A Spotlight on Tech’s Invisible Start-ups

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

Alexis Grant wants it to be OK for a start-up to be just OK.

In our imaginations and in pop culture, it can feel as though there are only two paths for young technology companies: spectacular success with Ferraris and Ferragamo for everyone, or titanic wipeouts. The start-ups that change the world or die trying are the ones that people write books and make movies about.

The Silicon Valley myth all but ignores the vast middle ground between the unbelievables and the unforgivables. Grant is trying to fill the void.

Last month, Grant launched They Got Acquired, a website and database to chronicle the founders of online start-ups who sell their businesses for between $100,000 and $50 million.

For most of us, that scale of a business sale would be glorious. When I was still relatively new to writing about tech companies, a start-up founder confused me by acting apologetic that he sold his previous company for “only” tens of millions of dollars. I quickly learned that in the era of TikTok and Theranos, $1 million — and today, even $1 billion — is as disappointing as a single potato chip in a bag.

Grant, a former journalist and start-up founder in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., said that when our culture glamorizes the businesses that become billion or trillion dollar companies and the founders who work nonstop, people who are slowly and steadily building more modest young companies can feel left out — particularly if they are parents like her.

“For a lot of people it can lead to a feeling of failure — is that the only way to succeed?” Grant said. “But the reality is that there are lots of ways to build a start-up.”

They Got Acquired is partly a tactical how-to guide for business owners that Grant said she wished she had when she started her two previous start-ups. And it’s partly cheerleading for the people who build their start-ups that don’t have billions of users but are nevertheless fulfilling for founders and employees.

“There are a lot of people who build [start-ups] this way, but they’re often not recognized,” Grant told me. “This is more desirable for me and a more desirable route for a lot of people.”

During the pandemic, there was a surge of Americans who started their own companies. Grant is trying to highlight models for entrepreneurs beyond Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg.

Mostly, Grant started They Got Acquired because she felt there was something missing for people like her.

Beginning about a decade ago, she started and sold two online businesses and helped build another, the financial website The Penny Hoarder. When it was time to sell, Grant felt lost. “I didn’t know where to start or where to find the right professionals to help me,” Grant said.

They Got Acquired is compiling information about start-ups such as their revenue and approximate acquisition price. Grant imagines that the data will help other business owners have a better sense of what their companies might sell for.

Interviews with start-up founders are published on the website and a coming podcast series will feature entrepreneurs sharing practical tactics and strategies. Jodie Cook, who started a social media agency, described for They Got Acquired how she made sure that the business could operate without her.

Grant said that she loved the business story of a mother and daughter team, Marianne Edwards and Anna Maste, who started an online community for recreational vehicle travelers. They sold their company last year for at least $1 million, Grant said, adding that she was encouraged that Maste worked on her business initially for only a few hours a week.

A friend of mine who knows Grant sent me a link to They Got Acquired, and it was an “aha” moment. I’ve written before about the start-up system that shoots for and rewards the biggest ideas possible.

That can lead to life-changing innovations like Tesla’s electric cars and Google’s search engine. But it can also compel founders to overhype their technology and grind themselves, their families and their employees into exhausted dust. It’s encouraging to see more confetti and support for a different path.

  • Tech companies have become powerful levers in war: During Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, officials in Russia, Ukraine, the U.S. and Europe have sometimes conflicting demands for the global communications and information services from Google, Facebook, Telegram and others, my colleagues Adam Satariano and Sheera Frenkel report. (I’ll have more on this in Wednesday’s newsletter.)

    Related: Microsoft coordinated an effort to stop malicious software that was designed to wipe essential computer networks in Ukraine.

  • Show me the money: Employees of some tech companies want more of their pay in cash rather than stock, The Wall Street Journal reported. One way to interpret this: Workers at big companies like Amazon and Google don’t believe that their companies’ stock prices will zoom up from here. (A subscription may be required.)

  • Cameras and sensors track you in Amazon’s new high-tech Whole Foods store, but you can’t take photos or videos of yourself while shopping. My colleague Cecilia Kang tried out the Washington grocery store that skips checkout lines, and talked to local residents about the trade-offs of convenience versus creepiness.

This is an unexpected tale about the musical legend Johnny Cash and the actress Elizabeth Taylor.

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