March 13, 2017
Jason D. Rowley is a venture capital and technology reporter based in Chicago.

It’s tempting to think that big private tech companies built themselves on their own, but that isn’t usually the case. Throughout the lifecycle of a typical unicorn, a private tech company founded after 2004 worth $1 billion or more, there are plenty additions to the team along the way. And not only from traditional hiring.

More often than not, unicorn companies grow by gobbling up other, smaller companies. How? By acquiring talent through an “acquihire,” adding features to the core product developed by the acquiring company, or by using the business assets of the acquired company to boost revenue and scale faster.

Just which of these bigger unicorn companies have been the most acquisitive in the past? And what does their pattern of acquisitions tell us about how different (or similar) these companies are to the broader market as a whole? Let’s try to find out.

We’re going to take a look at the acquisition habits of the technology companies from the CrunchBase Unicorn Leaderboard. Specifically, we will be analyzing the 109 unicorns based in the United States. Why? It provides us the largest geographic sample set, and we’re confident that the acquisition data is more complete for US-based unicorns than, say, those in Asia.

Hunting The Hungriest Unicorn

Before embarking on this expedition to find the most acquisitive unicorn, let’s cover some basic stats.

Of our pool of 109 US-based private tech companies, 77 of them, or roughly 70% of the group, have made at least one acquisition. Those 77 companies are responsible for the acquisition of 297 companies (that we know of) between 2007 and the end of 2016, an average of 3.85 acquisitions per company that has engaged in startup M&A.

This isn’t to say that the 32 companies which haven’t acquired another company (at least publicly) won’t ever do so—past performance is no indicator of future results. It’s not too late for any one of these companies to go on a shopping spree.

In the meantime, which unicorn is the hungriest of them all?

The answer is, far and away, Dropbox. Between 2012 – when the cloud storage company made its first acquisition of Cove – and 2015, Dropbox had made 23 public transactions. The top ten companies in the above table – Dropbox through Docker, 9% of all US-based unicorn companies – account for 122 acquisitions, over 40% percent of the acquisitions in our sample set.

There’s also a slight tendency for companies with higher valuations to have completed more acquisitions. Of course, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; it follows that bigger companies acquire more companies than their less sizable counterparts.

But there are plenty of unicorns with comparatively low valuations that have acquired a comparatively outsized number of other companies. Automattic, the makers of WordPress and related web content management tools, has acquired sixteen companies over its twelve-year history and only hit its current valuation of $1.16 billion in May 2014. Docker, valued at $1 billion, has acquired approximately one company per year since its start in 2008. And these are just two examples of smaller unicorns with outsized M&A track records.

Have Unicorn Acquisitions Peaked?

Now that we have found the hungriest of the unicorns, let’s ask a slightly different question: Taken as a whole, has the collective appetite of these companies increased or decreased over time?

To answer that, we plotted the number of acquisitions on a year-by-year basis from the set of 297 acquisitions completed by 77 US-based unicorns, starting with the first year a known acquisition occurred.

Based on this analysis, it appears as though the pace of acquisitions by this crop of unicorn companies has slowed considerably since peaking in 2014 and 2015. Between 2015 and 2016, the pace of acquisitions slowed by nearly 20%.

Since the start of the year, there have been ten known acquisitions by the batch of unicorns we’ve analyzed here. Unless there is a significant catalyzing event to hasten the pace of acquisitions, we are on track for another flat to slightly down year.

Unicorn Acquisitions Going Forward

Although the current slate of unicorns is always changing, with more private companies joining the billion-dollar club than exiting by way of IPO or M&A these days, the strategic playbook remains largely the same.

Most of the companies these unicorns acquire have valuable intellectual property, human resources, and valuable business assets, like control over a local or regional market. Although some mergers and acquisitions don’t end up working out, the logic behind the decision to acquire is sound.

It’s almost always the result of a cost-benefit analysis. If it costs less to buy a company than for the acquiring company to build something themselves, more often than not, making the acquisition is the route to take.

It’s also taken as a given that these US-based unicorns will continue to acquire companies, both now and after they go public or get acquired by still larger companies. The question is, will the pace of acquisitions by these companies recover to what it was a couple of years ago? It seems unlikely, if only because many of the most prolific acquirers in our analysis have passed the phase of rapid growth and experimentation.

Regardless, there will be M&A activity in the future, but it’ll be less an exercise in throwing spaghetti at the wall and more of the cold, strategic calculation that big corporations employ. That might mean bigger deals overall, and it definitely means those deals will come fewer and farther between.

So, what to make of all of this? Although the pace of acquisitions by this crop of unicorns appears to have slowed somewhat, there were still twice as many acquisitions by these companies in 2016 compared to 2013. Getting acquired by a company valued at over $1 billion is not out of the realm of possibility, just marginally more difficult today.

Image Credit: Unicorn (Monoceros). Conrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium; liber primus, qui est de quadrupedibus viviparis, Zurich, 1551.