From the grounds up: Phillip Di Bella’s tips for growing your business

Brisbane coffee king Phillip Di Bella spilled the beans on his bold new venture and shared his tips for growing and transforming your business at the Brisbane Business Hub’s inaugural On The Couch event. 

Di Bella famously took Di Bella Coffee from a single cart to Australia’s largest specialty coffee company, before selling the business in 2017. Now he’s back with The Coffee Commune, a state-of-the-art facility in Bowen Hills where the coffee community – roasters, baristas, venue owners, network suppliers and plain old coffee enthusiasts – will be able to collaborate, connect and create when it officially opens in March. 

Speaking at the Brisbane Business Hub, a new space in the heart of the CBD dedicated to helping local operators transform and grow their businesses, Di Bella said The Coffee Commune will essentially function as a Coffee Chamber of Commerce.  

“There’ll be a public space where people can just come in and enjoy a cup of coffee, but The Coffee Commune is all about accelerating the potential of the industry,” Di Bella said. “COVID has just enhanced the need for what The Coffee Commune is going to offer, which is a mix of industry advocacy, manufacturing facilities, education and more.” 

Di Bella’s other successful businesses include International Coffee Traders and the New York-based Abbotsford Road Specialty Coffee. He also regularly lends his strategic thinking to businesses such as BDO Consulting, serves as an Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at Griffith University, and is often referred to as Brisbane’s ‘Entrepreneur in Residence’. 

In other words, he knows what it takes to make a business grow – and he shared his insights and advice with a rapt audience at the Brisbane Business Hub. Here are some of his most valuable pearls of wisdom from the event. 

Take calculated risks, and prepare for them to pay off 

If you’re starting a new business, considering leaving a job or contemplating any other big change, it’s only natural to be nervous – but, Di Bella said, you have to face that fear head on. 

“Get comfortable with your worst case scenario,” he said. “Write down what your worst possible debacle is on a piece of paper. Then classify it – is it a personal, professional or family issue? There are no other categories. 

“If you’re comfortable with that scenario – if you think you can handle that risk, personally, professionally or with your family – then you can make the decision to move forward. Once you’re honest with yourself about your worst case scenario, you won’t let anything stop you. 

“Risk generates fear. I was fearful to start my own business in 2002. I was even fearful to start The Coffee Commune. But I’ve learnt to channel that fear into productivity.”

Phillip Di Bella

But don’t just plan ahead for the worst case scenario. You should also be prepared for the risks you take to pay off. 

“Always be planning 12 months ahead and 3 years ahead,” Di Bella said. “In good times, plan for bad, and in bad times, plan for good. You’ve got to be ready to seize opportunities when they come along, because luck is what happens when timing meets opportunity. 

“When we went through rapid growth with Di Bella Coffee, we hadn’t planned for that growth, and the truth is we nearly went bankrupt by growing. You have to grow in accordance with what your organisation can handle, and different organisations in different industries can handle different levels of growth. 

“It’s hard to plan for growth when you’re a start-up, because you’re on your own and you’re wearing multiple hats. But you do need to have that roadmap and you need to keep moving forward.” 

Don’t just do the work, tell the story

It’s one thing to make a great product, but it’s another thing to make customers engage emotionally with your brand.

“When I was building the Di Bella Coffee brand, I really honed in on the fact that it was about promoting the ultimate coffee experience,” Di Bella said. “When I started the business in 2002, coffee was something that people loved but they didn’t know much about, so there was an opportunity to educate people and engage with people emotionally. 

“Today’s consumers know a lot more about coffee than they did five years ago, because coffee brands and coffee shops have done a good job of educating people about their points of difference. 

To increase engagement and build loyalty, you can’t just do the work – you have to tell the story.

“You can take out coffee and plug in whatever industry you’re in, and the philosophy is the same. To increase engagement and build loyalty, you can’t just do the work – you have to tell the story. I’ve seen businesses go broke because they made amazing products but they didn’t tell their story. 

