A few weeks ago, 32-year-old entrepreneur Wiley Cerilli sat down with his wife. He told her an email company, Constant Contact, wanted to acquire his two-year-old startup, SinglePlatform, for $100 million.
The couple came up with a list of things to buy and do if the deal went through:
- Get a new washer and dryer
- Mount the TV
- Buy new socks
“We couldn’t think of anything else we really need,” he said.
Last week, the $100 million acquisition was finalised—$65 million in cash up front with the ability to earn up to $30 million more over the next two years.
As a sole founder who had only raised $4.5 million from outside investors, Cerilli suddenly became a very rich man.
We met up with Cerilli and SinglePlatform’s executive team on Wednesday night, just after the money hit their bank accounts.
We asked, “How does it feel to be absolutely loaded?”
“It doesn’t seem real,” he replied.
Here’s Cerilli’s story.
* * * * *
Cerilli grew up in Rhode Island and he was always a hustler. He isn’t a coder, he’s a salesman, and Cerilli perfected his technique by selling flowers, lemonade and T-shirts to the Brown University community with his friend, Irving Fain.
Fain says they’d walk away some weekends with thousands of dollars in their pockets.
“If you can sell roses to people on a hot day during college graduation, you can sell anything,” says Fain. “Wiley can sell effortlessly. He is the type of person who walks into a store to sell someone, and within minutes they’re trying to sell him, asking to be his customer.
Cerilli learned a lot from his father, who died of cancer when Cerilli was 16. A real estate developer, Cerilli’s father constructed multiple large buildings in Providence, one of which had no windows. He hired an artist from RISD to paint beautiful bay windows on it that could be seen from the highway. “I wanted to be like that and paint windows on my own windowless building,” says Cerilli.
Cerilli went to Syracuse University for one year, but he quickly found he wasn’t college material. He transferred to NYU where he could work and attend classes simultaneously. He says his first apartment was modest, with a blow-up mattress for a bed that frequently popped when he’d lie on it.
Cerilli dropped in and out of school at least five times. He never graduated but instead began his tech career. He worked alongside Meetup’s Scott Heiferman at a startup called Rocketboard. Then Cerilli became an early employee at Seamless, a food ordering site created by Jason Finger.
When Seamless was acquired, Cerilli found himself a few hundred-thousand-dollars richer. Even then, Cerilli says he only splurged on socks.
Cerilli met his wife Allison on Match.com, although he was never hard-pressed to find a girlfriend. “It was an efficient way to meet someone and I was working all the time,” he says. He says he thought his wife’s profile was fake at first — she looked too good to be true.
In 2010, Cerilli put his tech, sales and local restaurant experience to use. He founded SinglePlatform to help get small businesses online and manage all of their listings in one place.
Charlie O’Donnell, then of First Round Capital, was one of the first investors to notice Cerilli.
“Scaling local sales is hard and Wiley was one of the few people who had done it already,” O’Donnell says of meeting Cerilli. “His experience at Seamless made him uniquely qualified in the space compared to the other people I had met.”
First Round Capital contributed to SinglePlatform’s initial $1.2 million round of financing, and followed up in a second $3.25 million round last summer.
Despite support from investors, SinglePlatform went through some rough patches. Fifteen months ago, Cerilli wasn’t sure his company would make it.
Photo: Kenny Herman/SinglePlatform
“Publishers weren’t signing with us, and businesses weren’t signing on fast enough,” he tells us. He tried to pivot the company to a pay-per call model, but that was a failure.Cerilli also had to fire three top salespeople who weren’t cultural fits. He wondered if he was cut out to be an entrepreneur.
By the end of the summer, things were looking up again. Cerilli hired a COO, Peter Chen, last July. Chen had co-founded Community Connect, one of the top social networking sites in the ’90’s. The August financing followed, and more key hires were made. Partnerships started rolling in, from Foursquare to Yellow Pages. Paying clients grew to 10,000 local businesses and the SinglePlatform team grew to 60 people.
