Designing a Great Business

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
written for Specialty Food Magazine

One day, as Becky Winkler was teaching the section of our ZingTrain MerchandiZing seminar that covers “Contrast, Composition, and Content, it suddenly struck me. Although the approach was created to address graphic design issues, it’s applicable to all the other “design work we do,” whether that’s designing a business, a product or anything else of consequence.

The realization came out of frustration. It bothered me that people continually asked me about new business “concepts. I did not know where this emphasis on “concept—as opposed to content—came from. My partner Paul Saginaw long ago taught me the helpful phrase, “When furious, get curious. Why did those questions raise my anxiety level? Ultimately, it’s because the queries miss the heart of the matter; the stuff that is at the core of creating a special, sustainable business.

Concept Is Not Enough
Too many people believe that you create a great business with little more than a good “concept. They’re looking for an idea to make money or trying hard to be hip. Sometimes that works.

But my philosophy meshes more with that of Alex Wupperworth, author of the newly released, Brand Hijack. He said in a recent interview, “You can’t create cool yourself. You can only follow your own convictions, your own sensibility, to create a world-class design.

The key is to find something that you’re passionate about AND that enough customers will be excited about buying. Then, you can create a viable business. When we do that, we’ve got solid content on which to build.

The same “concept conversation frequently takes place around the term “brand. To me, our “brand is merely the visual manifestation of what we already do. Yet, I regularly have people coming to discuss business with me (often with big business school backgrounds) who worry more about “designing their brand than about what they will actually do.

They have diligently profiled who they will sell to but have not decided what they are going to sell. They have a logo, a name for their business, a uniform for the staff, but they don’t know what they’re going to make or sell. I think they go about business backwards. At Zingerman’s, we begin with something we believe in, then work out from that foundation to see if enough others are interested to make a viable business out of it. We build our look and feel (or “brand) around our vision of the business and our values, not the other way around.

Contrast, Composition, Content
Let’s use the “Contrast, Composition, Content model to explain. From the customer’s perspective, it goes like this: Contrast is how we differentiate our store from everyone else’s. It could be a unique name, a cool and appealing look and feel, a great staff uniform, a wacky website, a great ad, catchy names for products . . . probably all of the above and then some. Like a bold color scheme on a poster or a strange shape on a marketing brochure, these are the things that get customers’ attention.

Composition is the way we organize to serve our customers, the functional way we operate the business. Just like in good graphic design, effective composition prioritizes what we do in a way that holds the customers’ attention. It’s the choice we make about which entrées to put in prime position on the menu, the products that get the best shelf space, the way we arrange the cash registers to be more service-oriented, the staff training to ensure a positive customer experience.

Content is what actually gets them to come back. For us, it’s the food and the service; the point of the customer’s experience. While our look and feel may be fun, and we may have figured out effective ways to organize things, it’s what the customer eats and the way that we treat them that makes the whole thing succeed. Hopefully, they like it—and then they come back for more.

That’s the customer’s experience of it. Yet, as with graphic design, the creation or development of a long-lasting, sustainable business goes in the opposite order. It does not start with the contrast. It starts with the content.

Start with Substance
Lasting, meaningful businesses start with something that someone is passionate about. If you build a business you believe in—not a “concept but rather something of substance, something special, something close to your heart—you can make a great business out of it. When we do something meaningful, positive things will happen. And for us, that’s what business is about. Creating something special that will have a positive impact on those around for a long time to come, not a quick way to make money and get out.

This is not the only way to create, or even to run, a successful business. But it is how we approach things. It’s the most effective way to build a sustainable, sound, lasting business.

Someone asked me the other day if you could start a successful business that was built on flash, or in this model, “contrast only. My answer was, probably. Pet Rocks and Chia Pets worked well for a while. If all we have is a cute logo and an eye-catching design . . . we might be able to get people in the door once but that’s going to be about the end of it. To last, the business must fill a meaningful purpose for those who work in it, those who purchase from it and those who run it. All the stakeholders have to get something positive or the business is likely to be short-lived.

When we start with meaningful content, we can determine how to get people’s attention and how to organize things. The content is what keeps people coming back. It’s what something to believe in; it makes things solid instead of shifty.

Paul Hawken wrote about this in one of the first—and still one of the best—business books I ever read, Growing a Business. Business is a lot of work—way too much work to do something you don’t feel passionate about. The marketplace is overfull of businesses mostly built around “concepts" and “brands" but with little meaningful content. They’re like beautiful home exteriors built on unstable foundations. They look great, but tend to crumble amazingly quickly.

When you start the design of your business with the content, you have a good chance at getting somewhere, of making something that contributes positively to the lives of all involved.

Just Like Making Posters
My view of the business design process is the same as the method for making posters.

Start with the “content. What are we going to do? Why are we doing it? Who are we doing it for? Why are we excited about it? Why is it special?

Then, get to the “composition. How will we organize ourselves to sell our products and services in a way that makes our customers want to come back? Where will we locate? What hours will we be open? What sort of services will we provide?

Lastly, address the “contrast—the brand and the marketing. We need to figure out how to present ourselves in the marketplace in a way that gets people’s attention and draws them into our business so they can experience our service and enjoy the food. When the food and service are good enough, they’ll come back for that content over and over again for a long time to come.