What's America's most promising company?
Forbes ranks 100 names with the best prospects for growth.
This post comes from Brett Nelson at partner site Forbes.com.
What if someone told you the most promising company in the United States aimed to compete with multiple multibillion-dollar giants in a traditional industry with un-software-like profit margins? That the company had clocked explosive growth through the deepest recession in recent memory -- and it was just getting started?
Meet Smashburger, which tops a Forbes.com list of America's 100 most-promising privately held up-and-coming companies. Each has a compelling business model, a strong management team, notable customers, strategic partners and precious investment capital.
Smashburger, headquartered in Denver, operates a chain of hamburger restaurants in 25 states. Half are company owned and half are owned by franchisees. The company projects $54 million in annual revenue by the end of 2011 with more to come: another 450 franchise agreements are on the books.
The companies on the list hail from 22 industries, with software-and-services taking the biggest slice (35%). Some fast facts: 90 have raised outside capital; 70 have a CEO who is also one of the founders; 7 have yet to generate revenue; and one sells a burger topped with pastrami. None of these outfits may blossom into the next Google (GOOG) or Apple (AAPL), but all, it appears, have bright futures.
The point of this exercise? You'd have to be living under the dirt that's under the rock not to have noticed that the business press loves rankings. Readers devour, dissect and debate them. More to the point, rankings sell advertising -- and that leads to more rankings.
Company rankings are a popular confection, if often an ultimately unsatisfying one. That's because most are based on a single metric (such as revenue, assets or market capitalization) and don't take a comprehensive approach to evaluating a business' health or, more importantly, its potential.
Sizing up younger, privately held companies is difficult. Their fortunes can change quickly, and they aren't obliged to share their plans and finances with the public. The default: Cajole as many companies as possible into revealing their annual sales figures and stack them accordingly. These short cuts are understandable, given the effort, resources and skill deeper due diligence requires. How, then, to find hidden gems with scintillating prospects?
To sharpen our search, we teamed up with CB Insights, a New York data firm that tracks investment in high-growth private companies. CB Insights has developed software called Mosaic to help lenders and investors dole out capital more efficiently. We married Mosaic's data-crunching with old-fashioned reporting to assemble a list of up-and-comers with big growth potential. Mosaic's algorithms look at a host of signals that collectively paint a picture of a company's health. Example: If turnover in the management ranks is ticking up, that's a negative signal. A new distribution deal with a large strategic partner is a favorable signal. The hard part: extracting all those "digital footprints" -- job postings, product reviews, press reports, debt filings -- and assembling them in a meaningful way.
Using the Mosaic score as a preliminary ranking, we honed the list by gathering additional data via a second, more detailed survey to get a better sense of each company's growth potential. We asked for annual revenue and the number of employees for 2008 and 2010, and estimates for 2011. We also took into account the size of the addressable market, the strength of major competitors, the experience of the management team, the amount of outside capital raised and how much of the founders' own stash was on the line (the more the better). Then we spoke with representatives of each company to confirm the information and get additional color on their operations.
Here is a look at the top 20:
No. 1: Smashburger -- $39.4 million in annual revenue
The company runs a chain of 131 "fast casual" restaurants throughout the United States and is expanding to Canada and the Middle East. Menu items include burgers, chicken sandwiches, salads, beer and wine. CEO Dave Prokupek previously was chief executive at three firms in various industries. The company has raised $20 million in private equity since inception in 2007.
No. 2: Boku -- $55 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2008, the company creates software that helps online merchants process payments using a customer's cell phone number in place of a credit card; it then takes a small cut of each transaction. Big customers include Facebook and Electronic Arts (ERTS).
Boku has raised $42 million in venture capital from stalwarts Andreesen Horowitz, Khosla Ventures and others. Founders Mark Britto, Ron Hirson, and Erich Ringewald have each sold companies they founded or lead.
No. 3: Digital Broadcasting Group -- $21.3 million in annual revenue
Launched in 2006, it produces online videos -- marketing disguised as entertainment -- for corporations and places them (as well as traditional video ads) among a network of 2,600 websites. Customers include Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), American Express, (AXP), Coca-Cola (KO) and Ford (F). Chris Young, Digital Broadcasting's chief executive, sold KlipMart, an online video ad company, to DoubleClick in 2006.
No. 4: Popchips -- $45.3 million in annual revenue
Makes snacks that contains zero trans or saturated fats. CEO Keith Belling is a serial entrepreneur whose previous ventures include a coffee chain, a restaurant group and the allbusiness.com website. The company raised $6 million in August. Celebrity investors include Ashton Kutcher, David Ortiz and Sean Combs.
No. 5: Implantable Provider Group -- $19.6 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2004, the company buys medical implants (like pacemakers), gives them to hospitals and collects reimbursement directly from insurance carriers. Hospitals like this arrangement because it lowers cash outlays on inventory and avoids the need to deal with carriers. The carriers like it because they tend to reimburse IPG at a lower rate than hospitals require. IPG makes money by purchasing implants in bulk and selling them at a markup. The company raised $35 million from Sequoia Capital in March 2010.
No. 6: Virtual Instruments -- $23.5 million in annual revenue
Launched in 2008, the company sells software and hardware that help large corporations monitor their IT systems in real time. (Think of it as an MRI for IT infrastructure.) Clients include Wells Fargo (WFC) and eBay (EBAY). In 2010, CEO John W. Thompson, former chief executive of Symantec (SYMC), raised $22.5 million from Lightspeed Venture Partners, Next World Capital and Riverwood Capital.
