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From Ben & Jerry's to Annie's: Lessons on When It's Time to Sell Your Startup

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page, Millions Against Monsanto page and our Myth of Natural Campaign page.

Fans of Honest Tea were wary of Big Beverage in the form of Coca-Cola.
Photograph: Wilfredo Lee/AP

When General Mills announced plans to buy Annie's, the maker of rabbit-shaped mac and cheese, howls of protest were felt quicker than a toddler without his favorite carbs. How could Annie's, a company known for its opposition to genetically modified foods, sell to a giant food conglomerate that says GMO foods are not just harmless, but smart?

True, "The General" agreed to let Annie's maintain its non-GMO stance. And the selling price of $820m didn't hurt.

But Annie's is the just latest example of a beloved startup that chooses to sell itself to a big company. You can say it began when Ben and Jerry's was bought by Unilever. Like General Mills, Unilever is on record as opposing letting consumers know when it's using GMO foods. Ben & Jerry's, in contrast, is on the opposite side: it in the process of transforming its flavors to non-genetically modified ingredients and created a new flavor, Food Fight, to raise money to support a Vermont law on GMO labelling.

Cult brands get sold. But what happens in the process is instructive for every small business owner and entrepreneur who has considered giving up control to ensure his or her company grows.

Iams pet food was bought by Procter and Gamble. Tom's toothpaste is now part of Colgate-Palmolive. Honest Tea became a wholly owned subsidiary of The Coca-Cola Company. Most recently, Tom's, the company that donates a pair of shoes to a needy child for every pair it sells, agreed to sell half of itself to private-equity firm Bain Capital (of Mitt Romney fame) to fund an expansion of its operations in the US and overseas. And both parents are wise enough to leave the kids alone.

Some entrepreneurs believe a company is forever. Others see it this way: selling your company one day is the whole point.