No one would have faulted Shaun Buck, who had been a single dad at 16, for choosing to settle down with a safe 9-to-5 job with benefits. But entrepreneurship has a funny way of rearing its head. After a brief flirtation with buying a franchise, the now-36-year-old founder of The Newsletter Pro spied his niche. And in the past three years, that leap appears to have paid off. Since 2011, his newsletter generator has grown its sales nearly 3,000 percent, amounting to $3.1 million in 2014 alone. That performance not only helped keep food on the table but landed Buck's company the No. 120 slot on this year's Inc. 5000. Here Buck talks about his early entrepreneurial efforts and what would eventually inspire his current fast-growing business.

- -As told to Etelka Lehoczky

My first foray into entrepreneurship was a pair of hot dog stands in front of Lowe's Home Improvement stores. We actually did really well. A lot of people are surprised that we generated nearly half a million dollars in gross sales a year out of those two hot dog stands, which I launched 2001. At the time, I was also working my way into management at AT&T. But I've always been very entrepreneurial, so I left a six-figure job to be the king of hot dogs.

Still, I had aspirations for more. I thought the holy grail of business was franchising. So when I came across a dry cleaning delivery franchise, it was more than a little surprising that the company's monthly newsletter was what reeled me in. This lady did a phenomenal job with it. She had interesting stories about new franchise owners, a top 10 list of franchisees by sales volume, marketing tips; she just did a really good job. Every time I'd get this newsletter, I would devour it.

At 22, I wasn't ready to buy right then, but she continued to follow up--sending me the newsletter for about eight months. That's how I got wind of the annual convention. It got me so excited about it, I actually bought the franchise early because I wanted to attend this convention. It was around $50,000, so it was a lot of money for me. It's still a lot of money now, but at 22 it's really a lot of money.

Part of the deal in this dry cleaning franchise was that we had to send out our own newsletter. I wasn't exactly a believer. I'd tell my wife, "If it wasn't in the contract, I wouldn't do this." My newsletter would have things in it like how to get out grass stains or deodorant stains. Just, like, the world's worst newsletter.

I eventually figured it out: People don't care about how their dry cleaning gets done. They really just want to be entertained. I switched my newsletter up, and on my very first revised edition I got a note from a customer telling me how much they liked it. I started to see the results happening in my business--increased retention, more referrals.

I loved the idea of direct mail because everybody says it shouldn't work. "Direct mail is dead," they'd say. I did the exact opposite, and can personally say that the industry is alive and kicking. People still appreciate personalized attention. That will never go away.

Today, what I sell are relationships. We prefer to do business with people we know, like, and trust. You want to be in the life of your actual customer. You want them to know about you. You want them to connect with you. It not only makes them want to continue to do business with me; it also makes them more inclined to refer people to me.