It’s not uncommon for a small business to plug along just fine … until the day it stalls. That’s often because after an initial period of growing their business, entrepreneurs may find themselves overwhelmed. The workload has become larger, the time commitment has become greater, and a single entrepreneur or even two partners recognize that it’s all too much to handle.
This is when entrepreneurs may start becoming reactionary, responding to incidents instead of proactively building the business. When this happens, business revenue tends to plateau. The business has hit a ceiling and can’t break through to the next level of revenue. In these cases, the entrepreneur often thinks the solution is more sales, as if booking more clients will solve the underlying issues.
“But the problem isn’t sales,” says Mitchell Moore, photography business educator and consultant. “It’s a lack of good business systems.”
Moore knows the value of systemization from personal experience. A professional photographer who built a volume photography franchise company with 35 studios across the United States, he’s worked through many of these issues himself. Then, looking around at other studios, particularly high-volume operations, he realized how pervasive the problem is. He sold his studios and founded the Volume Photo Academy, an organization dedicated to working with volume-oriented photographers to build better systems.
Moore explains that the issue often starts with entrepreneurs who become bottlenecks that constrict their own business. Every decision runs through them. All business functions revolve around them. And when they aren’t there, everything grinds to a halt. If they go out and generate more sales in an effort to break through to the next revenue level, they often find themselves overwhelmed, sometimes to the point of not being able to handle the new business they’re bringing in.
Systems, in this context, don’t necessarily mean technological systems or automated processes—though those can be important tools. Systems are optimized processes, ways of doing repetitive parts of your business more efficiently. And those processes give you freedom. They allow you to focus on the things that need your attention.
Attaining that freedom begins with a mindset shift. Delegation, that necessary but terrifying concept for entrepreneurs, is the central concept of this move. The problem for many entrepreneurs is they think of delegation as a process of letting something go. Instead, it’s helpful to frame delegation as an if/then transaction: If I allocate this part of my process to an employee or contractor, then what will I get in exchange? Consider how delegating certain tasks will free you to do something else that truly requires your skills. Also, consider the cost of not delegating that work and thereby creating a bottleneck that slows down your business. As a business owner, you’re the coach. “Coaches don’t play the game,” says Moore. “They tell the players how to do it the best way.”
To build better systems, Moore recommends starting by evaluating your current situation. What systems do you have? How well do they work?
Then do a time study. Evaluate where you and your team spend the most time. Write down everything you do in a typical day and a typical week. What are the distractions? What are the drags on your processes?
Part of the evaluation should include a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis. Consider these four elements as they apply to the core areas of your business. You’re essentially asking yourself What are we doing well? What are we not doing well? What are the opportunities to improve? What are the threats to the business if we don’t take action?
Next, brainstorm your ideal processes. Think about them in detail. Write them down. Consider how you can streamline them. What can you do more efficiently, and what resources would it take to build those efficiencies? This exercise could be as simple as sitting down with a notebook or a laptop and writing out all the processes for the core areas of your business. “As you’re writing them out, your brain will often identify things that need work and tell you the answers to problems you didn’t know you had just by going through the exercise of writing it all down,” says Moore.
If you’re having trouble thinking up a better way to do things, try working through this process in a group or with a mentor. Bounce ideas off people. Ask peers. Talk to employees or contractors. There are also courses and online resources dedicated to this topic, which can help spark new ideas.
At the end of the day, running a smoother functioning business allows you to grow sustainably and make more money. The problem with most businesses isn’t sales, says Moore. “It’s about doing things right so you can add things in the right way and do better work. Then you have the option to take on more business because you can handle it better, do a better job, and make more money.”
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large.
Tags: business operations