Freelancing is one of the labor market’s more interesting trends: Over 90 million professionals will work as freelancers by 2028 in the US alone. Some analysts even go as far as calling it the “freelance revolution”.
But while freelancing has been synonymous with designers, software developers, and social media marketers, freelancing in M&A is still a foreign concept to corporations and business leaders alike. M&A projects tend to be large, complex, and highly confidential — so how is there room for freelancers?
In this article, we’ll discuss what M&A freelancers actually do, and how clients on the buy- and sell-side can leverage them alongside traditional boutiques and their in-house teams.
The Rise of Freelancing in M&A
The workload in M&A naturally fluctuates depending on dealflow. And with that volatility, flexibility is an enormous asset for corporations looking to acquire. What’s the point of hiring a team of five full-time M&A specialists for that one milestone deal, only to have them sit around when the strategic shift changes or deals become more rare or smaller?
That’s exactly why freelancers and M&A are actually very compatible — the flexibility and versatile skillsets that they bring to the table are incredibly useful to balance out peaks in the M&A project business with more quiet times.
Especially on the sell-side, the ecosystem of investment banks and boutiques is built upon a core of strong client-advisor relationships. Or, as others would put it, the choice of consultant is often simply based on which M&A advisor is within (local) reach or the personal network. Similarity bias leads founders to work with whoever they already know — not who’s the best consultant for the job. A real missed opportunity – after all, an advisor with a proven track record in a sector might be able to uncover different perspectives, network access, or strategies for the sale.
But with the digitization of business processes, even M&A deals often don’t originate from the golf course anymore. Tech-savvy entrepreneurs are looking for M&A consultants that best fit their business, and not just the one that’s around the corner. “Who throws the best parties?” is slowly being replaced by “Who will do the best job on this project?” — that’s true for the VDR space as much as for consulting.
Who Are These M&A Freelancers?
Investment banking and private equity are lucrative careers — so who would even opt for a seemingly less stable freelance career?
In fact, especially bulge brackets and elite boutiques are attractive springboards for aspiring M&A freelancers. With their large network, excellent training, and strong brand, the likes of Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and Lazard are a great foundation for freelance success. The freelance platform Fintalent.io reports more than 2,000 active M&A and Private Equity freelancers, and more than 40% have backgrounds in bulge brackets or elite boutiques.
So while traditional boutiques might sell the partner and let the analyst do the work, with a freelancer, clients actually get what they pay for — a bulge bracket banker, if they need one.
As more and more top-level M&A professionals consider freelancing as a relevant alternative career path, clients have started to slowly open themselves up to modern alternatives to traditional boutiques. “For me, it’s mostly about the work-life-balance and the attractive multitude of potential assignments across sectors and situations”, says David Runge, an M&A freelancer from Germany who previously worked in top-level Private Equity firms.
But when is it the right time to work with a freelancer, and when is a traditional M&A boutique the better choice?
When to Choose Traditional Boutiques
M&A boutiques advertise their experience and team of analysts, but in practice that all too often means intransparent price structures and fees for the work of senior professionals, that’s actually being done by juniors (or, even worse, outsourced).
That being said, local boutiques, unsurprisingly, can really shine in local deals, since they will have a local network of businesses they’ve been connected with over the years. As soon as you’re going cross-border, however, local boutique players will struggle to find the right buyers due to the lack of network. So the only resolve is the large, international investment banks — and the gap in between can be conveniently closed through freelancers.
When M&A Freelancers Are the Right Choice
M&A freelancers, on the other hand, allow the business owner or manager a higher degree of active involvement in the process. They work as part of the business and before the actual sales process even begins, for instance, to prepare the exit, or structure the documents for the data room.
This can be particularly interesting when specific sector knowledge or an active network is desired by the seller. So even with a more vague interest to sell a business, sellers can actively understand their market value, and save money compared to a traditional boutique.
For corporate M&A divisions, M&A freelancers can support buy-side transactions particularly in three areas:
- Specific expertise: Especially in deals outside of the core competency of the established corporate M&A division, freelancers can supply sector or network expertise to supplement the in-house knowledge.
- Free up the team for critical tasks: Be it smaller transactions or other tasks that the core team doesn’t have the capacity for, for example during due diligence, freelancers can relieve the deal pressure from the core team.
- Ad-hoc support: When a deal has a critical timeline, freelancers can provide much needed on demand flexibility.
Besides these factors, freelancers are also not boxed into typical corporate structures, as Bart van Acker, CEO of Belgian MedTech firm QbD Group, remarks: “We have the ambition to grow organically and inorganically. In the past, we worked with traditional partners, but it was on a very country-by-country basis, which isn’t beneficial if you have a global approach. So I opted for a freelancer instead.”
Building M&A Expertise In-house
For businesses that are new to building inorganic growth through acquisitions, an interim Head of M&A can be a strong way to get started with building up a pipeline. But especially once acquisitions become a strategically important growth lever, enterprises need to build up M&A as core competency in-house.
“We see that our customers have a natural transition from freelancers to full-time staff in their M&A division”, says Ömer Güven, CEO and Co-Founder of M&A Freelance platform Fintalent.io. “They kick off their M&A activities with a freelancer, and then build from there.”
Freelancing in M&A is slowly establishing itself as a relevant alternative for both sell- and buy-side clients. But that’s only the beginning – more and more freelancers in M&A start to join forces and build teams. This way, they can compete with traditional boutiques based on their expertise, and without the overhead of a traditional agency business model.
But established players aren’t standing still, either — after all, freelancers have worked with M&A boutiques for years.
One thing is clear: Freelancing in M&A is here to stay.
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Tobias Liebsch is co-founder at Fintalent.io, a staffing platform for M&A and Private Equity professionals.