The path to success is never straightforward, but some companies have taken an exceptional number of twists and turns along the way.
A battery maker that spent 14 years searching for a market; a 1920s-era cotton warehousing company-turned logistics powerhouse; and a language-services provider that benefited greatly from new legislation--this year's Inc. 500 boasts only a handful of companies that were founded in the 20th century. Indeed, 85 percent of this year's top honorees--which make up Inc.'s list of the fastest-growing private companies in America--were founded in 2010 or later.
But what these older companies have lacked in dynamism, they've made up for in perseverance--showing that even long-standing companies can reach so-called hockey-stick growth. Here are three companies that have stood the test of time to achieve fast growth.
A Silver Lining
When investors agreed to back ZPower in 1997, they expected an IPO within three years. After all, the manufacturer of rechargeable silver zinc batteries had so much promise: silver zinc battery technology is supposedly a safer alternative to lithium ion batteries, which are often used in personal computers.
But it wasn't until late 2013 that the Camarillo, California, company even had a product to sell. ZPower struggled to find the technology that its battery could best service, says CEO Ross Dueber. Kodak, the U.S. Army, and Lenovo were among those interested in using ZPower's batteries over the years, but the high price of silver made these projects ultimately unfeasible.
"In the early days of the company, it certainly was trial and error to find a home for the technology," says Dueber, who took the helm in 2005. ZPower was founded in 1996 by the late Mike Cheiky, a somewhat controversial entrepreneur and formerly the company's lead scientist.
In 2010, however, ZPower found a burgeoning market in designing miniature batteries for hearing aids, which required less silver and were therefore affordable. Today, ZPower has landed among the Inc. 500--coming in at No. 82 on this year's list--after turning that hearing aid niche into a major battery business, which generated more than $26 million in revenue in 2017.
But for all ZPower's eventual success, other entrepreneurs should be wary before following its wayward path, suggests Arthur Budge Jr., an investor in ZPower and chairman of the board. "This is such an odd history, I would never say it's a model to try and replicate."
The Long Game
When Willis Willey took over the family business in 1970, he was looking for a high-growth industry to pivot into. At the time, his family ran a cotton warehousing company, which had been around since 1925. Changes in the cotton industry in the years since prompted Willey to look down other avenues--from steel distribution to equipment leasing.
It would take him 33 years before he would find his golden ticket in UCW Logistics, a logistics company headquartered in Greenville, South Carolina and overseen by Willey's nephew Evan Cramer. Willey, 75, serves as the co-owner and chairman of Union Service Industries, the parent company of UCW Logistics.
In late 2013, Willey and Cramer investigated the third-party logistics landscape. They found an industry that, like cotton warehousing, had a tarnished record; logistics companies were known for poor customer service. Willey and Cramer thought they could do better--particularly if they focused on improving the customer experience. Among other things, they prioritize customer service and emphasize employees's experience during the hiring process. So far, so good. In 2017, UCW Logistics booked $11.5 million in revenue, up more than 3,000 percent since 2014--landing it at No. 126 on this year's Inc. 5000.
Giovanni Donatelli owes a lot to Barack Obama and his signature health care law, the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which mandated that all health care and insurance institutions provide translations to patients with limited English proficiency.
Suddenly, the Language Group, the translation-services business he founded in 1999, hit a wellspring, landing Donatelli his first big health care provider in 2014.
"I didn't sleep for 21 straight days," says Donatelli, who emigrated to the U.S. from Italy at age 7 and worked a second job to pay the bills during his first eight years of his business.
Today, the Language Group--hitting No. 500 of this year's Inc. 500--has 23 employees, and a network of 1,100 contracted translators and interpreters. Its annual revenue in 2017, $4.5 million, grew just over 1,000 percent since 2014. And Donatelli is feeling pretty vindicated. "I believed the Language Group did have a future but [at first] I couldn't really map it out," he says. "I had to trust my gut."