And that's not all. Innovate E-Commerce has swooped up an armful of awards this year. Puchalsky, president and COO, was named one of the Best 50 Women in Business in Pennsylvania. The firm was chosen as one of the top 10 information technology companies in Pittsburgh in the Pittsburgh Technology Council's Tech 50 awards. And Claire and Puchalsky earned a place as finalists in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year competition.
The awards didn't come without effort; it's no easy task to make the Inc 500. A business has to demonstrate outstanding revenue growth -- Innovate E-Commerce grew from $214,000 in its first year in business to $3.7 million in 2001, or 1,647 percent over five years -- and provide extensive financial documentation to verify it.
Claire, Innovate E-Commerce's CEO, and Puchalsky acknowledge they have carefully selected awards programs like the Inc 500 that would have the most impact for them in their business and made a conscious effort to pursue them.
But as prestigious as the achievements are for the e-commerce consulting firm's founders, they are the first to point out that landing the accolades is not an end in itself, and that they won't produce automatic results in your business -- although they certainly won't hurt.
"It's not going to make someone pick up the phone and call us, but it may make the decision go our way over someone else," says Puchalsky.
For Claire and Puchalsky, the honors are a result of a solid and focused strategic effort to build a business, not the other way around.
"It wasn't like it was a destination," says Claire. "It's a milestone or marker on the journey we're taking to build a great company."
That doesn't mean the laurels can't have more immediate as well as long-term benefits. Innovate E-Commerce gets a bang out of the immediate publicity the awards programs generate.
The Tech 50 awards led to at least a half a dozen articles in local magazines and newspapers. The company cites the awards in its overall marketing communications and uses them to reinforce its overall branding effort, a function particularly important for a company in the technology sector.
"Branding is thought to be especially critical in marketing high-tech products and services because often the products and services themselves are too technically complex to communicate to general business audiences," says Puchalsky. "So instead, we surround the company image in success, find opportunities to gain visibility, and support the sales effort through name or branding recognition."
And while awards won't make the orders stream in, they can open doors.
"It's helped from the standpoint of when you go in to talk to somebody, you've got more credibility than some of the others you're competing with," says Claire.
And achieving goals like placing in the Inc 500 can allow you to tap into a peer group that can provide inspiration and education that otherwise may be unavailable or inaccessible. Puchalsky points out that the judging process in most awards competitions involves review by high-ranking executives and business owners, a good way to introduce your company to influential business leaders.
In the case of the Inc 500, the awards include an opportunity to meet with others on the list at a national conference, as well as at other events where Inc 500 company executives gather, greet and exchange ideas and growth strategies.
Says Claire: "Wouldn't you like to have a couple of days with 350 of the fastest-growing companies, the founders and CEOs of those companies, to find out and learn something about what they do and maybe leverage it?"
While many of the benefits of earning awards come from outside the company, the prizes can have a positive effect internally as well.
Puchalsky says the awards boost employee morale at Innovate E-Commerce by reassuring them that even in a tough economy and in an industry where businesses often experience short lifecycles, their company is growing.
"Especially in these economic times, where a lot of our employees see friends being laid off and they see the company getting awards for growth, it gives them a feeling of comfort," says Puchalsky.
Michael Magnotto, owner of a Shop 'n' Save supermarket in Hermitage, says a feature article about his 67,000-square-foot store in Progressive Grocer, a leading trade publication for supermarket operators and others in the food industry, had little direct impact on his business. Because the article appeared in a trade magazine, his customers had little opportunity to see it. Magnotto nonetheless views the recognition as a great morale-builder for his employees.
"It's always encouraging and positive when someone else talks about the things that are happening in your store," says Magnotto, whose family has operated stores in the town for 92 years.
For Magnotto, who holds events like Valentine's Day dinners for his employees, "you can't do enough positive reinforcement."
For growing companies looking for first-rate employees, the publicity surrounding awards can attract job-seekers looking for high-quality companies.
"Whenever we win an award, we are deluged with resumes," says Ian James, president of Red Square Systems, a South Side-based network service provider that has won two Tech 50 awards and a People Do Matter award, given for practicing innovative human resources strategies that attract and retain employees.
"We've found that our awards make it easier for us to continue to attract top talent," says Rich Wendell, vice president of marketing and strategy for Red Square. "Job-seekers definitely pay attention to which organizations are good employers and which are doing well financially."
A reputation builder
For Lou Stanasolovich, president and CEO of Legend Financial Advisors, being named one of the top professionals in his industry has had a tangible impact on his business. The publicity that comes as a result of the awards he receives always results in calls from potential clients.
Stanasolovich has been named one of the top financial advisers in the country by Worth magazine six times, and one of the 150 best advisers for physicians by Medical Economics magazine. Legend Financial is one of the few firms in the country, says Stanasolovich, that has two advisers on the Worth list, a factor that substantially raises the prestige of his firm.
For Legend Financial, the impact of being on the list is both immediate and long-term. Stanasolovich and a second award-winner at the firm, Diane Pearson, use the awards to enhance their professional biographies, documents that Stanasolovich says are the single most important credentials in the eyes of potential clients.
But for Stanasolovich and the others, accolades mean little if their companies can't deliver on their promises. A good reputation is hard to acquire but easy to squander if you fail to live up to it.
For Red Square Systems and Innovate E-Commerce, that means continuing to offer outstanding service to customers. For financial planners and investment advisors like Legend Financial, it means standing out in a crowd in an industry that doesn't always enjoy the most favorable public image and whose practitioners rely heavily on reputation and referrals.
"The bottom line," says Stanasolovich, "is you've got to know what you're talking about." How to reach: Innovate E-Commerce, www.innovateec.com; Legend Financial Advisors, www.legend-financial.com; Red Square Systems, www.redsquaresystems.com; Tech 50 Awards, www.pghtech50.org; Inc magazine, www.inc.com, Worth magazine, www.worth.com, Progressive Grocer, www.progressivegrocer.com
A semiprecious gem?
Joseph Bonasso received an industry award that he's proud of, yet he feels he can't trumpet too loudly about it.
Bonasso, owner of J.A.B Jewelry in McMurray, earned first prize in September on his first try in a competition held by the Pennsylvania Jewelers Association. The winning piece: a ring Bonasso designed and crafted that features an aquamarine and round diamonds in a white gold setting.
After 15 years in the business he built by doing custom work and repairs for about 20 other jewelers, Bonasso is attempting to make the custom-designed jewelry sold through his on-premises showroom a bigger part of his business.
But because the bulk of his work -- about 75 percent -- is custom work for other jewelers, bandying too much about the award could sour his jeweler customers if they perceive that he is competing too directly with them.
Most of J.A.B. Jewelry's design work comes through word of mouth. Despite a growing retail trade through his showroom, Bonasso says he does no advertising, so there is limited value to the award in his marketing efforts.
Still, he says the award received notice in the industry trade press, recognition that can only help his business and raise his stature among jewelers. And he sees the value of the award in helping him to pursue his long-term goal of doing more custom work.
"I definitely want to promote the specialty stuff, because that's what we do," says Bonasso.