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Monday, November 26, 2007

Postscript To The Iron Mountain-Stratify Deal

In the past couple of weeks, I have spoken to several people close to the Iron Mountain-Stratify deal, and it has been interesting to hear their different perspectives.

The one thing they all agree on is that, as a business, Stratify was doing well. From a combination of news reports, Iron Mountain’s statements, and my various sources, I learned that Stratify’s revenue grew from $24M in 2006 to $30M this year. That is below the $40M+ it forecast earlier in the year, but healthy growth all the same. Gross margins are an impressive 60-70%, which is great for a services business, and profit margins are 20-30%. The vast majority of its 110 customers are law firms but – I know from personal experience – it has had some success in the enterprise. Net net: Stratify was in pretty good shape.

But at that point, opinions begin to differ. I heard 2 competing interpretations of the acquisition:

1. It’s a good deal for all sides

This was my initial reaction and the topic of a blog post written on the day the deal was announced. It has since been echoed in the press and by the analyst community. The story goes something like this:

Everyone wins from this deal. Once you factor in assumed stock options and retention packages along with the $158M that goes to existing shareholders, Stratify gets a multiple of 5.5X current year revenue, which is high for a services business. It also gets to operate autonomously under the Iron Mountain umbrella, with (supposedly) minimal interference from back East. For its part, Iron Mountain gets a growing, profitable business which it can grow more quickly, by selling into its installed base, and more profitably, by leveraging its existing sales force.

2. Stratify sold too cheap, too early

Why sell a profitable, growing business, especially one in a rapidly growing market like e-discovery? Given its growth trajectory, won’t an independent Stratify be much more valuable in 2-4 years time than it is today? Why repeat the mistake made by shareholders of VMWare and MySpace, who sold billions in value for a few hundred million?

The answer, say people who hold this view, has nothing to do with Stratify’s business and everything to do with its shareholders. On the one side, Mobius, the venture capital firm which owned 70% of the company, wanted out – the firm is winding down, some of its partners are raising a new fund and wanted an outcome to boost their VC track records. On the other side, the founder was tired after 8 years slugging it out and wanted a payoff. The business is not suitable for a financial buyer (sales are too lumpy and unpredictable, making it hard to take on large amounts of debt), so an acquisition was the only option.

With the benefit of more time to digest the deal, I have come to feel that both views are in fact correct. It’s a good deal for all sides, even though there’s a strong case that Stratify sold too early. Regardless, there’s still a lot for the Stratify team to feel good about – and, following the MySpace example, they can always go back and ask for a pay rise.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Advice For Service Providers: Leverage Technology To Swim Upstream

As companies use Clearwell’s e-discovery solution on more and more cases, I often find myself speaking to their litigation support service providers. Other than being in the same industry, these service providers have nothing in common: they vary from small shops to large, national companies; from unprofessional cowboys to highly principled professionals. But despite these differences, they all say the same thing: theirs is a very tough industry.

Perhaps everyone says that, but in their case there are good reasons for believing it to be true. It is very hard to differentiate litigation support services, other than by price; law firms make for demanding customers; barriers to entry are low so there’s constant price pressure from new entrants; and, it can take a long time to get paid, given that you are at the end of a long chain (enterprises must first pay law firms who then pay service providers).

That led me to wonder, “What would I do, if I were in their shoes?” The answer is that I would seek to differentiate my service by leveraging technology to swim upstream.

Neither of these ideas (leveraging technology, moving upstream) is original in its own right. Every litigation support service provider leverages technology in some way or other, and many have even built their own in-house review platforms. The larger ones have also sought in one way or another to swim upstream, meaning sell to their customer’s customer (the enterprise) directly rather than to law firms who then sell their services to enterprises.

But what service providers historically have not done is combine the two ideas: i.e., use technology as the means by which they can more easily sell to the enterprise. To paraphrase what the bright, forward-looking CEO of one service provider recently told me: “If I can get technology into the enterprise behind the firewall, then that makes my corporate accounts more “sticky”. It makes it easier for them to export data into my review platform and more likely they will use my services on any given case.” This technology does not have to be developed in-house; service providers can partner and integrate with providers of corporate e-discovery solutions to achieve the same effect.

My respect for litigation support service providers has only increased as I have come to appreciate the severe market pressures under which they operate. So has my excitement for the opportunity before them. Litigation support services is a large, fragmented, growing industry –- a level playing field in which service providers who innovate can see large returns.