In 1991 Stephen Smith's parents handed him the keys to Axxis, the audiovisual-equipment-rental company they had started out of their garage a decade earlier. But the son and CEO nearly totaled the "family car" in a wild ride to increase sales. In 1995, with AV rentals peaking, Smith decided to start selling equipment as well. To launch the new division, he and a partner mortgaged their homes and raised $200,000. Like many Inc. 500 CEOs, Smith invested in his sales team. But perhaps he went too far. In order to attract the top sellers, Smith treated independent reps like regular employees, even guaranteeing their commissions for a year before they'd sold a thing. The problem: the reps didn't sell a thing--for two long months. The money ran out, and Smith started sweating. He was risking not only his own home but his parent's entire retirement fund. Six months passed before sales picked up and Smith could look his parents in the eye again. Today equipment sales are three times rental revenues, but Smith vows never to take the same risk again. "In retrospect, it's the most insane thing I've ever done," he admits.