Do you feel chained to your small business, because you are constantly improving your services and working longer hours without increasing your revenue?
Obviously, your small freelance budget is no match for the venture-backed or large businesses that have large teams and can spend generously on marketing.
However, there is one other thing that the larger businesses have that you may not have:
Systematization — a process for organizing and effectively running your organization.
Systemizing is one of those things that small business owners and freelancers often perceive as if it were of little to no value. If you are one of them, wipe that thought from your mind and consider this:
What if you could grow your earnings and remove your practice of micromanaging the business both at the same time? Not immediately perhaps but gradually over time, at a pace that you controlled.
Suppose you could reverse the way things had been working and scale your freelancing business into a thriving entity that grows revenues by a measurable percentage every single month, while at the same time reducing the amount of time required from you?
This post outlines some of what I have learned in a decade of practice developing and implementing business processes for enterprise and small businesses. It also includes some of what you’ll find in my book on systematizing.
Here are a few things to think about before you get started:
- Get your mindset right. You are attempting to grow your business and this will require that you step outside of your business and view it through the unbiased lenses off an outsider.
- Start slowly and measure your results before attempting to scale your new-found technique. For example systematize a small task such as your method of identifying and posting content to your blog before taking on something larger like your process for on boarding new customers.
- Remember that you are in control. You are the visionary for your business and that should translate into your processes. Anything else is noise if you feel that it doesn’t fit what you are doing.
Now let’s walk through each step to systemize your business…
Step 1: Identify Key Tasks
Let’s use a fictional company called GreatCo as an example to illustrate how this would work.
GreatCo offers a subscription based online tool for creating websites called GreatCMS. GreatCo’s founder has a team of people working around the world remotely.
Business is good but the customer support instances are totaling 20 hours per week. 50% of those instances are related to an admin widget issue that only the founder knows how to resolve.
The fix is not impossible but it’s beyond basic and requires some coding and that special touch that only the founder has.
So now, GreatCo’s founder is spending 10 hours per week providing support.
Why? because he feels that it is too complicated to explain to someone else and he that it’s faster if he does it. In his mind it only takes him a few minutes to resolve. But it actually takes 10 hours per week, not a few minutes.
This is a perfect example of the type of task that you should automate by systematizing and handing it off to someone else.
Step 2: Turn Tasks Into Documented Step-by-Step Processes
First, you’ll want to identify a place to store your documents. Ideally this would be somewhere in the cloud.
You could use a three-ring binder on a shelf, but you would be placing huge limitations on yourself and defeating the purpose of documenting the process to some degree.
Note: You should not use portable media such as flash drives and DVDs. Processes can contain very proprietary information about your business that you don’t want made available to the public and these devices can serve as good backups but should not serve as a primary method of storage.
Store documents in a way that meets these minimum requirements:
- Decentralize – make sure you are hosting your process in a place where anyone with Internet access will have access to it. This positions you to leverage a global workforce should you desire.
- Permissions control - As you begin to systematize, you will find that there are some things that you do not want your contractors to have access to for whatever reason.
- Collaboration – Once you systematize your business, your team will become a valuable resource for your process documentation content and ongoing maintenance (tweaking and improving). Whichever solution you decide to use should allow any team member (at your discretion) the ability to create, edit, or remove documentation.
I recommend using Google Docs, as all of these requirements are satisfied. Google Docs offers a full suite of tools that you can use at no cost. Another option is Trello, which also meets all of these requirements. Even though is not as diverse as Google Docs, it still gets the job done.
Once you have your document hosting solution, you’ll need to document your tasks into a step-by-step process. Clear and specific instructions is the key to making things run smoothly without your being there.
Here’s an example of one of these documented processes:
Now let’s walk through documenting a process in detail:
- Create a “Title” section at the top of the document, place the name of the process here. Make this title keyword rich just as you would for a searchable blog post. – Example – Title: Configuring the GreatCMS Admin Widget
- Create an “Author” section for your name and contact information. This is critical to version control going forward. Example – Author: John Smith, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Create a “Date” section for the document creation date. This is critical to version control going forward. Example – Date: 6/2014 – Optionally you could create an “Effective Date” section if the process will not become effective until a future date but you still want to share it to prep your team. An example scenario to use this would be to notify your team of a new feature in an upcoming major software release.
- Create an “Objective” section for the process and write out specifically what you want to accomplish with this process. Example – Objective: The purpose of this document is to outline the steps required to configure the admin widget for GreatCMS.
- Create an “Audience” section to list the target audience for the process – Example – Audience: Frontline Support team at GreatCo.
- Create a “Steps” or “Process” section which documents every step required to complete this task without overlooking any details. Place numbers next to each step. I recommend performing the task right before or as you write the process. Note: You could flow it out using a flowchart tool like Balsamiq Mockups or Google Drawing.
This is most of what you need for a great process document that others can use.
That said, we can further improve that document with a couple more guidelines:
- Include any screenshots along with the steps that you feel will help make your process as clear as possible. Using annotated images can reduce the amount of text required which should make the process easier to understand and faster to read.
- Add a “Revision” section to the bottom of the document. This section should be used to capture revision dates, authors names, details of the change to the process, the reason, and a new version number. Your process will be a living document that changes with your business.
- Name the document appropriately and share it with your entire team for their feedback, even those that it was not written for. For example, you first document might be named “GreatCMS Admin Widget Configuration – DRAFT” after it has been reviewed by your team and revised it would be copied and named “GreatCMS Admin Widget Configuration v1.”
Once you’re done, don’t forget about your process. Maintenance is a critical element to effective systematization, so keep them current as your business needs change.
Note: As you begin to get the hang of this, you will quickly be able to identify which things you can port to outsourced resources and which are better kept in-house with you.
Step 3: Stop Being the Bottleneck
Hire the Right Person
Simple enough, right? Just go to odesk.com or any of the online marketplaces where for hire resources are, and find someone to do what you are currently doing today and you’re done.
Wrong! In fact, the very first thing that you should do is figure out specifically what you need and document it.
The good news is that you should have those details in your process document already, and you should use it as a reference when writing your job description. Here is a post that covers hiring a developer via odesk.
Training Your New Hire
After you hire a new team member you will need to train them.
Whether you’re performing instructor led training over Skype, prerecorded screencast, or how-to-documentation that you created, you should use the documented process to complement your training.
Your training will be more effective if your trainees understand why they are being trained and are made aware of your business objectives. Do this, and the how-to portion of the training should be a snap.
Step 4: Scale Your Freelance Business
Once you have systematized your business by documenting business processes and training your staff to use them, you will find that the amount of time that you used to waste on repetitive tasks will begin to dwindle. This gives you more time for things that will lead to more sales, like designing tight projects and sending out well-written proposals (which you can learn how to do by reading this example website proposal eBook).
Since you are no longer the bottleneck you will have more time to market the business, and think about growth strategies.
The number one reason businesses fail to grow is because they lack enough of the right type of activity to make that happen. Once you’re focused on the right types of actions, you will see major growth in your business.