At Bonova Advisory we interview Industry experts, C-suite and Influencers on various topics in Finance and Banking. This week I had a chance to interview Aaron Turner to gain insights into how to build a business for a successful exit.
Aaron Turner is the CEO and Co-Founder of Hotshot, and has spent decades understanding the best ways to protect information and systems from attackers, untrustworthy technology companies and nation/state surveillance operations. He is a serial entrepreneur with experience starting new teams and initiatives within large organizations and in the last decade working for himself in his own small startups.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In the mid-90’s I was doing my undergraduate work in Spanish linguistics and I wanted to setup a way for me to collaborate with people globally to do research into how the different dialects of Spanish came to be. I setup a Network News Transport Protocol (NNTP) server that allowed students and professors from the entire Spanish-speaking world to interact and collaborate. Unfortunately, I deployed this server without appropriate protections (like firewalls, access controls, etc.) and within a few weeks someone began storing their adult site collection on my server without my knowledge or consent.
I began the months-long-process of removing the offending content for good. I would immediately delete the attacker’s content, make a few security improvements, then the intruders would come back, bypass my new defenses and then I’d start the cleanup project again
This experience taught me about power of internet for the good as well as the bad where unprotected internet resources will always be vulnerable to attack. I started working as a part time consultant for penetration testing and white hat hacker while attending law school. Eventually I dropped out of law school and was hired by Microsoft.
I worked on teams that helped start many of Microsoft’s security initiatives, programs and technology development efforts.
Can you tell us a story about how you were able to build, a business from scratch scale and sell it to a bigger firm?
For the first decade of my career, much of my entrepreneurial experience was gained building new teams and initiatives inside of one of the largest tech companies in the world, Microsoft. I was fortunate that I had managers there who let me take chances in starting new projects, test out new ideas, train people to scale my ideas, then launch the programs within larger teams and across multiple geographies. I essentially had the best safety net in the world at Microsoft to spread my entrepreneurial wings, use other people’s money to get first-hand startup experience and learn many hard lessons without the risks associated with doing it on my own. Starting something new within the US Government at the Idaho National Laboratory was much, much more difficult, but still rewarding.
After leaving Microsoft and INL, I used those lessons learned to build technology companies which would scale quickly with relatively few employees, but lots of partners. Probably the most-important lesson learned from my days of Microsoft – find partner organizations which have common interests with your business, and work together in ways which provide upside to all parties involved. At both RFinity and Terreo, I enjoyed a great return on invested time and capital by finding large organizations which were hungry for innovation. I provided the innovative spark, but showed those larger organizations how they could benefit. In both cases, those partners became acquirers and I enjoyed the financial benefits.
Can you share with our readers the “6 Things You Need To Know If You Want To Build, Scale and Prepare Your Business for a Lucrative Exit”. Please give a short story or example for each.
- Have a stable personal life and a solid life partner. Most of my entrepreneurial success I attribute to the patience, support and motivation that my wife of 24 years has provided to me. Her willingness to make financial sacrifices and live frugally has given me incredible opportunities to take risks that many other people don’t get.
- Surround yourself with people who know your strengths and weaknesses and have complimentary skills and abilities. This will require working with many people in many different settings. The most-important entrepreneurial relationships I have today were built by helping other entrepreneurs and investors. I would not be in the situation I’m in today if I didn’t take the time to help others without any immediate upside. Develop mentor/mentee relationships. I would not be in the situation I’m in now without the support of people I respect like Ron Gula (founder of Tenable and now running Gula Tech Adventures), Peter Kuper (partner at Clear Sky Ventures) and too many others to name here.
- Be confident but humble. This is a tough mix of attributes to achieve and I still struggle with it every day, but you need to be confident enough to bring new ideas to market, yet at the same time humble enough to listen to input from prospects, investors and employees to make sure you can take their feedback in meaningful ways and flex your business ideas to meet what the market needs, what investors are willing to support and eventually what an acquirer will pay for.
