Pandora becomes the latest tech company to turn to private equity

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You might have noticed: private equity firms love them some technology companies. According to new Pitchbook data, one-fifth of all U.S. private equity deals in the first quarter of this year centered on companies in the IT sector.

That’s up from the 10 to 15 percent range over the last 10 years, with the most popular targets being software companies; they’ve made up 54.2 percent of all PE investments in the broader tech space since 2006, and 63 percent of the transactions since early last year, says Pitchbook.

It’s easy to see their appeal to PE firms, including those companies controlled by other PE firms, those backed by VCs and those that have gone public already but have seen their share prices plateau (or worse). What they share in common: investors looking to get out so they can fund the next shiny thing.

One case cited by Pitchbook is the 2012 buyout and subsequent IPO of unglamorous consumer credit data company TransUnion. Owned at the time by Madison Dearborn Partners and the Pritzker family, Goldman Sachs acquired it, sunk a bunch of money into the business and took it public three years later. In the process, reports the WSJ, TransUnion had “become a data-mining machine, gathering billions of seemingly insignificant tidbits about ordinary Americans that it analyzed and sold to lenders, insurers and others.” All told, says the WSJ, Goldman is expected to make five times its initial $550 million investment in the company.

Venture-backed tech companies that aren’t quite ready to withstand sustained public shareholder scrutiny are other great targets, as Brian Ruder, co-head of technology at the global PE firm Permira discussed with us recently. The idea is for the PE firm to buy a controlling stake and, in the process, gobble up the shares of early investors. Afterward — as with that TransUnion deal — money is reinvested into the company to make it more valuable to a subsequent acquirer or public shareholders.

In 2014, for example, Permira invested $200 million to acquire a controlling stake in LegalZoom, an online service that helps people create their own legal documents. LegalZoom had filed to go public in 2012 with much fanfare, but pulled its offering in the wake of Facebook’s seemingly troubled IPO. With antsy shareholders, Permira was able to swoop in, buy out some of those investors, and turn LegalZoom’s transaction business into a subscription business that’s ostensibly far more valuable. LegalZoom hasn’t gone public yet or been re-acquired, but “if it does go public, it will be a much bigger, healthier company,” says Ruder.

Of course, much of the attention in recent years has centered on publicly traded tech companies and their tie-ups with PE. Though we generally assume that publicly traded tech companies will remain publicly traded, a spate of headline-grabbing deals last year proved that supposition wrong, including the visual analytics company Qlik Technologies’ sale to Thomas Bravo, and the marketing software company Marketo’s sale to Vista Equity Partners.

Now, the streaming music service Pandora is reportedly talking with private equity firms to expand its business, too. According to a new report in the New York Post, the company is talking with Providence Equity Partners, Silver Lake and KKR, among others, about being thrown a lifeline.

Indeed, just as private equity firms are searching for new ways to wring money out of tech companies, tech companies are increasingly open to taking money from well-heeled PE players, and no wonder. Reportedly, there’s $820 billion of PE capital sitting on the sidelines right now. That is a lot of dry powder. (It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but in 2015, a peak investing year for VCs, they put less than $60 billion to work.)

The Financial Times even sees the amount as  troubling for a variety of reasons. Among them: Because PE firms have record amounts of money at their disposal, they’ve been able to borrow nearly unheard-of sums from banks, giving them reason to look high and low for candidates and, in some cases, overpay. (Last year, when Vista Equity Partners acquired the event management company Cvent, it paid one of the highest multiples ever paid in a private equity takeover in tech.)

It raises the question of whether many of these deals will make sense in retrospect.

Either way, with so much money sloshing around, the trend doesn’t look to be ending any time soon.

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