Working On the Business

I meet a lot of business owners that have successful businesses as well as many that are struggling. Whether they are successful or still trying to figure it out, what most of these have in common is that they spend most of their time each day working IN the business. In other words, they are grinding to make sure their product or service is getting performed to their customers’ satisfaction. Being a business owner myself, I can testify to the necessity of doing this. Nobody can articulate the owner’s vision as well as the owner!

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While a business can be successful, i.e., profitable, operating in this manner, the long-term purpose of the business owner should be to sell the business one day. This, along with the inevitable burn out that will occur from the grind, necessitates a change of approach: Working ON the business.

Now one does not make an abrupt change from working IN the business to working ON the business. It’s actually an evolutionary process. You go from working all day, every day IN the business to spending a few hours a week working ON the business and evolve from there. Doing this, naturally, requires the business owner to cede control over certain hour-to-hour tasks within the business. How does one decide where to cede?

I suggest making two lists. For the first list, the owner should answer the question, “What are the current business tasks that you most enjoy?” There are no right or wrong answers here. Simply list his/her opinion. Love making widgets? Write it down. Really like dealing with customers? Write it down. And so on.

On the second list, write down the answers to this question, “At what tasks do you create the most value within the business?” Here, it’s really important that the owner be honest and accurate. Don’t just write down a gut feel (although a gut feel might be correct). Deeply consider which business tasks will help the business grow/reduce costs/improve customer experience/increase cash flow, etc.

Now, let’s juxtapose the lists. Here is where we separate passion (what we love) from what creates value (makes someone want to pay top dollar for the business one day). Compare these two lists and see which tasks drive business value and fuel passion. The owner should absolutely keep doing these tasks. That is an easy call. On the other end of the spectrum, any tasks not on either list should be passed on to someone else in the organization. Another easy call. The challenge comes when tasks that the owner enjoys doing don’t enhance enterprise value if the owner is doing them.

As an example, in my auto repair business, I really like wrenching on cars. However, if I’m honest, I’m not very fast. Any decent technician could blow me away from a quality and efficiency standpoint. So, I quit wrenching and hired another technician. I wasn’t adding enough value. I also love working with clients, vendors and creating processes. I kept doing those things. There, I was adding value. Guess what? The year after stepping out of the shop and handing the wrenches to someone more talented, we grew 17%. I was actually less stressed, clients were happier, I was happier, the technicians were happier (they got their parts faster with me in the office). Winner!

This was just the beginning. Over time, I slowly released more activities to employees. Now we are at the point where the operation is turn-key. I am not integral to its hour-to-hour success. My trusted team handles that. I still set the tone with clear expectations on process, client care, building appearance, etc. But, I trust my team to do it right. I also leave an open channel for clients to reach out to me when their experience isn’t what they are used to. Was it scary to let go? Most definitely! Was it necessary? Also, most definitely.

When the time comes, I feel way more confident that the right buyer can be found so I can to move on to the next chapter in life.

In our book “Start It, Grow It, Sell It:  The Journey of Business” we cover this and many other topics in a “business novel” format.  Follow Nelli and Harvey on their Journey of Business.

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