Family and the Inc. 5000 List

September 15, 2020By Stephen V. Smith

Starting a small business is more than a business decision. It affects your family as much as it does your career and finances.

From New Year’s Day 1996, the day Michele and I officially launched WordSouth, we wanted growth. But it wasn’t because we envisioned our new company one day landing on the Inc. 5000 list — it was because we had kids to feed.

We started the company on one contract and a prayer, and that prayer included the desire for more contracts. Our first client, an electric cooperative, was set to pay us $15,000 for the calendar year, meaning those $1,250 monthly checks would almost feed us and pay the bills. Almost. Growth was necessary for survival.

Our daughter, Kayleigh, was 6, and our son, Lucas, was 3, and neither understood the risk Mommy and Daddy were taking. Our decision to create something new, from nothing but an idea, did not impact their daily routine of playtime and books and snacks and “Veggie Tales,” of running through the yard with the dogs and jumping on the trampoline. They simply trusted us.

Nothing could have prepared me for the level of sacrifice this crazy idea would require. I knew many small-business owners, and I heard their stories. I read extensively. I knew all the words and themes and tall tales about the determination it takes to make a small business work. And yet I couldn’t avoid all the pitfalls.

The myth of work-life balance is just that — an elusive unicorn you may catch a glimpse of now and again but you’re never going to ride. Those who tell you differently are the exceptions. There will be so many late nights, so many early mornings, so many weekends when you’d love nothing more than to hang out, fully focused on your family, but there’s a proposal or project that’s due Monday morning and failure is not an option.

Looking back, these sacrifices were often seasonal for me. We’d go through months of break-neck speed, then cycle down to a manageable pace. Across two-and-a-half decades, I also see years where I don’t know how I kept up the pace, and others where things leveled off. Seasons within seasons. Peaks and valleys.

Through it all, I made conscious efforts to enjoy my family (oftentimes with the help of my amazing wife and partner reminding me that life was happening without me). This would sometimes mean eating dinner and spending time with the kids, then putting them to bed and working on a project until 1 a.m. or later. I wouldn’t call this “balance,” but it was effort.

It’s been said that the hardest thing to live with is regret, and I believe that. And Lord knows I have plenty of it packed away in my emotional baggage. But I tried, most of the time, and when I look at the close relationships I enjoy with my wife and kids today, I figure I did at least part of it right.

Which means part of it I did wrong. I know that while I was making sacrifices, they were making sacrifices, too. And that’s why landing on the Inc. 5000 list is a confirmation to me — to my entire family — that we did alright after all. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t always a smooth ride, and there are certainly things we wish we could do over. But looking across the moments that separate us from New Year’s Day 1996, we can say we built something special while growing the best thing we could have hoped for — a productive, happy family centered on love and respect that genuinely enjoys sharing life together. What more could a person ask for.

(Note: This article is part of a series by founder Stephen V. Smith reflecting on WordSouth being named to the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies. The series can be found here in its entirety.)