The Trap of Cross-selling
Cross-selling new products and services to your existing customers is chiselled into Business Development 101, but if your goal is to increase the value of your business, the added revenue may do nothing for your company’s value – and may even lower it.
In order to be acquired for a premium, consider committing to a product, service, or a bundle that does one thing well. Your aim should be to make that offering so irresistible, that an acquirer will stop at nothing to get their hands on it. This focus will help you build a team around your product or service and ultimately make your company a whole lot more attractive when it comes time to sell.
However, most companies do the opposite. They take their initial success and water it down by cross-selling additional products, leveraging their relationship with their customers to sell them merely good offerings on the back of their great product or service. The problem with wandering too far afield is that while add on products may increase your revenue, they decrease your attractiveness to a strategic acquirer. Like being asked to buy a cable package of hundreds of channels when all you want is a few, acquirers don’t like buying things they will not use and therefore often walk away from a deal where a great product has been watered down with dozens of less attractive products or service lines.
How Stelligent Lost Its Focus (and found it again)
For example, take a look at Stelligent, a company in the business of helping large enterprises automate their software delivery process. There was a time when big companies used to install their software deep, deep into operations – but the emergence of ‘The Cloud’ changed that. Employees across the globe now get access to the software they use anywhere they have access to a web browser.
Just as you might rent an apartment in a building, software developers pick one of the big cloud service providers like Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, or Amazon Web Services (AWS) to rent computer storage, database, and networking resources to run their software systems. Since Azure, Google, and AWS all take a different approach to hosting, an entire industry has been created to help developers configure their software for the cloud service provider they pick.
Paul Duvall, the co-founder of Stelligent, is one of the pioneers of this industry called DevOps – which is a set of organisational, culture, process, and tooling practices that accelerate effective feedback between end-users to improve the value of the software that’s being delivered. Duvall started Stelligent in 2007 with his then silent partner Rob Daly. The goal was to help developers accelerate how quickly they could bring their software to market.
Stelligent was a typical consulting company, selling the time of the engineers Duvall hired on contract as his business required them.
By 2012, Stelligent had a half dozen contract workers and a few employees, hovered around one million in annual revenue, as project demand ebbed and flowed. Duvall felt he was running on a treadmill. Each new project Duvall won required him to build a whole new team. Around this time, Rob Daly – who had enjoyed success starting and growing other companies – encouraged Duvall to read the book Built To Sell, where Duvall found tips around specialisation to be most valuable.
With a focus on shifting toward even more specialisation, Duvall decided to go all-in on AWS.
About a year later, in 2014, Daly then joined the team as its fifth employee and would transition to CEO throughout the course of the year becoming very influential in building a team of specialists focused on helping enterprise customers.
As time went by, Stelligent began earning a name for itself as the AWS specialists. As Amazon’s cloud provider service grew in popularity, so did the demand for Stelligent’s services. Over the next three years, Stelligent blossomed into a multi-million-dollar business with 30 full-time employees.
By early 2017, Denver-based HOSTING Inc. saw how quickly AWS was growing and concluded that by acquiring Stelligent, they could leapfrog their competition and become a market leader in AWS almost overnight. Later that year, HOSTING acquired Stelligent for about double what a typical consulting company would hope to command for a similar-sized business (when comparing multiples around high-growth companies in the technology sector).
The story of Stelligent is a reminder why you should focus your limited resources on becoming so good in your niche that an acquirer reasons it would take too long – or cost too much – to compete.
Most small businesses with limited cash can only afford to get that good at solving one problem for their customers. That kind of focus is the opposite of what most sales and marketing pundits preach but it may be the one thing that will make your company irresistible to an acquirer.