On today’s episode, Kunle is joined by Blake Hutchison, CEO of Flippa, a pioneering marketplace to buy and sell online businesses and digital assets.
Kunle and Blake discuss standard 4X SDE (Seller Discretionary Earnings) at the low end of the acquisition scale or 4X net profit matter for brand-driven businesses $10M+ deal. They also discuss cross-border M&A deals. If you are looking at acquiring online businesses, digital assets, and eCommerce brands, this show is a must-listen.
Here is a summary of some of the most important points made:
On today’s interview, Kunle and Blake discuss:
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In this episode, I’m speaking with the CEO of Flippa.com. We talk about M&A, exits, multiples, deal flow, and all the shebang about buying and selling businesses through marketplaces or brokers. It’s a great episode that you do not want to miss. Do stay tuned.
Welcome to the 2X eCommerce podcast. The 2X eCommerce is dedicated to digital commerce insights for retail and eCommerce teams. Each week on this podcast we interview either a founder to weigh in, test, and see if it works over the next 30 days. If it works, tell me what your growth story is. If it doesn’t move on, iterate, learn fast, fail fast, and move on for success. We want you to grow your conversions and your average order value. We want to build your retention efforts, your audience size, and eventually your gross merchant value or sales. We are here to help you sell more sustainably on 2X eCommerce.
In this episode, I interviewed Blake Hutchison, who is the CEO of Flippa.com. Flippa has been one of those pillar sites along with the likes of Empire. They’re the pioneers in eCommerce or in the digital M&A space. They’re over a decade old and it’s owned by the same chap who owns 99designs. According to them, they’re the world’s largest marketplace to buy and sell online businesses.
Blake leads the team as they build out products and pair exits on ownership for business owners and entrepreneurs globally. Prior to running Flippa, Blake held leadership in software called Xero. I’ve grounded this episode on a quote from my cofounder at Octillion Capital Partners, Ayo who often remarks that M&A is the final frontier in business mastery.
The reason why he says that and we aligned with that at OCP is that try studying any successful business and you’d see one of the growth strategies sometimes even a protection strategy is to acquire businesses. Sometimes it’s faster. You can acquire a target. Say you have 500,000 active customers and you acquire another business with 100,000 active users and you’ve increased your user base or customer base by 20%. That’s an example.
Flippa is both a marketplace platform and has a brokerage in it so you could interact with their sales staff that would help you find the deals you’re looking for. Besides that, I quiz him on multiples and intangible values, particularly for brands that have built communities and a lot of brand equity. Why is the standard 4X SDE or 4X net profit matter for brand-driven businesses?
We talk about deal flow and the interfaces of buying a business that does not have 3PL overseas cross-border. How do you manage that?He gave interesting examples and answers to that. We talked about general tips on how to prepare your business for an exit and what the next twelve months will look like in the M&A space. I find that I’m blessed. I feel blessed, given the fact that I’ve learned so much in the M&A space.
There’s still a ton to learn with the founding of Octillion Capital Partners. I will give you an update on our acquisition. It is going to happen fairly soon. I would make announcements about it when it happens on the podcast. You’ll be the first to hear. Besides that, it’s a great episode. He’s quite a versatile CEO. It’s a convo with Blake. Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think. Remember to leave us reviews on social platforms. Enjoy.
Blake, welcome to the 2x eCommerce podcast.
Kunle, thanks for having me.
Where do I start? I’m looking forward to this. I’m excited about this episode because Flippa goes way back. We use Flippa in Octillion Capital Partners. You’re data-driven which is why I like it. Before I go on all that and go off tangent, I’d like to know your backstory. Where did it all start? Were you entrepreneurial as a kid? I’d like to know your background.
I don’t think I was entrepreneurial as a kid. I had a real desire to work and work hard but it’s probably no different to any other 15 or 16-year-old here in Australia looking to make their first paycheck or get their first paycheck. I developed a real passion for entrepreneurship after relocating from Australia to San Francisco. I spent six years in San Francisco, and it gave me a real sense of understanding of startups.
Secondly, for the hustle and the thrill of the chase, the idea that something small can become big not only through having a good idea but through amassing great talent around you and slogging at it for long enough until you find a pathway to MVP and then scale. I’ve got a great deal of inspiration from my time in San Francisco and haven’t stopped since then.
You’re in Melbourne, Australia. Did you grow up in Melbourne yourself?
