Situation: A CEO is evaluating a potential deal with an Asian company that is synergistic with the strategy of the CEO’s company. The structure would include a US entity, run by the CEO, and an Asian entity that would provide essential technology. How do you structure an international deal?
Advice from the CEOs:
Before you agree to a deal, raise your own level of trust with the key players of the Asian company so that you are comfortable with the investment of time and money that you will make.
Assure that you will have the focus and attention of talent that you will need within the Asian company. This is better done through mutual understanding and agreement than through contract. In Asia, relationships are personal, not contractual, though for legal reasons personal understandings must be backed by a good written contract. This will likely mean that you will have to travel to Asia to spend time with the key personnel upon whom you will rely.
Make sure that there is agreement on a clear road map for both the US and Asian entities.
You will need a solid bridge person who can speak both the language and culture of your Asian counterpart – not just someone who says that they can, but who can deliver. Test this relationship before agreeing to the deal.
Structure the deal so that the US entity owns exclusive rights to the technology world-wide with the exception of the home country of the Asian firm. Assure that you own an acceptable piece of the US entity.
Don’t complicate the exercise by creating additional shell companies in Asia. Shell companies can make it difficult to maintain accountability and assure that you gain the value that you seek.
Situation: A company needs to expand to meet growing demand and has opportunities to expand in several locales. They can finance this expansion through bank loans, or by selling either a minority or majority interest in the company. How do you raise capital for an expansion?
Advice from the CEOs:
Minority shareholders have appeal. Just be aware that they have rights. If they own interest above a certain percentage, they gain legal rights such as the ability to force liquidation. Research this percentage, and figure out a percentage of minority ownership that will work for you. Based on this, look for a minority partner who will give you the capital to expand for ownership below this threshold.
Consider a hybrid solution combining a smaller loan with sale of a limited percent of the company.
This is a risk equation.
The loan option is risk / reward for long term profit. You may have to secure the loan with personal assets.
On the other hand, selling a minority interest could set you up for life.
Look at both options, plus your personal goals and decide which combination of risk, reward and personal security fits you best.
One sale option is a phased buy out.
Example: sell 30% now, with options under conditions that you accept, to buy a larger share of your company later.
Continue to involve the key stakeholders in these discussions.
Assure that you secure your own future, and then secure the future of other family members.
Situation: A company has been approached by a foreign company that is interested in their expertise. The foreign firm says that they are only interested in their own domestic market, and want the company’s help developing new products for their existing domestic clients. How do you develop products with a foreign firm?
Advice from the CEOs:
There is great variability between companies in different locales and on different continents. Before proceeding with negotiations, get references from the company and check them carefully. Research the company and its local market.
Relationship will be critical. You want to meet with their CEO. This is an important factor working with any company. Watch the commitment level of the CEO and top staff. Take an expert with you – someone knowledgeable about local mannerisms who can read the body language in meetings. Position this individual as someone who is assisting you in the negotiation.
If you proceed with negotiations toward an agreement, make your enforcement jurisdiction either the US or a neutral country with a western judicial system. For example, if the company is Chinese, make the enforcement jurisdiction either Hong Kong or Macao.
Will intellectual property be a factor? If so, get an IP attorney knowledgeable about both the market of the other company as well as your preferred enforcement jurisdiction.
Could this help you to augment or fund your own development? If so, ask for rights to produce and distribute products developed through the collaboration in the US and other markets outside of partner’s domestic market.
Situation: A company wants to expand its markets and customer base. Currently their business is dominated by a single customer. What best practices have you developed for identifying new customers and markets?
The key to getting new customers is to devote dedicated time to this task.
If your company is populated by engineer or software specialists, consider hiring a sales professional – a commission based hunter sales person who has experience landing big accounts in markets similar to yours. You may pay this person a good percentage of sales for brining in this business, but gaining the additional business can be worth it.
Much depends upon your relationship with your large customer. When a single client has rights over or ownership of the technology of the company but is not pursuing broader markets that the company is interested in, is it feasible to negotiate rights to pursue this business?
The larger client will pursue their own interests, not those of the smaller vendor. Perhaps a win-win deal can be worked out, but it may be difficult – particularly if the larger client is concerned that use of the technology in other markets could affect its interests in their primary markets.
Be very careful in this situation. The easiest tactic for the larger company to defend itself from a perceived threat is to sue and simply bury the smaller vendor through legal expenses. While the smaller company may be legally within its rights, deep pockets can beat shallow pockets through attrition.
In the case that the larger client simply continues to buy all capacity of the smaller company, an alternative is to raise rates, or perhaps to just say no.
Consider recreating the opportunity – create your own adjunct proprietary product with your own software or design talent and expand your horizons with this product.
Be aware, the large client can still sue if there is any appearance that your proprietary product impinges on their product rights. As in the case above, the larger company has the resources to bury the smaller company in legal expenses regardless of who is legally correct.
Situation: A company has been very successful, but one customer represents over 60% of their sales. To grow, the company needs to diversify its customer base. How do you reduce dependence on one large customer, and what are the risks involved?
Advice from the CEOs:
The key to getting new customers is to dedicate time and resources to the task.
Consider hiring a sales professional – a commission based “hunter” who has experience landing big accounts. You may pay this person a hefty commission for brining in new business, but diversifying your customer base can be worth it.
If there is shared ownership of technology co-developed by the company and client and the client does not wish to pursue markets beyond its strategic focus, is it feasible to negotiate rights to pursue this business?
The larger client will pursue their own interests, not those of the smaller vendor. Perhaps a win-win can be worked out, but it may be difficult – particularly if the client is concerned that use of the technology in other markets could have a negative impact.
Caution. The easiest way for the client to defend itself from a perceived threat is to sue and bury the smaller vendor through legal expenses. Regardless of who is “legally right,” deep pockets can win through attrition.
Consider recreating the opportunity. Create your own adjunct proprietary product with your own software or design talent and use this to expand your horizons.
Be aware, the large client can still sue if they believe that your proprietary product impinges on their rights.
Situation: The Company is interested in acquiring either the intellectual property (IP) of another company or the company itself. The target is a minor division of a larger parent company. The CEO contacted the parent and confirmed their interest in a deal. What are the key factors to negotiating an IP acquisition?
Advice from the CEOs:
You need to assure your rights to both current IP and future enhancements. This applies whether you or the parent is the final holder of the IP.
Look for clear language as to what constitutes base IP, derivative IP and extensions of the IP. You want to preserve your interest in future derivatives and extensions that you create.
There is a material difference between your position and the parent’s.
If the parent retains the IP, they also gain certain rights to IP extensions based on the current IP. If you own the IP, their potential rights to future IP are lost.
If the parent feels that the IP has strategic value – whether or not they are currently taking advantage of it – this will be one of the more difficult aspects to the negotiation.
What options are there besides acquiring the company?
The parent can grant a fully paid license to the technology, with access to the people and assets, waiving residual rights to future IP extensions, and no restrictions on transfer.
Another option could be a one-time royalty fee that is a perpetual license.
Within your due diligence, try to get a sense of the parent’s motivations and concerns for entertaining your interest in the acquisition. This will help you to frame a deal that works for both parties.
If the parent has been an active licensor or seller of IP, look for lawyers who know the company. Try to secure one of these as counsel for your negotiation.
From a liability standpoint, it is better to buy or license the IP and technology than the company. Liability travels with the company. Part of your negotiation will be who inherits any carry-over liability.