It was a panel of misfits: four guys who couldn't stand working for someone else and were arrogant enough to think they knew a better way to build both a business and a workplace.
But here's the rub: The four Florida businessmen who spoke Wednesday to a sold-out audience of 140 people at the University of Tampa were right. Their companies' revenues have grown from 900 to more than 2,600 percent over the past three years, earning them a place on Inc. magazine's 2007 list of the nation's fastest-growing businesses.
Marcus Adolfsson, 26, is president and founder of Smartphone Experts, the company ringing up the highest growth rate of the group. He started the business in his dorm room at the University of Florida in 2002, selling Treos and accessories online. The self-described gadget freak now runs a $20-million retail business based in Inverness.
Brian Blackburn, 53, was looking for fun when he started Xymogen, a nutraceuticals distributor in Orlando in 2002. "We're dedicated to each other first, the customer comes second," he said of his work force of 62. "It's amazing the talent we attract."
Though each of the speakers at the event sponsored by UT's Florida Entrepreneur and Family Business Center exuded confidence, it didn't take much scratching beneath the surface for the nerves to appear. Robert Byrne, 46, had worked in venture capital and telecommunications when he realized there was a market for someone to service retailers and cell towers' giant power generators. So he hung a shingle out of a home office and began pounding on doors. His Maitland company, Power Pro-Tech Services, soon won such "elephant" accounts as Publix and AT&T, but the money didn't come as quickly. "I spent many a day looking down the barrel of a gun," he said of pressure from creditors early on. "I broke all the rules."
Chris Hurn, 35, started a company making real estate loans to small-business owners. His first criteria for employees of Mercantile Commercial Capital in Altamonte Springs: no banking experience. "I didn't want the baggage," he said.
Hurn advised would-be entrepreneurs to do likewise. "Be like the Vikings, who burned their boats behind them," he said. "You have to believe in your business 100 percent. Failure is not an option."