- Find allies quickly and be flexible to meet their needs. In my experience, it is much easier to be successful if you can build business partnerships where risk is shared along with rewards. When you have limited resources, building partnerships where no money is exchanged at the start is critical. This also helps sharpen business plans as it forces you to build business models which have upside for both parties.
- Get good legal and accounting advice. Even though I went to law school, have significant experience with many aspects of building a business, and am married to a CPA, there is no replacement for qualified professionals who can help with critical advice at critical times. Be willing to pay a premium for some types of advice in situations where the stakes are very high.
- Be opportunistic. With my RFinity and Terreo exits, I could have held out to get more money from both exits. But, back to point #2, I know enough about myself that I recognize that I’m really good at getting things started, but not as aggressive or interested in overseeing long-term operations. Both exits were at the right time for me because of my preferences.
Can you give a few examples of things to avoid when trying to build a business to sell?
Don’t build a business where it is ‘you against the world’ – where you position yourself as the only solution to a problem. Build businesses which solve problems which are similar to other approaches, but define your business by providing a differentiator to exactly how the problem is solved. Don’t create problems for people to solve with your product (the early days of computer security saw this a bit when people would hack into someone’s system and then come along and offer the solution – unethical in any situation). Don’t build a business where you have to denigrate your customers to get ahead (again in the internet security space, one company was actively showing their customers’ hacking damage to sell their product/service).
What are some of the differences in approach for building a service based business versus a product based business with an intent of selling the business at a lucrative price?
It used to be that there were significant differences in exit valuations based upon services and product businesses. Software as a service and their recurring revenue models changed that. In the current environment, it is tough to distinguish between some product and service companies because of the SaaS model. For traditional services based businesses (true situations where the delivery of the service is constrained by how many people you have to hire to do the job) there really is no way to get beyond the valuation caps that are imposed unless you develop some sort of scalable ‘product’ that helps solve the problem scalably in the future. So, for those in services businesses, use those consulting opportunities as product R&D cycles, then sell the product/SaaS.
How does one go about the process of finding a buyer?
Networking, networking and more networking. Without being too pushy or devaluing your business, always be in ‘sell’ mode. Look for opportunities within your industry to show how your approach could help a larger company solve problems in the market.
How can one decide if it is better to build a business in order to exit, or if it is better to stick around for the long term and let the company bring in residual income or go public?
A lot of this has to do with the market and what the entrepreneur’s personal preferences are. I’ve met some people who want to build family businesses that they use as employment and wealth generation opportunities for their children and grandchildren. I’m more the opposite, I like to work on something for a few years, sell the business and then move to the next opportunity. I would caution against planning to take a business public. In the last 2 decades, so few businesses have been successful to really do an IPO without massive fundraising (and dilution of the founders). It’s possible, but the odds are not in favor of taking your company public. Selling your company to a publicly-traded company is a much more-likely outcome (which is what happened when I sold Terreo to Verifone).
Can you share a few ways that are used to determine a good selling price for the business?
This is more art than science in my experience. I usually start with ‘what price is the buyer willing to pay?’ and then work from there. You always want to maximize the value of the business, but any dollar above the buyer’s expectation is going to require justification with real, solid data. There are consultants which can be hired to set business valuations, but their utility is limited to traditional cash flow businesses, not in high-growth/emerging technology ones.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I love the culinary arts, and I also love the opportunities that I’ve had to help feed truly hungry people. If I could step away from my technology security passion and do something else, it would be to build a program which would help people share quality food with one another in a way that improves both the givers’ and receivers’ lives. We have many social programs to give food to people, but that only solves one part of the equation. I believe that the act of actually serving someone face to face has a tremendously positive impact on the giver that writing a check or paying taxes to support a government program don’t provide.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Aaron Turner on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aaronrturner/
Aaron Turner on Twitter: https://twitter.com/aaronrturner
Hotshot on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/hotshot-app/
Hotshot on Twitter: @Hotshot_Mobi (https://twitter.com/Hotshot_Mobi)