How to Know When to Compete & When to Acquire, from Havok Founder Steve Collins

It's said that you should never meet your heroes, as they will inevitably disappoint you. At the most recent Startup Grind Dublin, this axiom was thankfully refuted. My guest was Steve Collins, and I was starstruck: back in the late 90s, Steve had co-founded Havok, the physics engine that powered major video game titles such as Halo, Final Fantasy, and Assassin's Creed, and the company went on to be acquired by Intel for north of $100m. At the time, I was studying undergraduate computer science in Dublin, and have strong memories of Havok being presented as the poster-child of the Irish tech startup scene. It was fascinating to revisit the story with Steve, and get a first-hand account of his experiences.

The Physics of an Acquisition

Steve offered some interesting insights into the acquisition process, as Steve has a perspective from both sides of the negotiating table with Havok. His team acquired rival startup Ipion in 2000, before seeing the company sold to Intel in 2007. Since then, his new venture Swrve has completed acquisitions in Ireland (Converser), and the US (Adaptiv).

Steve had some interesting thoughts to share on the process of getting the cultural fit right between the merging companies, but it was when I questioned him on the competitive aspect that his eyes really lit up: when you see a rival in the market, how do you evaluate the option to compete, or acquire? 

In Steve's own words:

"it's that gut-wrenching, sinking feeling in your stomach when you realize that someone out there has something better than you [...] I spent ages poring over their [Ipion] demos trying to deconstruct what they were doing, desperately trying to find fault with it, before ultimately coming to the conclusion that we [Havok] have to get this..." 

And the critical factor Steve looked for when considering acquiring a rival? Cultural fit. It's about the two teams sitting down together, swapping war stories, identifying matched values, and sharing meals together: in this case, of pasta and brown sauce. From such small moments of human interaction are great endeavors crafted.

For more insights from Steve Collins of Havok & Swrve, check out our full interview below: