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If you’ve been following along, I hope this series has inspired you to look up and see what you and your business can really be if you avoid some common pitfalls.
Today I want to talk about a problem that can creep in quietly, whether you’ve got a new business or have been running a successful one for a while. This problem can turn even successful businesses into heaps of smoldering ash. But if you’re attentive and willing to take action, you can escape the monster’s razor claws.
Fail Monster #4: Poor Management
This sounds like some humdrum corporate issue, doesn’t it? When you think of “management” do you think of guys in ties, cubicles and long “team meetings”?
This is no big-business boardroom problem. In fact, it’s probably easier for bigger companies to get away with lax policies and inattention. Lucky for them, their mistakes often get buried in red tape and bureaucracy.
Do you know what happens in a big company when one person gets off-track? Not a heck of a lot. Maybe someone else has to put in an extra five minutes to pick up the slack or the boss gets crabby for a few hours. Maybe there’s a big “team meeting” to talk about responsibility.
Do you know what happens in my business when someone gets off track? Entire projects get derailed, one missed deadline leads to a sliding schedule for every subsequent deadline, schedules start to get jammed, we find ourselves working on weekends and we lose money.
That’s right, every sliding deadline is lost revenue. In a small business there’s nobody to pick up the slack – just me. Just you. There’s nobody else to get up and make the donuts.
Unfortunately, as small businesses we tend to think that management has way too many syllables and is best left to those uncreative, business suit types. We’d rather think of ourselves as in-the-moment, nimble, adaptable. We get things done because we’re passionate about our work, not because we have a “job” with a bunch of business rules.
Yet management is what keeps the wheels spinning. Whether you have a 50-person operation or you’re a one-woman show, poor management could be costing you business and ultimately success.
Does the word “management” intimidate you or turn you off? Does it sound like something that’s above you, beyond you, perhaps too complicated or even unnecessary? Are you taking a “head in the sand” approach to setting up specific management policies and guidelines because you think things are running smoothly enough? Or maybe you just don’t know where to start?
The Management Monster’s Child: Freedom
I’m about to tell you something you aren’t going to want to hear, but hear it you must, if you want to succeed: freedom can kill your business dead.
Freedom can be the most terrible thing you have to deal with all day.
As a small business owner, entrepreneur or one of the myriad self-employed, I want you to consider the following and answer honestly:
It’s a gorgeous spring day after two weeks of rain (not far-fetched if you’re on the east coast these days!) You’re sick of sitting at your desk and there’s a park calling your name. You want to go for a run, then maybe stop and have lunch under a tree. You look at your to-do list and wonder which deadlines you can push forward a few hours or a day.
On a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being “no sweat” and 10 being “it’s like fighting a pack of wild hyenas”) how easy is it to resist the call of freedom and stay focused on your job?
If you said anything less than 6, I commend you! For most of us, freedom is a double edged sword. It’s one of the beautiful perks of being our own bosses and also one of the greatest challenges.
We are free to use (or waste) our time however we want. We’re free to take (or turn away) work. We’re free to set (and ignore) policies. We’re free to run our business however we want, which means in the end we’re free to succeed – or fail – as we choose.
Part of being a good manager is recognizing that “freedom” does not mean “free-for-all”.
Do you “do what you want” because you’re the boss, even if projects or customers suffer? Is it hard to stick to schedules and rules because there’s nobody telling you what to do? Do you take yourself and your business seriously enough? How about too seriously, to the exclusion of everything else in your life?
The Weapons: Command And Control
Repeat after me: I am the boss.
As such, it’s your job to make the easy decisions and the hard decisions. It’s your job to keep the business running and to keep it running smoothly. Whether you’ve got minions under your command or you’re a soloperneur, you get to make the rules.
You must make the rules.
When the weather is nice, my husband and I like to golf. If you’re playing 18 holes and you’re as good as me (43 stokes per hole?) you need a couple of hours to play. So during the summer, we make a rule that our office hours are 10-5 instead of the typical 9-5, and when we feel like golfing we get out to the course by 6AM. That gives us the freedom to play and also lets us manage our business.
It may seem like a small thing, but you can imagine the disaster that might ensue if we simply took summer mornings to chill on the golf course while the phones rang off the hook and the deadlines slid a few hours each day.
The key to management is not to follow a specific rule or pattern – the key is to follow your rules and patterns. If you want to avoid chaos you must take control.
Manage Your Schedule
If you want to work around leisure time, a side job, family and kids, you can’t fly by the seat of your pants. By managing your schedule, you can include fun, family and work without pulling your hair out or making your clients lose theirs.
