Kat Hughes, Executive Director
Business Observer
Entrepreneurship isn’t for the faint of heart. Although some envision it as a chance to work for yourself, make your own hours and have the freedom to do things your way, anyone who has done it knows it doesn’t quite look like that most of the time.

That’s the rosy side.

The dark, thorny side of entrepreneurship looks more like few hours of sleep, sometimes lousy and uncertain paychecks and continual worries, questions and stress. Will I make payroll? Should I expand to pursue a new opportunity, or focus on my core product? Where will I find the capital I need to grow? And the biggie: How can I get help without losing control of what I’ve built?

Entrepreneurship is lots of questions and few answers; at least not the kind that come easily and definitely not the kind that come from a book. Instead, answers usually come in the form of success and failures. The former can be extremely lucrative, while the latter can be life-changingly costly.

Which is why entrepreneurship takes guts.

As a nation, we tend to glorify entrepreneurship, and perhaps rightly so. After all, it’s the epitome of the American Dream — you can start with nothing and build a business as vast as you can imagine. If you are successful. If. At the Business Observer, we celebrate those who have taken that risk and found success. Particularly in this issue, for which we search from Tampa to Naples for the best entrepreneurs on the Gulf Coast.

For each region, we have chosen a winner, along with two finalists. We look for three consecutive years of exceptional revenue growth to help us decide. This year’s overall winner, Greg Murtagh of St. Petersburg-based Triad Retail Media, nearly doubled his firm’s revenues during that time, to $249.6 million.

In this year’s winners, we found great stories of the people behind the businesses. Like how Pat Neal learned the power of density on earning power with his first newspaper route. Or how Mark Stevens, after he graduated college, turned down a great job offer at Disney to work for a firm with five employees in Cape Coral so he could learn and do more.

Our entrepreneurs also shared some great lessons. Like how Scott Fischer trades some of his profitability to invest in training and staff development, and why he believes it’s a competitive advantage in the end.

To gain more insight into how they think, we asked our top entrepreneurs what they would do if we gave them $1 million to invest in their businesses. See below. We hope the stories on the following pages give you a few ideas. And maybe even a few answers.

If I had a million dollars … To see how the top entrepreneurs on the Gulf Coast think, we asked this year’s Entrepreneurs of the Year:

Mark Stevens, Stevens Construction: He would bank it. That kind of liquidity on the balance sheet of Stevens Construction could boost his bonding capacity, allowing him to take on more construction projects instead of opening up an office in another location. “I want to grow what we’ve got,” says Stevens, president and founder of the Fort Myers-based construction company.