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Business Owners

5 Things the Mid-Market’s Most Innovative CEOs Have in Common


When were the seeds for today’s most innovative mid-market businesses sown?

Mike Votto, founder of Votto Vines, was on vacation in Tuscany with his wife. Troy Helming, founder of Pristine Sun, was doing his childhood chores. Shallan Ramsey, founder of MaskIT, was raising her teenage daughter. Jon Sader, founder of Solar RAQ, was managing a construction project for Brad Pitt. Robert Herzog, founder of eCaring, was caring for his ailing mother. Mark Antilla, founder of Grain and Barrel, was taking work trips to Brazil.

Each of these people came from entirely different backgrounds. Some had experience as founders and CEOs; others were first-timers armed with an idea and some good old-fashioned grit. Through each of their stories, there are some common threads.

1) They saw an opening.

Mike Votto was wine-tasting at small vineyards in Tuscany when he asked if their wine was available overseas. “The answer was no,” he recalls. And with that one answer, Mike’s career as a wine distributor was born.

Jon Sadar was serving as construction director for Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation as they rebuilt homes in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward post-Hurricane Katrina. While his crew installed solar panels, he realized there had to be a better — and less time-consuming — way. So he created a universal mounting system.

“I didn’t find anything even close to what my idea was,” says Shallan Ramsey of her feminne hygiene disposal method.

2) They didn’t let their backgrounds hold them back.

Robert Herzog had “a background in nearly everything but healthcare” when he started eCaring, a solution to bring the power of data to patients and caregivers. Instead of using his lack of healthcare experience to hold him back, he saw it as an added benefit.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few,” says Robert.

3) They heard “no.”

Says Shallan of her search for a U.S. manufacturer for her product, “100 companies told me no. All I needed was one yes.”

4) They made mistakes.

Troy Helming of Pristine Sun “got death threats from employees of the Koch Brothers’ company” for his aggressive ways early on in his career. “I made my share of mistakes,” he says — but he learned from those missteps when starting Pristine Sun.

5) They had their share of bad luck.

Matti Anttila started his first spirits brand pre-recession in 2006. By the time he emerged from hibernation in 2011, he had gained a broader perspective, and decided to take a different approach to the beverage business.

See the Growth 100 CEOs nominated for innovation >

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