Marla Mal­colm Beck, co-founder of Blue­mer­cury. Mil­lion­aire. Macy’s em­ployee.

Inc. (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By KiM­Berly Weisul Illustration by Jonathon Rosen

can be un­happy BIG COR­PO­RA­TIONS places these days. The new pres­i­dent is very pub­licly smack­ing them down— about the cost of Air Force One, about drug prices, about the car plants they have in Mex­ico. Ac­tivist in­vestors ha­rangue For­tune 500 CEOs about boost­ing re­turns even as the bosses strug­gle to in­crease sales. If the big com­pa­nies seem bereft of break­through ideas, per­haps it’s be­cause they are. Mean­while, the Mil­len­ni­als they so crave as cus­tomers are hardly ex­cited about work­ing for them.

For­tu­nately for cor­po­rate Amer­ica, where there has been zero job growth,

where prod­ucts are of­ten out of touch, where mind­sets are scle­rotic, there is one force that could save them: en­trepreneur­ship—or, more specif­i­cally, the en­trepreneurs whose com­pa­nies they buy. Amer­i­can giants have be­gun to rec­og­nize that the well of in­no­va­tion is still gush­ing among the Inc. 5000. And they are thirst­ing for it.

There’s a new, and fa­vor­able, twist in the tale for en­trepreneurs, too. In the past, when a big com­pany bought a small one, the founder got a big pay­day, but had to ac­cept giv­ing up con­trol of a busi­ness built on years of love and gru­el­ing work, and that the ac­quirer, once in con­trol, might have a slightly dif­fer­ent plan for its new toy. Cul­tures clashed, cher­ished em­ploy­ees left, and all the ex­cite­ment that went into cre­at­ing the merger van­ished. Even worse was the “ac­qui­hire,” in which a com­pany got taken out pri­mar­ily for its tal­ent— without even a pre­tense of syn­ergy.

In the trend that’s emerg­ing, the founders of prom­i­nent star­tups are find­ing ways to sell their cake and have it, too. They can run their brands on their own terms in­side larger cor­po­ra­tions while at the same time pro­vid­ing spark and nim­ble­ness to the par­ent com­pany. “We needed some sort of out­side cat­a­lyst to get our dig­i­tal ef­fort go­ing at the speed I wanted it to,” says John Sch­lifske, CEO of North­west­ern Mu­tual, which bought fintech startup LearnVest. “I didn’t feel we had the right speed and agility.”

We’re now at the point when en­trepreneur­ship doesn’t have to end with a pur­chase. Even bet­ter, en­trepreneurs like Alexa von To­bel at LearnVest and Marla Mal­colm Beck at Blue­mer­cury get to op­er­ate with re­sources they couldn’t imag­ine hav­ing as star­tups. Whether it’s North­west­ern Mu­tual jump-start­ing its on­line fi­nan­cial plan­ning, or Un­der Ar­mour build­ing a con­nected fit­ness ini­tia­tive with a startup such as MyFit­nessPal, this is how the smart 21stcen­tury ac­qui­si­tion gets done. “At some point, es­tab­lished com­pa­nies have to adopt some startup think­ing,” says Alexan­der Ch­ernev, a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment. “It’s not that startup think­ing is the best thing ever. But it forces you to look at the world as a chang­ing place.”

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