Back when I first started working for Inc. as a researcher/reporter in the early 80s, fully 75% of our Inc. 500 CEOs told us that a hot new idea or a proprietary product had earned them their place on the list. But 15 years later, that changed dramatically. Ninety-five percent of Inc. 500 CEOs reported that their original ideas were quite ordinary and that it was, in fact, superior business execution that accounted for their amazing success.

I like those kinds of entrepreneurs a lot. In fact, I like them so much that I wrote a book about them. In Alpha Dogs: How Your Small Business Can Become a Leader of the Pack, I profile eight businesses in very mundane industries: a bike shop; a grocery store; an auction company; a commercial bakery; a chain of ice cream shops; a sock manufacturer; an alliance of public relations firms, and a motorcycle dealership (you can read an excerpt of this chapter in our January issue). It always seemed to me that companies in these kinds of industries succeed not because of what they do, but how they do it, and so their success is somehow more lasting, more authentic, and more applicable to the rest of us.

So what's the DNA of an Alpha Dog? Here are some of the criteria I think are relevant:

  • Their businesses can be described in two words ("makes socks"; "sells bicycles," "bakes cookies," etc.).
  • They are in low-tech industries and are outsmarting competitors, large and small.
  • They are bootstrapped or traditionally financed and have consistent histories of growth and profitability.
  • They have impeccable reputations as industry innovators or leaders.
  • They are intimately connected with their communities.
  • They are great places to work.
  • They provide stellar customer service.
  • They leverage technology wisely and creatively.

Once you start looking for Alpha Dogs, you'll find them just about everywhere. Take this year's Inc. 500 list, for example. You'll find a company that repairs cooling equipment (Atlanta Refrigeration, #337), another that shreds documents (Shred First, #377), and one that manufacturers hangers (The Great American Hanger Co., # 114), among many, many others. These are classic Alpha Dogs -- companies that have innovated mundane products, have discovered new market niches, or have used technology as a competitive tool to move to the head of the pack. In future postings, I'll tell you more about these companies and other Alpha Dogs that have hit my radar screen. In the meantime, please feel free to email with your own Alpha Dog tales:

Donna Fenn will write a regular Alpha Dog blog in this space. Check back to find out which companies she's unearthed.