I grew up in Melbourne, moved to Tokyo, came back to Australia, and moved to San Francisco after the BBC acquired a travel publisher called Lonely Planet. I was seconded to the US representing the Lonely Planet business development team. I spent six years in the US both working for the BBC and then for a startup. 2008, prior to the GFC, I worked for a startup there. We raised $30 million on a piece of paper to build a new-age trip planner. Believe it or not, we raised from ex-Lehman Brothers Capital, which was rebranded shortly after the GFC to Trilantic Capital.
Incredible. Did you work in the startup and BBC over the entire six years in San Francisco? Is that when you ideated Flippa.com?
I consider myself entrepreneurial but to be clear, I’m not the founder of Flippa. I’ve been running Flippa for over four years. Interestingly enough, I relocated back to Australia and started what began as a daily email magazine. It’s similar to DailyCandy, Thrillist, and UrbanDaddy. It was a lifestyle publication. From that, it spawned a marketplace to buy and sell specialty food. It’s a little bit like Etsy but specifically for specialty food. I tried to sell that on Flippa. I’m a customer and a user of the Flippa product.
At that point in time, I worked for Xero, a cloud accounting software and then ran Australia’s fastest-growing eCommerce business, which was an online travel agency called Luxury Escapes. At that point, having done those things, and having experienced different business models across different industries, I was recruited to run Flippa. It’s an interesting journey and now I find myself running a global marketplace to buy and sell online businesses.
The founder of Flippa, I remember he also founded 99designs. Was it Matt?
Is he still active in Flippa?
He is. He’s on the board alongside the other cofounder Mark Harbottle who’s based here in Australia. Matt’s based in North America. They’re the single largest shareholders. They sit on the board. They’re close advisors to mine. They’re marketplace experts in their blood and 99designs as well. What was interesting about that story and lesson for entrepreneurs is you never quite know where a great idea comes from because they had a platform and a community called SitePoint.
SitePoint spawned two businesses. The first one was 99designs, where people were trading design. The second one was Flippa, where people were trading templates, source code, blogs, and things like that. They spun those two businesses out of standalone marketplaces about six years into SitePoint’s journey and Flippa has now been around for more than thirteen years.
I remember because I used 99designs to ideate a few products with the brand identity at the time. It was fascinating. You could get such diverse ready-made design pitches and you’d choose one. It was quite good. You’re at Flippa now and you’re the CEO of Flippa. What does running Flippa look like on a day-to-day basis? How many people are we talking about at the back end? It’s a digital business. As you can imagine, it’s a marketplace so there are economies of scale. What’s your day-to-day?
Time zones are a nightmare. That’s the first thing I would say. Day-to-day is building the team and we’re building a product and engineering function here in Melbourne and a sales function in Austin, Texas. To give you some context around that, product and engineering have always been born and bred in Melbourne, Australia for Flippa. Hopefully, it gives some people confidence that you can build a product lead organization from anywhere in the world and still acquire a global customer base.
Interestingly enough, as the average transaction value increases on Flippa, people need not only the efficiency of the platform but some advisory to go with that so we’ve started to add expertise in the Austin office, and built a sales function there. A lot of my day-to-day work relates to working with the product and engineering function to scope out our next big rock initiatives.
We’ve got some real innovations. I’m happy to talk about a few of those in this episode coming down the pipe, and then separately helping that sales team be more efficient in their approach. That’s not only through the technologies, but also our training that we conduct almost daily to ensure that they’re experts in multiple business models.
On Flippa, what’s unique about it is you get small business owners, entrepreneurs, and startups from all walks of life. They have eComm of course, which we can talk about but also SaaS, iOS, Android apps, content sites, and things like that. The day-to-day is about product development and sales efficiency, and it very much is the lifeblood of our organization. Can we build a great platform that helps deals get done easier for both parties? Can we provide the advisory that they need to do those deals?
In regards to deals, how many deals are listed on Flippa? On average, how many deals typically get listed when people are browsing through.
There are probably about 6,000 live listings at any given time. We also have a different measure for that, which is a kind of marketplace value so the value of the assets. To give you some sense of that, we had a record $130 million in marketplace value added in June 2022, not quite the end of the month. Interestingly enough, it’s not necessarily that we’re getting more asset lists. It’s that the average value of the asset has increased over time. Frankly, more buyers come to the platform with different needs and bigger budgets, and bigger wallets. That’s one way to think about it.