Investors wanted more of SinglePlatform. They began throwing term sheets at Cerilli, two of which he signed in a new $17 million round that was never finalised. Constant Contact asked to take Cerilli to lunch before the financing was complete.
Cerilli’s plan had been to raise the $17 million, then turn around and raise another round quickly. Investors valued SinglePlatform so high, even Cerilli had trouble justifying it. “The next round would have made us worth so much we’d have had to go public,” he says.
But Constant Contact acted quickly. Within a day and a half it had an acquisition number for Cerilli. He was floored by the offer.
Cerilli called up an investor whose term sheets he had already signed. “The investor was amazing,” says Cerilli. “He told me, ‘Wiley, I really want to work with you, but you should take this deal. I’ll work with you on your next company.'”
That Thursday over coffee, Cerilli broke the news to his childhood friend Fain. Shortly after, an impromptu celebratory trip to Las Vegas was planned with 30 friends.
But Cerilli’s favourite moment of that whirl-wind acquisition week was calling his friend and SinglePlatform executive, Kenny Herman.
Herman, SinglePlatform’s head of business development, flew back from his honeymoon one day early for the acquisition when he received Cerilli’s call. “Allison and I put him on speaker phone and said, ‘Congratulations Kenny, you are now a millionaire.'” After Herman learned his new net worth, he says he and his wife embraced for 15 minutes in the airport. Herman is 27.
The morning the acquisition was announced, Cerilli sent an email to his 60-person staff. He let them know they’d all be able to keep their jobs, and they’d all be getting stock and cash from the deal.
Cerilli wrote them this:
You all are on this email because you are a family member, friend, an advisor/mentor, a past co-worker of mine, a high school teacher of mine, and you are a supporter of SinglePlatform, our team, our vision, and of me personally. I truly appreciate all the amazing support you have provided me over the last couple of years.
In my last company wide email l referenced a part of Sheryl Sandberg’s speech that she recently gave at the HBS graduation. During the speech, she described her hesitations in accepting a job offer with Google, which vanished when Eric Schmidt, the company’s former CEO, told her, “Don’t be an idiot. Get on a rocket ship. When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. If you are offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat, just get on.” Well, SinglePlatform has been offered a front row seat on a larger and faster rocket ship, and we have decided to jump on board.
I have some exciting news to share this morning. SinglePlatform has signed an agreement to be acquired by Constant Contact, a leading provider of online engagement marketing tools for small businesses and nonprofits. The deal was announced one minute ago (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/constant-contact-acquires-digital-storefronttm-provider-singleplatform-2012-06-13), for $100 million. The Executive team and I could not be more excited about this acquisition, and the impact it will have on our ability to help empower millions of local businesses while providing our team members with an amazing career opportunity.
From a high-level, things are going to remain the same for a while.
- The whole team is staying, including the Executive team
- We will keep our name, our service and our roadmap
- We will continue to operate out of our NYC office
- The only reporting change will be that I will now be a Vice President at Constant Contact, reporting to their CEO, Gail Goodman (Ernst & Young Innovator of the Year, Member of MIT’s Innovation Hall of Fame), and I will be a member of their Executive team. Not bad for a college dropout. :)
I am incredibly proud of how this deal was done. Every single person at this company is keeping their jobs, will have better benefits, has a better and brighter future, and everyone received stock and cash as part of the deal. This was truly a win-win-win-win. Since I started this business over two years ago, I have had a goal of building an industry-leading service for local businesses, but I never dreamed we (SinglePlatform, the team, and me personally) would have had this opportunity. I have never been so proud of a group of people and all of the work that we have put in to get us to this point. But with this news also comes a challenge, as this only marks the beginning of our journey, not the end. Constant Contact has over 500,000 paying small businesses, so we now have a bigger opportunity and a broader platform, and we must take advantage of this moment. I look forward to this next phase and to showing the world how talented this team is.
This is not just a great moment for our company and our people, but also is an incredible moment for local businesses and the space.
Thank you for all of your advice and support. Today is truly the proudest day of my life.
“The best way to predict the future, is to create it.” – Peter F. Drucker