structure your teams in such a way that you can react to changing requirements in the marketplace, and in today’s tech world, being agile is more important than ever. “You have to configure your innovation engine from a team, motivation and talent recruiting perspective so that you’ve actually got the right structure in place to provide enough speed and autonomy to the team so that they’re unencumbered and able to execute quickly,” Patel explained

Finally, you need to have a good grip on the customer and the market. That involves constantly assessing market requirements and looking at building products and features that respond to a need, yet that aren’t dated when you launch them.

Start with the customer

Patel says that when all is said and done, the company wants to help its customers by filling a hole in the product set. From a central company philosophy perspective, it begins with the customer. That might sound like pandering on its face, but he says if you keep that goal in mind it really acts as an anchor to the entire process.

“From a core philosophy that we keep in mind, you have to actually make sure that you get everyone really oriented in the company to say you always start from a customer problem and work backwards. But picking the right problem to solve is 90 percent of the battle,” he said.

Solve hard problems

Patel strongly believes that the quality of the problem is directly proportional to the outcome of the project. Part of that is solving a real customer pain point, but it’s also about challenging your engineers. You can be successfully solving the low-hanging fruit problems most of the time, but then you don’t necessarily attract the highest quality engineering talent.

“If you think about really hard problems that have a lot of mission and purpose around them, you can actually attract the best team,” he said.

That means looking for a problem where you can add a lot of value. “The problem that you choose to spend your time solving should be one where you are uniquely positioned to create a 10 x value proposition compared to what might exist in the market today,” Patel explained. If it doesn’t reach that threshold, he believes that there’s no motivation for the customer to change, and it’s not really worth going after.

Build small teams

Once you identify that big problem, you need to form a team to start attacking it. Patel recommends keeping the teams manageable, and he believes in the Amazon approach of the two-pizza team, a group of 8-10 people who can operate on..well…two pizzas. If the teams get too large, he says it becomes difficult to coordinate and too much time gets wasted on logistics instead of innovation.

“Having very defined local missions, having [small] teams carrying out those local missions, and making sure that those team sizes don’t get too large so that they can stay very agile, is a pretty important kind of core operating principle of how we build products,” Patel said.

That becomes even more important as the company scales. The trick is to configure the organization in such a way so that as you grow, you end up with many smaller teams instead of a few bigger ones, and in that way you can better pinpoint team missions.

Developing a Box product

Patel sees four key areas when it comes to finally building that new product at Box. First of all, it needs to be enterprise grade and all that entails — secure, reliable, scalable, fault tolerant and so forth.

That’s Job One, but what generally has differentiated Box in the content management market has been its ease of use. He sees that as removing as much friction as you can from a software-driven business process.

Next, you try to make those processes intelligent and that means understanding the purpose of the content. Patel says that could involve having better search, better surfacing of content and automated trigger events that move that content through a workflow inside a company.

Finally, they look at how it fits inside a workflow because content doesn’t live in a vacuum inside an enterprise. It generally has a defined purposed and the content management system should make it easy to integrate that content into the broader context of its purpose.

Measure twice

Once you have those small teams set up with their missions in place, you have to establish rules and metrics that allow them to work quickly, but still have a set of milestones they have to meet to prove they are on a worthwhile project for the company. You don’t want to be throwing good money after a bad project.

For Patel and Box that involves a set of metrics that tell you at all times, whether the team is succeeding or failing. Seems simple enough, but it takes a lot of work from a management perspective to define missions and goals and then track them on a regular basis.

He says that involves three elements: “There are three things that we think about including what’s the plan for what you’re going to build, what’s the strategy around what you’re going to build, and then what’s the level of coordination that each one of us have on whether or not what we’re building is, in fact, going to be successful.”

In the end, this is an iterative process, one that keeps evolving as the company grows and develops and as they learn from each project and each team. “We’re constantly looking at the processes and saying, what are the things that need to be adjusted,” Patel said.

Oct
11
2017
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Box Graph unleashes relationships between content and users

 Box has vast amounts of content in its stores, and as it begins to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to make it easier to surface, it also wants to expose each piece of content and how it relates to other content and users. To help achieve that, the company announced the Box Graph today at BoxWorks. “The Box Graph enables customers to predictively recommend content… Read More

Jul
13
2017
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Box introduces Box Elements, pre-packaged content services for developers

 Box introduced a new type of developer tool today called Box Elements, pre-packaged application pieces designed to deliver Box functionality with a few lines of code. Eventually there will be three types of Elements: UI, app and services. Today, the company is launching the UI pieces, which include Content Uploader, which lets developers add drag and drop file capability into any… Read More

Nov
16
2015
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Aaron Levie, Box And A Whole Pile Of Apps

aaron-levie21 Box’s recent platform push is more than a new product direction for the company. The service may become a key revenue driver for the enterprise-facing productivity shop. I recently sat down with Aaron Levie, the CEO of Box, and his recently hired head of platform, Jeetu Patel, to dig into the matter. At its most basic, the quickly growing company wants to power the content layer of… Read More

Aug
12
2015
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Box Snags Former EMC Exec To Run Nascent Platform As A Service Offering

boxworks 14 stage. Box announced today that it was hiring former EMC executive Jeetu Patel to head its platform business. Patel will have the title senior vice president of platform and chief strategy officer. His primary responsibility will be building out the Box Developer Edition product, which enables developers to take advantage of services built on the Box platform to create applications without… Read More

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