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Build Yourself Out - Small Business Systems for Entrepreneurs

Published or Updated On: 
March 27, 2023

One day in Summer 2020, I woke up and realized I didn’t like my job. I was overwhelmed, stressed out, and juggling too many responsibilities. This was a strange realization, seeing as I was a founder of the company I was working at. Here’s the backstory…

In my activewear small business, I wanted to improve our photography. To accomplish my goals, I started planning all of our shoots. We shoot often, so this turned out to be a pretty big logistical undertaking: model/photographer coordination, scheduling, product shipments and more. I was good at it and had advocated for the change, so it seemed to make sense for me to lead the charge. But it turned out to be much more work than I expected. Worse, much of the work was time sensitive, so it kept forcing its way to the top of my daily to do lists, pushing out other projects that were more important but less urgent. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling frayed at the edges.

I’ve since learned that this is a common tale: entrepreneurs getting stuck working in their business (vs. working on their business). You give yourself a job, and sometimes it’s a job you don’t even like. As Michael Gerber wrote in E-Myth Revisited “If you have a business that depends on you, you don’t have a business. You have a job. It’s the worst job in the world because you’re working for a maniac.” But if you can give yourself a job, you can also take it away. Turns out, that’s exactly what you need to do to build resilient business. Let’s talk about that next.

Heroes and Builders

Most entrepreneurs are Heroes. Heroes ask the question “How do I make this happen?”, then work with superhuman ingenuity to make it so. They are experts at juggling, able to solve 3 major crises before breakfast. They are the driving force behind what makes a business go. Being a Hero is an essential part of being an entrepreneur, and it’s a skill you never grow out of needing. But you can get stuck here and miss the evolution.

Builders are next-level entrepreneurs. Builders ask the question “How do I make this happen without me?” The answer always involves a system. Systems are how recurring forms of work gets done, and businesses are made up of them. We have systems for product design, production, post-production, marketing, fulfillment, and more. Here’s a ridiculously oversimplified view of our system for getting a product to bulk production:

The importance of understanding the concept that your business made up of systems is hard to overstate. When you really get it, you forever cease to be a mere Hero (perhaps stuck with a job you don’t like), and turn into a Builder with a capital B. You have the power to create systems, including one that doesn’t need you. All of the entrepreneurs I know doing 7, 8 figures or more are Builders.

An actual recording of you becoming a Builder

Builder’s Choice

Once you’ve evolved, you have a new paradigm through which to see the needs & opportunities within your business. I recommend you start with an audit of your work & build yourself out of the priority list below. Where you go from there will depend a lot of the overall state of your business. If your business is already well structured, comfortably profitable and has a proven growth plan, you can actually try to put yourself out of a day job entirely and either just do the work you enjoy or go do something else. If your business doesn’t have one of those things, then you should work on it until it does, but using your new Builder’s question as a lodestar. 

It's important to note that building yourself out doesn't happen overnight. It takes time to untangle yourself from the day-to-day and all of the systems you probably have your hands in. The most important thing is that you understand the principle and make changes that move you in the right direction (towards a business that does not need you).

Building something that doesn't need you almost invariably means hiring. Sam Altman has described hiring as the most important thing a founder does. How to hire is out of scope for this article, but there is a trap here I want to call out.

"It'll be faster if I do it myself"

It's easier and faster to just do the work yourself. This is how entrepreneurs get stuck inside their business. It's far more work to break down the steps, hire someone, and train them on it, so it's easy to keep putting these things on the back burner. This keeps that system dependent on you. The price of building something that doesn't need you is extra work in the short term. Prioritize it, and pay it.

Get rid of this work first

As mentioned, there’s a hierarchy for the kind of work you want to build yourself out of. Here is the stuff that’s most important:

Work you don’t like doing 

Everyone does some stuff they don’t like, but if you dislike 40% of your working hours, that’s a problem. Some advice I received from Brian Long (9 figure exit, now Attentive CEO) was to make sure that you’re spending your time doing things that lift your energy, and passing things that lower it to others, preferably someone who will love it.

