Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the purchase of our first pharmacy.
To mark the occasion, I wanted to share the top 20 tips and lessons we’ve learned along the way in the hope that sharing our stories means others may not have to leave as much flesh on the fence as we’ve done at times.
The anniversary of our business story also means it’s the anniversary of our engagement. I’ve written and spoken many times previously about the start of our business story, which saw Stuart and I get engaged and buy our first pharmacy the following week, going on to have four pharmacies in three states and a team of 100 people by Christmas time that year. Here’s some of what we’ve learned since then.
1. Pick the right partners
Nothing is more important than the right partnerships, and while Stuart and my partnership in life and business is undoubtedly the most important thing in my world we’ve also had a lot of other great partners along the way. This includes not only our business co-owners and shareholders, but also the organisations we’ve partnered with who’ve played a key role in helping us from accountants to lawyers to banks and suppliers. Like minded partners who understand what you’re trying to achieve and want to be part of making that happen are crucial, especially when the inevitable tough times hit.
2. The importance of delegation
We learned this lesson very quickly. With two of us, and four geographically disparate business locations we couldn’t be everywhere at once. We needed to hire the right people, let them know what we were trying to achieve, and then given them the freedom to get on and do their thing. If you aren’t prepared to delegate, your growth will always be limited by your own personal capacity.
3. Communicate your message
It’s important to be able to quickly and concisely share your story – what it is you’re trying to do, and how you’re intending to do it. If your message isn’t clear, it’s very hard for people to understand the role you want them to play.
4. Know your numbers
Numbers are always key, but never more so than in the early days. Know where every dollar is coming from and where it’s going to, or you run the risk of nasty surprises than can be fatal to an early stage business. You don’t necessarily need to be the person who prepares the numbers, but you definitely need to know them, and understand which are lead indicators you need to be on top of.
5. Create a values driven culture
Create a set of values that illustrate what you stand for and what is important, and make sure everyone in the business is across those. Energy, Purpose, Innovate and Connect drove our pharmacy business for years (so much so we ended up naming the business after them – E.P.I.C) and also form the foundation of the Be Iconic program at Icon Group.
6. Know your strengths (and your weaknesses)
It’s really important to know what you’re really good at and make sure you get to spend most of your time focusing on those things, rather than wasting time trying hard to be better at the things you have little or no natural ability in. By all means be aware of those things that you aren’t great at, but rather than tasking yourself to get better actively seek people who are naturally great at those things and let them take the lead there. If you’ve got no natural talent at something no matter how hard you try, the best you can bring yourself up to is average and nothing great is ever achieved by being average. Focus on your strengths and give yourself the licence to become exceptional in those areas.
7. Celebrate the wins along the way
Big goals are never achieved without the successful completion of a myriad of smaller milestones along the way. Make sure you stop and acknowledge those along the way to give yourself and your teams a sense of progress and achievement – without the small goals being achieved the big ones won’t follow.
8. Give people the chance to have fun at work
We all spend a lot of our time at work, and if you don’t find ways for people to have incorporate some fun into their day life gets very tiring. Part of this comes into celebrating the wins along the way, but it’s also about taking time out to acknowledge what’s happening in peoples lives outside of work, and sometimes just a bit of general silliness to lighten the moment. I’ve written before about our costume culture and the reasons behind it, and it definitely plays a role here.
9. Always have a plan (and a plan B)
We’ve all heard the saying hope is not a plan, and it definitely applies in business. If you don’t have a plan and know where you’re headed, the chances of you actually getting there are very slim. It’s vital to also make sure you share that plan with all of the people around you who are going to play a role in reaching that destination. External factors that you couldn’t have predicted can send the best laid plans off the rails through, so make sure you have the visibility and agility to pivot to a plan B when and if required.
10. Know your exit strategy
We’ve never started a business without knowing what our potential exit strategies are. If you don’t know where your potential exit opportunities are likely to arise, you run the risk of creating a business that can’t take advantage of them if and when they present. The time to consider this is when you’re setting up your legal and financial structures, as it’s a lot easier to do this well at the start than it is to unwind or redesign things down the track. You may never need or wish to use them, but sometimes that decision can be taken out of your control and you don’t want to have created something that can’t be transacted because it’s so deeply entwined with your personal or other business interests.
11. Look at the world through a different perspective
If you only spend time in your own industry you’ll only see what’s already happening there. We’ve always made a point of spending time out of healthcare so we can see what other industries are doing, the challenges they’re facing and how they’re overcoming them (or not), and thinking about how we can repurpose those ideas into our own industry. For me the ultimate view through a different perspective will be when I head into space as part of Virgin Galactic’s Future Astronaut program, but you can definitely apply the same principles by going to a conference or networking event that sits outside of your direct daily environment.
