While I was busy running and growing Breakthrough Technologies over the past 18 years, there was always a barometer of my peer companies in Chicago. An august list - a list of the firms that seemed, generally, inaccessible to me. They were the movers and shakers of the Chicago business economy. They were members of that year’s Fast Fifty.
For those of you who don’t know, every year for the past nine years, Crain’s Chicago Business (of which I am a near two-decade subscriber) publishes a list of the 50 fastest growing companies in Chicago. Crain’s publishes other lists too - the 200 largest law firms, the top real estate firms, the largest public firms, etc. But the Fast Fifty spoke to my dreams as a small business person, for often there were companies of my size on that list, and they seemed in the midst of crazy growth.
I found this exciting because running a small business can be an exercise in persistence of Sisyphean proportions. There is always the next hurdle - the next contract, the next issue that requires your attention. Every small business owner dreams of business growth to a point where the cycle stops. It doesn’t, of course, but as you grow you do get the ability to hire people that can handle some of those problems for you.
Ah - but the list - membership on that list seemed to indicate that you’ve made it, companies like GoGo, Coyote Logistics, and Allscripts - some of the smartest businesses in Chicago. If only we were included in that list! What problems would we not have to face? What opportunities would open up because of that membership? And more importantly - what was missing from my business that was preventing us from getting on that list?
It turns out for us, it was just an idea. The idea that we could take open-source technologies and customize them for our clients in K-12 education and deploy them at scale, creating alternatives to the decades-old model of everyone using big software companies and their proprietary platforms for these types of programs. The market was ready for innovation, the government was interested in supporting it, and we were poised to do in education what we had previously done in website development. That is, deploy smart teams of people to customize and produce free software and make it work at scale.
Over the past four years, we have delivered over 700,000 tests on these open source platforms and continue to find states and consortia who intuitively understand the economic value of this model and appreciate the transparent, open method of product development.
I don’t know if we’ll be on the Fast Fifty again, but I have to say, it’s great to finally be here. The view is nice at #19, and the company is excellent. To the other firms who dream of being included one day - keep working, hire great people, treasure your customers, and always bring the best ideas to the table and you will find there’s room for you on this list too.