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Opinion: The Real Cost of Acquisitions - the Zimbra Story

Most acquisitions fail, but I believe this particular one was particularly poorly thought out

There are reports that Yahoo has put Zimbra on the block. Honestly, this came as no surprise at all to us at Zoho.

I remember scratching my head when the acquisition was made; I didn't see how an enterprise/business focused open source offering like Zimbra fit with Yahoo, as a technology, as a business or strategically. Zimbra is an open source installable product offering primarily intended to be installed within medium to large organizations. Yahoo has never made an installed product in its history and is mainly focused on consumers, with an occasional foray to sell those consumer-focused applications to small businesses.

Zimbra's service provider offerings made no strategic sense to Yahoo either, because Yahoo, being a service provider itself, has no interest in selling technology to other service providers like Comcast. Finally, we have been on both sides of the product vs. web-service divide, and I can assert with confidence that it is not easy to take a product and make it into a scalable web service; in fact, the main reason Zoho Mail got delayed was that it was originally written as an installable product, much like Zimbra, and we essentially rewrote it to be a web service.

Most acquisitions fail, but I believe this particular one was particularly poorly thought out. The real cost of the acquisition is not just the $350 million paid by Yahoo. In 2007, Zimbra was starting to position itself as a cloud applications suite, a competitor to Zoho, and better known than Zoho. It is fair to say that today Zimbra is not our main competitor. The acquisition clearly slowed them down. Of course, from the point of view of investors or management, the Zimbra acquisition made sense: they got theirs, so it is a “win” for them.

It is unlikely that anyone would pay $350 million for Zimbra today, so for Yahoo, it is a clear monetary loss. Zimbra customers lose too, because both the original acquisition and now the de-acquisition inevitably lead to product delays and confusion. Ultimately, the Zimbra acquisition proved to be a negative-sum game, or value destruction. The price paid wasn't compensated by the value created to Yahoo or the customers.

Why do we care to write about this? Actually, deals like Zimbra are why we never took venture capital and have said “no” to acquisitions. I know and respect a lot of venture capitalists, but I honestly believe the VC model is too “exit” focused. I would not say that VCs pressure companies to sell (that would be too simplistic), but the implicit understanding when you take venture capital is that you have to be working towards an exit. Well, for some of us, a company is not just a disposable commodity; it is an institution, a culture, and we prefer to build things slowly. In that sense, though we are direct competitors, I really admire the 37Signals crew, and we really respect their view on this.

[This Opinion piece appeared originally here and is republished under a Creative Commons license.]

More Stories By Sridhar Vembu

Sridhar Vembu is CEO of ZOHO Corp. (formerly AdventNet Inc.), the company behind the Zoho suite of online applications. Learn more about Zoho at www.zoho.com, follow us on Twitter at @zoho and contact Sridhar at svembu@zohocorp.com.

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