Reflections on Making the Inc. 5000 List

September 1, 2020By Stephen V. Smith

“I believe we have a shot,” I told myself. “Let’s do this.”

It was mid-spring, and as I put the finishing touches on the Inc. 5000 application, I thought about the many times I’d looked at that list over the years. I had long admired the companies that earned a spot among the nation’s high-growth businesses. Looking at our company’s growth over the past three years, I believed now was our opportunity to join their ranks.

 I clicked “submit.” Once documentation was uploaded by our CPA, we would officially be under consideration for what is arguably the most prestigious ranking for independent small businesses in America.

The email from Inc. Magazine’s editor-in-chief arrived in my inbox in early July: “Congratulations! WordSouth has made the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America!”

This was a big moment for me, professionally and personally. As I sat there reading and re-reading the email, several key moments from 1995-96 scrolled through my mind:

  • Michele and me deciding it was time that I left my newspaper job, parlay my freelance writing into an actual business, and launch a new company from a spare bedroom
  • Signing that first contract, and knowing those checks for $1,250 each month would almost pay our bills and feed our two small kids
  • Making it to the one-year mark having added some big accounts and hired our first employee

The path from a spare bedroom to the Inc. 5000 list was not a steady trajectory. There were so many moments that I now see as markers more of personal growth for Michele and me than business growth. These moments, if written as articles, would carry headlines such as:

  • How to Hire an Office Manager Without Knowing She Can’t Type
  • When a Tornado Forces You to Move Six Weeks After Opening Your First Public Office
  • Why Hiring Your High School Buddies is Not a Great Idea
  • How To Create a Successful Product Launch and Watch It Fall Apart in a Day
  • When Terrorist Attacks Force You to Downsize and Return to a Two-Person Home-Based Business
  • 10 Things That Can Go Wrong When Launching a Second Company to Offer a Related Line of Services
  • When Almost Dying is the Best Thing to Happen to Your Business

Anyone who has started and grown a small business knows the long hours and hard work it takes to make it a success. They also know that however you define success, the path toward it is littered with bad decisions, lucky breaks, exceptional people, and lots of love and support from your family. Indeed, from a spare bedroom to the Inc. 5000 list is a road paved by grace and forgiveness.

As our family and company celebrate “making the list,” I’ll be sharing some reflections about what this accomplishment means to me. Having built one of the fastest-growing private companies in America gives me reason to pause and take inventory, to consider what got us here, and to share thoughts that could help other small-business owners think about what growth and success mean to them.

(Note: This article is the first 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.)