How to get listed on the INC 500 List three times in a row
Someone asked me yesterday how to get listed on the INC 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in the United States. Eleven years after a successful exit from my company, here are the key factors that allowed us to get there.
My first company, Remote Medical International, successfully did that three times in a row ( No. 430 (2011), No. 263 (2010), No. 147 (2009)). To be clear, 99% of the credit goes to my team and employees; it's not something you do by yourself.
Eleven years later, I’ve spent some time thinking about what made the difference. I’ve worked with 100+ companies and founders. I’ve seen the difference between struggling and successful companies. The spoiler alert is that your product or service doesn’t matter, it's about your team, strategy, and processes.
1. Focus on the long-term
The only credit I will take is the focus I maintained on the long term as the company's sole founder. The idea of soliciting investment without a product, building a company only to sell or get personal recognition will fail over the years of grind it takes.
Creating a company is about building something more significant than any individual to collectively make a positive impact in the world. Money is the tool and by-product of creating value, not the end goal. People wake up excited to work because of passion, fulfillment, and fun. Of course, you have to address short-term challenges, but as the Founder / CEO, your main job is to communicate your unique vision for the future and the steps to get there.
I’ve seen quite a few entrepreneurs in my career who focus on the exit first, with dreams of huge payouts and early retirement. While those goals are fine, build your company like your plan is to hand it down to your grandkids in a way that will be proud of you. Whether you do that or not, exits and offers will come naturally. You’ll have more fun and make better decisions about how you treat customers, invest in your employees, interact with competitors, and the expectations you set for your investors.
2. Invest in creating strong customer relationships
We spent the first couple of years listening to everyone we could about their challenges to the point that every product or service we had instantly generated revenue. It didn’t matter how large or small the customer, they knew that we would keep our word, listen to concerns, and as a result, we were able to understand the competitive landscape and come up with better products and services.
In one case, we had an engineering company working in another state who figured out they needed medical services the next day in a critical project. Three hours later, we dropped people with gear off at the airport to ensure we took care of them. We enabled them to succeed and choose the customer relationship over temporary margin loss.
When we were small, with only nine employees, this trust and strength-of-relationship allowed us to expand and move quickly to compete against much larger companies. It also created more fulfilling relationships and worked in general.
The most important asset your business has is the personal relationships between your employees and the customer's employees. Provide as much opportunity as possible for every employee to build those relationships, send operations people to tradeshows, introduce your warehouse staff to customers if they visit, create engagement and understanding.
3. Hire people who have a high degree of openness, preferably from outside your industry, then enable them by protecting your culture.
As a growing company, you don’t want to do everything the same way as your competition. We hired intelligent, outgoing, collaborative individuals who enjoyed constant learning. The best ideas often came from employees who had little to no experience in our industry, and when new ideas came in, we had great dialogs about why we did things a certain way, and we were open to potential and regular change.
We valued life experience and getting things done over education and pedigree. Just because someone has an MBA or went to a particular school doesn’t automatically mean they work well with others or have translatable skills. Our early hires were mountain guides and military veterans - they could work well together, valued the team more than themselves, and had the confidence and ability to figure out how to get things done.
We built a culture of non-stop improvement, obsessed with finding ways to deliver faster with less effort in a way that improved our value to our customers without increasing our costs. That’s not easy given the complexity of international medicine and logistics; we require all hands on deck all the time.
The above resulted in us winning the Top 10 Best Places to work in Seattle. We never once hired a recruiter and allowed teams to hire with HR providing training and support. We didn't pay top-dollar, but we invested in our employees through vacation, training, company cat skiing trips, and respectful communication at every level. Our retention rate was over 95% over 13 years, not annual, less than 5% of the employees hired were gone when I left starting day 1. The whole idea that "culture eats strategy for breakfast" is correct in my experience.
4. Create a clear sales strategy with the right tactics
Sales is ultimately about finding the right customer and solving their problem. If you critically identify your ideal customer profile is and spend 110% of your time engaging with them, you’ll have much more success than a shotgun approach.
In the early stages of company growth, most people seem obsessed with winning some huge deal versus acquiring long-term sustainable customer relationships. In the short-term, there’s less revenue which is fine. Focus on getting in the door with a small order and expanding our AOV and LCV over time. Our sales strategy was laser-focused on an established, understood, and documented client type that we knew would drive long-term success. Every year, we made a list of the top 100 companies we wanted to work with and worked as a team to get them. Our strategy was simple and executed well, getting any part of their business no matter how small.
We considered losing a bid a non-conformity and used our incident investigation process to dig deep into why we lost. The outcome of that investigation would be visible in how our team approached the next sales opportunity.
5. Document your business processes
I learned the value of documented business processes early in my career. It’s impossible to onboard 50 people in a month without clear policies, expectations, and step-by-step instructions on how to work together. Furthermore, specific processes for employee feedback, improvement, or new product ideas were all tracked and monitored - we managed flow, not fires. This discipline made it very easy to drive change when needed and ensure reliable delivery of our products and services.
6. Don't forget to enjoy the journey
What does it mean to be listed on the INC 500? I guess it’s recognition for the hard work it takes to get there. In all my time working with great people, amazing mentors, and investors, being listed on the INC 500 wasn’t something I was concerned about and even now, my memories of working with such a great team far outweigh the hype. I met a lot of amazing entrepreneurs as a result, but my pride and great memories come from being part of the team that got us there. Don't forget to have fun along the way.
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About Andrew Cull
Andrew is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Agema. He leads the Agema team and often works directly with clients developing and executing strategic projects. Prior to starting Agema, Andrew successfully founded 7 companies, was listed on the INC 500 three times. His interests include big data, visualization, cyber-security, leadership and performance-driven culture. You will find him climbing mountains, riding motorcycles, flying airplanes, cooking or hunting in the Idaho backcountry.