Last night marked the finish of the Inc. 500 conference here at the Gaylord Hotel and Conference Center in National Harbor, Maryland just outside of Washington, DC. iContact was honored with the 85th position on the list and the 7th position nationally among marketing and advertising companies when the Inc. 500 list was released in mid August. The three day conference (more pictures from the event) included highlights like a two hour keynote by Jim Collins, famed entrepreneurial researcher and author of business bestsellers Built to Last and Good to Great. Other sessions included a one hour chat with marketing extraordinaire Seth Godin and longtime explorer of excellence Tom Peters.
As a leader of a top 100 company on Friday I was extended the opportunity to join Jim Collins after his morning keynote for a private lunch round table to discuss issues currently facing entrepreneurs. Jim provided characteristically sharp but detailed responses to my questions which focused mostly on his new research that he included in his morning presentation. As an example, he mentioned his previous interpretation of the data collected in his Good to Great research project showing that the strength and quality of leaders in great companies was not substantially different from those in the comparison companies. His new research has segmented the leaders of these companies by leadership style instead of experience and conviction and has found a distinct difference in the leadership styles of those at the helm of great companies. Particularly, what he describes as a Level 5 leader, a leader who puts the cause her company serves before herself. I asked Jim specifically if he thought a Level 4 leader could become a genuine and effective Level 5 leader… or if this was a talent or style that one must non-consciously assume. He responded with an adamant yes but clarified that an experience much like an epiphany must occur, something of enough substance to humble a leader into inverting her priorities. I generally agree although I can only assume that sometimes an entrepreneurial leader (who will often succeed because of a level of arrogance that powers her motivation) will also require a life or career change before she can find a cause so engulfing that it proves to be of higher worth than self perpetuation.
The conference closed with a black-tie awards ceremony gala overlooking the setting sun on the Potomac River on Saturday night. The evening program included video profiles of a handful of companies each closing with their founder(s) on stage under a bright spotlight declaring their success and boldly stating “… and I’m an entrepreneur.” Profiles and specific awards for the highest ranking 10 companies followed including the number one company with over 30,000% three year annualized growth. That leading company had an amazing story of building to $150M in annual revenue in just five years. They were founded in 2003, the same year Ryan and I started iContact. Both their success as a business (they’ve been profitable for the last two years) and the honest passion with which they deliver their services (they help underprivileged elderly take maximal advantage of the services the government makes available to them) made their top position a real inspiration. Taking a company from zero to one hundred and fifty million dollars of annual revenue in just five years sounds like fun to me!
After seeing many of the companies on the list described in some detail in the opening session and as part of the top ten list and as each company’s name was announced I compiled a short list of interesting take-aways in my head. I decided to take a leasure day to write and reflect after the conference so although I jumped on a 40 minute flight up to DC Thursday after work I’m returning home today via a six hour route on AmTrak. As I write now we’re meandering through the countryside of rural Virginia. Here’s what’s left on my mind to ponder in conclusion to the conference.
1) There were far fewer technology companies on the Inc. 500 list than I expected.
I guess my own personal interest in technology and my tightly focused view of business models in the technology space led me to believe that technology companies would primarily be topping the list. That wasn’t true. Business models ranged widely from products to services and consumer goods to government contractors in industries like health care and consulting. Quite a few companies were in the construction business. Fellow North Carolina company and Triangle Fast 50 winner Mainline Contracting was among contractors in the construction space high on the Inc list. I wonder with the drastic cut in construction spending over the last 12 months if construction companies will fall against their peers in the Inc. list next year. I might have assumed this six months ago but with the continued collapse of financial markets in result of the mortgage-backed security crisis it looks like all companies (regardless of the industry) depending in some way on the capital markets will descend the Inc. list together. Companies topping the list in 2009 will likely be those who maintained very conservative cash reserves and who were thus able to use their own capital instead of others’ to make the push through.
2) There were far more family owned companies on the Inc. 500 list than I expected.
Again, it probably has something to do with my personal bias against working with family or friends. I’ve tried the working with friends thing specifically before and it only further confirmed my thoughts here, and that was even with someone three tiers removed from me within the organization. I’ve certainly had the best luck becoming friends with people who have first been business partners or simply remaining an acquaintance of those who I know marginally. A number of businesses took it a step further as husband and wife executive pairs. In the examples I remember one held the CEO title while the other was the President. That dangerous territory if you ask me but some couples can do it. On top of the additional stress it imposes on a marriage it’s also a classic example of putting all of your eggs in one basket from a personal capital and cash flow standpoint. But for some people it works and it looks like for them it works really well. It’s hard to argue with that.
3) The event is a joint gathering of Inc. 500 and Inc. 5000 companies
This is the second year that Inc. magazine has extended their 25 year tradition of doing only an Inc. 500 list out to a larger list of 5000 companies. For the magazine I’m sure this makes sense for a number of reasons not excluding revenue. At the dinner ceremony each company was given either a Inc. 500 or Inc. 5000 item of recognition. I think it’s worth mentioning that companies on the Inc. 500 are also on the Inc. 5000 and therefore I would like a second item of recognition to close this hole in mathematical logic 🙂 Work with me people… or next year they should name it the Inc. 500 | Inc. 501-5000 Conference. Then, I’ll rest my case.
4) A lot of Inc. 500 companies have names that are hard to remember.
Despite their success I would personally never start a business with an acronym at its name. I figure that most of these companies have arrived at their shorter abbreviated names because their longer names were simply impossible to remember or even say in the first place. As an example, which I believe I remember from Geoffrey Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm, business names like Federal Express and American Express have been shorterned into smaller unique names greatly in part by common usage, FedEx and Amex respectively. Of course other longer names like International Business Machines have been shortened as well. When it comes to readability and speakability I think it’s clear that shorter names are better. But when it comes to memorability unique words do the best. So, if you’re starting a business and you want to call it Scott Rogers Business Consultants, SRBC is probably not the best name to take to the market. Although, either way you slice it, long or short, this name is hard to remember. In my opinion you’re much better off naming the business something like Green Tea Business Consultants or even better something that’s really off the wall like Slippery Tea Business Consultants. Just avoid words or phrases with any commonly known negative connotations and pick the wierdest combination you like. This also gets you tons of bonus points when it comes to finding an available domain name and in being at the top of the list when someone searches Google for your business by name. I mean honestly, who else is going to have already named their company Slippery Tea Business Consultants? But, as I mentioned in the prompt, the Inc. 500 is full of companies with names like SLFI Technologies, OPW Consultants, and The DLW Group (all fake names). Maybe they would have been much more successful had they given themselves better names, or maybe I’m just totally wrong here.