Is that due to SDE or multiples?
We do it on a multiple of SDE for the main street so that’s sub $500,000 revenue to $2 million annual revenue. For the lower middle market, you do it on a net profit multiple, and for the lower middle market bang $2 million annual revenue to $250 million annual revenue. We have two slightly different valuation approaches.
From multiple standpoints, you have websites, apps, domains, eCommerce, content sites, SaaS businesses, even service businesses apparently, and Amazon AdSense businesses. How do multiples vary from sector to sector particularly eCommerce content versus SaaS, if we were to whittle it down into those three categories. These are not even verticals. These are key different business types.
To simplify, typically, an eCommerce business doesn’t have the margin or margins of content or SaaS business. What that means is, typically, you’re getting sub-one times revenue multiples. You have profit multiples. I’m looking at a few examples here. Based on an index deal that I did, it’s a $2.5 million eCommerce business at a 3.62% profit multiple.
You tend to be looking at it 2 to 4 times, and it’s all dependent on multiple factors, but one of the biggest factors is the margin. How efficient is the business at selling through its product? That’s a lower multiple than what you’re going to get for a high-caliber app content site or SaaS business. If I look at my index now, 5.45 times the profit for apps. This is not for all assets but at the top end, I’m seeing 7.63 times for a content site.
I’m guessing that retention rates are quite high and so with better CLV and CRV, you’re going to command more multiples. It’s more guaranteed money.
For users too. Google is providing users based on keyword searches. You don’t have to spend to acquire. Arguably with a recession, which we may be going into, with Google and Facebook, you’re going to get some better ad rates but certainly, the cost of advertising given the competitive space and the competitive nature of the eCommerce space has become more and more expensive. Therefore, your margins get eaten into and as a result, the profitability that you report is not as high and then you get acquired on a profit margin. Whereas a content website typically is a more passive asset. Your COGS line is less high and therefore you get a better margin.
What about the kinds of acquirers, the M&A space as I get arguably become busy, particularly in eCommerce. I want to jump into eCommerce. We have aggregators, you have boutique acquirers that built a decent portfolio of companies. It’s similar to what we’re doing at Octillion and then you have entrepreneurs trying to dip their hands in due to the fact that there’s so much information out there and then you have the online courses churning out so-called students who are looking at deals. That’s my definition. From your perspective, how would you define categories from a Flippa viewpoint of buyers who regular your listings?
Side hustlers, entrepreneurs, and companies. Companies can be broken down into smaller organizations that are looking to acquire assets all the way through to institutional investors. Side hustlers, entrepreneurs, and companies they’re the three biotypes. Their budgets differ substantially. It’s rare that the two roads meet. You’ve got this weird gap in the market. If anyone can afford them, you get good deals from $200,000 to $300,000. The reason being is they’re too small for companies and they’re too big for individuals typically. If any high net worth out there is looking to get good deals, start aggregating 2 to 3-year-old eCommerce assets that are trading on a two times multiple and being sold for $200,000 to $300,000 SDE.
As I alluded to, never the two roads shall meet, company buyers are a lot bigger. In fact, when we look at our data, their average budget is $8 million but not to do a single deal. Most company buyers aren’t buying one business. Their average budget is $8 million. You’ve got some mega buyers. You’ve talked about the aggregators and there’s PE and they might be looking at more lower-middle markets with annualized revenue of $2 million to $50 million. To be clear, on average a preferred deal size is $1.6 million for a company buyer. Averages are a little bit misleading for obvious reasons, but $1.6 million is the average.
It means that they are looking to purchase five or so businesses with $8 million.
A side hustler is a fun little buyer type. There are lots of them, but to some extent, they’re going to stimulate and grow the eCommerce industry around us because they typically have day jobs. They have expertise. What they do is, on the side, they might go and acquire a business for $50,000 to $150,000 and they scale that into the business. The next step up with the entrepreneurs or even above and beyond that the company buyers want to acquire. It’s still early days. You’re saying great maturation of eCommerce businesses and as a result, the institutional buyers will have a lot of fodder in years to come.
There’s no doubt that we’re going through challenging times economically. We’re seeing weak demand in general. Some people think we’ve not hit rock bottom yet. Is this reflective of the acquisition activity on Flippa at the moment? Do you think that in the next months there’ll be more deals to be had due to the fact that over the last months, general revenue profits and SDE would have been suppressed? Meaning, they’re trailing twelve-month performance will yield a lower EV, enterprise value. What’s your take on that?
