Most members of the editorial staff are just returning from Des Moines, where they attended our 10th annual Inc. 500 conference. Although a bad back kept me at home in Boston this year, I gather from my colleagues and other participants that the event once again offered fascinating insights into the state of mind of the people running our country's fastest-growing private companies.

The conference, you may recall, is a three-day affair bringing together chief executives and top managers of companies that have appeared on the Inc. 500 list at one time or another. There are workshops and roundtables on everything from creating strategic alliances to getting through life as the spouse of a successful entrepreneur. (Did we say life?) This year the general sessions featured speakers such as Tom Peters, who gave the audience a preview of his forthcoming book, Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties (Alfred A. Knopf, November 1992), and Joline Godfrey, who discussed the themes from her recent book about women in business, Our Wildest Dreams: Women Entrepreneurs Making Money, Having Fun, Doing Good (HarperCollins, 1992).

But the emotional high point of the conference came after lunch on the second day, when seven young men and women from some of America's toughest inner-city neighborhoods got up on stage and talked about the small businesses they had started under the auspices of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a New York Citybased nonprofit organization that teaches business skills to at-risk children. Everyone I spoke to found the presentation deeply moving. "You've got to understand, these are the kids we'd given up on," said one CEO. "To see them turning their lives around using the same tools we've used to build our businesses, well, it makes you reexamine everything you're doing."

Less inspiring was the softball game between the Inc. 500 CEOs and the Inc. magazine/State of Iowa All-Stars. The CEOs proved themselves as aggressive on the field as in the marketplace. The final score: CEOs 19, All-Stars 11. A real pitchers' duel.

Other tidbits from inside and outside the formal sessions:

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The new four-letter word in growth circles these days?
D-E-B-T. While a reaction to the leverage binge of the 1980s was no doubt inevitable, the new fiscal conservatism seems extreme rather than savvy.

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"It's harder to sell a business than to start one."

-- Eric Kriss, who sold his Inc. 500 company, MediVision Inc., to Medical Care International in 1989, commenting on how unprepared he was for the emotional trauma involved

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Whether to share equity with employees was an even hotter topic at this year's conference than usual. One session was billed as a debate on the subject, and several others turned into equity debates on their own. Overheard in the midst of one heated exchange: "I have a problem with the idea that if someone works for you and you don't give them shares in your company, it's a human-rights violation."

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"When we criticize -- as I do -- the GMs, the IBMs, the Sears Roebucks, let us never forget the wealth they created, the jobs they created, and that time long ago when their leaders would have sat at tables like this had there been an Inc. magazine. And so let this be a lesson to you, and a warning."

-- Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, in his keynote address to the conference

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"Buy low; sell high; keep good records."

-- Darryl Foster, the 11-year-old founder of Candyland and a student with the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, explaining the secret of his success to an audience of Inc. 500 CEOs

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* At a seminar on planning, Michel Robert of Decision Process International, of Westport, Conn., observed that a company could often get by without a strategic vision, provided it was operationally competent. He called this the Christopher Columbus School of Management. "When Columbus left, he didn't know where he was going. When he got there, he didn't know where he was. When he got back, he didn't know where he had been. But he got there and back four times in 10 years without getting lost."

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* We didn't hear nearly as much grumbling about the economy this year as last year, when conference attendees warned us that the recession was much deeper than the Bush administration was letting on. (As it turned out, of course, they were right.) While the mood in Des Moines was not exactly bullish, CEOs seemed more upset about a growing wave of government intervention in the day-to-day conduct of their businesses. Of particular concern were the potential effects of new laws that attempt to redress social problems by regulating the workplace. "With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991," said one CEO, "legislators with good intentions have created a nightmare for small companies. Every company at this year's conference will have at least one nasty suit pending by the time next year's conference rolls around, thanks to these two pieces of legislation alone."

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Definition of a bootstrapper
Someone who throws nickels around as if they were manhole covers.

-- Courtesy of Max Carey, CEO of Corporate Resource Development, in Atlanta

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"The mechanics of running a business are really not very complicated when you get right down to the essentials. You have to make some stuff and sell it to somebody for more than it cost you. That's about all there is to it, except for a few million other details."

