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My Start-Up, Myself

These days, Inc. 500 companies often begin with the founders' epiphanies about who they really are -- or must become.
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In the past, entrepreneurs went into business because they realized they knew something others didn't -- about a product that ought to be developed or customers in need. Now they often do it because of what they suddenly understand about themselves

It's the oldest entrepreneurial story of all: suddenly all those years of solitary tinkering come down to one precious moment when the inventor takes the measure of the finished product -- a phonograph, perhaps, or a Flowbee -- and realizes what he or she must do. Right then and there, a business builder is born.

And maybe that's how it should always happen. But for many of this year's Inc. 500 founders, the realization that drove them into business for themselves had little to do with anyone else. Perhaps it's the logical outcome of the 20 years of the never-ending Me Decade. But these days, fast-growing companies often begin with future CEOs' epiphanies about who they really are -- or must become. Examples? Read on.

1. I'm leaving and taking my future with me
A 1993 outbreak of E. coli food poisoning reshaped Ken Craig's career. The Washington state incident was traced to bad burgers served at Jack in the Box restaurants. At the time, Craig was a manager for the fast-food chain in Southern California; he was on track to become a franchise owner. "I had deals on the horizon," he says. "I was ready to make that my career."

But bad meat made Craig ultra-aware of just how professionally vulnerable he was. "It was a nightmare," he remembers. Two children died. More than 400 people fell ill.

The story broke on a Monday. By Friday business had plummeted. "What had been a $600 lunch hour at one of our restaurants became an $8 lunch hour," Craig says. "People would only buy sodas. They'd pull up to the drive-through window just to tell Jack in the Box hamburger jokes."

The restaurant chain felt the repercussions for years. The episode also marked Craig. He left, determined never again to work in a situation where he lacked control. "I wanted to be in a position where whatever happened was a result of my own actions," he says.

Now, as CEO of Spenser Communications Inc. (#410), he controls a $4.3-million telecommunications company.

2. I'm not destined to be a (starving) artist
"I was sitting in my bathrobe drinking coffee," recalls Eric Jenkins, "when my sister called." She had invested "about $100,000" in a company that was on the verge of going under. So she called Jenkins to ask him to help save the business.

But Jenkins had left the business world behind three years earlier. In 1991, at age 20, he had sold a thriving medical-services business. He had worked for the new owner for a year, then had gone to drama school. Later he'd appeared in television commercials and done some local theater. So, Jenkins recalls, "my first response was, 'No way. I'm an actor."

Then he started thinking about the not-quite-$6,000 he'd made that year. Not bad for a fledgling thespian, "but I was used to making several times that. And I was involved with a young lady. ..." So he called his sister back and jumped in.

At first blush, the neophyte CEO was baffled. The company, then called Component Technologies Inc., programmed and packaged semiconductors for use in the electronics industry. "Even after they explained it, I still had no idea what they did," he recalls. But Jenkins kept the business going while he figured out how to build on the firm's potential. Component Technologies was doing "about $1,000 a month in sales" when Jenkins first got involved. Last year, as Teklution LLC (#90), the company's sales topped $6 million. Has dramatic growth squashed Jenkins's acting bug? "Running a business is very creative," he says, "and the expression of creativity is what I long for."

3. I deserve to work for a better boss (namely, me)
It's the sort of thought that occurs to someone in a bar at 4 a.m. Usually, the impulse vanishes when dawn breaks. For Mike Weagley, the morning after simply brought deeper certainty.

His employers, he'd concluded, were going to compromise their vision for the company. So Weagley decided to start a business.

That was in 1991, and the 23-year-old Weagley was running the maintenance department for a chain of car washes. He'd started there when he was in high school and worked his way up. The company was at the forefront of the touchless-car-wash trend, and the owner was eager to implement new technology.

Weagley ran crews in both Chicago and Rochester, N.Y.; he remodeled the facilities, rebuilt conveyors and hydraulics, and, after hours, modified and installed computer systems so the business could keep running during the remodeling. "The owner had vision and core values that I aligned with," says Weagley.

What the owner lacked, according to Weagley, was the will to execute his vision. "He had political loyalty to people who were in the way of what he was trying to do," Weagley says. One vice-president slashed the budgets for remodeling to the point where Weagley and his crew had to compromise quality. Further, he says, the company's compensation structure rewarded complacency by tying managers' bonuses to the bottom line.

After months of battling, Weagley decided to leave.

Today he's CEO of Pro-Tech Welding and Fabrication Inc. (#185), a $5.5-million maker of snowplows. And he has a clear vision of where he wants to take the company. He makes sure his 70-plus employees share it. "My biggest fear is turning into what I left," he says.

4. I've got a can't-miss management formula: Keep my promises
It was a broken promise to a hard-working group of database programmers in Mexico in 1994 that finally pushed Cameron Ware into business for himself.

Ware, an engineer turned database consultant, had left Lockheed Corp. during its downsizing in the early 1990s. He had landed in Mexico, where he was running a database consulting subsidiary for a Texas-based corporation.

In that role, Ware struck what he thought was a simple deal with the Texas board of directors: If he reached $1 million in sales, "I could double some salaries." But when Ware and his team pulled it off, his higher-ups abandoned their vow, muttering about hidden costs and taxes. "The bottom line was greed," claims Ware. "They backed out of an agreement they'd made. That was the moment I knew I wanted to start my own business."

Ware recruited a group of engineers he'd worked with at Lockheed and in 1994 started what would become InfoSphere Inc. (#231). "All of those guys are still with me," he says.

5. I'm cut out for a more exciting career than this
C. Glen Combs had had enough of accounting. A computer hobbyist, Combs became intrigued with a struggling software client that he thought had promise. So he and his partners offered to buy into the business.

But in June 1991 the deal fell apart. "I had gone through what I swore would be my last tax season and had extensively researched the industry to put together this deal," he says. Then it hit him. Even though the deal had fallen through, that didn't mean the opportunity was lost.

By early July, Combs had started Systems Design Group (#313), in Lexington, Ky. "We were on a course of no return," CEO Combs says. "I was not going back to public accounting." He planned to provide health-care consulting services and to sell software.

But since then, the $7.8-million business has outgrown its roots. Last May, Combs sold off the medical-software piece of the business. The new growth area, he says, is information security. "In this industry," he says, "you have to evolve."

And recognize opportunity when you see it. That's something Combs, among others, has proved he's quite capable of doing.

Ron MacLean, a freelance writer based in Jamaica Plain, Mass., knows who he is and where he's going. But he's not telling.


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