Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Google robotic acquisitions: a cluster of deals

Google's recent acquisition of eight robotics companies  has garnered as much attention as Amazon's futuristic plan for package delivery via drones. Speculation abounds on Google's goals for its robot menagerie -- from delivery droids to elder care assistants. Stephen Colbert quips that Google intends to enslave humanity, and thus Colbert is breeding an Ewok army to counter a forthcoming invasion.

An acquisitions cluster involves a series of company purchases in a highly related sector. This is not the first time Google has bunched deals in a given sector, but this concentration of eight clustered acquisitions in a short time is unprecedented. (A cluster differs from an ecosystem in that ecosystems typically cut across the value chain of an industry, whereas clusters tend to be focused a specific sector.)

True, each of Google's acquisitions has distinctive attributes. For example, Industrial Perception focuses on robotic "sight", Boston Dynamics emphasizes mobility, and Meta stresses humanoid features. But all companies fit cleanly in the robotic sector.

Whatever robotic applications spring forth from this acquisition frenzy, the size of the cluster signals Google is serious about this moonshot initiative.

You can find details about Google and its robotics deals at

Friday, September 20, 2013

Semi-organic growth

One of Google's best acquisitions in its short history was completed in 2003, before the company went public. Google bought Applied Semantics, a developer of semantic text processing and online advertising technology. Applied Semantics' 45-person team became instrumental in building AdSense, a cornerstone of Google's paid advertising platform.

This successful "acqui-hire" imprinted in the minds of Google's senior management a form of corporate development that set the stage for many of Google's M&A transactions. Let's call this corp dev approach semi-organic growth, meaning Google acquires an external team/company and then skillfully attaches that team to a specific internal product area to accelerate the growth of that product.

For details on Google's use of semi-organic growth, as well as other key aspects of Google's M&A program, see my lecture given at Darden/University of Virgina --

Monday, March 11, 2013

Goodwill -- here today gone tomorrow?

Goodwill is a big number on the balance sheets of many technology companies. Google has $10.5B of goodwill, Microsoft 14.7B, Cisco $17.0B, and Hewlett Packard $30.9B.

How does this asset arise? Contrary to how it sounds, goodwill is not booked as a result of strong brands, excellent customer relations or talented management admired by shareholders. As much as a business might like to claim its "favor" with customers or other stakeholders as a asset, it can't be done.

Goodwill results from acquisitions and acquisitions only. Goodwill arises when an acquirer pays more than the fair market value of acquired net identifiable assets. For example when Google bought YouTube in 2006 it allocated over $1.1B to goodwill, far more than the $.1B allocated to trademarks and customer contracts.

For a number of technology companies goodwill is much larger than other major balance sheet items such as property, plant and equipment (PP&E). Cisco's goodwill it currently about 500% of its PP&E; HP's is 265%; Microsoft's is 169%.

For other tech companies, goodwill is a relatively minor asset. For low-acquisitive Apple, goodwill is only 9% of PP&E. And Samsung's goodwill is less than 1% of its PP&E.

Goodwill must be tested for impairment at least once/year, and impairment charges reduce operating income. For example, last November HP announced it was taking a $5B goodwill impairment charge related to its Autonomy acquisition. And last July, Microsoft announced its was taking a $6.2B charge to write down goodwill relating its aQuantive online-advertising acquisition.

Google, although extremely acquisitive, has never taken a charge for goodwill impairment. This hardly means that all Google acquisitions have been successful. Goodwill impairment is typically analyzed at the operating segment level, and success can continue to occur within a segment even if some deals within that segment have failed.