Not just a bag of beans

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Australia’s coffee king Phillip Di Bella on success, failure, and why we should all give up the chase on ‘work life balance’

He’s been crowned king of the Australian coffee industry and his entrepreneurial success now extends to the global stage. Etching a place in BRW’s Young Rich List four years running, Phillip Di Bella became a self-made millionaire as the founder of Australia’s leading speciality roaster Di Bella Coffee.

The company sold in a reported $47-million deal to Retail Food Group in 2014, but Phillip continues to lead the expansion of the Di Bella Coffee brand, both at home and in the international market. It’s a success story for the ages that started in suburban Brisbane in 2002, with just $5000 and a borrowed roasting machine.

Mr Di Bella admits finding the winning formula took some time, and a whole lot more than just great coffee. “The first year, no one wanted to buy my coffee. And then they did, because I changed my strategy. Then I went to Melbourne in 2005 and they all said no. So I changed my strategy again.”

That strategy has been one of the secrets to Di Bella’s success, and involves a unique approach to market analysis. Instead of trying to replicate the success of other companies, he spent a lot of time researching failed businesses to identify what went wrong and understand the reasons why. Using that information to deliver what others weren’t, Di Bella Coffee was established as a leader in customer service and a pillar of strength for cafes Australia wide.

“Our strategy is what I call ‘from the outside in’, and it’s a total different way of thinking,” says Mr Di Bella.

“I don’t research our customers, because I should already know why they’re our customers. I research the people who say no, that enables us to build strategy to attract. Once you’ve got a hundred ‘no’s’ and you have a look at it, you’ll see some pretty clear strategies coming out.”

For Di Bella Coffee, that resulted in toning down branding to satisfy demand for the boutique market, diversifying, and concentrating on service delivery.

“If Di Bella Coffee just sold coffee we’d be broke.”

“I took a coffee business, and turned it into a service business. There’s 1500 people selling coffee in the marketplace, especially Melbourne – Melbourne taught me the most. The reason we really started to get some great traction, was that everyone down there just delivered a bag of beans. We now own the words ‘it’s not just a bag of beans’. It’s a service led industry and I’ve revolutionised that.”

By helping cafe owners grow their business, Di Bella Coffee solves a problem and that, Mr Di Bella says, is the key to success. But he stresses it’s just as important to define what ‘success’ means for the individual.

Defining what ‘success’ means.

“The biggest thing people have is, they’ve got this ambition to be successful. But they don’t understand what success is, and if you don’t know what it is for you or aren’t able to define it, you can’t achieve it.

“I never failed, because I never stopped. If you keep going, you never fail. Drive from Brisbane to the Gold Coast, if you know where you’re going you’ll get there in an hour. But you might get there in three days, you might get there in six months, but you haven’t failed until you stop driving. It might take longer, it might be harder, but, the moment you stop, you never achieve it. If you keep going, you’ve always got that opportunity to get there.”

Almost three million cups of Di Bella Coffee are consumed around the world each week. It’s an enviable figure, and one that Mr Di Bella only plans to grow as his goalposts for ‘success’ reset with each new achievement. “For me professionally, I want to be known as one of the number one entrepreneurs in the world in my industry. It was Brisbane, then it was Australia, and I’ve achieved those, so I’ve broadened it because I don’t want to stand still.”

“Understand that Harmony is where it’s at…”

Mr Di Bella has clear goals for his personal and family life too.

“In terms of parenting, I want to be a great role model for my children, and I want to give them an opportunity to be the best they can be. Personally, I want to have a positive impact. I want to help people grow themselves, I want to help people accelerate their potential. That’s why I meet with people, talk to people, do podcasts, so they can grab that information to help themselves be better.”

Separating life into these three dimensions is what made success achievable for the award-winning father of two, who juggles multiple business and entrepreneurial pursuits, an amateur boxing career and a rewarding family life.He urges people to outline strategies for their personal, professional and family life, and to stop chasing the ‘work-life balance’ illusion.

“Understand that harmony is where it’s at, you’re never going to get balance. So when it’s time to concentrate on business, you can’t be father of the year, you can’t be Mr Fitness and all the rest, because work needs your attention. And if you’re spending six hours a day in the gym to be Mr Fitness, you can’t be father of the year or businessman of the year. And if you’re spending 10 hours a day with your family, you can’t be businessman of the year or Mr Fitness.”

“And that’s okay. Everything’s got to work in harmony.”

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