Apple CEO Tim Cook made headlines this week when he told CNBC that his company buys a new company every two to three weeks. That led one writer to lament that Apple bought companies about as often as he bought groceries during a non-produce-eating time in his life. That could lead you to think that Apple is trying to buy its way to world domination. But it's probably just trying to fill out its talent pool.

Amazingly, Cook's estimate could be low. He also mentioned that Apple had bought 20 to 25 companies over the past six months, which would put it closer to buying a company every week than every other week. 

Of course, few companies can afford a buying binge as well as Apple can. It was the first company to hit a market capitalization of $1 trillion (Amazon and Microsoft achieved this distinction a bit later). It also has a huge amount of cash--$225 billion, according to its latest financial filing. That's enough to make its reported $4.5 billion (or more) payout to Qualcomm after the two settled their protracted lawsuit seem like no big deal. 

But Apple is not especially known for the big-bang acquisitions other tech giants often make, such as Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp or Microsoft's of Skype. As Cook explains, the company is "primarily looking for talent and intellectual property." In other words, most of these purchases are acqui-hires--buying a company as a way to hire star employees who've created startups. 

Why buy Platoon?

Apple's December purchase of music industry startup Platoon, which had all of 12 employees, is likely an example. Platoon offers marketing, distribution, and funding to unsigned and "emerging" musical artists and has created a lot of buzz by picking artists who are about to deliver solid hits. Representing unsigned artists isn't exactly in Apple's wheelhouse, but one of the company's co-founders, Denzyl Feigelson, worked for Apple for 15 years, helping to create the company's live events in Europe and managing artist relations there. The other founder, Saul Klein, previously co-founded the video rental service Lovefilm, acquired by Amazon to help create Prime Video. It's easy to see why Apple would want to have this talented pair of founders under its roof.

Acqui-hires can be a great deal for the company doing the acquiring, for the obvious reason that people who've founded a company are likely to be highly motivated and bright, willing to work hard and to take appropriate risks. Also for the less obvious reason that you can pay the founders of a company you're acquiring a large sum of money to come work for you without causing internal controversy, whereas if you pay a large signing bonus, existing employees might react with envy and anger.

Meanwhile, for founders, an acqui-hire can provide welcome relief from the economic uncertainty of a startup, especially if a second or third round of funding fails to materialize. It's obviously a more appealing alternative than declaring defeat and shutting your doors. So much so that it's often referred to as a "soft landing."

For as long as the talent wars are with us, and ambitious people keep starting companies, acqui-hiring will be a thing. And as long as Apple has the funds to keep buying small startups, it'll keep doing it, maybe as often as once a week, to fill its talent pool. But no one should make the mistake of thinking it intends to run all those companies.

Published on: May 8, 2019
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