Last year, as we emerged from our pandemic cocoons, Americans filed more than 5.4 million new business applications, according to U.S. Census figures. I know — we incorporated more than three dozen of them, a number that seems to increase with each new year.
Some were formed by workers who were part of the Great Resignation, others by tech founders who always wanted to be their own boss, and still more by entrepreneurs who feel the urgency to be part of something larger, a new generation of builders committed to changing the way business, capitalism and our economy actually work. When advising these amazing, energetic risk takers, I’m thinking often these days of chocolate, and well, more specifically, the example of Mars Inc., the global and iconic American company responsible for such confectionary miracles as Milky Way bars, Twix, and M&Ms, as well as pet food and related products. Judging from the new and soon-to-be-released business books that I have recently read, I am not alone.
Founded by the Mars family, privately held and headquartered in Virginia, Mars has been around for more than 100 years and employs more than 130,000 people worldwide. Its owners, the family’s fourth generation, are famously tight-lipped and publicity shy, but that hasn’t stopped commentators from touting the company’s consistent and time-tested “old school” strategy of balancing profits, valuing people and working alongside outside stakeholders to solve community problems. This is an enviable and admirable path that, according to some business experts, too many U.S. companies have lost along the way. According to The New York Times business reporter David Gelles, author of The Man Who Broke Capitalism: How Jack Welch Gutted the Heartland and Crushed the Soul of Corporate America, at least some the fault lies with media-created business heroes such as Jack Welch, the late and formerly much-lauded CEO of General Electric. Gelles traces Welch’s ascent at GE and his unrelenting focus on maximizing shareholder value, which meant pretty much exclusively an always-increasing stock price. In Gelles’ telling, Welch’s use of mass layoffs, rank-and-yank firings, relentless acquisitions, and creative accounting, were key tools in remaking a staid and steady GE into a Wall Street juggernaut that enriched institutional shareholders and a select few executives at the top — while good jobs were outsourced, corporate culture was decimated and worker wages and benefits suffered staggering declines in comparison. Certainly not the Mars path, and whether or not you will agree with Gelles, his provocative and lucid book is most definitely worth a read.
So, what should the thoughtful entrepreneur do in charting the path for a better, Mars-influenced venture — while enjoying a Snickers for inspiration? To start, build some perspective and get Launchpad Republic, the upcoming book by entrepreneur investor Howard Wolk and Harvard Business Review editor and historian John Landry, which offers a rich and detailed history of entrepreneurialism’s unique roots in America. Wolk and Landry observe that “entrepreneurship is often a form of rebellion,” and transformative things have occurred and often still happen when people take on the status quo. Wolk and Landry reveal that certain new challenges are versions of familiar problems and we all must work harder for more inclusive entrepreneurship and the evolved stakeholder capitalism necessary for an innovative economy.
For history’s sake, then, let’s acknowledge that we are living through change, turmoil and volatility. We need Skittles, and possiblyStarbursts, more than ever. Yet uncertainty can be motivating, and we should lean into it, according to Jason Feifer, Entrepreneur Magazine editor and author of the forthcoming book: Build for Tomorrow. Feifer says we experience change in phases: panic, adaptation, feel for a new normal and then, ultimately, “wouldn’t go back.” A creative storyteller with a keen sense of history and business, Fiefer shares numerous and memorable examples of finding opportunity in change. So much of this is about finding purpose, whether that’s a soon-to-be obsolete wall cleaner transforming into Play-Doh or the revelation that people seek out celebrities not for a treasured interaction but instead for a quick selfie that will attract more likes from friends. When starting a new business, enhancing an established one, or designing a new product, Feifer urges us continually to ask: What is this for?
For Mars, that reportedly means retaining less than 10% in annual profits and reinvesting the rest in product innovation, employee benefits and initiatives such as sustainability and a worldwide living wage. Whether you sell services, develop new technologies, or make products like Lifesavers, I think we all can agree on one thing: that’s a pretty sweet approach.
Read in the Boston Business Journal
Authors & Innovators is an occasional column by Larry Gennari, a transactional lawyer, law professor, and chief curator of Authors & Innovators, an annual business book and ideas festival. Gennari also teaches Project Entrepreneur, a business fundamentals bootcamp for returning citizens, at BC Law School.