First, I want you to make a list of all the things that you need to include in your day. I don’t mean the little to-dos that change on a daily basis. I mean the “big picture” stuff. Kid time. Commute time. Planned events, meetings and phone calls.
Add to that the things you want to include. Beach time, a trip to the park or gym, a long, long nap.
Now start arranging those things into a schedule.
Plan around the things that aren’t flexible first. If you drop the kids off at school or summer camp and can’t be in the office or available to clients until 10, then don’t try to fight the 9-5 battle.
Plan the necessities next. If a weekly team meeting keeps you on track (it’s something we do here, even if it’s just my husband and me), block it off on your calendar as non-negotiable. It may seem negotiable – after all, you made it up – but if you think of it as optional then you’ll treat it as optional. I bet you a year’s worth of profits that if you schedule something without intent, you’ll never do it.
Everything you put on your calendar should be intentional and mandatory, including leisure time. It’s quite likely that something more important will pop up at 1PM than “take a half hour to work on tan”. But if you’ve scheduled in “work on tan”, then do it, damnit!
It may seem counterintuitive to think of leisure time as either scheduled or non-negotiable but if you plan it into your day like a project or a meeting, you can stop trying to squeeze it in between projects and meetings.
Scheduling your day is so important, especially if you’re the only one telling you what to do. Without a schedule and a sense of direction you can simply end up floating day to day, being tossed around by circumstance. You may get things done, but you’ll be less productive, less efficient and in all likelihood more stressed. In the end, that means more work for less money, which is not a path to success!
Until you get the hang of it, you should do this on a calendar and slot your time in hour-by-hour. Even after you get the hang of it, it doesn’t hurt to have a daily, weekly and monthly calendar of general time slots.
The more disciplined you can be about respecting all of your time – work and play – the more you’ll find that you can get things done, meet deadlines and still enjoy yourself without feeling constantly pressured.
And just imagine how fabulous you’ll feel the next time someone asks if you’re available for a phone call and you say, “Sorry, my calendar is full” because you have a date with a beach towel? Part of being successful goes beyond simply running a business. It’s also about maintaining balance and enjoying life while you do. Schedules don’t make themselves and there will always be “something else” that pops up.
Successful people plan their days and keep their schedules in balance.
Manage Your Time
If you run small business, your time almost certainly equates with money. You may sell your time in the form of consulting, coaching, or other services. You may indirectly sell your time by selling something you’ve spent time creating, like a book, artwork or other product. Or you may simply be investing your time in running day-to-day operations; things like bookkeeping, marketing and customer service.
Here are two examples of how time is tied directly to revenue.
First, if you’re a service provider and you bill for your time, you must know how long a task takes to complete. It’s all-too-common for someone to quote a project based on how much time they **think** it’s going to take, then repent when they’re long past that estimate.
This happens even in my business. A client will ask us to do something, we’ll tell them it’ll be an hour of work, and four hours later we’ve barely made a dent.
Sometimes this happens because we underestimate the amount of effort (and therefore time) required. Sometimes it happens because unforeseen problems or circumstances pop up. Either way, if we spend four hours on a project and bill for one, we have a problem.
If you bill for your time, it’s essential that you track and bill for it accordingly or you’ll be setting yourself up for failure no matter how good you are at what you do. You simply can’t succeed in business if you don’t make enough money to survive.
Here’s a second example: instead of time, you sell pink elephants. Whether you’ve created the pink elephants or not, you spend time on other tasks, such as customer service or simply the act of selling.
How much time do you spend on those things?
If it takes 4 hours to convince one person to buy a pink elephant, and 3 days of support afterwards, you have a pretty good idea of how much “time” that sale cost you. If a pink elephant is worth $3, I bet you’re not too happy about that. If it’s worth $30,000, you can probably live with it.
Only you can decide how much your efforts are worth and whether it’s paying off for you. But you must stop to consider if time spent equals money earned. If the answer is no, you need to take a hard look at where the problem lies; whether it’s in your rate, your process, your skills, your products or services, or simply the mismanagement of your on-task time. The sooner you can get to the bottom of the problem, the sooner you can adjust your course toward success.
Manage Your Customers
You’ve scheduled your time. You’ve timed your projects. Everything is running smoothly. And then… bam! A customer shows up.
Even the best schedules and plans can be completely derailed by one uncooperative customer. One common problem we face in my business is planning a web project, getting into the whys and wherefores, setting the milestones, getting into production and then… waiting… and waiting… and waiting… as our client goes MIA for more reasons than I can count.
