From the economy's crash at the onset of COVID-19 to supply chain and inflation issues that still pose recessionary threats, you can point to any number of reasons why a business might have struggled to grow over the last three years.
What's harder to explain is how a business might have grown exponentially - as in 1,000%, 2,000% or even 6,800% since 2019.
That, however, is the case with a collection of Tampa Bay businesses singled out this summer by entrepreneurial magazine Inc. as part of its annual Inc. 5000 list, which charts the three-year revenue growth of thousands of private, independent companies. More than 100 local companies made this year's list, including 10 in the top 500 - the top tier of fastest-growing companies in America.
Since 2019, these companies have added dozens of employees, thousands of clients and tens of millions in investments, all as the economy has wobbled all around them. Some see on the horizon even bigger growth - massive contracts, private acquisitions, IPOs and more.
We asked six Tampa Bay companies near the top of this year's Inc. 5000 how they did it. Here's what they said.
'A hell of a six months'
At the start of 2022, Vlad Kytainyk was listening to offers. His custom software development firm Kitrum had grown from fewer than five clients to around 60, and investors had started coming around, sniffing about a possible acquisition. That was never Kytainyk's goal, but he knew it was "a side effect that may happen."
Then, in February, Russia invaded Ukraine.
"As you can imagine, a lot of things have changed since February," Kytainyk said. "It was a hell of a six months."
Kitrum is a Ukrainian company, but it was founded in Clearwater, which qualified it for the Inc. 5000. With growth of 6,799% since 2019, the firm came in at 50th on the list - the highest ranking of any Tampa Bay company.
When war broke out in Ukraine, the company's hundreds of employees scattered, with those in the smaller Clearwater office working remotely. Kytainyk and his family decamped from the hard-hit city of Kharkiv, near the Russian border, to Riverview, where Kytainyk works from a home office with a photo of Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelenskyy tacked up behind his desk.
"When you get a full-scale war invasion from another country that is considered to be the second most powerful in the world, you don't think of business much," Kytainyk said. "You think of how to save your business, how to save your family."
Kitrum had been preparing for a possible Russian invasion, centralizing and automating its digital operations. It leaned on existing remote-work infrastructure to move employees to safe spaces both inside and outside Ukraine. It quickly turned to clients, assuring them that despite the war, the company was still set up to perform. Six months into the war, the company's business is stronger than before; Kytainyk told Inc. the company expects to double its revenue to $19 million in 2022.
The war has been a constant distraction for employees who have friends and family in harm's way, or in the Ukrainian military. But within six months, Kytainyk aims to have an office of around 15 employees back up and running, and in the next couple of years, he may be ready to explore another sale.
"The business will grow," he said. "There's no other way."
Major investment leads the way
Soma Global just moved into a new coworking space in South Tampa's Hyde Park Village. But that wasn't the original plan.
The original plan, after securing a $22.5 Series A investment from Tampa's Weatherford Capital in early 2021, was to find about 7,000 square feet downtown, more than enough growth space for the startup behind cloud-based software for public safety agencies.
But when you specialize in technical efficiency, you soon realize how well your team works remotely, said co-founder Peter Quintas. And a long-term lease, even for a company whose three-year growth Inc. pegged at 3,382% - good enough for 141st on Inc.'s list - starts to look like more trouble than it's worth.
"We're growing so fast, and industries like ours change so fast, that long-term for me means 8 to 12 months," Quintas said. "In 8 to 12 months, we'll be here. Maybe I'll look at it again early next year. But I'd like to enjoy the flexibility this brings."
Just before the pandemic, Soma Global had frozen its staff at 18. Today it has about 65 employees, approximately half in Tampa, servicing a list of public safety and other governmental offices. The firm's sweet spot is resource-strapped agencies without dedicated information technology staffs, for whom cloud-based efficiencies can be a game-changer.
Some of Soma Global's growth, Quintas said, came during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, when police agencies needed more officers on the street than in the office processing paperwork.
"We ended up the year in a pretty good spot," he said. "Coming out of it the way that we did, the team that we have and the business that we have on the tail end of it, I'm proud of."
Rising tides, rising revenues
The Inc. 5000 isn't new territory for Trevor Burgess. He twice made the list with his previous St. Petersburg company, C1 Bank, founded in 2009 through the purchase of several struggling local banks, and sold to Bank OZK in a 2016 deal worth more than $400 million.
When he acquired a controlling stake in Neptune Flood Insurance in 2018, he saw a similar opportunity.
"When there are hurricanes happening, tropical storms happening, people pay attention to their need for flood insurance," Burgess said. "And you couple that with the ongoing evidence of climate change - stronger storms, more frequent storms - and it has provided an environment in which the product that we have to sell is a product that people want to buy."
