When the company Ross Edwards worked for was sold, he and four colleagues, who all had shares, planned to use their proceeds to start Build Group in San Francisco. But the acquirers wouldn't give them their money unless they signed noncompetes, which they wouldn't do, so the men sued for the cash. The company countersued. Just when things couldn't get worse, the recession hit. Yet without these challenges, Build Group wouldn't have grown as strong.

We left a stable, healthy company that we referred to as the "warm blanket" and went out into the cold. We didn't know just how cold it would get. It was hard enough starting from scratch. We were used to having resources and getting credit from vendors. But we had to rebuild all of that.

Then, the lawsuit hit us. The construction business is all about people and cash. And, suddenly, we didn't have either. We had to be lean. We were used to having things such as secretaries and company cars. All of that went out the window.

That's when the recession came. It became a do-or-die moment. We had to get very creative to survive. One of our first jobs was upgrading the landscape next to San Francisco's Old Mint. Instead of payment, we bartered for 18 months of free rent in a building the client owned. We bought leftover carpet squares on the Internet and spent a weekend installing them ourselves. We also saved money by not buying any office supplies or equipment, even hard hats, for two years. We either used stuff from home or borrowed it.

We chased all kinds of projects we normally wouldn't have touched--such as assembling two prefab ticket kiosks for San Francisco's cable cars. We called projects like this gas pedals. We hoped that some of them would give us enough speed to push us forward. Because we had a good reputation, we landed jobs to rescue troubled projects that were started before the recession. We made some good money and paid bills. But we still couldn't get the proceeds from the sale of our company.

In 2009, we finally settled the suit and got our money. The Bay Area economy was improving. By being lean and efficient, we've been profitable every year. If not for the lawsuit, we wouldn't have been as frugal. That's helped build our war chest and allows us to tackle bigger and bigger projects today.

As told to contributing editor Darren Dahl.