Big buyouts are back

Three members of the 40 under 40 had big paydays this year.

By Jessi Hempel, writer

(Fortune Magazine) -- Call it a 40-under-40 hat trick.

Big companies have finally opened their wallets again, and no fewer than three of this year's big exits were founded by members of Fortune's list.

In July, Amazon (AMZN, Fortune 500) said it would fork over $850 million for Zappos.com, Tony Hsieh's shoe superstore, the biggest deal in Amazon's history.

In September, Intuit (INTU) agreed to pay $171 million for Mint.com, Aaron Patzer's two-year-old free personal-finance site.

Two weeks later Adobe (ADBE) said it would pick up Josh James's web analytics firm Omniture (OMTR) for $1.8 billion.

In each case the innovator broke ground that the acquirer couldn't. Two knocked the wind out of larger -- and richer -- competitors: Amazon launched Endless.com to sell shoes and handbags back in 2007, but it couldn't pick up any traction. With free shipping and returns, Hsieh's company was too popular to cede ground. (According to Comscore, Zappos had 4.5 million visitors in June; Endless had 777,000.)

Mint.com, meanwhile, proved so intimidating to Intuit that last February an Intuit attorney sent the startup a threatening letter questioning the company's claims about the pace at which it was adding users. (Patzer promptly published it online.) In less than two years, Patzer displaced Intuit's pricey Quicken software with a free version and made it easier and more user-friendly.

When Adobe's core business came under threat, it sought out a new business entirely. With measurement technology that has become virtual crack for anyone in e-commerce, Omniture has hit upon a geyser of growth.

What next? Hsieh, Patzer, and James have all agreed to stay onboard under their new corporate parents. None will specify the length of his contract, but you can bet each is already thinking about the next big thing.

Patzer says he's excited to be at Intuit, but he's long talked about a few dream projects, like podlike vehicles to replace the automobile. Out there? Maybe. But when it comes to thinking up out-of-the-box projects, these three have a lot of street cred these days.  To top of page

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