If it takes one to know one, who better to know great companies than entrepreneurs who have started great companies?
I asked a wide range of successful entrepreneurs from a variety of fields... people like Eric Ripert, Caterina Fake, Chip Conley, Ken Block, and Derek Sivers... to name a company they admire and, more importantly, describe what makes that business so special.
Here's what each of them had to say.—Jeff Haden
I'm a big fan of many airlines that slug it out in such a tough industry, but Southwest Airlines is my favorite. Let's start with the fact that they visualized the potential in an executive assistant (Colleen Barrett, assistant to Herb Kelleher) and grew her into being the president of the company.
Secondly, they believe that your culture is your brand and they've invested, financially and emotionally, in developing a vibrant, fun, effective corporate culture. Lastly, on virtually all metrics, they've been the industry leaders for decades and they've done so by being a low-price competitor for the consumer. Not easy to be the cheapest and the best, but, in so doing, they've transformed their industry.
I love Clif Bar primarily because the founder, Gary Erickson, tells a great story:
"In 1990 I lived in a garage with my dogs, skis, climbing gear, a bicycle and two trumpets. The inspiration to create an energy bar occurred during a day-long bike ride with my buddy Jay. We’d been gnawing on some 'other' energy bars all day. Suddenly, despite my hunger, I couldn’t take another bite. I thought, 'I could made a better bar than this.' That's the moment I now call 'the epiphany.' Two years later, after countless hours in mom’s kitchen, the Clif Bar became a reality. And, the mission to create a better-tasting energy bar was accomplished. Thanks, Mom."
Each time I buy a Clif Bar I think of this story and feel good that I bought something from real people and not some faceless enterprise. Great companies have a heart and soul and make you forget that you're doing "business."
Bridge City Comics in Portland Oregon is the most inviting comic book shop I've ever encountered. Well laid-out with staff picks written on little index cards below some comics.
And the people that work there have read everything, so you can tell them what you already love and hate, and they'll turn you on to something new that you'll love.
I wasn't even into comics until I went to Bridge City Comics.
Bibliohead Bookstore in San Francisco.
I love small, local, independent bookstores. I have made it a point not to order as many books online, but to go here and order books. Usually they arrive within a few days. In addition to Literature and Fiction they have a lot of great children's books, sheet music and art books.
And the owner, Melissa, is super helpful and friendly, as is the rest of the staff.
I admire Apple's pursuit of exceptionally well-made products that are aesthetically pleasing and super intuitive for the end user. They also do an incredible job of marketing themselves and their products... and I happen to like that they build computers that don't crash on me.
Plus, more than any other company out there, they've managed to improve my life on a day-to-day basis in terms of phones, computers, and the way I listen to music. There's really no one else out there like them right now.
I admire Deloitte because they strive to be on the cutting edge of what will make a successful future workplace, and their consultants live the values they prescribe to their clients. They also strive to be thought leaders who responsibly guide our world in a productive direction.
I admire Intuit because the company is always innovating. They hire smart people who are the best in their fields and let them do their jobs with support and minimal interference. From a consultant's perspective, Intuit is an excellent partner who listens to counsel and participates actively so that projects exceed expectations.
Both are models of what large corporate entitles should be like.
As a marketer I admire companies that have really strong marketing. One company I'm very impressed with is 5-Hour Energy. It's everywhere. I see it at Costco, at 7-11, on television... they even showed up at our offices one day to give out free samples! (I couldn’t believe it!)
The sales team at my company uses 5-Hour energy and so do I. But what I really admire is their business model. The target market is huge and the margins must be amazing. And it’s not rocket science either... it’s just one of those businesses where you find yourself asking: “…Now why didn’t I think of that!?”
GitHub blows my mind because of their unswerving confidence and sense of self. Github hosts software repositories and makes it easier for people to collaborate on software development. Famously, they used their own product to build their product, and they've bootstrapped from the very beginning.
What's truly remarkable, though, is that they have the courage not to play games. They've released the majority of their code set and projects as open source that anyone can access. They are so confident in the quality of their product that they don't need to worry about the grifters.
This makes them the ultimate role model. Don't fight for artificial competitive barriers. Just make a product so amazing that no one can catch up.
City Harvest is an organization I admire very much for their core mission of feeding hungry New Yorkers.
As a chef and restaurant owner I am lucky to be surrounded by food every day, and so I feel very strongly about giving back and supporting their work. But I am also a supporter and advocate of City Harvest because of their innovative work in hunger prevention and education. They have created grassroots community programs such as the Mobile Market—green market style distribution points where New Yorkers in need can select produce with dignity and learn how to cook with it by visiting chefs.
We will never be the biggest, and in our industry there is no such thing as product leadership, but what we can do is know our clients better than anyone else. That's why I really admire Umpqua Bank. They have completely changed how customers experience a bank by using sleek decor, music, coffee and snacks... and opening their facilities up to civic groups and organizations for meetings, movie nights... whatever works for the community. They've really turned banking into a lifestyle brand.
Umpqua is a great example of truly knowing and meeting the needs of customers better than anyone else. That's a value proposition any business, no matter how small, can aspire to.
One company I look to for inspiration is HMX Group, a company that specializes in manufacturing and marketing apparel for men and women. Led by President and Chief Creative Officer Joseph Abboud, the company has a long history of manufacturing in the United States, which is important, and is known for its quality.
I’ve been lucky enough to partner with them on my Argyleculture menswear brand and can't wait to debut our new designs this fall.
The first thing I love about Infusionsoft is the unique service it offers. Infusionsoft is a robust CRM system that allows me to send emails, process online orders, and manage my sales team among other things. Before Infusionsoft I had to use multiple vendors (and make them "talk" with each other) to solve the same need.
I really admire the company, too. When I recently had a problem, one of their top people responded to me within a few hours. In the past, their CEO has stepped in to help out. I also admire that they host an annual event for their customers to learn best practices not only for using their software but for improving their customers' businesses in general.
What really makes Infusionsoft special is that they are truly dedicated to helping their customers (entrepreneurs and business owners) achieve success, even beyond using their product.
(Ok, this one is my suggestion.)
Walk into some ski shops, auto repair facilities, etc., and you often walk out feeling inadequate. Specialized knowledge, lingo, and jargon can sometimes be used like a weapon to exclude those less knowledgeable or experienced.
Admit it: You've been treated that way. It sucks.
That doesn't happen at my favorite business, Shenandoah Bicycle Company. They're patient, helpful, eager to share their love of cycling... and always willing to overlook my dumb questions and near-complete inability to maintain my own bikes.
A great businesses always makes you feel like you belong, even if you don't.
Read more: Simplest Way to Get Smarter