Private equity firms can offer enterprise startups a viable exit option

Four years ago, Ping Identity was at a crossroads. A venerable player in the single sign-on market, its product was not a market leader, and after 14 years and $128 million in venture capital, it needed to find a new path.

While the company had once discussed an IPO, by 2016 it began putting out feelers for buyers. Vista Equity Partners made a $600 million offer and promised to keep building the company, something that corporate buyers wouldn’t guarantee. Ping CEO and co-founder Andre Durand accepted Vista’s offer, seeing it as a way to pay off his investors and employees and exit the right way. Even better, his company wasn’t subsumed into a large entity as likely would have happened with a typical M&A transaction.

As it turned out, the IPO-or-acquisition question wasn’t an either/or proposition. Vista continued to invest in the company, using small acquisitions like UnboundID and Elastic Beam to fill in its roadmap, and Ping went public last year. The company’s experience shows that private equity offers a reasonable way for mature enterprise startups with decent but not exceptional growth — like the 100% or more venture firms tend to favor — to exit, pay off investors, reward employees and still keep building the company.

But not everyone that goes this route has a tidy outcome like Ping’s. Some companies get brought into the P/E universe where they replace the executive team, endure big layoffs or sell off profitable pieces and stop investing in the product. But the three private equity firms we spoke to — Vista Equity, Thoma Bravo and Scaleworks — all wanted to see their acquisitions succeed, even if they each go about it differently.

Viable companies with good numbers