It’s not only frustrating, it’s damaging to our business. When we plan around a project, we not only block off time and occasionally turn away other work that we know we cannot do in the same timeframe, but we also forecast revenue based on those projects. When a client delays a project for days and even months past deadlines, it costs us something.
One way to manage waylaid clients is with a good contract. It may not seem friendly, but it may be necessary to build a clause into yours that states the consequences of delaying a project. A monetary penalty usually works. But if you’re going to do this, you must be prepared to enforce it.
Another, friendlier, option can be to add a “reward” clause into your contracts. Same effect packaged differently. Quietly give your client a project budget based on a horrible worst-case scenario. Then provide a discount incentive for helping you get the project done on your schedule. The incentive to “save” a few bucks may be enough to keep your client on track and if things do go off the rails, you’ve built in a delay fee.
Another important aspect to managing clients is to manage their expectations. If you want a successful business you need happy clients. And if you want happy clients, you need to be honest and up-front with them. That means being realistic about deadlines. Open about your invoicing policy. Clear about what you do and how you do it.
Instead of “trying to please”, actually do so. Don’t fall into the trap of telling someone you’ll have something done on their unrealistic schedule or within their unrealistic budget. Rarely does that result in a happy customer. If a customer comes to you in a panic and says that he absolutely needs his project done by 9AM tomorrow or a pack of wild monkeys will carry him off into the jungle, you may want to jump to his rescue. Don’t. Tell him with 100% honesty that the soonest you can deliver his project is next Tuesday, but you’ll be happy to drop it off at the base of the banana tree. Your client may grumble now, but he will thank you later.
Manage Your Process
Whenever we start a web development project, we go through a series of steps. Whether it’s a huge year-long endeavor or a small two-week project, we go through the same series of steps, scaled to the needs of the project.
Do you know what happens when we skip a step, or get lazy and “just do the project”?
We regret it.
The project goes longer than it needs to, is more time consuming than it should have been and turns out to me more stressful.
Everyone gets lazy. But if you want to be successful, you have to fight it. The smaller the project, the easier it is to jump in and do it because we’re so used to it, so sure of our competence. For the sake of my business I fight against this urge every single time.
I want you to do the same thing.
First, you need a process for doing your job. You may have more than one process. For example, we follow one process for web projects and another for setting up email campaigns.
Whatever you do, define on paper the steps that go into making your project a success. It doesn’t need to be a long or complicated process. In fact, it shouldn’t be long or complicated.
If you want to paint your living room, you might have a process that goes something like this: choose color, purchase paint, set down drop cloths, tape windows, paint, leave room for 24 hours.
You might be tempted to skip the drop cloths, especially if you’ve painted a dozen rooms before and never spilled a drop of paint. But if you do, there is so much potential to regret it that it’s simply not worth the extra five minutes you’d save.
Once you have a process that you can stick to (and don’t add unnecessary steps just for the sake of having a process!) then make it very clear to your clients what that process is. If you don’t insist that they stick to it, there’s no reason for them to do so. The process – and its effectiveness – is entirely up to you.
I once had a client who had to be involved with everything. He had to schedule the meetings and run the meetings. He had to plan the marketing, create the content, direct the creative, approve the results. He had to be there for every conversation and every phone call, copied on every email and involved in everything from deciding when to send the newsletter campaigns to how many reams of paper to order for the office printer.
Does it surprise you that he was a nervous wreck, that he never had time for anything but work, that he was never satisfied with anything and that things were perpetually three weeks behind schedule?
If you run a business, it’s your baby, and it can be hard to give up the reigns to someone else. You may feel that nobody cares about your child as much as you do. That nobody can do as good a job as you can.
You may even be right!
But that’s still no way to run a business.
For starters, you simply cannot do everything. You probably don’t have the skill set to do everything so you need to rely on other professionals who do.
You are also setting yourself up for burnout which will not only kill your business but can cause enough stress to kill you, too.
Don’t be that person!
At some point, you just have to let go. If you manage well, you don’t need to micromanage. On the other hand, if you’re not managing well, and you’re afraid at every turn that things might fall apart, then you’re going to feel compelled to grasp at and control everything.
Instead of being a micromanager, become a good manager. Keep your time and schedule under control, surround yourself with good people, trust in your process to keep projects and tasks moving smoothly and let the business work.
Whether you perceive it or not, you are a manager and you manage every single day. Even when you’re not working, you manage your time, your budget, your kids, your grocery list. Transfer that take-charge attitude to your business and watch it take off!