The tough thing is that most businesses are assessed on their trailing twelve-month performance against the prior twelve months. As a result, business owners may find that on paper that their businesses don’t look as good. It’s kind of a 0.1 if you like but we have not seen the demand side dry up. There’s a lot of dry powder, in fact, that is looking to acquire good quality businesses. Remember, this is an asset class that is currently underappreciated and undervalued. We talked before about a $2.5 million asset, which was acquired for 3.62 times SDE and 0.73 in revenue. It’s a high-quality asset. It’s growing. Economics is strong. That is a good deal.
You can’t compare that to the public market sell-off because you’re dealing with completely different valuation multiples and ways of valuing businesses. These are small businesses that are still undervalued and underappreciated and smart buyers know that. We don’t see less intent from the buying community. One thing that may happen is that savvy buyers use the public market sell-off and/or the challenging economic times to negotiate, not deservedly, but use it as a negotiation ploy. We haven’t seen it yet but my general sentiment is that as long as company buyers continue to enter the space with dry powder, there are deals to be done.
Company buyers being PE firms.
PE firms are successful entrepreneurs with big businesses who are buying companies to scale and get growth. Don’t underestimate how many savvy entrepreneurs and eCommerce operators there are right now thinking about growth through acquisition versus marketing.
My partner, Ayo often remarks that M&A is the final frontier in business. For me, it’s that black belt. You can ignore marketing, you can do sales, and you could create a product, but every great company has an M&A strategy for expansion. It’s gaining territory.
If you can do that on a good multiple where you’re dealing with a business with a high average order value so you’ve got good unit economics, good quality supplier agreements in place, and most importantly, a brand. It’s not a fly-by-night operation that has scaled through heavy investment on Facebook. If there is a real community, which is engaging with the product, then my view is that these are bargain deals that traditional PE would be dying for if they knew about it.
Speaking to the point of brands, what are your thoughts on the fact that net profits and SDE, depending on what parts of the markets are a good indicator of multiples. In that community, how do you value a brand? How do you value the community? That’s an intangible asset but it’s worth an awful amount, which, in many cases, if it’s been painstakingly built, does not reflect in the net profit or SDE. Do you see deals like that on Flippa?
All the time but it’s intangible and that’s not how the business has been valued. The business owner is leaving money on the table because the savvy buyer will talk about your trailing twelve-month performance. You talk about the fact that it’s wonderful that you’ve built a community but the reality is, that’s not a traditional way to value a business in that size of a community. They know just as well as you and I do that they’re paying for performance, but they’re buying for opportunity.
We see multiple businesses listed on Flippa that do a good job of stating their financial and operational metrics, including the size of their community and the engaged nature of the community but buyers discounted it. I’m not saying they reduced the price as a result of it. I’m saying that it’s discounted as a means to not reflect in the actual final sale price but they know how valuable it is and they harnessed that post-acquisition.
I often see this for strategic acquisitions by conglomerates. They don’t look at SDE or profits because they know if they don’t snap up that target another company will and they give them multiples of revenue. They see crazy exits. A case in mind is Dollar Shave Club.
It tends to happen at the traditional M&A level, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, small business owners don’t see as crazy multiples because even though they might have a community of 100,000 or 200,000. Buyers don’t value that in the same way that a Gillette will in a Dollar Shave Club community of tens of millions of people.
Speak to the case of cross-border M&A over the last decades with platforms such as yours. It’s not surprising to see UK entrepreneurs buying Amazon businesses in the US or even Australia. My question is, how sustainable is that over time? Most of these businesses are 3PL. If you buy an Amazon FBA business, all of the heavy lifting in terms of storage and last-mile delivery is handled by Amazon so you don’t need to have personnel on the ground. Your marketing and sourcing company, a product lead company.
For a direct consumer business, it’s different sometimes. A lot of D2C businesses have warehouses with staff in them. What are your thoughts on how this all plays out, particularly for UK entrepreneurs looking to buy in the US? Do you move to the US or get a competent CEO or COO in the US to manage operations? What have you seen? Do you have any stories to speak to that?
In a few of them. What you’ll tend to see is that they’ll retain the owner and operational teams. You see a lot of those deals and they’re structured as what you would understand in traditional M&A land as I know now. It’s what some people would now call a stability payment. What they’ll do is incentivize the management teams to stay on board for 24 to 36 months and they’ll tie those incentives back to the ongoing performance or growth of the asset over a 36-month window.
