If I had a time machine and I could go back in time and correct all the mistakes I had made when I first went into business, things might have turned out very differently. Like any new business owner, my first years in business were ones of finding my way and getting lost. I stumbled and made a lot of mistakes, and I regret that someone hadn’t “told me so” given me the shortcuts and inside knowledge. I also don’t accept the notion that making mistakes and wasting valuable time is all part of the necessary learning curve that new business owners must endure. In business, time is precious, so saving time and resources by knowing what processes and tools to use to help you grow an efficient and effective business is worth more than any business degree or course.
It’s important to establish vital infrastructure in your business so that you can build and scale very quickly from the start-up phase to an efficient and effective business. Software and processes, implemented early, are the key if you want to build sales, profit and cash flow much sooner than if you stumbled around in the dark wasting a lot of time. These tips are from my own personal experience in terms of what I got wrong in the start-up phase of my business as well as what I have learnt over the last 20 years.
1. Create a Policies & Procedures manual
One of the first things I did when I started my business, even when it was just me by myself, was to create a Policies & Procedures Manual. When I tell this to others they ask why I needed a Policies & Procedures Manual when I had no staff. But to me it made perfect sense because I always knew my business would grow and I would need to employ staff to grow further. I wanted to make sure that I was very clear on the processes and procedures that I wanted implemented in my business from the beginning.
I find that a lot of business owners who have been in business for 10, 15 even as much as 20 years still do not have any standard processes and procedures they follow. There is no set way of doing anything in their business, from answering the phone to packaging a product ready to ship. This leads to staff confusion, poor decision-making, and hours wasted on fixing mistakes and dealing with customer complaints, not to mention the lost revenue or profit that results from running a business that does not have clearly defined processes and operational procedures for everyone to follow.
When you start a business, sit down and sketch out a rough Policies & Procedures Manual so the procedures you want can be easily taught to new staff members when you employ them. Having a clear understanding of how you do things — not just why you do things — is the foundation of building and growing a strong business, especially during its formative years. As the business grows, keep revising and updating your policies and procedures so that you are squeezing maximum efficiency and effectiveness out of your business, your staff and your time.
2. Use cloud services where possible, and buy, don’t steal your software
Today, business software has become extremely affordable, especially with the growth of internet-based cloud software, which means you don’t need to install anything on your computer or keep up with updates. Cloud software (such as Google Docs and MYOB AccountRight Live) also allows you to make updates from any connected device, such as tablets or smartphones. It also means you can effectively set up your internal accounting, tax compliance, word processing and spread sheeting for very little upfront investment.
In cases where you need to purchase software, buy fully licensed software, and you will not regret it. I know a lot of new small business owners who are using copied versions of software because they are too cheap to buy the full, legal version. Don’t run the risk of breaking the law.
Also go with software that is a market leader or industry benchmark. Use one of the main players because they will provide you with vital online support should you have glitches or issues. There are plenty of accounting software packages on the market, and there are some lessor known packages that I do not recommend, simply because small software companies do not have the support and infrastructure you will need as a new business owner. Their inefficiencies and lack of support will impact on your business, and you will lose money and time as a result.
The opposite is true as well. I know business owners who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on amazing software packages that they have never used but some sales person convinced them they needed it to grow and support their business. My tip to you is start with the bare essentials of business software. Then as your business grows, decide what additional software you need to help you with that growth.
3. Have a daily time management process
In the early days of my business, I made the mistake of arriving at work and then attacking what I needed to do on the basis of which of my customers yelled the loudest. My day was spent with my head in a spin, fighting fires and solving other people’s problems and priorities. New business owners often feel that they haven’t achieved much in the first 12 months simply because they have been overwhelmed and overworked with the unimportant. They don’t have a process for efficiently managing what they need to do on a daily basis.
I realise that as a new business owner there is a lot of non-productive work you need to do, but you need to focus daily on growing your sales, profit and cash flow. Simply rule off your most productive hours in the morning and focus on building your business by calling on new prospects and new customers. Every day I set aside two hours to do this as part of my time management process. If I didn’t rule off this time, then the phones would keep ringing and I would have a million interruptions that would distract me during the day.
You are the most productive in the morning, so setup a process where you turn off all emails for two hours and focus on building your business. Don’t be pulled in every direction by staff or customers; otherwise, you will get to 5.00 pm having achieved nothing.
There are some great software tools and apps that will boost your productivity and ensure you focus on what’s critical in your business. Productivity tools like Rescue Time and Eggtimer are great to manage your business day.
4. Don’t let email rule your life: adopt an email management process
I only check emails twice a day: at lunchtime and late afternoon. Many new business owners get bogged down with answering millions of emails a day. The emails seem important, when in fact they are not. Have a process where you will only check emails twice a day, and that will free up your time to focus on what is important: growing your business in the early formative months.
Don’t even look at you business emails afterhours or on the weekends; otherwise, you will become a slave to your business. Disconnect after hours and on weekends, or your customers will end up owning your life.
There are plenty of great email management software tools that allow you to structure, prioritise and control your email before it controls you. One great tool for managing email is called Boomerang. It allows you to schedule sending email within Gmail. This avoids the unnecessary mistake of your customers or clients treating email like a two-way conversation, which it is not. Email is not a phone call; it is not for instant responses, yet many new business owners believe that if they don’t reply immediately, then they will loose customers.
Implement a process for dealing with email, and educate your customers on this process. Don’t be at the mercy of someone else’s outbox; otherwise, they run your business.
5. The most important process for all new start-ups: delegate
As a new business owner, you simply cannot do everything. If you want to build an effective and efficient business in the early, critical years, then know your limitations and delegate what you can’t do or can’t do well. Create a process to outsource the tasks within your business that cause you to stray from your core activity.
The process of delegating and outsourcing can be difficult, but you need to consider it. Whilst I will not outsource or offshore what my business does, I do offshore the “back-room” marketing tasks. I have a marketing department that supports my growth, but they are scattered across the world, from the Ukraine, to Pakistan to the U.S. I have a process on how and what I outsource to external contractors, and by having this process, I can focus on what’s important: building and growing my business.
Decide very early in your business what you are good at; then create processes to delegate and outsource the rest. Build infrastructure to help you create an effective and efficient business. Systematise and standardise as much as you can, and focus on the core of what you are delivering to you customers. A process driven, systematised business will free up your time to focus on what’s important, especially in those early, critical start-up years.