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The head of SAP's product and technology group has drawn a sharp contrast between his employer's approach to corporate acquisitions and that of rival Oracle.

In doing so, Shai Agassi pretty much dashed the hopes of start-ups hoping to exploit the growing trend towards acquisition by an enterprise IT provider as an exit strategy.

Agassi, speaking at SAP's Enterprise Services partner Summit in San Francisco, told partners to forget the fast track towards acquisition and solve customers' problems first, while also securing a corporate sponsor inside SAP. The executive was speaking in the wake of SAP's acquisition of privately held Versa Systems, a deal described by the company as a "fill-in" buy to add specific functionality and capabilities to SAP's software. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

SAP's approach differs to that of its biggest business applications rival, Oracle. Since January 2005, Oracle has bought 19 companies, from megadeals (PeopleSoft and Siebel) to bite-sized acquisitions (Sleepycat and - last week - Portal Software.) The companies last year clashed over retail software specialist Retek.

With the pace of acquisitions picking up across Silicon Valley, there is a growing suspicion among many that start-ups are beginning to rely on the prospect of getting bought by a larger tech company as a viable exit strategy.

Agassi, SAP's product and technology group president and a member of SAP's executive board, said SAP is selective in who it buys and how companies get on its corporate radar. "There are lots of people vying for attention right now," Agassi said.

"You need a big sponsor in SAP right now. IBU heads are good. And you need to find a way to get attached to people in the field. The best way to get to them is to get five customers you sold on your own to be so happy with you they will sign a reference story. Follow that script and you're golden."

Only the chosen few can move from interesting to acquisition territory, according to Agassi.

"Of the thousands [of companies] we deal with, there are between one hundred and two hundred that we know intimately," he said. "Of these hundreds, there are in the order of the tens we actually resell and might even support... of those [if we see] something becoming core, so that every one of our customers needs you, then we start having a conversation," Agassi said, adding: "Don't think of that as an exit strategy. Your exit strategy should be to build a successful company."®

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