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Fast and Steady

Fast and Steady
Vistage members make the Inc. 5000

A startup that made a game out of hunting killers. A crib company that caught Beyoncé’s attention. A consulting firm that whipped the U.S. Army into shape.

These are among the fastest-growing companies in America. They’re so fast, in fact, that they topped the 2020 Inc. 5000 list, an annual list of privately held companies with the highest percentage of revenue growth over a three-year period.

The companies — Hunt A Killer, KRJ Consulting and Million Dollar Baby — are all run by Vistage members, and they’re not alone in earning this prestigious recognition. More than 300 Vistage-member businesses also made the list this year.

We spoke to the leaders of these companies to understand how they sent their revenues soaring. As it turns out, there’s more than one way to make it to the top.

For the full 2020 list, visit
vistage.com/inc-5000-vistage-companies
Ryan Hogan, photos courtesy of Hunt A Killer
Ryan Hogan
CEO, Hunt A Killer
No. 6 on the Inc. 5000
Rosedale, Maryland

Anyone who says there’s no money in storytelling hasn’t met Ryan Hogan.

Hogan, the CEO and co-founder of Hunt A Killer, has used great stories to grow revenues at his company from $132,000 in 2016 to more than $27 million in 2019. This year, revenues are on track to exceed $50 million.

Hunt A Killer sells immersive games where people play as detectives in a mystery story. Each month, subscribers receive a red-and-black box with clues, ciphers and documents for investigating a case. The stories change frequently, with six episodes in every “season,” and shift between the genres of horror, sci-fi and mystery. This past fall, for example, Hunt A Killer started selling Blair Witch, a psychological thriller that delves into the history of Burkittsville, and Curtain Call earlier in the year, a story about the disappearance and death of a famed actress in 1934. To date, the company has shipped more than 2 million boxes worldwide.

To complement the subscription boxes — which currently reach more than 100,000 members — Hunt A Killer started selling “premium boxes” in 2017. These all-in-one boxes “are like full-length feature movies,” Hogan explains, “whereas our subscription service is more like a television series.” Premium boxes are only available for purchase on the company’s website, but a new game, Death at the Dive Bar, is also sold through retailers such as Amazon and Target. Hogan credits this premium offering for helping to double the company’s annual revenues between 2019 and 2020, particularly as monthly subscriptions increase more gradually (projected to reach 250,000 in 2021).

Hogan is quick to point out that Hunt A Killer’s growth didn’t come easy. The company had humble beginnings: Co-founder Derrick Smith shipped the first batch of 1,500 mystery boxes out of his basement in Baltimore, Maryland, and used a printer down the road to produce the content. “We didn’t start off doing things amazingly,” says Hogan. “We listened to the customer and iterated the experience.”

One of the first iterations had to do with the style and mechanics of the stories. Early versions of Hunt A Killer relied on a narrator — like a Hannibal Lecter-type character — to lead customers through a murder mystery. But then customers told the company, “‘I want to be an investigator. I want case files. I want crime scene photos. I want all of the things that come with normal investigations,’” Hogan recalls.

A monthly subscripton box from Hunt A Killer

The company pivoted in this direction, which helped it gain traction in the marketplace. But Hogan attributes two other factors to the explosive growth that followed: First, the company prioritized authenticity in its products. That meant, for instance, building a real website for a law firm mentioned in one story, creating a working phone number for another, or printing documents on paper that fit a story’s time period. Second, the company curated online communities by creating Facebook groups devoted to specific mysteries, which kept existing subscribers engaged while attracting new ones.

That second point speaks to Hogan’s long-term vision for Hunt A Killer. “At the end of the day, we’re not an event company, a subscription box company or a retail company,” he says. “We’re an organization that wants to bring the world together through immersive experiences.”

Karen R. Jenkins, photos courtesy of KRJ Consulting
Karen R. Jenkins
President and CEO, KRJ Consulting
No. 546 on the Inc. 5000
Columbia, South Carolina

If you work for Karen R. Jenkins, don’t call her “boss.”

“I’m your teammate,” says Jenkins, president and CEO of KRJ Consulting, a South Carolina-based consulting firm that helps government agencies optimize their performance. “I tell people, ‘I just happen to be in this role as CEO. You could very well handle it, and I could’ve been working for you.’”

