CEL Business Grads

Trapped! Seven signs your business may own you and how you can escape.

Do you own your business or does it own you?

The inability for a business to operate without the owner present is a sure sign that you are captive to your business. It likely feels like your business owns you, instead of you owning it.

Businessman stuck in spiderwebYou may be surprised to learn that there are over 28 million businesses in the U.S.[1]  Despite that huge number, most businesses fail to scale. They exist solely because the owner is active in every detail of the day to day operations.

 There are plenty of additional statistics to support this idea:

  • Of all employer firms in the U.S.[2]:
    • 55% have fewer than 4 employees
    • 86% have fewer than 20 employees
    • 95% have fewer than 50 employees
    • 7% have fewer than 500 employees
    • 96% gross less than $1M annually

I’d be doing you a disservice to suggest that the quantity of employees or volume of revenues are the only markers of business success. They aren’t! We all know the small business owner that has a handful of employees, works 30 hours per week and takes home an incredible salary. But they are the outlier, not the norm.

In working with hundreds of small business owners over the past ten years I’ve come to recognize that there are just a handful of things that separates a great business from a struggling one.  Most of those struggles lie in the small business owner’s inability to scale their business beyond their finite abilities and available time.

For the sake of this article I will define a successful business, not as a certain number of employees or volume of revenue, but rather a business that can run without the owner making every decision.  A business that can run day to day without the owner being present every moment.

Can Your Business Run Without You? Take the test.

A good friend of mine and business consultant, once challenged a group of business owners to ask themselves if they had a successful business by having them answer this simple question…

“Can you leave your business for three weeks and not have the phone ring or open a business email?”

That’s a simple test to see if you have a business that can scale. 

Anyone can go away for a few days or even a week and the world won’t end, but as you move to two and then three weeks without hands-on contact the weak links will break. For many of you, your phone will surely ring. 

So, what does it take to have a business that can pass the three-week test? 

My seven observations as to why most small businesses never scale:

  1. You believed the self-employment myth
  2. You can’t let go
  3. You have no idea where you are going
  4. You don’t have the right people
  5. You have no systems in place
  6. You hold no one accountable
  7. You fail to innovate

Let’s tackle them one at a time.

You believed the self-employment myth

Do you have a job or a business? The key question you need to ask yourself is… “are you creating a true business or a self-employment charade you call a business?” 

Michael Gerber summed this up in his famous book The E-Myth.  There is no sense in me trying to do a better job than the master, so let’s hear it direct from Michael…

“If your business depends on you, you don’t own a business; you have a job. And it is the worst job in the world because you’re working for a lunatic… You can’t close it when you want to, because if you leave there’s nobody there to do the work. You can’t sell it when you want to, because who wants to buy a job”

Way too many people own a business like this.  If you do there is hope and you can escape the grind of this situation, but you’ve got to make some changes.  .

You can’t let go. Look in the mirror.

Many small business owners we work with feel overwhelmed. The good news is that you are not alone. They express frustrations at the helpless feeling of barely holding things together and they are just one mistake away from disaster.

 Why is that?

I think that most of us really need to look in the mirror.  If we are honest, the source of our angst is looking right back at us.

Many business owners are action oriented. They are driven by tasks that need immediate action.  They often lack processes, don’t communicate well and believe that no one can do the job like they do.  They’re moving at 100 plus miles an hour and stressing their company and employees alike. 

You might say they enjoy fighting fires and spend most of their time doing just that. Sound familiar?

Running at that speed usually means we manage our business by barking out orders. Or more typically, we have no ability to delegate and instead expect everyone around us to absorb what it is they need to do through some magical process of osmosis.  We expect them to read our mind.

It is important to build a business that doesn’t rely on us being there every moment and making every decision. To fix it, you must recognize it. Start by looking in the mirror and accepting that much of the problem is looking right back at you.  That’s a great first step.

You have no idea where you are going.

As Cheshire Cat once told Alice, “If you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there”.  In business the concept of taking any road may be very costly as we want to have the right road leading us to our destination in the most efficient and profitable way possible.

Do you have a strategic plan?

If you don’t have a clear strategy that you can communicate in 35 words or less, you don’t know where you are going.  If you don’t know where you are going, how can you expect your team to know where you are going?

Having a plan is critical. Strategy counts and it starts with a plan. A great strategic plan doesn’t need to be lengthy and complicated, but it does need to be thoughtful, supported by your unique set of competencies that give you competitive advantage in the marketplace. It also must be a living breathing document that can be responsive to changing market environments. 