Neptune, Burgess said, had one full-time employee and about 50 customers when Burgess bought it; it now has 37 employees and 126,000 clients. Inc. pegged the company's three-year growth at 2,587%, good for 205th on the list. It's the largest private flood insurer on the market.
Burgess said the company's breakthrough was making it easier for customers to get rates and buy policies, especially compared to the dominant alternative, the federal National Flood Insurance Program. And while a fifth of its clients are in Florida, Neptune spread its policies across the country, minimizing its risk of exposure from any single storm or event.
Rising inflation and interest rates have only made it more attractive than the federal plan, he said. While the company has at times stretched its staff thin during the pandemic, hiring has gotten easier recently, thanks in part to progressive corporate policies like vaccination bonuses and unlimited time off.
"If you hire smart people who have really good judgment, guess what? They use their judgment," Burgess said.
'People buy from people'
Throughout the pandemic, it's gotten a lot harder to buy a good new or used car. That hasn't slowed SnapCell.
The Tampa company, which creates video communication platforms for auto dealers, grew its business by 1,607% from 2019 to 2021, according to Inc., placing it 366th on the list.
Founded in 2016, the 30-employee company attributes its growth to being "built by car people for car people," said operations manager Max Farrell, which means engineers who understand the car-sales business and the importance of "humanizing the dealership experience." As SnapCell's website states: "Even in the digital age, people buy from people."
The technology rose in popularity early in the pandemic, as people pulled back from car-shopping in person. Early last year, SnapCell posted its 1 millionth video; a few months later, it partnered with GM Canada to implement its video chat service at 400 dealerships nationwide. And it's been in use at dealerships in Europe, the Middle East and Australia.
"We are lucky to have focused our company in a forever-changing environment with automotive," Farrell said. "We are continuously looking at expansion and have started to become a global name."
A 'faster way' to steady growth
This was the third year in a row FASTer Way to Fat Loss made the top 500 of the Inc. 5000. According to founder and CEO Amanda Tress, it should really be the fourth.
The fitness, nutrition and weight loss company would have qualified for the list in 2019, Tress said, but missed out after their paperwork got mixed up with another company's. Either way, posting exponential growth in four straight years is more than she could have asked for.
"It's been a crazy four years," Tress said. "I always tell my team, pacing and perseverance is the key. It's not about hockey-stick growth. It's about consistent growth and momentum over time, and that's what we've achieved as the FASTer Way to Fat Loss. That, I think, is even more remarkable than one single year on any list."
Despite growing 1,401% in the past year, good for 445th on Inc.'s list, the FASTer Way is still self-funded, Tress said. The company this year moved into a new headquarters near St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, from which Tress and her team of 35 film workout videos available to about 3,300 partner trainers and 45,000 clients. Over the next few years, the company plans to incorporate more partnerships as technological advances brought on by the pandemic make scalability a more realistic proposition.
"Instead of simply growing organically, we can hop on the elevator and press the 10th floor and go up without having to put everybody on my shoulders and sprint up the stairs, which is what we've been doing for the past four years," she said.
Tress, who recently returned from maternity leave after having her fifth child, is one of the few female entrepreneur-CEOs in Tampa Bay leading a company with a nine-figure valuation. And she's not stopping there.
"It should be a lot more common to have extremely successful female entrepreneurs, but it's just not," she said. "I take a lot of pride in it. I want to be an example to little girls and women all over the country that you can have a very full family life, but also grow a billion-dollar brand. That's what I'm seeking to do."
A 'generational impact' on defense
For a security company so guarded that it doesn't even keep contact info on its website, Iron EagleX has no qualms about popping up on this year's Inc. 5000.
"We try not to be too beat-our-chesty," said Mike Grochol, CEO of the Tampa technology company with a focus on the military. "But we really want to emphasize that our goal as a business is to be around for a long run at having that generational impact on national security."
Founded in 2017 and acquired by Grochol two years later, Iron EagleX has grown 1,600% in the last three years, according to Inc., placing them at 370th on the list. The company develops cloud platforms and other high-level software applications for government clients - "technology and capability that's better than the stuff we have now, but still achieves that result of bringing good guys home," he said.
That means a lot of work with U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, both headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base. And it means a focus on "integrated deterrence," a relatively recent Pentagon philosophy that looks at both military and nonmilitary ways to shore up national defense.
"The mission in Ukraine that the U.S. government is playing a role in requires us to have technology that can compete with a potential near-peer threat like Russia," Grochol said. "It's helped clear up the lens for people about where our priorities need to be from a national security perspective. And that's where we are."
The exponential growth that accounts for Iron EagleX's high Inc. 5000 ranking doesn't include a recent contract that Grochol said will grow its workforce from about 150 to 250 in the next year. From there, he said, the company aims to become "one of those blue-chip defense companies that builds technology and capability for generations."
"A lot of companies in our market are built to sell," he said. "Our goal is to grow into a multi-billion-dollar defense company. That's how we operate, from start to finish."