Perhaps no news is good news, but when it comes to acquisitions it seems even if the market deems success, we hear the culture of the acquired was never the same. More and more it’s the talent as much as the technology that’s valued and acquirers would do well to keep the things that made the acquiree so interesting in the first place.
When Acquisitions Work
Bay area bluechip Autodesk has a proven record of doing it right. This design software enterprise has absorbed nearly 50 companies in the past 5 years alone with no end in sight. HR Acquisitions & Strategic Partnerships head Beth Trakimas has a theory that it’s the Autodesk culture of keeping their hands off what’s working that keeps the acquired culture strong. “We make sure they continue to work on projects they are passionate about” Beth says. With an astounding 80% retention rate it’s hard to argue Autodesk knows what they’re doing. She also knows that the reason for the acquisition in the first place is as important as any factor. “ has a problem, they are the solution.” Most companies could say that, but the “problem” they’re trying to solve for is not typically profitability or market share—Beth means a product problem.
In 2011 Autodesk approached Instructables founder Eric Wilhelm about doing some work together. Instructables is a community of maker geeks sharing their expertise on, well, making things. Autodesk understood that in order to create a great experience for the people who were doing the making they needed to understand and learn from them. It became apparent in short order that Eric and his team were a great fit and persuaded Instructables to join up. Would it work? When asked why he ok’d the deal even though he was already profitable he sites the ability to do more with a large organizations resources. That said, he knew he needed to keep a close eye on not destroying the thing that built the value of his company in the first place—his communities. Even though a bit of an introvert, when you see him speak you understand why he was able to build a great culture. Yes he’s book smart (three Mechanical Engineering degrees, anyone?) but he’s also emotionally smart. His company, now a department, continues to trust that he’ll do the right thing for the Instructables brand, even though he’s got executive Autodesk responsibilities. As a small example, he was very cautious of slapping the Autodesk logo on his site because he understood it would push some of his hard-earned community away. “When I’m in conversations with someone at Autodesk who wants us to do something I don’t think is right I use my ‘get out of jail card.’ I’ll tell them that it’s not authentic to the Instructables brand and we’re not gonna do it” he explains. Others may call this being a brand steward, but at the end of the day for employees and contributors both this is being culture aware. What’s interesting is that Autodesk leadership, although not always in agreement at first, was willing to listen and did not force such changes without a discussion.
The Three Rules for 80% Retention
How does Eric get away with such vigorous pushback? That’s the Autodesk culture. It’s one of guidelines, no policies—truly collaborative management and people like Beth in HR understand the value of how teams work together—and keeping them together. At the end of the day, companies are not a single unified organism but a culture of cultures. Autodesk gets that. It’s core for them. Even Autocad, their flagship product of nearly 31 years, was originally an acquisition. Beth reflects on why these acquisitions have worked so well and points out three rules:
1) lead by example 2) let it happen organically 3) don’t impose your existing culture on the acquired team
Many companies may not abide by Autodesk’s approach to management, but they’d be smart to learn from it. For all the talk of tech, it’s the talent that’s the future of business, and culture is the only thing that will separate the leaders from the losers. Acquiring is a touchy business, but it’s one that leaders would do well to learn to do well.