Inside Story: Inc.'s 'How I Did It'

I had coffee on a recent morning with an entrepreneur, as I often do. What struck me about this founder, an enthusiastic Ohioan named Austin Allison, was how unremarkable his remarkable story was. He is CEO of dotloop, a maker of cloud-based software that streamlines the maddeningly slow dance of documentation that accompanies any home sale.

Agents, real estate brokerages, and homeowners seem to find real value in dotloop’s service: According to Allison, in four years the payroll has gone from two to 120, the footprint from five cities to 700, and revenue from zero to $ 15 million. Along the way, Allison went through a year without salary, maxed out his home equity line of credit, nearly bottomed out on cash, and gambled what little money he could scrounge on a booth at a real estate conference.

By any standard–economic, business, or human–it’s a remarkable, dramatic story. But here’s the thing: It’s not that unusual. Facing the odds and swallowing risks to create jobs and wealth out of nothing are what entrepreneurs do. It happens all the time.

The “How We Did It” cover story in this issue is our annual attempt to pay tribute to the endlessly remarkable and mostly untold stories of entrepreneurs unfolding all around us every day. You’ll find some practical tips here, but, speaking for myself, the main takeaway is inspiration–and a little awe.

It’s hard to feel otherwise when you read about David Tran, who arrived here from his native Vietnam without any money or English and one month later launched what would become the wildly popular Huy Fong Foods brand of sriracha sauce. Or when you read Bert Jacobs’s story of how his Life Is Good team rallied to support an employee (and other victims) who had been wounded in the Boston Marathon bombings.And then there’s a whole different kind of inspiration to be gained from the story of our cover subjects, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger of Instagram, whose $ 1 billion sale to Facebook just 18 months after launch set a new high-water mark for the rewards of entrepreneurship.

We’ve been around long enough at Inc., however, to know that small business is not all upside, to put it mildly. Feature subject Mark Suster has been on a crusade against hype in the start-up scene; Jessica Bruder’s story captures a (typically vulgar) piece of his mind. And you’ll find features by Christine Lagorio on Uber and Burt Helm on CrossFit, respectively, two controversial businesses that illustrate how much entrepreneurs sometimes have to challenge the rules to make their vision stick.

Over coffee, Allison told me he wants dotloop to be a 100-year company. Statistically, founders are lucky to make it to five. And human nature suggests that if Century 21 or Keller Williams were to show up with a sufficiently generous offer, Allison’s horizon might get much shorter. Still, we at Inc. have always preferred the builders to the flippers. They have better stories, and it’s our job–and privilege–to tell them.

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