This article was originally published for Inc Magazine.
Becoming one of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. is no small feat. Leaders determined to make the Inc. 5000 list often study previous winners, fight for talent, and invest in technologies to spur growth. But there’s still no guarantee that they’ll achieve high growth — or land a spot on the list.
Freestar, the No. 1 company on the 2019 Inc. 5000 list, may have seemed positioned for astronomical growth. The company helps publishers monetize their websites. Its efforts to help others grow quickly paid off: Since its start in 2015, Freestar has experienced 36,680 percent growth.
However, I sat down with Freestar’s CEO David Freedman for my podcast Growth Think Tank and discovered that earning the No. 1 position required more than a great business model.
Growth Isn’t Always What You Think It Is
When most leaders think about growth, they consider their core offer. After all, how can a company survive if no one wants what it’s selling? Developing a desirable offering — and finding ways to scale its production and distribution — is the crux of high growth.
But Freedman took a counterintuitive approach. He and his leadership team focused on creating a scalable culture. If a company’s offering is in high demand, that automatically results in team growth. But if that team is polluted by toxic individuals as it tries to keep up with demand, there’s one inevitable conclusion: a company no one wants to work for. And that’s just as deadly as products no one wants.
I’ve talked a lot about ownership cultures, and that’s what Freestar built. With a team numbering just over 45 people, the company made nearly $37 million in 2018. “It’s not a quantity game; it’s a quality game,” Freedman told me.
He confessed that hiring the “best of the best” doesn’t simply mean hiring the people with the most experience or expertise. “You could be the most talented person in the world, but also the cockiest and just someone no one even wants to work with,” he said.
Making the Most of What You Have
Growth, in Freedman’s eyes, is about expanding your capabilities with the right people. But the real key to growth: getting out of their way.
“We want, within hiring these brilliant people, to allow them to essentially be their own entrepreneurs, making their own right decision,” he told me, adding that everyone should be guided by the company’s core principles.
Freedman’s parents, who were entrepreneurs behind clothing stores, always told him, “There’s a big difference between employers and employees.” He understood how much a person cares about business influences how much effort he puts in, day in and day out. Rather than curate a team of people collecting a paycheck, he and his leaders distribute equity to employees. They’re not just supposed to think like owners — they are owners.
As a result, one of the Freestar team mottos is “We, not me.” The team’s focus is on lifting up the whole, not an individual. That eliminates negative competition. But it goes the other way, too: People are expected to ask for help when they need it. And if one person is frustrated, it’s likely a point of frustration for multiple people. The only way to fix it is through team effort to take ownership and eliminate the problem.
I asked Freedman what contributed most to his company’s growth; he said, “Without a doubt, it’s the employees because we have no customers without the employees.” This backs up what so many high-growth companies told me this year: Putting employees first is the key to growth.