Drawbridge, No. 6 on the 2015 Inc. 5000
Since landing on the 2015 Inc. 5000 as the fastest-growing woman-led company that year, Drawbridge, the San Mateo, California-based data-connectivity firm founded by Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan, has closed two rounds of financing and doubled down on its core line of business–helping clients learn about customers, even across multiple devices. In 2019, Drawbridge sold itself to a partner, LinkedIn, which is owned by Microsoft, for an estimated nearly $300 million. –As told to Christine Lagorio-Chafkin
We had been discussing a potential acquisition over the course of 2019. In spring, things kicked into overdrive. I was actually pregnant at the time. My company was my first child, and LinkedIn was conscious of that fact. We had to get the product, the business, and the strategy right. But also the human element involved.
We sat down for a six-hour-plus meeting. I was due to give birth in two days. The level of sensitivity was so impressive; every 15 or 20 minutes they were doing a health check-in on me: “Are you OK?” Then, when I went into labor, I was on the delivery table and got news that everything seemed in order. The nurse said, “Put your phone down. Let’s get going!” I will remember this with so much delight. It was a lot happening at once, but it was the best experience. My daughter is now 2 years old, and the business is thriving in a way that it wasn’t before. I wouldn’t have done this with any other partner.
An acquisition is a moment of growth for a founder-CEO. You’re running the show; you’re calling the shots as the leader of an independent company. Naturally, you struggle with letting go. You wonder: Are you going to get lost in a larger organization? We went from almost 150 people to a more than 16,000-person company within LinkedIn, which itself is within Microsoft, a more than 175,000- person company. But rather than shy away from the vastness, harness it. Think about your current sphere of influence, and stay calm. The fear that you are going to get lost in an ocean is not necessarily warranted; I was able to stand out in the ocean and have a deep sphere of influence.
Ultra Mobile, No. 1 on the 2015 Inc. 5000
A year after topping the Inc. 5000, telecom Ultra Mobile launched a discount wireless service called Mint Mobile. In 2019, co-founder and CEO David Glickman spun Mint Mobile off as a subsidiary company and announced actor Ryan Reynolds as its co-owner. But Reynolds is not simply a face. Here, Glickman describes how the duo’s business partnership has helped Ultra scale. –As told to Cameron Albert-Deitch
We spun off Mint Mobile only because Ryan Reynolds wanted to buy an ownership stake in it. For several years, Ryan and I were both board members of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. I watched him do his unique brand of guerrilla marketing on Deadpool, a movie he starred in and co-produced. He was given a next-to-nothing budget and had to do it all on his own–and it became the highest-grossing R-rated movie at the time. Then, he did it again with Aviation American Gin, which was almost unheard of when he bought an ownership stake in 2018. Last year, alcohol giant Diageo bought it for up to $610 million; the final sale price hinges on the company’s performance over the next few years.
I said to him, “If you can do that with a wireless company, it’d be worth tens of billions of dollars. Why don’t you just come in here and do that with Mint?” I’m still the CEO of both companies, but he created all the Mint Mobile marketing you see–whether he’s in it or not. He demands that we have the highest level of customer care in the entire wireless industry. We say we have the lowest customer churn of anyone in the industry because, as Ryan likes to say, “we don’t hate you.” It’s not just a celebrity endorsement; he is the owner, and I’d partner with him on a business venture if his celebrity brought nothing to the table.
When I’m building a team, tackling a market, and putting a business plan together, it’s hypergrowth or bust– because after doing that with Ultra Mobile, I know we can do it again. Mint had 91,044 percent revenue growth from 2016 through 2020, with annual revenue over $100 million. If it had been eligible for last year’s Inc. 5000, it would have been No. 1. So we don’t say, “Let’s test this and see how it goes.” Instead, we just say, “Let’s go big.”
Globalization Partners, No. 6 on the 2016 Inc. 5000
With a business that digitally places talent all over the world, Nicole Sahin was, perhaps oddly, a stickler for face time. Her Boston-based global employment firm had more than 80 offices around the world. “I always liked people going into our hubs,” Sahin says. “That was before the pandemic.”
Now, Globalization Partners is almost entirely virtual, “and we’re not going back,” she says. A perfectly timed $150 million investment, which Sahin raised right before Covid-19 locked down businesses, helped the company digitize its operations, including bolstering its recruitment team. And it’s hiring not just for its clients, but for itself–at a clip of 100 to 150 people a month. At 500 staffers now, it’s targeted to employ 1,000 by the end of the year.
Not to say that there aren’t challenges: “Half of our people have never met each other,” says Sahin, though she remains bullish that more tech companies will continue to embrace virtual working. “The talent market is so tight. Everybody wants to hire people everywhere they can find them.” –C.L.-C.
HCI Group, No. 3 on the 2013 Inc. 5000
After his co-founder felt a higher calling and decided, in 2017, to enroll in a seminary, Ricky Caplin began looking for buyers for their Jacksonville, Florida-based health care consulting firm. The partners found one in Indian tech giant Tech Mahindra, which bought HCI Group for $105 million. Most of HCI’s employees made the transition, and Caplin is currently CEO of Tech Mahindra’s health care and life sciences arm. While his co-founder has sought spiritual clarity through the church, Caplin has sought a moral clarity of his own.
