Graeme Hart's former business partner Stephen James says there are several features that helped Hart's Rank Group become so successful.

James, who worked with Hart for 14 years and has since launched business mentor company The Alternative Board, said Hart's success was based on strong, fundamental business principles.

"If someone is going to be that successful from a small country like New Zealand, they have to be doing something different," James said.

"During my time with Rank Group, these are the things we did that are quite different to what I observe most SME business owners doing today, and that is: time out to think about strategy, seeking the counsel of others, setting a plan with milestones, and monitoring against the plan."

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These core business focuses are highlighted in a recent study by The Alternative Group, which found that Kiwi start-ups' biggest regret was not spending enough time training employees, and most wished they'd spent more time planning strategies.

The study surveyed 544 self-employed participants from the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand and found not spending enough time making sales was one of the biggest regrets for all countries - except New Zealand.

Compared to other countries, just 13 per cent of surveyed Kiwis said they would have focused on increasing turnover if they could start again, with 44 per cent saying they would spend more time hiring and training staff. "We are a relatively small market and have a DIY approach to life," James said. "As a country of realists, sales will always be our key driver, but this sometimes comes at the expense of working strategically and hiring more staff to facilitate growth."

New Zealand start-ups also differed in their attitude towards markets, with 64 per cent believing it was more important to have a product or service that was good across multiple areas rather than excellent in just one area.

James said the differences could be due to New Zealand's smaller scale, as well as the need for small start-ups in New Zealand to be generalist.

"[In New Zealand], if you were to specialise in a particular product or service, the size of that specialised market would be possibly too small to sustain a viable business, so that's why I think Kiwis are looking for multiple areas of coverage in their product or service," he said.

James said results indicated that planning and having a good business understanding were the biggest focus in the survey, with most entrepreneurs saying they were happy with their products or services.

"[Having] a better coach or mentor and a better business model were both issues and both of those things imply to me that entrepreneurs wish they had reached out sooner and developed perhaps a different business model under the guidance of someone who's been there before.

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"Twenty-four per cent of entrepreneurs say better coaches and mentors would make the single biggest difference in their businesses. Only 2 per cent say a better product would."

Entrepreneurs needed to focus more on working on the business rather than in the business, and other business leaders could help with this.

"I guess the real value of this is for current SME owners to take on board some of the lessons that their predecessors are sharing with us."

Overall, businesses were optimistic, with 82 per cent expecting increased revenue this year.

Keys to success
*Time out to think about plans.
*Seeking the counsel of others.
*Setting a plan and milestones.
*Monitoring against the plan.