When I meet new people who also work in tech, the conversation often starts like this:
Them: So where do you work?
Them: How’s it been being part of Skype / Microsoft?
A perfectly valid question. Last August, our 19-person startup became a part of Skype, a much larger company with a much longer history. In and of itself, a pretty big change that was sure to present a unique set of challenges (and opportunities). But barely two months later, Microsoft’s $8.5 billion acquisition of Skype closed, and we were officially Microsoft employees.
90,000 full time employees.
Another 90,000 contract workers, consultants, vendors, and other contingent staff.
35+ years of history, culture, and process.
Lots of process.
Often the biggest fear surrounding an acquisition is that the acquiring company will somehow pervert the acquired in some fashion: product, culture, or both. And often that fear boils down to a fear of process. It’s a necessary evil as a company gets bigger and older, but acquisitions often “fail” because process can stifle innovation, drain resources, and distract teams. Recent exposes on Yahoo’s strike out with Flickr and HP’s debacle with Palm only belabor the point. It’s why so many Instagram users were so upset when Facebook bought it. They were scared their favorite app was about to be ruined. (Jury’s still out on that.)
GroupMe has been fortunate to largely escape the downfalls associated with being aquired by a larger company, or in our case, two larger companies. Sure, we have to use Outlook instead of Google Apps and filing expenses takes a bit longer, but those are relatively minor nuisances.
That everything has gone well so far is partly due to our geographic isolation – we still operate independently in New York – but more a testament to great management. Both our bosses at Skype, and Steve & Jared, do a really great job of shielding the team from unnecessary process. We’ve got our product roadmap and our engineers are given the runway and the support to pursue it, with minimal interference. The same can be said for business development efforts. In every way that counts, we still believe ourselves to be a startup and operate that way.
That said, it’s inevitable that we will run into stumbling blocks. Instances when, were we truly still a startup, we would move faster. For the past few months, I’ve been dealing with exactly such a situation. Long story short, I’ve been trying to get approvals for agreements with external service providers that GroupMe needs to test some new product ideas we’re playing around with. Not the sexiest task, and not business development per se. But much of what I learned navigating the Skype/Microsoft corporate behemoth from London to Redmond and back can be applied to BD partnership building, or of course anyone who finds themselves suddenly part of a much larger organization:
1. Start early. Don’t underestimate how long it will take to get approval from all the required parties. Cutting it too close will negatively impact launch targets and development cycles, and the longer you’re delayed, the faster team morale will fall.
2. Over communicate. Not surprisingly, whomever you’re dealing with has other things on their plate and they’re often not going to care about your needs, at least not as urgently as you’d prefer. You’ll find yourself explaining the same thing – who you are, what you need, why you need it, what other options you’ve already explored – over and over again. It’s annoying and tedious, but it has to be done. Better to repeat yourself early on than lose time later.
3. Focus on the key decision-makers. Don’t be surprised if every time an email regarding your approval request is sent, more and more people are added to the cc line. It was pretty amusing to see an email thread that started with just me and a single compliance rep in Redmond balloon to over 20 recipients. As more people and departments are looped in, be sure to have a running list of who actually holds the power and who doesn’t. Know who you need approval from, and in what sequence.
4. Anticipate, and understand, concerns. Early on, you need to sit down and identify every possible pain point and potential risk associated with what you’re asking for. Think like a lawyer. Be paranoid. For each possible issue, prepare a solution and mitigating response. Even if it’s not the right one, thinking about it early will pay dividends later. Critical to devising solutions is understanding the other party’s reason for being concerned. Try to empathize with why certain processes and protocols are in place. Take a step back and understand that yes, for a 90,000-person company, that seemingly ridiculous extra step actually makes a ton of sense. Then scope it down to your level and figure out how to make it work within your constraints.
5. Respect resources. You can’t get things done alone. You’ll need the help of lawyers, finance guys, compliance reps, risk auditors, and more. Be cognizant of their schedules and workload, doing everything you can to make their lives easier when it comes to getting your specific project approved. Offer to do anything and everything you can to assist, and then actually follow through. It’s more work for you, but you’d rather have ownership over as many of the tasks as possible.
6. Queue it up. Related to #3, know exactly what steps need to be completed and in what order. Many times you’ll be able to pursue several things at once, laying the groundwork for step D while taking care of step A for instance. This is crucial to avoiding the small 1-2 day delays that can creep into a project from step to step.
7. Save your trump card. More likely that not, you may be initially frustrated in your first attempt to get everything approved. If you blow your trump card – in our case, asking Tony Bates, president of the Skype division at Microsoft, to intervene – too early, you may regret not having it later. You also don’t want to be the guy that steps out of the chain of command on a whim. Try to find a solution yourself, within established channels, before calling in the cavalry.
If none of the above help you get approval from your corporate bosses, then you can always go rogue: just do what you need to do, and ask for forgiveness later.