“As a founder, you’re going to have opportunities where you deal with a lot of gray areas–things that you may or may not be OK with, but you could probably rationalize,” Caplin says. “The one lesson I’ve learned is: Always do what’s right. You might have some short-term pain for that, but in the long term you’re always going to be better off.” –Kevin J. Ryan
Ideeli, No. 1 on the 2011 Inc. 5000
“It’s always challenging when you sell something you’ve built. But a critical skill as an entrepreneur is knowing that looking back and having regret of any kind is a waste. It was the right decision at the time with the facts that we had. So you make your choice and you keep moving.” –Paul Hurley, whose women’s fashion company, Ideeli, topped the list in 2011 and sold to Groupon for a reported $43 million in 2014. Today, Hurley is co-founder and managing partner of Exacti.us, a growth consulting firm that counts Major League Soccer among its clients.
Cano Health, No. 6 on the 2019 Inc. 5000
“We’re really just getting started. This is the next step to take Cano across the country.” –Marlow Hernandez, co-founder and CEO of Cano Health, in June, after the Miami-based primary care practice went public via SPAC. At close, Cano was valued at $7 billion. Hernandez says the infusion of cash from the deal will be used to build 15 to 20 new facilities this year.
Paxon Energy & Infrastructure, No. 9 on the 2020 Inc. 5000
Between a global pandemic, widespread social unrest, and devastating wildfires along the West Coast, the Pleasanton, California-based energy management consultancy had a stressful but highly profitable year after landing on the Inc. 5000 in 2020. It’s on the list again at No. 9 this year. And to do that two years in a row requires more than luck. Founder and CEO Nooshin Behroyan says Paxon had no choice but to excel. “It’s not a forgiving industry,” she says of the energy sector. “If there are mistakes or shortcomings, there could be fatalities, and because of that everyone on our staff needed to step up.”
And sometimes it cost them. Sending engineers to places where protocols around the pandemic varied and many were engulfed in protests, Behroyan says, proved difficult. In Atlanta, she says, some employees were accosted for not sheltering in place. “I think in hindsight,” she says, “everyone really did an amazing job facing this year with the utmost seriousness and highest level of responsibility.” –Brit Morse
Javier Ferreira & Walter Driver
Scopely, No. 9 on the 2015 Inc. 5000
Since landing on the Inc. 5000 in 2015, Scopely has turned into a mobile gaming behemoth, with 1,200-plus employees and offices in nine cities, including Los Angeles, London, Dublin, Tokyo, and Shanghai. Co-founded by Javier Ferreira (far left) and Walter Driver, the firm hit $900 million in revenue in 2020, a year when users played 1.6 billion hours’ worth of its games. That isn’t to say growth has been easy.
“The nature of building a business is that most of the time you’ll fail to achieve what you want to achieve,” says Driver. “And across a series of failures, you’ll make something that looks like success. Often the difference between the two is the time scale you’re measuring on.”
Ferreira agrees: “If what you were trying to build was easy, it would already exist. So it’s important to build a culture where failure is thought of as part of the process instead of as something to avoid.” –K.J.R.
Integrity Funding, No. 4 on the 2012 Inc. 5000
Integrity Funding co-founder and CEO Greg Roper was told he had Stage IVB esophageal cancer days before his company hit No. 4 on Inc.’s 2012 list. He still leads the financial services firm, but with renewed perspective. –As told to K.J.R.
I was having radiation five days a week and chemo once or twice a week. You go sit in a chair and see people way worse off than you. Early on, when you still have all that ego and lack of empathy, you look around at everybody else and say, “Oh, my god, I’m glad I’m not that guy–he looks terrible.” And then, throughout the process, you become that guy.
I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. But I wouldn’t go back and choose the other path. It was an extraordinarily uncomfortable and extraordinarily rewarding experience. I always saw myself as an alpha male. Looking back, I was just a giant ego with feet. I was insecure. That was all stripped away. With cancer, you don’t get to be the alpha. You don’t get to choose. You don’t get to make the rules.
The liberation I felt afterward was bizarre. Letting go of all of that baggage I’d carried around most of my life was incredibly freeing. Now I’m much more empathetic. Maybe one of my employees is facing a challenge. I understand that now in a way I didn’t before.
I’m still very motivated, but I no longer believe in sacrificing something more valuable. I know people who literally devote 20 hours a day, seven days a week to their business. I don’t. I devote only as much time as my business absolutely needs. We’re not nearly as indispensable as we sometimes like to think. I don’t care if you’re a server or a founder or a member of Congress. If you’re not here tomorrow, tomorrow still happens. So worry a little more about today. Do the best that you can today. We’ll deal with tomorrow tomorrow.
Nom, No. 10 on the 2019 Inc. 5000
“As an entrepreneur, you are the visionary and the catalyst for innovation, but your business is nothing without your team. Find the right people and empower them, take the time to understand, show them gratitude. Help them grow, and your company will do the same.” –Loren Rochelle, co-founder of NOM, who sold the Los Angeles-based digital advertising company in 2017 to then-ad partner MTM for an undisclosed amount. She continued running NOM as CEO until April 2020, when she stepped down.
EXPLORE MORE Inc. 5000 COMPANIES
From the September 2021 issue of Inc. Magazine