“Most people misconstrue what marketing is. Marketing is just the art of telling a story so compelling that people choose you. How do you do that? WIFM – What’s In It For Me. That’s why we buy stuff; that’s why we emotionally engage. It’s about how it makes you feel, how it makes you think, how it makes you look. What great marketers do is they tell you what’s in it for you.”

Hire an attitude, teach a skill 

As your business grows, you’ll probably need to recruit and induct new employees. While it might be tempting to hire the applicants with the most impressive CVs, Di Bella said that’s not necessarily the way to go. 

“The best advice in hiring – and you can’t do this in every industry – is to hire an attitude and teach a skill,” he said. “Now, if you’re a hospital, you can’t hire someone with a great attitude and no skills and ask them to operate on someone’s brain. But in the hospitality industry, you can hire that way. 

“That’s why I don’t like resumes. Who still reads resumes? Anyone can write on a piece of paper that they’re conscientious, hardworking and trustworthy. And nobody’s ever given a bad reference! I got a call the other day asking for a reference for someone who hasn’t worked for me for 10 years. She was good then, but she might be a murderer now. I don’t know! 

“It’s about having a conversation with the person and getting to know their personality. My favourite question is, ‘What am I going to hate about you? What is the one thing about you that’s really going to annoy me?’ It sounds like a stupid question, but I’m getting the ugliness out in front and I’m getting it out of the way, because if I can get past that, we’re laughing. 

“Then, when I’ve found the right person, we’ll go about teaching them the skills they need. I tell people that and they say, ‘Well, I trained this person and they left me’. But you know what the best strategy is for that? Hire people good enough to start their own business, but give them a reason not to.

“So if you’re thinking, ‘What if I train them and they leave?’ Well, what if you don’t train them and they stay? It’s a no-brainer.”

Don’t put ‘entrepreneur’ on your business card 

For Di Bella, entrepreneurship isn’t a job title – it’s a mindset that anyone can have.  

“If anyone’s got ‘entrepreneur’ on their business cards, they’re a bit of a d**k,” he laughed. “Entrepreneurship isn’t a title, it’s an intelligence. An entrepreneur is just someone who looks at something and says, ‘How can I do this differently, and how can I do it better?’ I’ve got an 11-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old boy, and they’re as entrepreneurial as you can get. Children are so entrepreneurial. 

“Entrepreneurship is about vision, passion and brand. Vision is what you see – not what you see now, but what you see in three years, in five years. Passion is resilience, because when you start a business, everyone says no to you. It happened to me, it happens to everyone. You’ve just got to keep spinning your Rubik’s Cube, understand why they’re saying no and keep going until you get it right. If you’re not passionate, if you’re not resilient, you’re not going to keep spinning that Rubik’s Cube; you’re just going to give up and move on to the next thing. 

“Finally, brand is how you deliver that vision, powered by your passion to get it out to your audience. That, to me, is what makes up entrepreneurial intelligence.” 

Coming up On The Couch 

A line-up of Brisbane’s most successful and innovative business leaders are set to take part in upcoming On The Couch sessions at the Brisbane Business Hub – and they’re all free. 

The next session will be held on Thursday 18 March, with acclaimed strategist and futurist James Tuma. James will share his predictions and trends for 2021; his picks for the industries that are set to make a comeback; and a look at the COVID recovery journey of key Australian cities and how he expects them to impact Brisbane. Register for the free session with James here.

On Thursday 22 April, pioneering Vita Group CEO Maxine Horne will hit the Couch to share the story of how she grew a single store into an ASX-listed brand worth in excess of $600 million; the why and how of product diversification; how to put yourself out there and build a personal brand; pivoting her entire 1600-member team in the midst of COVID; and the power of connections and networking. Register for the free session with Maxine here

More sessions will be announced throughout the year. Stay tuned for details! 

The Brisbane Business Hub has been developed to help the local business community recover from the economic impact of COVID-19. It’s a physical and digital space for businesses in Brisbane to find advice and learn the skills to sustain and grow their business – across all industries. Visit the Hub in-person at Level 2, 155 Queen Street, Brisbane City, or explore our virtual Hub.

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