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How to Sell Your Company Without Destroying Its Soul

For some, selling their startup is the end game. For this founder, it was just the beginning.
How to Sell Your Company Without Destroying Its Soul
Image credit: Habit

From the headlines and from the outside, it can seem that selling a startup to a much larger company is the end game. For some, it can be. But, I can tell you when we sold Plum Organics to the Campbell Soup Company in 2013, it was a beginning, not an end.

Plum was the fastest growing organic food brand at the time, exceeding our wildest expectations, but our core mission was to give the best food to as many kids as possible. Enter Campbell.

Campbell’s scale offered us a way to turbo-charge our growth and really deliver on our mission. That’s why we sold.

The question I asked myself (as Plum’s CEO) and the rest of the leadership team was how could we retain all the people and things that made Plum such a success -- the attributes that Campbell’s was buying to begin with -- and still plug into the Campbell’s engine.

Here’s how we pulled it off.

1. Preserve the mission

Mission is what brings people together and turns ideas into great companies. Lose that sense of mission, and you risk losing everything that made you a success.

From the beginning, our mission at Plum was to get the very best food to kids from the very first bite. As an independent company, we had the freedom to carry out that mission however we saw fit. The question was: how do you do that within the larger Campbell construct?

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Three weeks after we sold the company, we reincorporated Plum as a Public Benefit Corporation and a wholly owned subsidiary of Campbell (something which we couldn’t have done without the support of Campbell leadership), which to this day is extremely rare. As part of that restructuring, we wrote into Plum’s company bylaws that we were committed not just to selling healthy food, but also to tackling infant hunger and malnutrition.

2. Codify your culture

Your culture is what makes your company unique and what your employees rally around. Without a strong, identifiable culture, it’s easy for your company to lose its way in a bigger organization.

Before the acquisition, we intuitively knew our values. We didn’t write them down. We didn't need to -- our values were tribal knowledge that everyone understood because we lived them every day.

But once we sold, we made sure to codify the Plum culture and values, to take the time to define our culture by writing it down. The effort gave the existing Plum tribe a way to celebrate and reaffirm our unique culture, but it also removed any ambiguity for future Plum employees (and for Campbell's) about what we valued and promoted.

3. Shore up the leadership

The question every leader in an acquired company gets is about how long they are you going to stay. That’s fair, because when a company gets acquired, it sparks reflection for everyone. This is when a new or young company is most fragile. There are plenty of examples of acquisitions gone bad because the founders or the leadership team bail and the company loses its way.

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From my vantage point as CEO, that meant I needed to stick around after the Campbell’s acquisition, and I needed to get as many of the other key leaders as I could to do the same. This offered stability during the transition. Most importantly -- staying, not leaving -- ensured that the momentum of the company kept accelerating, and our mission stayed front and center and visible.

4. Be prepared to rebuild

Being acquired is unquestionably a new chapter in the company, and not everyone is up for that.

After we sold to Campbell's, I spent a lot of physical and emotional time keeping the band together. And, some folks that were near and dear to me wanted something else -- a new challenge, or a break. 

Not everyone will stick around, but if you stay true to the culture and the mission that brought you success, the right people will be drawn to your company again and again.

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5. Enhance the workplace

Following the completion of the acquisition, we committed to keep the company in its hometown. People are what make great brands, and we wanted to keep our people by staying in the place where the company was born.

Campbell's was on board with that idea and demonstrated its commitment by renovating our bootstrapped startup headquarters into a space where Plum could really grow. Beyond the physical space, we also focused on a nine-month “Workplace of Our Future” project. This internal project used our innovation process for developing products and flipped it to focus on how we structured teams as a way to future-proof the culture of the company.

6. Keep the promise

No matter what stage your company is in now, you can’t lose sight of who you serve -- your customer.

In our case, it was parents. We always wanted to be reminded of that.

We have a weekly huddle every Monday morning that ends with a “love bomb.” It’s a photo of a little one and a letter from their parents describing how we have played a positive role in feeding their kids. Those letters keep us focused on what matters. Their stories bring us back to our mission to bring kids the very best food from the very first bite.