STRATEGY

A Changing of the Guard

After 21 years, Inc. gets a new owner. Plus, if innovation is random, how can you make it strike at your company?
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FYI: From the Editor

There's a story behind every company, and ours begins with Sail, which Bernard Goldhirsh started as a newsletter in 1970 but which quickly grew into one of the country's leading sailing magazines. An avid sailor, Bernie had never been in business before and -- like so many first-time entrepreneurs -- found that he pretty much had to make things up as he went along.

Inc. was born out of that experience, in 1979. At the time there were no magazines that focused on people who started companies, and the conventional wisdom held that there was no market for such publications. Bernie went ahead anyway, creating Inc. to provide the ideas, resources, and inspiration he wished he'd had virtually every day of his publishing life at Sail.

How the landscape has changed in the 21 years since then. From our offices in Boston, we've watched and documented the rise of the world's first mainstream entrepreneurial economy. We've seen entrepreneurship transformed from a marginal economic activity into one that is, if anything, overly revered. For all of us who accompanied Bernie on his great adventure, it's been a thrilling ride.

Earlier this year we were shocked and saddened to learn that Bernie had a medical condition serious enough to require him to put Inc. up for sale -- surely one of the most difficult decisions he's ever had to make. The decision to sell came at a crucial time. Like so many companies that we chronicle in our pages, Inc. had reached a point at which it was ready to move to the next level. And so we entered the sale process looking for an acquirer that had the resources and the desire to take us there.

At our first meeting it became apparent to me that we'd found such a company in Gruner + Jahr, part of the $16-billion Bertelsmann media empire. G + J USA acquired Inc. in August, a deal that is, for us, a perfect 10. And so we begin the next phase of our journey with a new owner but with a continued commitment to the mission Bernie set for us way back in 1979.

As the ownership of Inc. was being transferred, a longtime associate of the magazine remarked on what Bernie had managed to achieve. "It's amazing," the friend said, "to think that he built this company from scratch, without any outside financing, starting with just an idea. You couldn't do that today."

Although I share his admiration for Bernie's accomplishment, this fellow is just plain wrong.

Not only are people still able to do what Bernie did two decades ago, but hundreds of thousands of them are doing it every year. Providing ideas, resources, and inspiration for them is what this magazine has always been about -- and what it will continue to be about in the years ahead.

Innovation happens
While reading this month's cover story, I couldn't help thinking of an observation Tom Peters once made to the effect that innovation comes from the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's one of those frustrating insights that you know intuitively is correct, but -- try as you might -- you can't figure out what to do with it. After all, if innovation is such a random phenomenon, how can any company possibly make sure it gets a steady stream of the new ideas it needs?

As executive editor Michael Hopkins shows in " Zen and the Art of the Self-Managing Company," Great Harvest Bread Co. has come up with an answer. How? By letting go of the process instead of trying to orchestrate the development and implementation of new ideas from a central location, Great Harvest has focused on creating an environment in which innovation can occur in the quirky, uncontrolled manner in which it always happens anyway. The ideas are then spread around the organization by means of mechanisms that trade on the natural desire of people to help themselves and their peers. The effect has been to institutionalize a process that, by its very nature, seems to defy institutionalization.

Fascinated and impressed as I am by what Great Harvest has done, I find the kind of folks who've done it even more interesting. We're not talking about people on the cutting edge of technology here. Great Harvest is a company of bakers -- people who make and sell bread -- and is a franchise operation to boot. A more prosaic business would be hard to find.

There's a lesson in that. Given all the breathless commentary about the dot-com revolution in recent years, it's astonishing to note that Internet businesses have contributed nothing to new thinking about management and organization. To a remarkable extent, we still rely on companies like Great Harvest to come up with the real breakthroughs.

That, I suppose, is just another confirmation of Peters's law.


Please e-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: Nov 1, 2000




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