James Ashton: Knives out for the Lynch mob as Whitman calls foul over Autonomy founder's books

The two sides repelled almost as soon as Mr Lynch banked his £500m cheque

James Ashton@mrjamesashton
Tuesday 20 November 2012 23:00

Could Mike Lynch and his fellow Cambridge boffins have been so stupid as to cook the books? Meg Whitman is convinced they did, and is rolling out big-gun advisers to drag Mr Lynch to court. The master of Autonomy's data-sorting technology strenuously denies wrongdoing, but he may need to set out a watertight defence, and fast.

Questions about Autonomy have dogged its meteoric rise. A vocal minority of City analysts led a bearish campaign against mushrooming revenue streams they thought too good to be true.

But the bulls who snapped up the shares after the dot.com crash in 2002 weren't listening because they were enjoying some stellar stock market returns.

All bets were off 15 months ago, when Mr Lynch succeeded in selling out to Hewlett-Packard (with, he notes, extensive due diligence involving 300 people). It might have deprived the FTSE 100 of a rare home-grown hi-tech success, but what better validation than being bought by one of Silicon Valley's cornerstone companies?

HP, desperate to boost its presence in software as its personal computers and printers started to look old hat, kept the deal under wraps using the codename Project Tesla, after the unit of measurement for magnetic field strength.

Instead of attracting each other, the two sides repelled almost as soon as Mr Lynch banked his £500m cheque. At its heart was a culture clash between Autonomy's entrepreneurial spirit and HP's heavy layers of bureaucracy.

Of course there's an element of déjà vu here – a soured deal, a hastily departed founder, huge impairment charge and a very public row. Not HP's bust-up with Autonomy, but the story of eBay's acquisition of the internet phone company Skype.

And who led that deal seven years ago? None other than former eBay boss Ms Whitman, who is now clearing up at HP. The giants of Silicon Valley have so much cash stuffed in their hard drives they can afford to spend first and worry later when it comes to the elusive pursuit of growth.

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