Simplicity will always win.  Take for example Southwest Airlines and their storied “wheels up” strategy. When the “wheels are up” on their planes they are making money.  To that end they have built systems and processes to support this. From the way they load passengers, to the types of aircraft they fly, to the culture of fun that is exemplified in their culture…it is all in support of a strategy with a clear destination. 

If you don’t have a strategic plan, don’t over complicate things. Keep it simple. There are some great resources available and my favorite is the One Page Plan available from Verne Harnish and the folks at gazelles.com.

You don’t have the right people.

Would you enthusiastically rehire everyone on your team?  That should make you think and the answer for most is a quick, “no”! This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges, NOT having the right team.

 Often this starts with the inability to recognize that the people that got us here won’t get us there.  We are loyal to employees that were with us from the beginning or those that are family and friends.

I’m not suggesting you toss your team, but I am suggesting that as a company grows there is a need to layer in some more professional management practices and not everyone that was with us in the beginning will have those skills.  Some can grow into new roles, but many can’t, and this is a difficult realization for the small business owner.

No one should be promoted to COO or any other leadership role solely based on tenure and that is too often the result in small business. There will be times when it is necessary to find some new leaders with broader experience and skills to help us grow to the next level.  These are the key people that can help you take your company to the next level.

Business guru Jim Collins famously summarized this with a simple but brilliant premise that surmises that we will have a great team when we make sure that “we have the right people, in the right seats, doing the right things right.” 

A great tool to make sure you have the right seats is to build a functional organization chart for your business.  Focus on the functions you need to run the business successfully first and only then go back and add team member names to those functions. It is a great tool to prevent you from promoting people into the wrong seats by accident. 

There are many good articles and tools out there and we will provide an article just on this topic in the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned, but in the meantime, you need to be considering whether you would enthusiastically rehire all of your team members.

You have no systems in place. 

When every decision must be made by the owner, you become the bottleneck. If you ever expect to take that three-week vacation, we talked about earlier your team must be able to operate without waiting on you to make every decision.

You must have policies, processes and procedures that allow quality and replication of repetitive functions.  These don’t need to be complicated, but they need to be discovered, captured and continually refined. 

You don’t need to overdo this in a small business. In its simplest iteration you are building checklists. Surgeons use them. Pilots use them. Why shouldn’t you?

If you have no processes or systems, start by capturing those activities that your organization does often.  Start with a few and don’t feel like you need to do this all at once. Even capturing one frequently repeated process into a checklist will begin to cut back on everyone knocking on your door.

Add a new process to the list each week and collect the checklists into a binder and before you know it you will have a complete operating manual for your business that will simplify daily activities, speed up new employee training and offer continuity in your business offerings.

You hold no one accountable.

All the procedures and processes in the world are useless if you don’t hold people accountable.

It can’t be through the process of osmosis where we just expect our employees to know what to do.  It is the leader’s responsibility to set clear expectations, communicate them often, constantly coach and ultimately hold people accountable for their actions. 

We don’t like to do that. Most of us don’t like confrontation, but holding people accountable is not confrontation, it is simply being a good leader.  A great way to think about this is the concept of radical candor. Done regularly it doesn’t have to be confrontational.  There is a great resource to learn more about how to both “care personally” about your team members while “challenging directly” at radicalcandor.com.

You fail to innovate.

Finally, if you do all the above well and you still aren’t able to scale it is likely that you fail to innovate in our rapidly changing world we live in today. 

Innovate or die. 

We live in a world that is changing at a pace like no humans have seen before us.  In just 20 years technological advancements will be hundreds of thousands to a million times more advanced than today.

 We need to be on top of this change or our businesses will quickly become irrelevant.  Companies die when they get complacent and lazy.  We used to have a lot longer runway to adjust and fine tune our direction, but that is not true today.

You can engage innovation by creating a culture of continuous learning. Challenge status quo. Stay up on the latest technological trends in your industry by attending conferences, keeping an eye on your competitors and reading industry related journals.  

If you really want to know where the future is headed visit Singularity University at su.org to explore the opportunities and implications of the exponential change on your industry and business.

Now its your turn. Take control.

We’ve identified the seven areas that might be holding you and your business back.  Any one or all of them may be at the root cause of your frustration. 

The good news is that each is not that hard to change once you’ve identified it and are willing to put your mind to implementing incremental changes.

Get started. Commit to change. Don’t be overwhelmed. Take small steps.

