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Phillip Di Bella is the aficionado behind the homegrown, now global, boutique coffee business, Di Bella Coffee. He fondly remembers coffee as being a big part of his childhood – growing up in a Sicilian family meant it was a core ingredient of the events that brought friends and family together – and says this is what drove him to enter the premium coffee business.

Multiple awards and international success aside, what’s most impressive about this entrepreneur’s story is how he’s built a thriving company in one of the most saturated and competitive sectors.

Innovation has been the secret to his success over the last decade, with Di Bella choosing not just to focus on the specialty coffee that forms the core of his business but also on a range of original products. He’s developed the world’s first natural instant coffee as well as a range of refillable coffee pods designed to compete against the Nespresso monopoly. These innovations have helped fuel Di Bella Coffee’s rapid growth, allowing its founder to expand the business into India and Shanghai, with 50 stores expected to open on the subcontinent in the next two years.

Locally, the business is growing too. Di Bella is enjoying 35 percent year-on-year rises in revenue and consumption of his coffee is up 20 percent. But as he reveals in this interview, growth is no good unless it’s controlled.

What’s the secret to standing out in a competitive and crowded market, like the coffee sector?

Be entrepreneurial. Be better, or different than the competition and don’t be limited by your available resources. Tell a story so compelling that people choose you and deliver what your customer really wants, not what you think they want. And finally, fill the void where there are missed opportunities.

My company’s innovations have all stemmed from the ability to identify new markets based around consumers’ needs. I focus on understanding why the customer does not choose Di Bella, and then develop a product to solve this barrier.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced since launch? How have you overcome this?

It would have to be uncontrolled growth. This is not the worst position to be in, but if uncontrolled it can have a devastating effect on the business. We learned this early on; as our customer base grew rapidly we needed to meet demand but had to be conscious of not losing our uniqueness. We’ve managed to stay true to our roots as a specialty coffee roaster that promises to deliver exceptional quality coffee, with personalised service and at competitive prices – which is why you won’t find us on the supermarket shelf.

The other challenge we’ve faced is maintaining a culture in which staff are consistently motivated. It’s easy to engage staff when you’re a small company, but when you expand to 200 staff it becomes difficult. To overcome this, I ensure that I employ the right people to sit on the rights seats of the Di Bella bus. We pride ourselves as being an Employer of Choice and employ on attitude over skills – skills can be taught to anyone that wants to learn. We look for loyal, dedicated and enthusiastic people to work with. Being an Employer of Choice features highly in our corporate plan, so we invest a large amount of time in development and retention.

I refer to my staff as bait; the better the bait, the bigger the catch. Our people make up the majority of our product – yes we source the best coffee, but our customers want exceptional service too and we wouldn’t be able to deliver on this if we didn’t have the right staff.

Are there any entrepreneurs you admire? Who are they and why?

Steve Jobs and Richard Branson. They do things better or different to others in the industry and they are/were not limited by their resources.

You’ve won a number of awards, what impact have these had on your business?

Our awards are treated as a success on our journey, not the destination. Any award that my staff, the business or I receive is celebrated as a team – when one wins, we all win.

Our team is made whole by a range of positions and those that aren’t recognised in the public eye are often the most valuable people in the team. You can’t have a team full of strikers but no defense!

If you could give one piece of advice to other entrepreneurs, what would it be?

I have two: Limitations are often self-imposed and entrepreneurship is not a title, it’s a way of life.

You’ve expanded your business to India. What tips can you offer for how best to manage international expansion? (If you could put this in 3-5 tips, that would be excellent.)

1. From the beginning, make sure all the documentation is correct.

2. Have a local person on the ground who has a financial interest.

3. Have a strong understanding of why your business matters to this market.

4. Ask the right questions and do your research thoroughly.

What’s next for Di Bella?

Our coffee in a can will be released in September. This innovative new product is premium coffee that doubles as a natural energy drink. Espresso Kick has been carefully blended to retain all the characteristics of a well-rounded coffee; full body, crisp finish, rich flavours, and rounded with a hint of caramel so there is no bitterness and no fat.

We’re also forging ahead as the premium coffee company of choice for the industry and are on track to achieve our target of 3 million cups of Di Bella Coffee served each week by 2014.

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Lorna Brett

Lorna Brett

Lorna was Dynamic Business’ Social Web Editor in 2011/12. She’s a social media obsessed journalist, who has a passion for small business. Outside the 9 to 5, you’re likely to find her trawling the web for online bargains, perfecting her amateur photography skills or enjoying one too many cappucinos. You can follow her on <a href="https://twitter.com/#!/dynamicbusiness">Twitter @DynamicBusiness</a>

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