Recognizing what kinds of work I do & don’t like has been a game changer for my work motivation & overall output. It’s so important to my motivation that it’s one of the 4 items listed in my Work Ethos note (“If I don’t like what I’m doing, I have the power to change it - build myself out”).

Work that can be done by someone else better, faster, or cheaper

I can design emails, but our creative Ariana is better & faster at it than I am. I can do basic data entry, but a virtual assistant is going to do it more cheaply.

Work that is time consuming

The more of your time something takes, the higher it should be on your list. For example, we used to handle product fulfillment ourselves. Once per quarter, something huge would break and I would have to stop whatever I was doing to spend a week fixing it. My business partner wisely advocated we migrate to an outsourced fulfillment provider, and doing so gave me at least 1 month of my time back per year (while also fulfilling faster, and more reliably). 

How to Build a Small Business System

All of this may sound a little highfalutin, so let’s make it more concrete with a “how to” and an example. I just rebuilt a system for Paragon, so I’ll take you along for the ride. 

The situation: After that summer of 2020, I built a system to handle photography and left it alone for 2 years. But lately, we were producing images that didn’t align with what our core customers wanted to see. For example, we’d been using slender agency models instead of women who actually lift weights. Our photography also just wasn’t as good as our competitors and we felt we were missing out on a key opportunity to invest in our brand. We knew that to get this department to where we wanted it to be, it was going to need a full overhaul. I took on the rebuild. 

1. Define the goal

  • The first step is to figure out where you are now & where you want to be. You need to establish what outcome you want. I used a simple milestone: we wanted our media to be competitor quality or better. I could easily test if we were there just by looking at our images vs. competitor images.

2. Discover the steps

  • This is the fun part. Now you get to discover how to get to the goal. You probably have some ideas, but the journey is usually messy with lots of wrong turns and backpedaling. Think of it as trailblazing. It’s a manual process. It should be done by someone with outstanding gumption, not a temporary contractor.
  • With my goal of media that is competitor quality or better, I asked myself “what is the simplest, fastest way I can get there?” I started by thinking about what brands have photography that I like. I explored how they were shooting and who their photographers were. Eventually, I honed in on a style & started doing pricing exercises with some photographers. I lined up a couple of test shoots and finally found a good match. 
  • Note: this is where Heroes usually stop. They reach the goal, but don’t build themselves out. This is how I once gave myself a job I didn’t like.

3. Document (& revise) the steps

  • The next step is to do it again and document as you go - what are the steps you’re following? Once you’ve got them down, look at them with a critical eye (“is this the smartest way to do this?”). Delete, automated, revise. Remember our goal is to build something that doesn’t need you, so these will be the steps someone else will be following.
  • After verifying that I had actually reached the goal manually, I did it again with another shoot. This time, I wrote down each of the steps as I went through them. Once I had them all written down, I realized that there was opportunity for improvement. Some steps were out of order, some didn’t need to be done at all, some could be done much more effectively. For example, I was separately trying to find schedule availability among 3 models, a photographer and a photographer assistant. Way easier to just use Doodle to discover everyone’s schedule availability in a single email.

4. Delegate

  • Now you need to choose someone to be responsible. It shouldn’t be you. This is the most important step a Builder takes. You want to plug someone capable in, and make them responsible for both the system and the outcome. 
  • At first, you should expect some loss here vs. doing it yourself, but a good team member is going to pick it up quickly and probably improve on your small business system. 
  • Our production associate Hannah was a good fit & excited about taking the work on, so I plugged her in. I explained the goal, the system I had made, and asked her to be the new person responsible for all of it. She immediately started planning the next shoots and improved on how we set due dates. My role here is now limited to just approving her model selections & reviewing her post-shoot feedback for the photographers. For this piece of the business, I’m now out & Hannah is leading the charge.

Mastering the skill of the Builder is the key to unlocking real opportunity. You can unhook the results your business achieves from you time, get your life back, and start creating serious leverage. It takes some learning, but the best way to learn is by doing -- let's get after it!

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