Brad Howard’s Trend Nation is exactly the kind of company the Inc. 500 was designed to honor. The online retailer grew 1,126 percent since 2009 and lifted head count from three to 23. But here’s what’s not in the numbers: Two years ago, a patent lawsuit shut down the product that accounted for more than half of Trend Nation’s revenue. Howard had just moved to Nevada, where he knew no one and where his wife, a teacher, was not licensed to work. So there was no Plan B source of income and, soon enough, almost no working capital. “My back was against the wall,” Howard says. Trend Nation recovered--it clocked in at 396 on this year’s Inc. 500--but such a thing sticks with you.

An anecdote about a near-disaster may be an odd way to introduce the 2013 Inc. 500 issue, which we at Inc. created as an unapologetic celebration of entrepreneurial success. And trust me, there is plenty to celebrate. This year’s 500 is the most exclusive ever: Simply to make the list, you had to increase revenue tenfold in a three-year period. To match the No. 1 company, kids’ tablet maker Fuhu, you had to grow a mind-boggling 42,000 percent. (Just in case you wanted to gear up for next year’s list.)

But we believe that what makes entrepreneurs truly admirable isn’t their occasional big win. It’s what they go through to get it. Howard’s harrowing story was one of many that writer Jess Bruder and editor Bobbie Gossage uncovered for their feature “The Price”. Think of it as a kind of reality check on the all-too-common urge to glamorize entrepreneurship. Norm Brodsky’s column serves the same purpose. And Meg Cadoux Hirshberg’s valedictory column* is a beautiful tribute to the price that founders and their families pay to build enduring companies. It’s not easy, even if the companies of the 500 make it look that way.

These days, it’s fashionable to pretend that failure is just a box entrepreneurs check off on the way to inevitable success. Brad Howard knows that isn’t how failure really feels. All the other leaders of Inc. 500 companies know it, too. I’m sure they also recognize themselves in Howard’s response to his experience. Even at the worst point, he says, “The thought of going to work for someone else never crossed my mind.”

*Sadly, it’s true. This is Meg’s last column for Inc. magazine. But she’ll be back on Inc.com this fall.