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Search funds have started flipping the script on generalists winning in a largely specialized business environment. The efforts of a specialized thesis have recently proved more fruitful than the opportunistic approach, as Stanford’s 2020 Search Fund Study found, “Searchers who focus their search, as well as developing and adhering to a systematic approach of creating deal flow and analyzing deal opportunities, have a higher likelihood of identifying and closing an acquisition.”
Although the inspiration for a thesis and industry vertical might be apparent based on the searcher’s passions and past experience, often finding an enterprise that fits the search mold could prove challenging.
The good news, however, is that value chains in almost every industry are riddled with opportunities that fit the model. They are the hidden gems. What this means, for example, is if the goal is to serve as an operator in the healthcare supplement industry (from knowledge gained over the years as a professional athlete), an operation that makes or procures a certain ingredient that goes into the final product, as opposed to the final product sold to consumers, would make for an ideal opportunity.
This “value-chain-based searching” approach also opens up flexibility on the geographic front. Running a geographically agnostic search while widening the pool of potential targets might not be viable for most searchers. Offsetting this with more businesses within an industry’s value chain helps keep the net wide while respecting the searcher’s mandate.
While necessary from the outset, alignment with the entire cap table on a thesis (and geography) and continuing commentary through the process unlocks resources that come from having a large experienced team and seeing multiple searchers and transactions from an investor’s lens — the successful, the break-evens and those who didn’t make it. The most valuable resource of which is a playbook, be it in the form of time committed to mentorship or proprietary documentation conducive to a successful search.
Whoever first said, “it takes a village,” was probably a searcher. Building out a team who are unequivocally sold on the vision and believes in the mission is crucial to the searcher’s experience as a leader pre-CEO, as well as their chances of landing on a hidden gem of a business. Most searchers achieve this through interns, both in undergrad and business school, looking for an appetizer to private equity.
While more heads the better by way of sourcing and in the data room looking over opportunities, a key factor lies in the fund’s governance. Karl Scheer, now CIO at the University of Cincinnati, was clear in his governance remarks, “you can’t have investment success with a bad governance structure.”
Although at a vastly different scale, the same principles apply in aligning incentives and what a potential intern or search fund fellow can get for their time and effort. Additionally, a decision to build out a remote vs. in-person team in 2022 remains a personal preference. This could change with a clearer answer as work dynamics continue to get tested and studied over the next few years.
Another important set of people to have in a searcher’s arsenal is a set of mentors who celebrate your success by way of unbiased advice — advisors, for lack of a better term. With a large population of the search community embarking on the search journey out of business school, a valuable pool of resources could come from a supportive group of professors and classmates in touch with the focus industry. The Stanford Search model dubs these people as “river guides” and even suggests an incentive structure with which searchers have found success over the years.
With the people in place, the tools to set the search up for success help close the loop on the most effective use of everyone’s time. A tech stack helps automate low-effort tasks like initial outreach, and net-net gets the searcher in front of more potential targets. A project management suite opens up a layer of transparency on what everyone’s working on and helps move the needle from zero to one.
Finally, like many things, we are tuned to think the next opportunity around the corner could be a better bet, and regardless of how good the current deal looks, it’s hard to think past the “what-ifs.” With most searches limited to a two-year time horizon to complete an acquisition and competition from other searchers as well as some private equity funds intensifying, having a “take the train” approach should be top of mind. If a deal fits the thesis, can model out successful growth over the next five to seven years, has a viable exit strategy, and is an experience a searcher deems enjoyable above all else — go for it!