It’s a great honour and special thrill for me to welcome and introduce to you Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s. Possibly, probably, the greatest business in the World.
Rather than following the usual route of growth, having a Zingerman’s in every city in the country or the world, they chose to set up a community of businesses within their local area. You can too.
Zingerman’s businesses are food-related but yours could be anything; property, motor or clothing-related. Whatever you are passionate about.
We need a few more similar businesses out there, providing great service to their customers, creating a stimulating workplace with rewarding jobs for their employees and doing charitable work within their communities.
Imagine a million Zingerman’s-style businesses scattered around the globe, all doing their thing. The World would be a better place.
With special thanks to Ari for taking time out his very busy day to provide the article to help you all make your businesses better. I will be publishing the article over the next few days.
At the end of the article is a link to the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses website so you can learn more about the phenomenon that is Zingerman’s.
Please read, learn and, most of all, enjoy.
Twelve Natural Laws of Building a Great Business
A More Organic Way to Operate?
I most definitely could not have listed all 12 of these tips anywhere near as clearly back when we opened Zingerman’s in ’82 as I did when I wrote this piece 25 years later. But the truth is that these “natural laws” really are all things that we did to get going back in the early ’80s. I think they’re as true now as they were then and will still be true 20, or 220, years hence. They are very much the same sort of behind-the-scenes attitudes and approaches that have guided us over the years. And, although I haven’t run any other businesses, I’m pretty confident that every successful organization would likely have followed many of these same approaches. Each organization will, of course, have its own applications, but the laws themselves will, naturally, remain the same.
I hope they help you as much as they have us.
1. An inspiring, strategically sound vision leads the way to greatness (especially if you write it down!)
What’s a vision? As we define it here, it’s a picture of what success looks like at a particular point in the future. If you’re starting a business, I’d suggest that you pick a time at least three to five years in the future, and longer might be even better. Your vision will talk about what your business does, and why it’s special. How the people who work in the business feel about being part of it. How your business relates to its customers, and about how it fits into the community. It could even detail what you as owner will do, and how much money you want to make. To be effective the vision needs to inspire the people who will be doing the work. It also needs to be strategically sound—i.e., while your goals should be ambitious, you want them to be realistic, too. To that end, the vision should also have some key measurables so that everyone involved has some sense of what you’re aspiring to.
2. You need to give customers really compelling reasons to buy from you
This seems exceedingly obvious, but I’ve encountered a lot of businesses that don’t get it—they seem to think that people ought to buy from them “just because.” But from the day we opened at Zingerman’s we’ve always taken the approach that we need our customers way more than they need us. We’ve always assumed that we have nothing to offer that anyone really needs. if you don’t think the reasons your company is offering are all that exciting, they probably aren’t. If that’s the case, I’d say start working to come up with more as quickly as you can—the risk of offering too many compelling reasons would be what we’d consider a “good problem.” (More on that in a minute.)
3. Without good finance, you fail
This one is so widely accepted that I almost didn’t include it on the list. But you know what happens when you “assume,” right? Plus it’s quite possible to fulfill most or all of the other natural laws as they’re laid out here and still not have a sustainable business from a financial standpoint. Granted, it’s way more likely that your finances will be good if you live up to all the other laws on the list, but there are still absolutely no guarantees. Many businesses that are doing special things fail every year because they don’t manage their money well.
I’ll be brief here because there are a million places for you to learn about business finance. (You may want to start with Karen Berman and Joe Knight’s book, Financial Intelligence, or come to ZingTrain’s Fun, Flavorful Finance seminar.) The bottom line (pun intended) is that you can have all the good intentions and good ideas in the world, but you still have to be profitable in order for the business to survive; you do have to have cash on hand in order to pay the bills; and if you don’t pay your taxes properly and on time you’ll get in a lot of trouble.
4. People do their best work when they’re part of a really great organization
Ultimately people want to feel that their work makes a positive difference; that their extra efforts are noticed; that they can improve the quality of their lives and the lives of those around them through their work. When we accomplish this we have more fun, service improves, sales go up, and all those other good things that we like to see, start to happen—and with amazing regularity!
Here at Zingerman’s we’ve always taken the approach that we were going to treat the people who chose to work with us as if they were volunteers. As with our customers, we need our staff way more than they need us. So how rewarding does the workplace have to be? Well, pretty darned rewarding. Please note that we mean “rewarding” in every sense of the word—financially, sure, but also emotionally, intellectually, and physically.
5. If you want the staff to give great service to customers, the leaders have to give great service to the staff
This rule is less obvious and probably less widely accepted than some of the others. But it’s every bit as important. It’s one of the key tenets of Servant Leadership, which is the core of our leadership philosophy here at Zingerman’s. (We learned it from Robert Greenleaf’s excellent book, Servant Leadership.)