No. 7: Allonhill -- $19.3 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2008, the company audits residential mortgage loan files for institutions that buy or sell mortgage-backed securities. Everything from the borrower's income and property value to the authenticity of signatures gets a look from one of Allonhill's 530 employees. Founder and CEO Sue Allon funded the company with proceeds from the 2004 sale of her last company, Murrayhill, which also managed risk related to mortgage securities.
No. 8: SecondMarket -- $37 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2004, the company provides an electronic exchange for $30 billion worth of hard-to-trade assets, including shares of privately held companies (think Facebook), restricted shares in public companies, collateralized debt obligations, auction-rate securities and bankruptcy claims. In February, it raised $7.5 million from Temasek Holdings (Singapore's sovereign wealth fund) and another $7.5 million from Li Kashing, Hong Kong's richest man. In October 2011, SecondMarket raised $15 million from The Social+Capital Partnership.
No. 9: ServiceNow -- $93 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2004, the company provides a Web-based, virtual IT service desk for corporations. If someone's hard drive breaks, for example, that employee uses ServiceNow to create a work ticket and get it fixed. Marquee customers include Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Barclays (BCS) and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Founder Fred Luddy has nearly 40 years of experience in enterprise technology.
No. 10: Opower -- $11.4 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2007, the company creates software to help homeowners track and limit their energy use. The company sells the software to energy utilities, which use it to lure customers and comply with state regulations. Backed by $65 million from Accel Partners, Kleiner Perkins, and New Enterprise Associates. CEO and co-founder Dan Yates -- who sold his educational software company Edusoft to Houghton Mifflin in 2004 -- came up with the idea while driving from Alaska to the tip of South America.
No. 11: uSamp -- $22.7 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2008, the company makes online-survey software and has a network of more than 6 million respondents around the globe. The company charges according to the number and demographics of the respondents. J.D. Power & Associates is a marquee customer. Co-founders Gregg Lavin and Matt Dusig are childhood friends who together launched and sold two previous companies. They raised $10 million in venture capital from Openview Partners in 2010.
No. 12: 3Cinteractive -- $12.4 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2005, the company sets up software systems and mobile carrier relationships that enable businesses to communicate with customers via mobile phones. It was founded by three veterans of MCI in 2005. About $6 million in private equity was raised from Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors last spring. Former Apple (AAPL) CEO John Sculley sits on the company's board; former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino made an early investment.
No. 13: Scale Computing -- $4.9 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2007, the company sells data-storage hardware to midsized companies in smaller increments (think Lego blocks for storage), allowing clients to shell out for only the amount of memory they need. CEO and founder Jeff Ready launched and sold three technology companies. The company has raised $17 million in venture capital from Benchmark Capital, Northgate and Scale Venture Partners.
No. 14: Contour -- $15.1 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2003, The company makes small, rugged cameras that athletes attach to their helmets or bodies for hands-free recording. Each camera comes with video editing software; other features include a Bluetooth connection that turns a user's mobile phone into a viewfinder. The cameras are sold through Best Buy (BBY) and Dick's Sporting Goods (DKS). Marc Barros and Jason Green started the company after winning $20,000 at an undergraduate business plan competition. They raised $5 million from Montlake Capital and Black Oak Capital in 2010.
No. 15: Fresh Diet -- $17 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2005, the company delivers a day's worth of healthy food (three meals and two snacks) to customers who pay weekly or monthly subscription fees. It serves major U.S. metropolitan markets, including New York, Los Angeles and Miami. CEO Zalmi Duchman founded the company in his apartment with $500 on a credit card. He later raised $2 million from private investors.
No. 16: Four Winds Interactive -- $17 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2005, the company sells software to create and manage content on digital signs and interactive kiosks. Installations include outdoor screens on the Las Vegas Strip and the digital concierges at Marriott hotels. The three founders have declined to take any outside funding.
No. 17: HubSpot -- $15.6 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2005, the company sells web-delivered software that helps businesses manage "inbound marketing" (search-engine optimization, social media strategy) and traditional e-mail marketing. Monthly subscriptions range from $200 to $5,000, depending on features and number of e-mail contacts. The company raised $32 million from Sequoia, Salesforce.com (CRM) and Google Ventures last spring. Dharmesh Shah, co-founder and chief technology officer, sold his previous company, Pyramid Digital Solutions, to SunGuard in 2005.
No. 18: Box -- $10.7 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2005, the company makes file-sharing, storing and collaboration software, delivered over the Web. Customers include Proctor & Gamble (PG) and Dell (DELL). Aaron Levie and Dylan Smith founded the company as college sophomores. They got some of initial funding by cold-emailing Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. They also raised $81 million from a number of venture capital firms.
No. 19: IntegriChain -- $5.7 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2007, the company makes software for pharmaceutical companies looking for a better window into their sales and inventory data. iIntegriChain's software can help customers tally the inventory at a single pharmacy, or even see the number of units that pharmacy sold on any given day. Among its clients are Novartis (NVS), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Clients sign three- or five-year contracts for access to IntegriChain's dashboard, which can display data myriad ways to make sales teams more efficient.
No. 20: Lending Club -- $6.7 million in annual revenue
Founded in 2007, the company runs a "peer-to-peer" lending website for personal loans. It assesses applicants' risk and allows investors to lend directly to them or spread their money across a number of loans. It charges borrowers an origination fee of between 1% and 5%, depending on credit risk, and assesses creditors a service fee equal to 1% of the loan amount. CEO and founder Renaud Laplanche sold TripleHop Technologies, an enterprise software company, to Oracle (ORCL) in 2005. Lending Club raised $25 million in venture capital in August.
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