When you start a business, it's natural to hope for phenomenal growth. For a select few, this hope doesn't dwindle into a mere echo of ambition but swells into something greater: reality. For those rising stars chosen in Entrepreneur's third annual ranking of the nation's 100 fastest-growing small businesses, the American dream is anything but an illusion.
This year's ranking has been our most challenging, not only because there are more new businesses to choose from, but also because the quality of today's business start-ups is so high. "Small-business entrepreneurs are a lot more professional and educated than they were years ago," says Larry Winters of Dun & Bradstreet, the world's leading provider of commercial credit, business marketing information, and receivable management services. "These people aren't starting businesses out of economic need because they can't get a job somewhere else-they're starting businesses because they want to be [business owners]."
To assist us in our difficult task, Dun & Bradstreet combed its staggering database of business information. We narrowed the list using the following criteria:
The founder must be actively involved in daily operations and must control at least 51 percent of the business.
- The business must have been founded no earlier than 1994.
- Annual sales must exceed $1 million.
- Companies must meet the Small Business Administration's definition of a small business, based on number of employees and sales figures (which vary by industry).
From the large initial pool of companies, we calculated the annualized growth rate of each. The top 100 are listed in order of annualized sales growth. Companies that tied in ranking are listed alphabetically. Each listing contains the founders' names, a description of their businesses, year founded, number of employees (initially and currently), start-up investment, first-year sales and 1996 sales.
But numbers, while fascinating, aren't the whole story. We've included five profiles to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the personalities who drive the company names. These entrepreneurs discuss their diverse strategies and experiences, as well as the challenges and rewards of plunging into entrepreneurial success so quickly.
Many of these and the other companies that made the cut have carved a niche in some of the hottest industries for small business. According to Winters, up-and-coming businesses can be found in fields ranging from medical, environmental, personal, and financial services to specialty gift stores. Even small manufacturers share the unlikely label of "hot." "A lot of people think [man-ufacturing's] a sleepy industry," says Winters, "but we're seeing a resurgence in light, small manufacturing of specialty products."
Of course, no list of hot industries would be complete without a mention of technology. "There are so many different gradations of technology," says Winters. "Manufacturers of peripherals and chips, value-added resellers, consultants, software developers, Web site developers-it goes on and on."
And so does our search for fast-growing new businesses. We've provided insights to the businesses, the mind-sets and the industries that rose to the challenge this year. The next challenge is yours: Do you have what it takes to make the cut in 1998? As this year's honorees will tell you, it's natural to hope.-Janean Chun