What's your BHAG? That stands for Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.

And that was a question author and speaker Jim Collins posed to the audience Friday to kick off the 2013 Inc. 500/5000 conference in Washington, D.C.

Collins, who wrote Good to Great and Built to Last, among other books, said that's not simply a mission statement, but a transformative goal that could take 20 to 30 years for you and your company to achieve. And if you don't have a BHAG, chances are that you're not in business for the long haul.

"A BHAG will stimulate growth and make us better and stronger, even if it is cumulative failure along the way," Collins said.

In his talk, Collins laid out a set of 12 questions all small business owners should ask themselves and their teams, pulled from Collins' 25 years of researching a composite 6,000 years of corporate history, he claims.

For example, do you want to build an enduring, great company? What are your core values and lasting purpose for the next 100 years? Are you a "hedgehog"? (Yup.)

One of the keys to achieving success is having a disciplined company leader at the top with a big vision that extends beyond basic survival mentality to a much larger purpose. These people are often "hedgehogs" with comprehensive, universal ideas, not "foxes" with flash-in-the pan gimmicky ideas.

Hewlett-Packard's founders, William Hewlett and  David Packard, for example, didn't just want to manufacture electronics, they wanted to manufacture electronic products that would put the brilliance of American engineering in the hands of this country's businesses and consumers. Steve Jobs didn't want to create the most sophisticated computer to help the smartest computer engineer in the world. He wanted to bring great computers to everyone in the world. Walt Disney developed a cult around the idea of making people happy.

"Building a great company is not a function of circumstance, but conscious choice and discipline," Collins said.

Often two companies starting out and facing exactly the same set of circumstances will have very different outcomes. That's because of the people involved and the plans leaders made ahead of time to meet the whims of fate. 

To illustrate that point, Collins used the story of Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott, two polar explorers who set off on journeys across the South Pole with teams of men early in the 1900s. They left within a few days of each other. Though the Norwegian Amundsen and his entire team endured a trek of several thousand miles with his entire team intact, the British Scott and his people all perished of frostbite and starvation.

Reasons for the differences in outcome: Amundsen spent time with Eskimos before the journey and learned that dogs, not the ponies or motorized sleds Scott used, were the best way to get across the ice-locked environment. He also had a cohesive team, whereas Scott did not.

The same applies for business: never feel comfortable in your success, have a number of intelligent plans in place for setbacks, and have people who want to achieve the same mission with you.

Lastly, don't just focus on success, Collins said. 

"Make a contribution," Collins said. "Will someone's life be better because you were here? Life is about people, so be of service, and be useful."