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Inc.com’s 26 Most Fascinating Entrepreneurs

warren21.jpgThis is a relatively old round-up piece from Inc. Magazine, although when I happened upon it a few days ago while doing a random Google search for “unusual entrepreneurs,” I found that it really wasn’t dated at all — on the contrary, it essentially sucked me right in. Here’s a small bit of explanatory text from the intro:

Inc. goes behind the scenes with 26 entrepreneurs who best exemplify the extraordinary drive, creativity, and passion of American business. Our top 26 list, one for each year of Inc., spans the gamut of the entrepreneurial world … No matter what the accomplishment, each entrepreneur profiled here offers a fascinating case study in what it takes to thrive in today’s economy.  

Martha Stewart, Richard Branson, and Dell Computer’s Michael Dell top the list, and it’s certainly interesting to note that this piece was compiled after Stewart’s conviction. “Agreeing to serve time without delay was a sacrifice,” says the Stewart profile. “But her decision also served the best interests of employees, suppliers, business partners, and customers. Going to jail may have been a strategic retreat. It was also, in a very real sense, a selfless act.”  

Many of the 25 other entrepreneurs are hugely intelligent businesspeople whose companies we’ve probably heard of, but whose lives and specific work habits we likely don’t know much about. And because each one of the entries comes complete with a brief biographical capsule, this is a relatively quick read that nonetheless packs a strong informational punch. I’d like to suggest a close reading of the following profiles:

Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing (No. 7), an heir to the Maytag washing machine fortune who was essentially responsible for the existence (and subsequent growth) of the microbrewed beer industry in the United States. In 1965, when Maytag purchased a 51% stake in the then-failing business and managed to reverse its fortune in the space of six years, he was forced to deal with a problem that many managers might consider enviable: Customers were practically beating down Anchor’s door for product, which was selling quicker than Maytag’s company could possibly produce it. “In business school they say, ‘Raise your prices,'” says Maytag in the Inc. article. “Not in the real world. You get a backlash if you raise prices too much. You lose your validity.” So what did Maytag do instead? Microbrewing was growing in popularity at the time, so he chose to help his new competitors in developing their brewing skills. As a result, many of Maytag’s former customers began buying from the other new brewers instead, and soon enough the heat subsided. According to the Inc. profile, which was written by journalist Bo Burlingham, author of Small Giants: Companies That Choose to be Great Instead of Big, Maytag believed that continuously growing in size would compromise the quality of both his product and his operation. “This was not going to become a giant company,” he says in the Inc. profile. “Not on my watch.”

Izzy & Coco Tihanyi of Surf Diva (No. 24), two twins who founded a girls-only surf camp in La Jolla, Calif. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Tihanyis and their (all female) trainers experienced more than their fair share of boneheaded, locals-only attitude when Surf Diva was first getting its sea legs. “Guys who surfed the same beach heckled their classes and sometimes cut in front of their students,” writes Alison Overholt. But the best part of Izzy and Coco’s story has to do with their hugely inspiration can-do attitudes. According to Overholt, herself a graduate of the Surf Diva course, the women launched their business in 1996 with nothing more than “$328 and Izzy’s surfboard collection.” And here’s another interesting fact that the seasoned entrepreneurs among you will probably relate to: According to Overholt’s profile, approximately 50% of the Surf Diva’s revenue comes from sales of apparel, swimwear and accessories. If any of you are struggling to generate unique product ideas for your own company, click here to see the Divas’ rather innovative lines. Or click here to see delicious women modeling Surf Diva bikinis. Y-Y-Yum.

Also fascinating: Warren Brown (No. 16) of Washington, D.C.’s uber-chic Cake Love and Love Cafe. Brown’s story is of particular interest to me because he appears to be the ultimate epitome of the Young Pioneer. (By the way, that’s Brown in the photo at the top of this post.) Back in 2000, he took a leave of absence from his job as a federal litigator to begin a DIY bakery of sorts — in his own kitchen. He grew his business mostly by word of mouth — his cakes were said to be especially toothsome — and because the effort continued gaining traction, Brown eventually leased a storefront. Thanks to the assistance of a $125,000 SBA loan and a stack of credit cards, Brown’s business, Cake Love, was becoming a runaway success. Here’s a particularly fascinating aspect to the story: According to the profile’s author, Patrick Cliff, the original Cake Love location sits in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where a growing number of residents are certified members of the Bar — just like Brown himself. In the profile, a college friend of Brown’s suggests that “in D.C. it seems that almost everyone is a lawyer. They can live vicariously through Warren when they go to the bakery.” That’s an interesting point, and well worth thinking about. Today, Cake Love has a second location in Silver Spring, Maryland, and has plans to open an Arlington, Virginia shop sometime in the very near future.   

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