The Transaction

The Principals of Founders Investment Banking advised the shareholders of GradesFirst in its strategic sale to The Advisory Board Company (NASDAQ: ABCO).


The Company

GradesFirst delivers a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution to higher education institutions. The company’s comprehensive student support system empowers staff to identify and engage at-risk students while also measuring the effectiveness of retention efforts. Founded in 2006 by Mario Moore, GradesFirst grew up in the college athletics space and applied their expertise to successfully transition to serve more individual colleges and campus-wide customers. GradesFirst employs an accomplished technical product team that built a highly reliable and scalable application. This top-notch solution, coupled with excellent customer service, allows the company to consistently maintain a 95%+ customer retention rate.


The Objective

While retaining student athletes is extremely important in the NCAA Division I arena, Mario recognized the limited overall size of that market as well as a burgeoning discussion around student retention on the academic side of campus. Over the course of several years, he and his team worked to reposition the company and its solution to serve academic advisors and tutors on the broader campus in that these roles were on the front lines of the increasing student attrition dilemma. With a strong pulse on the needs of these support staffers, GradesFirst demonstrated its ability to close enterprise-level deals and deliver a robust solution to colleges and universities across the U.S.

While on an impressive growth trajectory, the shift toward campus-wide installations meant that GradesFirst was selling to a new set of decision makers within higher-ed institutions. Rather than working with the directors of athletic programs or departmental deans, campus opportunities required approval of c-suite administrators, and at times, the company lacked direct access to and influence over these individuals. Confident that his company had the best technology and solution in the market, Mario realized that partnering with a larger organization that had a well-established presence in the marketplace would enable GradesFirst to both efficiently engage and close a greater number of these enterprise-wide deals. Further, as a serious proponent of market research, Mario perceived that the industry was ripe for consolidation—specifically for companies addressing the student lifecycle—making 2014 the right time to execute a transaction. As a result, GradesFirst engaged Founders to identify a strategic partner whose platform and reputation in the industry would expedite the company’s next phase of growth.


The Solution

Founders Investment Banking worked closely with the GradesFirst management team to build a marketing package that articulated the company’s differentiated offering, highlighted its impressive relative performance on several key SaaS benchmarks, and demonstrated the value of the substantial data collected within the platform. With this information, Founders assessed the education landscape and engaged a targeted list of potential acquirers.

This process identified Education Advisory Board (“EAB”), the higher education division of The Advisory Board Company (NASDAQ: ABCO) and a trusted provider of research, technology, and consulting services. The Advisory Board Company quickly set itself apart as a great strategic and cultural fit for the GradesFirst team, especially with its direct access to university and college administrators. This transaction provided GradesFirst with a more prominent platform from which to tell its story and allowed EAB to expand its solutions to cover a critical point in the student lifecycle. The two teams also shared the same values and vision, making them excellent partners and a more holistic solution for the higher-ed industry. The process accomplished each of the following objectives:

  • Full liquidity for the GradesFirst shareholders
  • No relocation of the team or company headquarters, but rather, additional talent, including engineers and sales staff, added to the roster
  • Ongoing roles and incentives for key management team members to assist in taking the business to the next level
  • Provide the established EAB distribution network and trusted brand that gave GradesFirst access to and influence over the institutional c-suite, thus reducing the company’s sales cycle by 75%

In order to provide securities-related services discussed herein, certain principals of Founders are licensed with M&A Securities Group, Inc. or Founders M&A Advisory, LLC, both members FINRA & SiPC. M&A Securities Group and Founders are unaffiliated entities. Founders M&A Advisory is a wholly owned subsidiary of Founders.

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