Just the other day, I was talking with a client about the long term future of their business, and after being quizzed a bit, reflecting with them on what provoked me to sell my software biz several years ago.
This client has a small business people-wise, but its quite successful. Remarkably, that is the problem.
Been there, seen that, done it as well. Lived it again during that conversation.
Nothing else I’ve ever said in this blog is as important as what I’m about to discuss with you.
Simple Simon was a pie man
Unless you’re rude, a dope, someone who thinks they know it all, unlucky, or someone seriously in the wrong line of work, if you are paying close attention to your customers and their needs (and knocking them out of the park) – your business is pretty likely to grow.
At some point in that growth, many business owners find themselves in the situation that Lucy and Ethel find themselves in below: (2m58s video)
While Lucy and Ethel are employees in the video, the point is the same for business owners.
It’s the classic problem covered in the E-Myth – the pie baker who gets overwhelmed with the business of making pies – but really it’s much more than that.
It’s a big reason I push you to document all your business processes.
It’s the reason I made it easier for clients to document their processes – by creating a simple app for them and their staffs to document, catalog, print and view the procedures.
It certainly isn’t the <ahem> millions in royalties I receive because of all the links in this blog to the E-Myth book at Amazon.com. You’ll have to trust me on that one:)
If you are the technician in your business, whatever that means – your business has a single, huge limitation. A pinch point.
It doesn’t matter whether you are making pies, doing heart surgery through a microscope, negotiating complex international commerce agreements between countries; programming complicated, real-time rocket fuel calculations for the next generation of space shuttles or carving bear figurines out of logs using a chainsaw – you’re a technician.
If you’re the owner AND technician, your business is limited by one thing.
Unless you are very, very lucky (sort of), you are likely to work harder and longer than anyone you hire.
Delta 331 heavy, ascend to cruising altitude
If you are working 14-16-18 hour days to get your dream off the ground, it’s a thrilling time (business-wise, at least). Everything is exciting.
Imagine an airline pilot on their first heavy takeoff. An astronaut on their first shuttle trip. Ok, maybe your biz isn’t as exciting as the shuttle ride, but its as close as you might get.
As for the effort you put in, that’s like a Boeing 777 taking off from your local airport, or the shuttle launching into orbit. The 777 burns LOTS more fuel per mile getting to its cruising altitude than it does once it levels off.
Likewise, the shuttle and its boosters burn thousands of pounds of fuel getting to escape velocity, only to have essentially effortless flight in space until its return to Earth.
You, however, are not like the Boeing 777 or the space shuttle. Fast forward a few years. Perhaps your business has reached cruising altitude.
Despite reaching cruising altitude, you’re still working 12-14 hour days 5-6-7 days a week, burning the same amount of fuel it took to reach escape velocity. That’s ok for a while, but didn’t you start your business to get freedom as well as the money?
(at this point, I’m assuming you’re nodding “yes”)
Those 12-14 hour days still exist because you’re still the owner and technician. Even if you have gathered some staff members to swat the skeeters away so you can focus on the real work, you’ve probably found that the real work (Yes, I mean the technician work) will expand to fill the container you give it.
The difference between you and Mark Cuban
You don’t see serial entrepreneurs in that position. They still have time to run a fistful of multi-million dollar businesses and a NBA basketball franchise, and have enough time left over to annoy the SEC (the government agency, not the athletic conference).
For many entrepreneurs, the startup phase is the only phase they can tolerate.
Everything else bores them and their business easily lives without them. They build businesses with the intention of selling them as soon as the business reaches cruising altitude.
Right at the end of the most expensive, most exciting phase of the business’ lifespan, they can leave or replace themselves with another qualified CEO/owner in short order.
What would that do to your business as it is currently structured?
Imagine if you walked out the door, handed the keys to the new owner and never came back. Would your business thrive? Would it be likely to survive?
Serial entrepreneurs might take a serious bag of management savvy and leadership skills out the door with them, but walking out the door still doesn’t kill their business. Likewise, they often start other businesses, still without having to work 120 hours a week.
The important distinction between most small business owners and most serial entrepreneurs? The serial entrepreneurs aren’t technicians.
Before you make an assumption about the small business owners I’m talking about… we aren’t talking about being smart or not being smart.
It isn’t just small business people sharpening mower blades, making pies, frying donuts and changing oil. The same issue arises for chiropractors, dentists, attorneys, physicians and others in technician roles.
Be careful what you wish for
Here’s another way of looking at it: If your largest competitor had a serious problem such as health, health of a parent, car accident, bailout related issues – and ALL of their business came to you starting tomorrow… Could you handle it?
If you suddenly found the Holy Grail of marketing for your niche and people flocked to do business with you, could you triple the number of clients you serve in a month?
Becoming easily replaceable isn’t easy
Consider that you have figured out that if your business is to grow (perhaps massively), you have to hire someone to do the technical work you do so that you can manage the firm.
If you plan to have the time to actually manage this growing firm instead of getting pulled back into the technical end of things, you can’t afford to hire someone brand new to the field.
Likewise, you can’t afford someone who has to be babysat, so this person (2 persons, more likely) will need to have a similar degree and depth of experience.
Result: It might take 2 or 3 new staff members to replace you to the point that would allow you to spend your time on the right things (marketing and management), much less to go home at a normal time without working into the evening from your La-Z-Boy or rising at 4am so that you can have some form of family life in the evenings without doing that La-Z-Boy thing.
At your current cash flow and revenue levels, can you afford to hire 2 people with your degree and depth of experience? If not, will hiring those two people allow you to make enough deals to pay them?
If the answer is no, or if the answer is “yes, but I really don’t want to do that”, then you have 2 choices.
Decide to grow, or decide to find a business model/strategy that works with you as the technician.
Either way, your business has to be structured so that the world doesn’t come to an end if your cell battery dies while you walk the beach on Maui at sunset with your spouse.
Meh. You old guys are grumpy.
If you’re 25ish, single and reading this, you might be thinking – “Meh. That old guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about“.
Things that might change your mind:
- When a spouse, kids, a surprise set of triplets, a house, dogs, cats, kid sports leagues and that dust behind the fridge comes calling – and your business suddenly can’t get as much as you as it used to, and neither can your family.
- When a friend takes off to the Caribbean for 3 weeks without a cell phone or laptop, and you can’t go because the business can’t deal with you being gone that long.
- When a competitor’s business is up for sale and buying it would allow you to totally dominate the market – but you don’t know how you’d possibly handle doubling or tripling the number of customers you have – overnight.
- On April 28, 1998, I had 213 new customers that I didn’t have on April 27th. With a staff of 2, of which I was one. On May 1, 1999 I had 269 new customers that I didn’t have on April 30, 1999 with a staff of 4, again including myself. Trust me when I say that these kinds of changes alter your life even if you think you’ve seriously prepared for them.
- When an opportunity you’ve wished for all your life is suddenly right in front of you, and you have to choose between it and billing hours that you know you need in order to pay next month’s bills (and the baby comes next month).
Desperately Seeking Susan (er, I mean Clarity)
How you structure your business for the future is one of the most important things you’ll ever do for your business, yourself and your family.
If after 3 or 4 years you haven’t structured your business so that you can walk away for a week without total chaos taking over – you haven’t created a business. You’ve created a job.
Just because it’s built that way now doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.
So how do you change your business so that it’ll fit a lifestyle you’d actually want to live long term – while it remains a raging success?
What do you do? Where do you start?