-- From a presentation on strategic alliances by Steve Snyder of Software Partners/32

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Marketing slogans you thought would never work
"Trust us, we're in sales." (Computer Graphics Distributing, in Gaithersburg, Md., #144 on the 1991 Inc. 500)

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* Baseball Hall of Famer and native Iowan Bob Feller held his own seminar on compensation prior to throwing out the first pitch in the Big Game. Bad compensation practices, he said as he autographed baseballs for attendees, have screwed up our national pastime. "The problem is that no one is willing to get paid for performance anymore. They want to make millions if they have a great year, but they aren't willing to give anything back if they have a terrible one." We could see the heads of CEOs everywhere nodding in agreement.

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* Why you won't see Dick Weigen, founder and CEO of Corporate Book Resources (#275 on the 1989 Inc. 500), hanging around any workshops on managing people: his is the only company in the 10-year history of the Inc. 500 to have no employees.

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How to handle life after your company
Eric Kriss:
"I set up a network of CEOs I meet with regularly to help me deal with issues associated with selling my business." Don Burr: "Yeah, I'm familiar with those types of support groups. I've been kicked out of six of them."

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* Judging by the registration list, it appears that the most popular name for a young, growing company these days is Phoenix. As ancient legend has it, the phoenix was an eagle that nested in the top of a palm tree. Every 500 years the sun would set the nest aflame, and an even more powerful bird would rise from the ashes. Of course, product life cycles were a lot longer back then.

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"DO EVERYTHING RIGHT, ALL THE TIME, AND THE CHILD WILL PROSPER. IT'S AS SIMPLE AS THAT, EXCEPT FOR FATE, LUCK, HEREDITY, CHANCE, AND THE ASTROLOGICAL SIGN UNDER WHICH THE CHILD WAS BORN, HIS ORDER OF BIRTH, HIS FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH EVIL, THE GIRL WHO JILTS HIM IN SPITE OF HIS EXCELLENT QUALITIES, THE WAR THAT IS BEING FOUGHT WHEN HE IS A YOUNG MAN, THE DRUGS HE MAY TRY ONCE OR TOO MANY TIMES, THE FRIENDS HE MAKES, HOW HE SCORES ON TESTS, HOW WELL HE ENDURES KIDDING ABOUT HIS SHORTCOMINGS, HOW AMBITIOUS HE BECOMES, HOW FAR HE FALLS BEHIND, CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE, IRONIC PERSPECTIVE, DANGER WHEN IT IS LEAST EXPECTED, DIFFICULTY IN TRIUMPHING OVER CIRCUMSTANCE, PEOPLE WITH HIDDEN AGENDAS, AND ANIMALS WITH RABIES."

-- From Picturing Will, by Ann Beattie (Random House, 1989), quoted by Tom Peters in his keynote speech to remind Inc. 500 leaders about the role of luck in building a successful business

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With so many business leaders in one place at one time in an election year, we couldn't resist the temptation to conduct a survey of the group's political attitudes. Here are the highlights:

As president, who do you think would best serve and support entrepreneurial businesses?

Ross Perot 67% George Bush 23%
Bill Clinton 5% Others 5%

If the election were held today, whom would you vote for?

Ross Perot 43% George Bush 40%
Bill Clinton 9% Others 8%

Do you support the Brady Bill, restricting the purchase of handguns?

Yes 75% No 19%
Don't know 6%

Do you believe abortion should be -- (Check only one)

Legal 61% Restricted 23%
Illegal 12% Don't know 3%

On a scale of 1 to 5, to what extent do you believe business owners should take responsibility for the environment? (Circle one)

1 Not at all --
2 1%
3 Somewhat 13%
4 49%
5 To a very large extent 37%

Would you and your company be willing to spend more money to ensure environmental quality?

Yes 73% No 6%
Don't know 21%

So, as a group, are Inc. 500 CEOs conservative or liberal, or do we need some new definitions? You tell me. n