The day the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, in 2010, Robert X. Fogarty began snapping pictures of celebrating New Orleanians. He asked his subjects what they would like to tell their city, and wrote their messages on their bodies with a marker. That was the start of a photo project titled "Dear World," which Fogarty has since turned into a business. In September, Fogarty shot Inc. 500|5000 Conference attendees for a series called "Dear Future Entrepreneur." The messages answer the question, "What would you say to the next generation?"
"I look back and think, Why didn't I start sooner?" says Cloud Ettinger, who founded her promotional marketing company, Red Cloud, in 2002. Ettinger had often thought of starting a business, but her hand was forced after September 11, 2001: She was laid off from her marketing job and found herself freelancing from her apartment. Ettinger, whose company has annual revenue of $5 million, has the satisfaction of having started Red Cloud before her 98-year-old grandfather, a former entrepreneur, developed Alzheimer's. "He could see my success before he could no longer comprehend it," Ettinger says.
"Business is about testing your boundaries," says Stephen Mills. When he founded his company, he envisioned a simple IT help desk. Now, Aqiwo—which means "shooting star" in Chumash, the language of Mills's Native American heritage—has top-secret facility clearance and does nuclear forensics and cybersecurity for a variety of government clients. "Did I ever have the training? No," Mills says. "Open Pandora's box and start something you may not know the answer to."
Michael Simmons founded a Web development firm at 16. When the company tanked during his college years, he didn't walk away with his tail between his legs—he wrote a book about it, The Student Success Manifesto. Now 29, Simmons runs Extreme Entrepreneurship Education, which has toured more than 400 college campuses promoting entrepreneurship. "You'll never be fully prepared to start a business," says Simmons. "You don't have to spend your whole life's savings to test an idea."
"I spent a lot of years in school, and it occurred to me that 10 percent of that was usable," says Steve Vicinanza. His frankness might be less surprising if those schools weren't some of the best in the country, including Carnegie Mellon, from which Vicinanza obtained his doctorate. But he has realized that most business lessons are learned only firsthand. "You have to take the battle scars and put that into your business," he says. "You're in the best university in the world."
"When you start younger, you have the guidance you need," says Taliay Herbert, founder of Baggie Swagg, which sells custom laptop bags. She sounds this confident at 16 because Build, an entrepreneurship program for at-risk students, has taught her to be. Through the program, Herbert has already raised capital ($1,000) and experienced co-founder drama (her partner left the business). She hopes to set up a retail shop, but not before attending her dream school, Spelman College.
While working as a pharmacist for Rite Aid, Reddy Annappareddy presented a plan to top executives on how the company could improve services to poor and incapacitated customers. They laughed in his face. So he left and created Pharmacare, a pharmacy chain that helps customers by, among other things, securing prescription-assistance grants. Pharmacare is now a $50 million business. "Some people thought it was too good to be true," says Annappareddy, "but you’ve got to have a dream."
When Kimberly Kovacs was raising funds for her company, which sells a Web-based application suite for managing equity plans, would-be investors pressured her to diversify Option-Ease's features and start selling demographic data. Kovacs stood firm. Today, OptionEase boasts a 97 percent customer-retention rate. "Write it down," says Kovacs, who still reviews the notes from OptionEase's first week of business. "Make sure every day, or once a week, you go back to your original premise."
After his father passed away, in 2007, J.J. Frazer restructured his security business with a focus on staying humble—something his parents preached. Today, every New Horizon employee completes one good deed a day—changing a flat for someone, for example, or helping an elderly person carry groceries. It's mandatory, because Frazer wants to employ only people capable of kindness and humility. "They're trained to look good in a uniform, but no one has taught them how to be pleasant," he says.
Andy Moss knows that in most industries, it is still difficult to hire. But he contends that hiring someone can be one of the most meaningful things an entrepreneur will ever do. His own favorite reminder of that is the gratitude of a certain 8-year-old girl, whose father M Force placed in a marketing position. "She said, 'Thank you for getting my daddy a job,'" Moss recalls. "That meant a lot more to me than just bottom-line revenue. I'll always remember the sincerity in her eyes." —Text by J.J. McCorvey