01-14-13 | Blog Post

The Six Traits of Successful Companies: Michigan Entrepreneurship from Delis to Data Centers

Blog Posts

Ten years ago this month, Inc. Magazine’s Bo Burlingham dubbed Ann Arbor-based Zingerman’s “The Coolest Small Company in America.’’

Most entrepreneurs dream their company will grow big. Burlingham, during recent visits to Grand Rapids and Detroit, credited Ann Arbor-based Zingerman’s Deli with inspiring his national search for companies prioritizing greatness over growth alone. He focuses on companies “that chose to be great.’’

The Zingerman’s role model lead to Bo Burlingham’s recent best-selling business book, Small Giants.

Zingerman’s had several offers to franchise and replicate their deli in other college towns but Burlingham noted companies that simply replicate one store into another city find the copy is not nearly as great as the original. For example, he said a Starbuck’s on the Ohio Turnpike is not the same as the original in Seattle.

Burlingham’s model for greatness is reminiscent of Ann Arbor-based Online Tech, who are beginning their own expansion with a very well-thought out and unique plan, making greatness and a “win-win’’ experience for all involved a greater priority than growth for growth’s sake.

Zingerman’s started in Ann Arbor for a simple reason: to fill a crying need for a great New York-style deli in the Midwest.

Online Tech, similarly started in Ann Arbor to fill an ever-growing need for developing a “Fort Knox for data,’’ a safe place where every critical file from your bank records to your emails would live on a secure server. It turns out Michigan is the safest from natural disaster in the continental U.S. and the company’s Michigan data centers straddle two major power grids with facilities in Ann Arbor and Flint. [Read more about IT disaster recovery].

One unique aspect of their expansion: partners Yan Ness and Mike Klein are becoming co-CEOs as they expand, an unusual model for many companies but one prioritizing what Bo Burlingham calls “greatness’’ in business models. The Online Tech team, like the Zingerman’s team, mapped out a unique set of core values that guides them as they grow.

Rather than simply focusing on copying their model into multiple cities, Burlingham maps out how Zingerman’s built a community of related companies around Ann Arbor as well as national distribution via the web that has helped make Zingerman’s “world famous.’’

An example of Zingerman’s fame: when I was at the University of Michigan, I remember luring a VIP visitor to campus. I later learned one of the main reasons she came, she admitted, was that she had been buying items from Zingerman’s online for years and loved the idea of having an excuse to come to Ann Arbor to finally visit the place where it all began.

Burlingham’s model of business greatness, found at a host of great companies he studied nationwide, applies to both Zingerman’s and Online Tech. Review Burlingham’s six characteristics of great companies and ask yourself whether they apply to your organization as well:

  1. Great companies are lead by people with a clear understanding of who they are, who knew what they wanted and why.
  2. All had deep roots in their community so it would be hard to imagine the “great company’’ starting anywhere else. For example, Burlingham notes that Zingerman’s offers a uniquely Ann Arbor/Midwest culture with a strong East Coast feel. Similarly, Online Tech looks and feels every bit a part of Ann Arbor’s tech-focused culture with a strong dose of U-M thrown in.
  3. All have very strong relationships with customers and suppliers.
  4. Great companies think about their team first and then customers, creating intimate cultures where team members join together concentrating on making their company great.
  5. Great leaders share a unique, deep passion for what they do. “They’re totally nuts about it, actually,’’ Burlingham said.
  6. A very strong culture that quickly became dominant.

Joe Serwach is focused on helping nurture and grow brands like Pure Michigan, the University Research Corridor, Andersen and the University of Michigan as well as several other business and nonprofit clients. Learn more at OrganikConsulting.com.

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