October 11, 2019

UK founder Terry Walby on getting acquired by automation giant Blue Prism

Terry Walby, the chief executive and founder of Thoughtonomy, who shares his tips and experiences of being acquired by a UK automation company Blue Prism.

London-based automation company Thoughtonomy was bought earlier this year by Blue Prism, a leader in robotic process automation (RPA), in a deal worth £80m ($100m).

The acquisition comes amid enormous hype around RPA, which is broadly defined as a collection of tools that allow people and companies to automate routine tasks such as processing invoices or approving expenses.

But it was also a big moment for Terry Walby, the chief executive and founder of Thoughtonomy, who shares his tips and experiences from being acquired by a huge UK company.

How did the Blue Prism deal come about?

We’d been exploring opportunities for external investment to accelerate the next phase of our growth for several months. We’ve been growing at over 300% year-on-year but still recognised that there was a huge opportunity to scale up our operations to a whole new level, particularly at a global level.

We weren’t actually intending to be acquired but as part of this ongoing process, we were approached by Blue Prism, who we have worked with as strategic business partners since 2013. We had recognised at the outset of our journey the benefits of deploying some Blue Prism technology as part of our Intelligent Automation platform, and had forged a strong relationship over the past five years.

When we evaluated Blue Prism’s proposal, we saw clearly the value in taking our partnership to a new level by forming a single entity. It wasn’t just about the financial investment, it was also about the infrastructure and operational capabilities. Whereas with external investment we’d have to spend huge amounts of time and energy expanding our infrastructure globally, as part of Blue Prism that’s already in place so we can get on and achieve our growth objectives more quickly.

What advice would you give to founders who want to get acquired one day?

We didn’t ever set out with a plan to be acquired, or a predetermined route to a market event, and I think that’s probably the most important piece of advice for any founder. Just focus on building a business and product which delivers real value to customers, and a plan to be able to scale to deliver long term sustainable growth. Our sole objective has always been to develop a platform that delivers as much benefit as possible to our clients, and that offers unique features and strengths within the market.

It’s also important to build products, platforms, processes and methodologies that are easily repeatable and scalable across industries and geographies. This makes the business more attractive to both potential financial backers or acquirers who may want to invest in supporting and accelerating growth.

What advice would you give to founders about due diligence on an acquirer? How do you know if they are “good” acquirers or not?

For us, any investment or acquisition had to be about driving growth in a way that aligned with the overall strategy of our business and exploiting the opportunities in the market as we saw them. Our decision to pursue the transaction with Blue Prism was taken because it was fully supportive and enhanced the goals and rapid development of our business.

On top of this, it’s essential to consider the cultural alignment of the two organisations, ensuring that there are shared values and thinking. We were fortunate in that we already had a good understanding of Blue Prism’s culture and we had a close working relationship with some of the key people there. This gave us confidence that our businesses were well matched.

What advice would you give about negotiating on price? I guess you had to work them up to $100m.

To be honest, Blue Prism came to us with a proposal which wasn’t too distant from the final terms of the transaction. After the initial approach we spent some time with them making sure that both parties were aligned in terms of what the value of the business was and where this value resided.

I think the biggest thing we did right to ensure a fairly painless process was getting in place robust and detailed financial and operational controls in the business from the outset. If you’re starting any business it’s important to have the right processes and structures in place from day one. It means it’s much easier to manage and grow the business, most importantly, but it’s also then far easier to share KPIs [key performance indicators] with third parties which are easily understandable and meaningful. It certainly pays to be open and honest about all metrics and to be able to show the detail behind the headline KPIs.

With financial and operational rigour, the value of the business becomes far easier to judge and there is less of a focus on negotiation throughout the due diligence process.

Talking with potential acquirers can be a real-time suck. How do you make sure anyone looking is really interested?

As I said, we didn’t go looking to be acquired, but as a fast-growth company in one of the hottest areas of tech we were being approached two to three times a week on average by potential acquirers and investors. So I can definitely see how this can become a major drain on time, as well as potentially becoming a distraction from the number one priority of operational running of the business.

Generally, we were able to filter out those enquiries which weren’t suitable through a rapid evaluation of the third party — its operational profile and the personality and culture of the business. Only in instances where we felt really comfortable that there was a good match would we then move into a more detailed conversation and begin some form of the evaluation process. We also engaged specialist advisors to help manage interactions with the market and ensure the executive team could continue to focus on the business.

It’s only been a few months I know, but how is it different pushing the business forward within a bigger company?

It’s been really positive to see how the market has responded, particularly clients, partners and staff. There’s a huge amount of enthusiasm within both organisations to come together and to push the Thoughtonomy platform to the next level. The challenge is to quickly identify the main priorities and opportunities and to be laser-focused on which current and future services can deliver most value to clients around the world.

In terms of operational differences, we’ve gone from being a business of around 90 people to part of a 900 person organisation with offices, a partner ecosystem and customer engagement across the world, so already we have significantly more resources at our disposal and we’re feeling the impact that this can deliver and the potential this offers us. Our job is to capitalise on these additional resources while maintaining focus on the customer-centricity, operational agility, entrepreneurial culture and complete focus that has allowed us to grow so successfully thus far. We are hugely excited about this next chapter in the Thoughtonomy story. Watch this space!