This humility is true to Jenkins’ character. An advocate of servant leadership, she has devoted her 30-year career in banking, finance and consulting to making a difference — whether by saving homes from foreclosure, serving as an adjunct professor for a local college or offering free advising for small business owners. She started KRJ Consulting not to grow her personal wealth, but to create fulfilling jobs for people and provide valuable services for governments.

Vistage member Karen R. Jenkins (center) works with her team.

Her selfless approach has paid off. Between 2016 and 2019, KRJ Consulting grew from 0 to 34 employees and landed contracts with federal agencies such as the U.S. Army, the U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. Department of Agriculture. It also won contracts with local and state agencies such as the City of Columbia and South Carolina Department of Transportation. Revenues grew more than nine times, from $365,000 to $3.4 million, in that period. Today, the firm provides a broad suite of services in staff augmentation, workforce development, project management, IT support and operations consulting.

That’s not to say the firm’s trajectory has always swung upward. For Jenkins, the entrepreneurial journey has been a “roller coaster” that has tested her resilience. In 2015, just one year after landing her first big federal contract, she had to pull back from work after her father became sick and passed away in January 2016. Five months later, just as Jenkins was ramping up work again, her teenage son suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. He spent 37 days in the hospital undergoing 11 brain surgeries, and then the entire family relocated to Atlanta so he could attend a rehab facility.

With help from her retired husband, Jenkins spent the next year caring for her son while working on her business. For months, she would plug away on her laptop in the rehab center’s waiting room while her son received therapy. By 2017, she had landed several new contracts and quadrupled the company’s revenues. Sales continued to grow until 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Jenkins is unfazed by her latest setback, however. Instead, she’s focused on the company’s next phase of growth and targeting corporate clients. That doesn’t mean she’ll accept any opportunity that presents itself, though.

“I’m one of the odd business owners; I don’t chase money,” she says. “Not every contract I’m offered is a good fit for me. I want to go after contracts where I can have an impact. When you come from a place of servant leadership — where you’re helping others — there are so many blessings that are going to come your way.”

Teddy Fong
Teddy Fong, photo courtesy of Million Dollar Baby
Teddy Fong
CEO, Million Dollar Baby
No. 4559 on the Inc. 5000
Montebello, California

After graduating from Harvard University in 2006, Teddy Fong had a choice: Work for his family’s business, Million Dollar Baby, or pursue his own career path.

He chose the former, and for good reason. Teddy Fong said he believed the children’s furniture company, which was generating $10 million annually, had enormous potential for growth. It already had a robust supply chain and strong portfolio of high-quality furniture, thanks to the hard work of his parents Daniel and Maryann, who founded the company in 1990. What was missing was an emphasis on design and branding.

“The company had such strong foundations, but it wasn’t marketed well,” Teddy recalls. “I thought we should make design one of the key tenants of the brand and build a brand that resonated with customers.”

Million Dollar Baby's Grandient crib is a top seller (photo courtesy of Million Dollar Baby).

With those goals in mind, Teddy spent the next several years working on two new initiatives for Million Dollar Baby: Launching the Babyletto brand, a sleek but affordable furniture line for the style-conscious parent, and acquiring Nursery Works, a company known for its modern design and popular brands. By 2010, Million Dollar Baby’s annual revenue had nearly quadrupled to $39 million.

In the years that followed, the company added five more brands and sold them through a combination of physical stores, mass merchants and e-commerce retailers such as Amazon, Walmart and Target. In lieu of heavy marketing campaigns, the company focused on social media engagement and media coverage. Both got a boost when celebrities such as Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian and Robert Downey Jr. outfitted their nurseries with the company’s acrylic “Vetro” crib.

When Daniel decided to step down as CEO in 2014, many members of the Fong family signaled that Teddy was the right person to take over. Aware of the risks that came with such a transition, the family worked with Vistage Chair and former Vistage CEO Richard Carr to help guide the process and moderate conversations with everyone involved. They found Carr’s involvement so valuable that they kept the relationship going: Today, Carr meets with everyone in the company on a quarterly basis to deliver Vistage Inside sessions. “I call him ‘Uncle Richard’ because he’s just so close to the family,” Teddy says.

To date, the company has made the Inc. 5000 list seven times and shows no signs of slowing down, with current revenues projected at well over $100 million and new investments planned for sustainability and the customer experience.

Teddy shares this optimistic view, but not because of a strategic initiative. “Our secret sauce is the people working for us,” he says. “They’re experts in what they do, and we trust them. They’re really empowered to continually improve everything that we do, all the time.”

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