I grew up in a part of town where small businesses kept opening and closing in a set of buildings I passed by frequently. I noticed the closed signs on businesses so often I finally asked my father about them. “Someone had a dream and then they lost it,” he told me. “A closed sign on business means someone’s dream has died.”
I have both failed and succeeded in business. Failing is, in one word, terrible. Upon reflection, I realized that much of the failure I experienced did not need to happen. I would have significantly increased the likelihood of staying in business by consistently doing the common, ordinary, simple routines of working on the business. Instead, I did what came by instinct versus doing both what came instinctively AND what needed to be done. Businesses have needs independent of whether we want to meet them or are capable of meeting them, or not.
Dilemma One: Dichotomy
(dichotomy: a division of things into two contradictory parts)
All small business owners face the same challenge: how to work effectively on the business while at the same time working to succeed in the business. The house painter/owner needs to successfully paint houses and successfully run and build the house painting business. By the way, the same is true for the boss at home who faces the challenge of how to effectively do the support work on home life while at the same time doing the main work of being in the lives of those at home.
Let me explain. You come to work at your small business and you face two types of work. The first type is being in your business, doing the main work you love to do, the reason you started your business: selling the flowers, making the cabinet, fixing the motor, singing the song, answering the customer’s questions, painting the house, finishing the tax return, pulling the tooth, writing the code, baking the pie, taking the picture. This is what you wish you could do all the time, and you could if you didn’t have to face the second type of work, the support work on your business: meeting payroll, setting prices, hiring staff, improving the product, promoting, paying bills, raising capital, analyzing trends, stocking shelves, cleaning equipment, determining raises, conducting meetings, collecting receivables, filling orders, buying supplies, depositing checks, training staff, renting space, organizing, planning, designing processes.
This is a dichotomy—the choice we set up in our heads between what we want to do and what we need to do to keep the business running smoothly. We say to ourselves, “I can either sell my flowers or order supplies—I can’t do both.” “I can either be at the front counter making sales or be in the back office doing inventory—I can’t be in two places.” “I can work on quality or deal with finances—I have to choose one over the other.” A parent managing a small enterprise called ‘home’ says, “I can have time with my kids or have a clean house—I can’t have both.”
This second type of work, the administrative, support, or maintenance work, is part of every small business. It comprises the ordinary, recurring tasks, essentially the business habits that always seem to get in the way of the more exciting, more fulfilling first type of work, the type of work you love to do, the reason you started your business in the first place. Not only that, you might not be good at the support type of work. You might wish you could trust others, or wish you had enough money to hire others to work on the business so you could focus more on the business. Even if you do hire someone, you still need a method to organize the work, keep them on the same page, and hold them accountable.
You know being in your business is essential. Without you doing the main work you are good at there are no customers, no cash flow, and no business. But simply being in your business is not enough. To grow, to survive, to thrive, to fulfill your dreams and your hopes and your goals, you also need to work on your business. Being in your business is the heartbeat but working on your business keeps the lights on. Taking the work out of your head and putting it into external, written down Organized Habits resolves the dichotomy.
Dilemma Two: Propensity
(propensity: an inclination or natural tendency)
The second dilemma business owners face is the business propensity, the inclination or tendency to focus on their strengths, versus taking care of each area of business equally: product, market, money, and people.
For example, some owners have a natural inclination to focus almost exclusively on finances, dismissing marketing efforts as not being worth the investment. Other owners focus on product quality while missing management’s critical deadlines. Most business owners understand that their business needs a good product, a market that knows about and wants the product, sufficient money to keep the business alive, and effective management to keep all drivers working together. But few owners have inclinations to drive all four areas equally.
This propensity, or leaning toward one driver over another, creates serious problems. A business too heavy in product tends to have low sales. A business too heavy in marketing tends to overspend. A business too heavy in finance tends to take too few risks. A business too heavy in management tends to over control.
What many small business owners tend to forget is that all four business drivers are important. Large businesses that can afford multiple managers solve the business propensity dilemma by hiring people with specific inclinations and strengths for each driver. Small business owners, without large budgets, can resolve their business propensity dilemma by organizing and executing the Organized Habits that keep all four drivers working efficiently. The owner leaning toward finance, for example, probably doesn’t need to be prompted to routinely check on the bank balance but does need to be reminded to check on social media trends. The owner leaning toward product probably doesn’t need to be prompted to improve a key feature but does need to be reminded to communicate with staff on company performance.
So as a boss, owner, or manager how do you overcome the dilemma of being in your business or working on your business? How do you balance your propensity toward one business driver over another? You organize the ordinary routines of working on your business so you stay focused on being in your business. Organize the “on” working into simple daily, weekly, monthly habits.
When talking with struggling small-business owners about Organized Habits, they often say, “You’re telling me that doing basic, ordinary habits will bring in more customers, add more revenue right now, or increase my profit?” My answer is, “Absolutely not. The basic maintenance of routines does not directly bring in business—you do, by being with customers, following up on orders, and developing new solutions. But your business is in trouble, which means either you never get around to doing the things that create results, or once you get results you can’t maintain them because you have no infrastructure, no way to keep things routinely working.”
Even the highest level of activity that produces results is best done by routine, by good habits. For example, I routinely connect with past customers—and I routinely get new business this way. If you ask a business owner who lacks revenue or customers when they last reconnected with former customers, they will probably tell you an anecdote or two. On the other hand, a business owner who can tell you how many calls were made each quarter of the last six quarters is usually too busy to tell anecdotes because they are swamped with customers.
I once managed a business for a start-up with a single owner and one employee. One year later the business had grown three-fold in revenue. How did this happen? Among other things, I implemented Organized Habits on day one. Yes, even with one employee and one owner we had routine financial reviews, routine staff meetings, a habit of connections with suppliers, routine reports of customer utilization. Even though you could count the number of customers, transactions, and reports on one hand in the early days, the habits laid a foundation for high-impact yet routine work, such as checking in with customers quarterly. Three years later after the business had grown eight-fold, I moved on, but the habits remained in operation. That was over twenty years ago. The business is still running today.
Functioning with Organized Habits gets into the heart of a business. It helps create culture, a tangible personality for the business. People know what to expect. Once you have staff saying, “We always…” “Every week we…” “Every month we…” then you know you are building functional tradition and culture.
Remember the question capital investors always ask about a business when considering its value? “Are there key processes in place such that, if the owner or key manager left, the business would still at least operate?” Organized Habits provide a way to develop operational assets that don’t rely on the owner and that are a value-add to a potential investor or buyer.
A note to non-profit service organizations: if your work is the support of people and not profits, use Organized Habits to organize and execute the “administrative” work of people, and then you’ll be free to “minister” to the needs of people. Ignoring the mundane, routine tasks of administration in favor of only serving your people puts you in debt to the organization that your people rely on. In all organizations, committing to work earns you the freedom to enjoy being in.
About the Author: Rick Carter has owned, operated, started, closed, bought, sold, and consulted to small businesses for 40 years.
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