The birth of WordSouth was not that of a modern-day startup. There was no in-depth business plan supported by advanced market research and backed by venture capital. I saw an electric cooperative searching for a solution, then created something to meet its needs.
And that’s how most small businesses get started.
In fact, that’s not only how WordSouth started, but it’s also how we grew. The more we worked with clients in our core industries, the more we understood their challenges. As we expanded our knowledge and capabilities, we learned how better to provide the services they needed to take care of their end customers and communities. We evolved.
That evolution built upon itself. We learned more about our clients and their industries every day. As we learned, we became better and could help them better — and help more companies like theirs.
This is one of the main reasons it’s so fulfilling to me for WordSouth to be named to the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies. The spotlight that the program shines on WordSouth is more like a floodlight that fills the stage, rightfully enveloping our clients in its glow.
Looking back across what is now 25 years of WordSouth history, I am grateful for the many people we’ve been blessed to work with. We are honored to be associated with so many fine organizations, but it’s the relationships with people that I’m most thankful for. They have taught me about their companies, modeled how to lead employees and manage operations, and inspired me with their commitment to making life better for the people they serve.
WordSouth’s very first client was Cherokee Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Centre, Alabama. That agreement was coordinated by Michael McWaters, marketing manager, who went on to serve in VP and CEO positions at other electric cooperatives (he remains a friend and client to this day as he leads Suwannee Valley EC in Florida). It was signed by Grady Smith, who later left Cherokee to take the CEO job at Cullman Electric Cooperative (from which he recently rode off into a well-deserved retirement sunset). Both men continued to be instrumental in my development and career for years to come.
That first agreement took effect, and WordSouth was officially launched, on New Year’s Day 1996. Our first telecommunications client came a few months later when we began developing Connected magazine for FTC in our hometown of Rainsville, Alabama. Brandi Lyles was a local high school senior at the time, and I have this image in my head wherein she saw the first issue of Connected arrive in her parents’ mailbox and said, “This is great … I think I want to be the manager of marketing and PR at FTC one day.” And lo and behold she is. I’ve also had the pleasure of watching CFO Fred Johnson become CEO of the cooperative and a highly regarded and influential leader in the rural broadband industry at the state and national levels.
As the years unfolded, more and more telecommunications and electric cooperatives joined our list of clients, each one bringing something unique to our operation. As we helped them tell their story, market their services and train their people, they shared their knowledge and insight, their individual skills, and their powerful stories of how they were improving the quality of life for those who depend on their service. Each one has helped WordSouth grow, while also helping me grow as a person.
Landing on the Inc. 5000 list is certainly a reason to celebrate. For me, and everyone at WordSouth, it’s chiefly a reason to celebrate the relationships we have made through the years and reflect on how truly blessed we are to call these people clients and friends.
(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.)