They’ve got some assurance that what they’re buying is a good cash flow generating asset where the risk of deploying a new team is minimized by keeping on the existing. That’s the most common. It’s not sensible of a strategy to think that you can acquire a business and then deploy a management team fast enough and well enough that you can stabilize the patient.
What happens to the staff on the ground? Say you want to acquire a business that sells furniture in Australia. It has fantastic numbers. Even if you can communicate in the timezone of your suppliers or what have you, you still need to move products. Your warehouse needs to be efficient. Does that mean that over the earnout period, the ex-founder is putting together a competent team and a leader replacement to manage operations there? These will be the bigger deals in context. They’ll be the $5 million-plus deals. They’re set to reporting cadence so that there are smooth operations between where you are and their operations out there. I want you to paint me a picture of what it will look like post-acquisition.
We’ve seen a lot of that. We’ve seen Israeli-based private equity buy an Australian-based toy retailer. We’ve seen US-based high net worths buy Italian-based eCommerce. Each deal is a little bit different but the expectation is that there is a way of working it. It’s typically checklist-based. There’s an operational playbook and that’s probably a smart piece of advice for prospective sellers.
For business owners who are considering a sale, you want to have everything documented as there is an SOP or standard operating procedure, which governs the way that everything works. What we tend to find, admittedly, anecdotal, candidly and a bit embarrassingly, is that we don’t spend that much time with our buyers post-sale. We certainly should but anecdotally, when we speak to them, they’re assembling teams around the existing operational teams so as to have a safe landing.
It makes sense because one of the things we’re doing in Octillion is getting the founder to be shadowed by a chief operating officer or an operational director so there’s that brain dump over the next 6 to 12 months while they’re in and out.
To add to that, most of the operational teams are not shareholders or equity holders in the business so they want to keep their jobs. They want to be retained. Once the manager has worked out their own out-period or achieved that stability payment, we often see that GMs, CEOs, or COOs are placed into those businesses but the core teams are retained. A lot of the time, due diligence not only comes down to the financials for obvious reasons and the metrics governing those financials but it comes down to who are the key components. Who are your key men and women on the ground that drive the asset’s performance?
It’s the people. It’s that foundational bit of leadership and the people around that. Before I let you go, I wanted you to give us some killer tips on finding deals on Flippa. Tips that you haven’t said anywhere else. This is the first.
The first thing is that we have off-market and private deals. What you see on Flippa is not what is for sale but it’s a big part of it, of course. The best way to find out about those private deals is to set up a buyer profile, including your bio. The buyer profile enables you to set a budget, preferred deal size, business model, category, location, and those types of things. It’s likely to be a deal subject to financing. Accordingly, what we do is alert you of relevant deals both on and off the market.
The second biggest tip is to simply sign up for our daily, weekly, or monthly email. It’s free. Flippa doesn’t have a buyer subscription. It’s a free service. You can sign up for as many things as you want. People love that email. It’s a curated email so our advisors pick the deals by the business model that they want to showcase. You don’t have to come back to the platform ever to get that email and wait for something to hit your inbox that makes sense to you. It’s not necessarily always the biggest deals, but it’s the deals that make the most sense for the biggest number of email subscribers.
Tap into our relationship managers so they can hunt for you. They are paid to be your business development workforce. They will go and find deals relevant for you. We had a mandate on our platform a couple of months ago for a buyer who had $50 million to spend every preferred deal size was $8 million to $12 million and we found him an $11.5 million deal using one of our relationship managers. Yes, we’re a technology platform first and foremost unlike most others, which are brokers. Brokers use our platform so we are an ecosystem and a network that they can tap into so you get the best of both worlds, the deals that come from the sellers directly as well as the deals that come from brokers.
Got it. Blake, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the 2x eCommerce podcast.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been great.
Before I let you go, for those of you who want to check out Flippa, it’s Flippa.com. Blake, are you active on social media? Are you a LinkedIn poster? Do you tweet a lot? If yes, what platforms are you most active on?
I am most active on LinkedIn. I find that the conversations are better, personally. You can get me on Twitter @BlakeNow. From time to time, I’ll share deals, tips, and those types of things. Otherwise, if you want to connect directly, I’d love to chat with any of your audience at my LinkedIn account, Blake Hutchison.
It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you. Cheers.