12. Don’t dodge the tough decisions
Being prepared to make the tough calls when they need to be made is what ultimately defines successful businesses. We have often used the mantra ‘If it was easy everyone would do it’ over the past 20 years, simply because it’s true. If you duck and weave when tough decisions need to be made you just delay the inevitable, it’s much better to bite the bullet and get on with it so you (and everyone else involved) can move forward.
13. Treat your customers and suppliers as partners.
Take the time to understand what creates value for them in your partnership, and ensure that you keep that in mind and do your best to deliver on it, don’t just focus on what you can get out of the relationship. Anyone can strike a great one time deal, but if you want to build meaningful relationships that stand the test of time and survive the inevitable bumps in the road that will present, there has to be more in it for both parties.
14. Reward and recognition
From a simple thank you to tangible rewards and incentives, recognising the role that people play is absolutely crucial. No one wants to feel ignored or invisible, and creating an environment which encourages everyone to recognise the role and input that people play is really important. Our peer nominated annual values based awards have been in place for well over a decade now, and reading the hundreds of entries that are submitted is one of my all time favourite activities each year. That said, recognition can’t be a once a year event, finding ways to make it part of people’s everyday behaviour is key to building great teams.
15. Strive to find new and better ways of doing what you do
No business has a perfect operating model, and if by some strange chance they’ve happened upon one, it only lasts for a brief window of time before markets change and it’s time for the next evolution. Innovation is a word that gets used a lot these days, but for us innovation has always been simply about finding new and better ways of doing what we do. We don’t have innovation departments, or heads of innovation, because in our view it’s the responsibility of everyone across the business, which is reflected in it’s position as one of our key values.
16. Take a global view, even if your business is local
It’s only relatively recently that our business activities have expanded beyond Australian shores, but there’s never been a time that we haven’t been looking further afield to see what’s going on in other international markets. This has presented a number of opportunities that we’ve been able to incorporate into our Australian businesses, or even create new businesses around, but has also played an important role in giving us that different perspective I spoke about above.
17. Back your gut feel
Along the way we’ve had ideas that we thought were going to be great but that haven’t eventuated for one reason or another. We’ve also been presented with ideas, or people, where our immediate gut feel has been that they aren’t the right idea or partner for us. In each and every instance when we’ve ignored that feeling it’s been ultimately proven out to have been the correct one, and we would have saved ourselves a lot of time and money by backing that original sense of disquiet. It takes courage at times to walk away from something that every other measure suggests is right, but have the confidence to back your gut instinct when it says no.
18. Nothing worthwhile is easy
Be prepared for the reality that there are times when it is going to be hard – really really hard, when you have to dig deeper than you ever thought was possible, and draw on every piece of resilience you have. We were probably fortunate that we started out pre social media, and weren’t faced with constant images suggesting just how much easier everyone else was finding life and business. The reality is that real life isn’t social media though, and everyone I’ve ever met in business has gone through times where their back is against the wall and they just don’t know how they can go on – regardless of what they may be posting! I’m not being critical of that approach, at times creating a perception that everything is ok is the only way you can cope with just how ‘not ok’ things actually are. We’ve learnt the importance of having a strong support network around you that you can draw strength from, digging deep and pushing through. Plus we’ve had each other as the ultimate support, which has always been our secret weapon.
19. Making money is not a bad thing
Talking about making money can be seen as crass, and while I agree that it shouldn’t be your sole topic of conversation, the reality is that it should always be a strong goal in business. If your business doesn’t make money, there’s a limit to how long it can be sustained for, and it also really restricts the impact you can have. We’ve always had a view that if you’re not immediately profitable you at least need to have a solid pathway to profitability in place, and if you can’t identify one then you probably need to have a long hard think about how you’re creating value. The better performing your business is the greater potential you have to expand it, and bring the solution to whatever problem you’re solving to more and more people.
20. Use your influence to do good whenever you can
This one follows on from my previous point. Business success provides the opportunity, and we’ve always believed the obligation, to give back in whatever ways you can. While undoubtedly the more you have the more you can do, the reality is that from the moment you start in business you have the opportunity to put in place ways you can give back to your community. All businesses have a network of team members, suppliers, customers, and partner organisations regardless of their size, and by visibly choosing to share the ways you are choosing to give back and giving them the opportunity to also become involved you can create a ripple effect. It doesn’t mean you (or they) need to sign up for every cause that comes your way, but find something that resonates with you and get involved. The rewards are far greater than the costs.
These are just a few of the things we’ve learned over the past 20 years. It hasn’t always been easy, but we wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Here’s to the next 20!