The DNA of Great Businesses

IAward Winning Businesses am incredibly fortunate in that over a number of sessions this week, I have been judging the finalists in the Telstra National Business Awards.  I say fortunate because its extremely rare that you get a warts and all look inside someone else’s small business; through face-to-face interviews, financial reports and written submissions.  Let alone 8 of them in a row that you can compare and contrast!  I also say fortunate because some of the people that I met were so awesome I felt like a fraud judging them.
Imagine starting a local community café and being ISO 9000 accredited within 9 months and then doing a food supply deal with a national retailer.  Imagine starting a niche eCommerce site and be turning over tens of millions by year 3.  Imagine completely re-imagining a sector such as pharmacy, on not one but multiple levels simultaneously.  No need to imagine!

Now having been gently hassled by some of the finalists after the awards presentation – about what they could do better with their business.  I felt the urge to put together a composite picture of the businesses I looked at – to create a “perfect winner” and reference point.  I reckon the founder of this business has 7 key attributes.

1.  They set out to do something extraordinary

The pharmacy didn’t setup to be “an average” pharmacy, the café didn’t  just try to survive, the recruitment agency didn’t launch into a shrinking market.  I also spoke to a distiller in another segment who got the first licence to make whiskey in 153 years and started an industry that now has 40 players.  Great businesses set out to do something extraordinary, they don’t evolve into it.

2. They have a formal plan that they are executing

All the high performing businesses had a formal planning process, a large business plan and a one page cheat sheet that was reviewed according to a regular schedule.  Having a plan wasn’t good enough.  It had to be written down and executed well.

3. They build processes

Every high performer built their business as a series of processes  even when they were a one man band.  This allowed them to grow quickly, employing the cheaper, process orientated roles first and leveraging themselves up.  If you want to build massive scale, building processes from day is vastly more important than just relying on  natural talent .

4. They measure everything that matters

The retailers knew how long customers were waiting,  the online retailers knew what percentage of shopping carts were being abandoned, the IT companies had details project plans with hours being applied to them.  Everyone performing well has lots of metrics on their business and plenty had real time dashboards.  But they weren’t metrics for the sake of metrics, they were well thought out and reviewed every single day so early/cheaper interventions could be applied.

5. They surround themselves with great people

The great businesses aren’t scared of asking anyone to get involved in their business.  They have specialist advisers and general advisers who they meet regularly with in a no-holds bar environment.  They headhunt extraordinary people to be employees.  The founders don’t pretend to be perfect – they acknowledge their own weaknesses, mitigate them with people that fill the gaps and move on.

6. They’re passionate

Their passion is usually based in dedicating themselves to doing something extraordinary.  Their passion also means they can attract the best people, work the long hours without their enthusiasms flagging, overcome the endless setbacks and happily ignore the long queues naysayers who tell them ”You’ll be bankrupt in 6 months”.  This was a theme common to every finalist.

7. They lead

Whether they want to or not, have a flare for it or not, they are all leaders, not just managers.  They inspire their team to do something extraordinary with them.  They inspire financiers to back them.  They convince high profile Australian’s to join their boards.  The media is hungry for their stories.  I also note they are usually leaders in more than one forum – giving back wherever they can.


Not one of the founders I looked had all these attributes.  But they all had enough of them to make them quickly stand out from any crowd.  I was simply inspired.