Mert Hilmi Iseri co-founded SwipeSense in 2011, a health care technology platform, raised $24 million in his decade as its CEO before the company's acquisition by SC Johnson in 2020.
Offering advice during the Chicago Smart Business Dealmakers Conference kickoff panel titled, Beginning with the end in mind, moderated by UBS Chicago WM & Midwest PWM Market Head Michael R. Gatewood, Iseri, now entrepreneur-in-residence at MATH Venture Partners, put at the top of his list of suggestions having a brain trust.
Exits are a life-changing moment for a founder. It can often be a struggle to get their company in a position to be attractive to a buyer, so a process is the moment where the tides are turning. Tensions are high because the price of a mistake is too great. So having someone — whether a mentor, adviser — who can be there to lower the tension is important in helping founders stay steady through what can be a tumultuous process.
Something else he recommends is building relationships among your business-leader peers.
"I had this very bad practice throughout the years at SwipeSense, I always viewed our competition as, I want them to burn in hell and I want their kids to go to bad schools and I hope they fail in their businesses," Iseri says. "That is my attitude. I would never talk to them. If we were in a trade show together, I would just not even say hi in their booths. This is really stupid. This is not the way. As founders, we abdicate this responsibility to our bankers and say, Hey, let's go. Find the buyers for me. And this is a really bad idea. I'm not saying share your financials and your trade secrets and your IP with your big competition. I'm saying be a known entity. Be the person that is the curious instigator in your new industry that you're entering in, that you’re building out. Create the conversations with those heads of those large companies, as well as your colleague competitors. How can we grow this market together? What are things we can collaborate on? If you're a known entity that the company that is going to buy you that has known you for many years, the trust bar is already charged up."
Being a known entity to those who could be potential buyers could mean once-a-year drinks at a trade show, the occasional dinner or a lunch.
"It has to be something that's natural and boards of startups should encourage this because it ultimately doesn't mean that you're selling your company tomorrow, it doesn't mean that you're not motivated," Iseri says. "It just means that you're putting yourself out there and you have a trusted relationship when it is time to sell."
MATH Venture Partners Managing Director Mark Achler says he's asked the heads of corporate development of major tech companies what they wished CEOs knew before they came to see them.
"And the No. 1 answer was, we like to invest in and buy companies from CEOs and teams that we know and trust," Achler says. "Trust is the lubrication that gets deals done."
UBS Executive Director, Head of Business Owners Client Segment James Jack says in addition to an advisory board, business leaders should have solid financial advisers, and not just to prepare for or run a process, but it should be a lifelong relationship.
"It's not about that one transaction," Jack says. "Really rely on them. And if your financial adviser is not bringing ideas and people and connections to you, it's really on you to say to your adviser, Why aren't you doing this? Because the best advisers are certainly doing that."
Financial advisers can bring a lot more to the table than just insights into key transactional elements. They can offer guidance on elements on the perimeter of deals, such as family, philanthropy and legacy goals.
"I'm a believer for business owners that your business brings three generic things, which is your time, how you spend your day, your social lives — so, the people you and your spouse and probably even your children, interact with," Jack says. "And it's your purpose. More often than not, I'm seeing in our conversations with our clients is those are three things that become a concern — what will happen in life after exit? And so, it's not a deliverable — Oh, here we figured out how you're going to spend your time, or if your friends are still going to be your friends — but just talking about that, integrating that into a plan and having someone to converse with, I really think you do need to talk about things outside of just the specifics of the transaction on the emotional side."
And when to have those conversations is also important.
"The time to begin that conversation is not after the exit," Achler says. "The time to begin that is way sooner."