With its M&A train rolling, Intuit looks to prove the big company can be a good home for small firms

By Michael Carney , written on June 26, 2014

From The News Desk

Intuit is officially on a buying spree. The company best known for its approachable tax and accounting software has acquired 11 technology startups over the last year, an Oracle-like rate that far exceeds anything we’ve previously seen from the traditionally conservative organization. What’s more, it shows no signs of slowing down amid a newly declared effort – through acquisition and organic development – to power the technology underpinnings of the world's small businesses.

So how does a 31-year-old incumbent absorb and -- more importantly -- maximize the value of nearly a dozen fast-moving, early stage companies? I caught up with Intuit Chief Corporate Strategy and Development Officer, Andrew Westergren, and a few of the recently acquired startup founders to get a sense of how things are going behind closed doors.

In short, despite the potential hurdles and the natural skepticism of many external observers, things are going better than anyone expected.

Taking a step back, the new direction for Intuit began last summer when the company sold of two its largest prior acquisitions, Intuit Financial Services and Intuit Health, and set out to reinvent what its brand means to small business owners. On the backs of its marquee Quickbooks and Turbotax franchises, Westergren and CEO Brad Smith set out a simple but ambitious mission: "To be the operating system behind small business success and to do the nations' taxes in the US and Canada."

The latest crop of acquisitions – including Elastic Intelligence, Fifo, GoodApril, LevelUp Analytics, Full Slate, Prestwick Services, Docstoc, CustomerLink, Lettuce, Invitco and, mostly recently, Check – have been focused on technology and product, first, and talent second, according to Westergren. Sure, Intuit is interested in injecting fresh, innovation-mined DNA into its walls, but the desire to quickly integrate core services essential to small businesses is more than just good marketing. It’s mission critical. Put more bluntly, this isn’t Yahoo and these deals aren’t Marissa Mayer’s shiny new toys of the week.

Take for example, Los Angeles-based order management platform Lettuce, which the corporate giant snapped up six weeks ago for approximately $30 million. It would be easy to assume that Lettuce, the product, would be sunsetted once inside Intuit and its team redeployed to build similar functionality into Quickbooks. Quite the opposite, according to the startup’s founder and CEO Raad Mobrem. Lettuce’s existing platform is being treated within Intuit as a future hub through which Intuit customers will manage inventory, finances, and a variety of other functions. In that sense, a number of Intuit's existing products are being retrofitted so that they play nicely with the far more nascent platform.

“This may sound like BS, but it’s actually going great – better than I could have ever expected,” Mobrem tells me. “Everyone here is nice and collaborative and interested in our ideas and how Lettuce can make the rest of Intuit’s products better. I was initially worried about the culture issues of joining a big company, but I’ve actually been the one pushing us to integrate and adopt a lot of their culture and systems – even while Andrew and Brad were happy to let us ease in more slowly.”

Docstock founder and CEO Jason Nazar, who I bumped into a few weeks ago at the Code conference in May, offered similar praise based on his experience inside Intuit. After six years of being everything from his company's quarterback to head cheerleader to water boy, Nazar was his usual smiling self, seeming genuinely ecstatic to have access to Intuit’s resources. The financial windfall for the recently married entrepreneur surely didn’t hurt matters.

It’s not all rosy, Mobrem admits. His biggest frustration is the sheer difficulty of gathering all the necessary information, which is often distributed across the organization, required to make a decision.

“At Lettuce, I knew everything, I had all the data. So I was able to make relatively informed decisions fairly quickly,” he says. “Here, first I need to figure out who has the information, then I need to go get it. Everyone’s been really helpful and accommodating, but it’s been an adjustment."

Not that this should be at all surprising, given the size of Intuit’s organization and the number of products, departments, and overall bureaucracy that make up such a behemoth. It's a common complaint from those leaving the startup world for the cozy confines of big company life.

Mobrem’s and Nazar’s experiences may be representative of their fellow recently acquired startup founders, but in truth, no two deals are the same. Westergren admits as much, saying that Intuit has been careful to customize each transaction, beginning with the promises made during negotiations and carrying on through the integration strategy.

“We try to plan integrations out in a way that is well structured and thoughtful when it comes to the experience of incoming employees,” he says. “We ask ourselves, what elements of Intuit values and benefits upside are important to share, and where can we minimize friction arising out of big company processes? We’ve tried to create a pull, wherever possible, that makes incoming employees want to integrate because they want to unlock all the value we can offer. It’s a process that in many cases has moved faster than we planned." Judging by Mobrem’ s comments, it would seem like this approach is genuinely working.

Intuit’s stock is up more than 60 percent over the last year, suggesting that Wall Street at least approves of the M&A campaign or, if nothing else, sees Intuit as a more valuable company as a result of the new assets. No less importantly, Intuit has also delivered healthy performance within its existing business units, thereby driving the stock performance.

Going forward, Westergren expects Intuit to maintain similar levels of acquisitiveness. There is no playbook, however, when it comes to deal size or structure, he says. The company simply plans to be opportunistic when it identifies opportunities to broaden its impact on small business owners. Just don’t expect it to get into a turf war with other large acquirers within the space (GoDaddy, for example, has been similarly active within the SMB services space). Check, the largest of Intuit’s deals this year, only clocked in at $360 million. The company isn’t opposed to larger acquisitions, according to Westergren, but will only do so in the rare cases where it thinks the long term impact will more than justify both the expense and the increased integration complexity that often accompanies it.

"When we reach out to companies, we have typically already thought through deals, learned a lot about the business, and know the management team well. We may even have been partnering with them first for 6 months or so,” Westergren says. "When we make a proposal, there’s typically not multiple other companies bidding, which allows us to acquire at attractive valuations while still making for a positive outcome for all involved. In the rare cases where we’ve gotten involved in an auction process – something we avoided with all our deals this year – prices have been quite high.”

From all the available evidence, Intuit seems like a relatively good place for small companies to land. It’s arguably the market leader in small business services, meaning that any startup targeting that audience stands to dramatically increase its reach and, obviously, access to resources, thereby accelerating the realization of its vision. At the end of the day, it’s often this vision, not the financial rewards, that drive entrepreneurs.

“The number one thing I cared about when I was considering this deal was getting my product in front of as many small businesses as possible,” Mobrem says. “From that perspective, I couldn’t ask for more."

[image adapted from thinkstock]