  • Dismiss the self-employment myth and build a business that doesn’t require you to be there 24/7
  • Let go and build a team to support you
  • Build a simple strategic plan so you have a clear vision of where you are headed
  • Build a great team. Make sure you have the right seats, right people and they’re doing the right things right
  • Build systems and checklists
  • Embrace a culture of accountability
  • Create a culture of continuous learning and innovation

Good luck on your journey to building and owning the business the will enable you to pursue your passions and your dreams!

[1] SBA Office of Advocacy – United States Small Business Profile 2016

[2] U.S. Census Bureau. Fact Finder. Accessed 1/26/2018 – 2012 Census Data


Lifestyle Business vs. Innovation Driven Growth Business. There is no right or wrong, the choice is yours.

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Note:  I first posted on this subject nearly two years ago, yet it seems to always be on my mind.  I was especially reminded of this discussion on my visit last week to the Platter's Chocolate facility in Tonawanda, NY last week.  The owner, Joe Urban exemplifies all that is great about a small business owner and team growing a successful operation. With a nearly 80 year history under their belt they haven't gone public and don't employ 1,000s, but they have built a great business that employs many, is creating memories for its customers and is a critical part of our community.  I was inspired during that visit to remind all of us just how important the small business community is to our economy. I've updated that original post here with new numbers and a couple fresh thoughts.  I hope you enjoy it. If you do, join the conversation.

Having recently read an article discussing the distinct differences between today’s “tech bubble” and that of the “dot-com” disaster of yester years, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a local entrepreneur attempting a tech startup.

In the course of the conversation, it became clear that he had little respect for the lifestyle entrepreneur. In his mind, if you aren’t building a rapidly scaling innovation driven enterprise, you are insignificant.  I found his attitude a little off putting for many reasons.  We’ll get there in a minute, but let me start by saying I fully support investment in the innovation-driven economy. 

I will be the first person to say yes to government agencies “priming the pump” in communities like Buffalo, NY to get the high-tech flywheel spinning.  It’s critically important.  This is the world of commercializing innovative ideas and new technologies.  Successful technology-driven companies have the potential to scale quickly and create jobs at a faster pace than lifestyle businesses. However, they also have their own challenges - high failure rates, large capital investment and tradable jobs that can easily be moved around the globe. 

That being said, there is another huge sector of our economy driven by small businesses that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. We need to acknowledge and support the importance of the small business community and the positive impact it has on our communities and economies.  

Consider some of these stats:

  • There are over 28,500,000 Small Businesses in the U.S.
  • U.S. small businesses employed about half or 56.8 million of the nation’s private workforce or 48% of the workforce
  • They make up 99.7% of all employers nationally
  • 97.7 percent of U.S. export firms are small businesses
  • 88.5% of U.S. employer firms have less than 20 employees and only .26% of U.S. businesses employ more than 500 people
  • 96% of all U.S. businesses gross less than $1M annually
  • Small business start their businesses on their own backs. 77% of small businesses rely on personal savings for their initial funds

Here’s the most interesting part.  Many of the businesses mentioned above are lifestyle businesses.  These are local businesses that we all rely on as part of our daily lives.  They include everything from your corner gas station to the pediatrician that cares for your children.  They are the local butcher, retail store, insurance agent and small community bank.  These business owners are your neighbors, friends, and community leaders.  They are woven tightly into the fabric of our communities, they create jobs and provide significant economic impact.  Without them, our local economies would quickly collapse and the concept of community would likely be lost.

Yes, innovation-driven entrepreneurship is an important piece of our economy, but please don’t discount the critically important role that lifestyle entrepreneurs play in the fabric of our society.  They deserve much more credit than most take the time to give them.

There isn’t a right or wrong - both have their advantages and disadvantages.  If you are starting a business, it is simply a choice you make. If you want to run a business that leaves you in control of your own destiny and allows you to create the hours and income that is right for you, then a lifestyle business is a great choice.  On the other hand, if you want to swing for the fences, scale quickly, and don’t mind giving up control to investors, then an innovation-driven enterprise may be the perfect choice. 

In the end, the choice is the individual entrepreneur’s. Whatever their choice, let’s be certain to acknowledge that neither is more important than the other and both have the potential to create jobs, inspire wealth and invigorate our communities through entrepreneurial development.

If you want to explore for yourself just how important small business is to the U.S. economy, download the latest issue of Small Business Administration’s Small Business Profiles for the States and TerritoriesIt is packed full of information about small business and its importance to our economy.