Here’s the deal: the service that the staff gives to customers is never going to be better than the service that we as leaders provide to the staff. The tone comes from the top; although exceptional service providers may occasionally crop up on their own, they’ll always be the exception. The rest is up to us.
6. If you want great performance from your staff, you have to give them clear expectations and training tools
To run a great organization, it’s very clear that we need to be clear about what we’re asking from the folks who work for us. And then we need to effectively teach them how to meet our expectations.
The validity of this natural law was confirmed in Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman’s book, First, Break All the Rules, in which the Gallup Organization surveyed 1,000,000 workers and 80,000 managers to determine which factors were most important for keeping the best workers in their jobs for the longest period of time. Their single most important element? Clear expectations. Second most critical? The tools to do their work, among which effective training figures at the top of the list.
7. Successful businesses do the things that others know they should do. . . but generally don’t
While business books often focus on some stroke of Steven Jobs-like genius, I think that more often than not the real genius is mostly in doing the sort of drudgerous stuff that anyone who really thinks about it could do, but doesn’t. Most people don’t do this type of work because it seems too hard, too boring, too unrewarding . . . too something. For whatever reason the best businesses do it anyway, while their (oft-complaining) competitors can’t quite muster up the energy to make it happen.
8. To get to greatness you’ve got to keep getting better, All the time!
The most successful organizations and individuals understand this. From medicine to the arts, non-profits, or pro sports—the best in any field are all going after improvement all the time. You can call it continuous improvement, kaizen, or whatever you like. The reality is that if we’re not learning, growing, and improving then the marketplace is going to pass us by.
Early on in my leadership life I used to think we’d get to some point where success would allow us to coast. Man, was I ever wrong on that one. Fortunately I realized the error of my ways in time. In truth, I think running the business well actually gets harder, not easier, the longer you go on. But once I made peace with that reality, then living this rule was infinitely less stressful for me.
9. Success means you get better problems
Although most of us are raised with the belief that effective work eliminates problems, the reality is quite different. We’re always going to have problems. The key is to pick the problems you want and then appreciate the chance to work on them, all the while working to get better problems still.
Don’t believe me? OK, would you rather have too few customers and struggle to make your payroll, or have sales so strong that you have to struggle to keep up? Obviously I like seeing sales levels right “on plan” best of all, but the reality is that generally I’d rather have sales be too high than too low. Similarly, I’d far prefer the problem of having too many good people in the organization and not quite enough opportunity for them all in the moment than to have too few good people.
10. Whatever your strengths are, they will likely lead straight into your weaknesses
I used to think there was this big conflict at work between “good” and “bad” qualities, either in me or in the organization overall. But the reality is that pretty much anything we’re good at is going to, at some point, be carried a bit too far and become a problem.
Embracing the reality of this law makes life far less stressful: instead of fighting our weaknesses we can actually predict them and then plan ways to manage around, or through, them. If we do that well, managers can be more effective and everyone can have more fun at work. And it also gives each of us—as individuals and organizations—the opportunity to understand why we do what we do, and to adjust our behaviors accordingly.
11. It generally takes a lot longer to make something great happen than people think
While most people seem to think that everyone else’s work or life or whatever is glamorous (the grass is always greener and all that), few things are actually very glamorous after the third or fourth day of doing them. Front-line people think it would be great to be the CEO and be in charge of everything; CEOs think about how nice it would be to just be able to go clean the cooler for an hour and not have anyone bother them! And while there are the hole-in-ones of the business world that you can probably point to as exceptions, nearly all great organizations, nearly all long-term, sustainable businesses, take a really, really long time to build. They may seem from the outside like “overnight” successes, but very few of them actually are.
My experience here is that it takes about two years for us to achieve some level of equilibrium for any meaningful change or new business. It then takes another year or two to get good. And it’s only then—three to four years after we started—that we’ve got ourselves in position to go after greatness. Getting that greatness, in my experience, generally takes another two years, too. And then, in keeping with Law number 7, we just keep working to get better anyway!
12. Great organizations are appreciative, and the people in them have more fun
Before some cynic says something like, “well that’s easy for them because they’re successful, so of course they’re having fun,” I’m going to posit that in this case, as in so many other things in life, the behavior actually very often precedes the feeling. Great organizations aren’t having fun just because they’re great (though it’s usually way more fun to work with the problems of success than those of failure); rather, they’re great because the people in them are actively appreciative and have learned to enjoy doing whatever it is they need to do to succeed in ethical and caring ways.
Paul Hawken wrote about this in one of the first—and still one of the best—business books I ever read, Growing a Business. “Laughter and good humor,” he wrote, “are the canaries in the mine of commerce. If employees, customers, and vendors don’t laugh and have a good time at your company, something is wrong.”
This article is excerpted from the essay, “Twelve Natural Laws of Building a Great Business” from Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 1; A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business (Zingerman’s Press). Available on line at zingtrain.com.
Hope you all enjoyed
Thank you Ari!
Good luck with your business.
Thanks for reading!