What is an audacious company?

Some transform waste products into energy; others battle diseases or make scary donuts. They inform, entertain, and educate.

Then again, so do many, many businesses. What, then, qualifies the 25 companies we spotlight in this package as "audacious"? It's a superlative we chose very carefully. On the one hand, such companies are defined as bold, courageous, and even heroic. Yet, on the other, they are defiant, presumptuous, irreverent, cocky, and sometimes disrespectful (the menacing donuts, for instance).

Audaciousness stands out as a quality that not every company is willing to court nor every investor to finance. To earn that label, you must not only accept risk but thrive on it. You must be confident your crazy idea is anything but. You must be willing to do everything it takes to get from concept to reality in a market space with few, if any, mile markers.

"You have to know how, where, and when to be over the top."

As a serial entrepreneur and the crown prince of audacity, Mark Cuban is quick to point out that many bold companies don't set out to be audacious. They see a better way to do something and work to make it happen--labels be damned. Yet audacious they are, because they remain fearlessly committed. In some cases, they vow to not only make their vision a reality in their own companies but also to spread that vision to others, hoping to ignite broader change.

These are the companies we decided to celebrate. To find them, we reached out to dozens of experts across all industries and plumbed the depths of our reporting over the past year. We've divided the winners into five categories: culture, design, marketing, social impact, and technology.

We chose 25 businesses. We set no criteria in terms of company size, years in business, or any other factor. These companies are honored solely on the basis of the quality and success of their audaciousness. How do you build such a company? Inc.'s Scott Leibs asked Mark Cuban, the man behind the NBA's Dallas Mavericks and a star of TV's Shark Tank. Here are some excerpts from their conversation:

How important is it for an entrepreneur or a company to be audacious?

There is a context for everything. You have to know how, where, and when to be over the top. There have been lots of people who have tried to be audacious, to peg their success to that quality. But it's not easy to do. Your idea can't be goofy; it's got to be genuine and well thought out, or people won't respect it. People see right through gimmicks. It also has to be well timed.

How do you time audacity?

Think about the impact of social media. This is not 1985, when, if you got on one of the three major TV networks, you would have tens of millions of people know about you, and the same would be true in national newspapers or even trade magazines in a given industry. Your audacious idea would have time to take hold and could get a big audience via a few channels. It's a different world now. The life cycle of what's audacious might be only a few weeks, maybe even just a few minutes. So you have to know when to go, how to communicate your idea, and what the life cycle will probably be.

A big part of making an audacious idea succeed is knowing who the listeners are, how they are listening, and how to communicate with them on which platform. In fact, going back to what I was saying about context, it's entirely possible that you don't think what you're communicating is audacious but everybody else does, and they pick it up and run with it.

On Shark Tank, you listen to lots of pitches. Do any particularly audacious ones stick with you?

Yes. A guy came on and said he could mine gold from the ocean by creating a hurricane inside something about the size of a phone booth. It sounds crazy, but there was no question that he was authentic. He wasn't loud, he wasn't big, he wasn't trying to be anything he wasn't, and the effect was that you found yourself thinking, Maybe this guy is smarter than I am, and because he sounds authentic, I'm going to listen very intently and then decide how I feel about it. Now, I couldn't get my arms around it or my head around it, so I didn't invest. But I thought hard about it because he really came across as being genuine.

If an entrepreneur does get an audacious product or service off the ground, should he or she try to make the corporate culture audacious as well?

No. When you've got something that is 24-karat gold in audaciousness, let it speak for itself. You can be subdued in how you present it and how you produce it. The thing itself is what counts.

Of all the things you've done, what would you label as the most audacious?

When we started the streaming business [AudioNet, 1995], no one thought streaming was legit. No one was doing it; we were the first. We said, "Look, audio and video over the Internet are going to impact the world in ways you can't possibly imagine." We started streaming probably four months later, working with KLIM radio station, and people who knew about it and were living around the world and could access it said, "Oh, my God, you just connected me back home!" We would make these audacious statements that the world just got smaller, and that we were the ultimate cure for homesickness, and that streaming was going to take over media as we know it. That was pretty audacious and, obviously, it turned out to be true.

Anything else?

I've been audacious in how I sell the [Dallas] Mavericks to fans. I try to be over the top, because the business is largely about fun and I am selling a unique experience. If I were selling health care equipment, audaciousness probably wouldn't be in the mix, because people want to know that they can trust the company, and so you don't want to do anything to make them believe otherwise.

Having pitched an audacious idea that nobody said could work, what advice would you give someone in that situation today?

First of all, if you have a concept, you have to turn it into a company. An idea by itself is not enough. It's like talking about your idea for a great novel when you've never written a sentence. Do the footwork, the research, to know your industry--know the business better than anybody in the world, so that when you start conveying to people what your audacious take on that business is, you have the facts and figures to back it up. When you've done your homework, it becomes a question of showing, not convincing.

Do you think the act of being an entrepreneur is inherently audacious?

No, I think that's too sweeping a statement. I think it just depends on what you are trying to do. When Twitter says, "We are going to give you 140 characters to communicate, and we are going to make it the new broadcast medium that will reach 250 million people in five years," that's audacious on its face. If you have a better way to sell eyeglasses, that's great; you may have a product or service that is very needed and that you execute very well, but neither the founder nor the concept is necessarily audacious. But it's still a great business.