What would you do to grow a business that can run on its own?
Recently I was asked to answer this question on Quora, and got stuck because I am still in the process of getting there.
Meanwhile, is this something you are looking to do?
4 years since I started a graphic design productized service, I’ve been cutting down my work hours from 60 hours a week then, to 10 hours a week now.
This year, most of my time is spent hustling to increase my customer base from 10 to 24 customers. It has fallen to 6 customers and rise to 12, then down to 7. The numbers may not look good all the time, and though I’ve yet to do better, I’m learning a lot along the way.
In this article, I’m sharing what I’ve learned to build my business so that it can run without me eventually by 2020.
Growing does not only mean hiring
Yes, in order for your business to run on its own without you, it also logically means you have to hire people to carry out specific tasks that you were supposed to do to deliver the goods.
My mistake in the past was to think that is the only thing I needed to hand’s off and do anything I wanted to do with my time. So I hired a virtual assistant to handle some tasks that I know she can help be with.
Since these tasks are to be done daily, such as making small graphic amendments to client design work, I hired her on a monthly basis and pay her each month.
At that time I thought “Yay! Now I’ve grown as a solopreneur from 0 to 1 employee“. That was in 2017 and didn’t know I was dead wrong with my mindset until some of my customers started to leave because they don’t have any more graphic work for me to help with.
Those days were stressful because I started to have less income yet I had to pay my virtual assistant the same amount every month. Every morning she emails to ask if I had anything she can help with and I had to spend time searching for something for her to do.
This made me realise, growing a business is not just to hire people to help. Growing a business includes the sales and marketing of one’s services. As we hire one member to support a group of customers, we have to hustle to promote our services that allow us to in turn hire more members to support the growing groups of customers.
Get the job done for one niche
I’ve struggled forever dealing with the mysterious “niche” for my business. Reason is because it causes a FOMO or Fear Of Missing Out syndrome.
What happens if you choose a niche to target? To me, it’s a success in itself because choosing one may mean I’m letting go another. I understand the concept of “if you sell to everyone, you see to no one”. But my challenge has always been the decision-making process rather than the niche itself.
My business deals with graphic design and this kind of service is easily required by many people and businesses. When I was doing my research on choosing the niche to target, I was able to decide on one niche and a few days down the road, another niche stood out to be quite a good target, and that’s when I got distracted to switch the niche to target.
In 2018, I knew this syndrome had to stop. What I finally decided was to quickly decide on one by working with the closest people I know who already are using graphics to build their brand.
I started to work with business coaches who mentor corporates to start their own side hustles and eventually escape the 9 to 5 for good. It’s not just getting to know them, but getting the job done. What it means to them is not so much about the look of the graphic. The design aspect is obviously an expected criteria.
Getting the job done for them means making sure errors in their content are down to zero, as perfect as possible so that back and forth communication is minimized. They don’t want to keep checking the same work over and over again. This reduces time and effort spent on their part.
This does not just work for business coaches, but everyone else. Hence, learning to get the job done for one niche, I can replicate the same thing every where else in other niches.
Create your company organizational chart from day 1
In the past, I never would have imagined myself giving up my role doing the design work. Now I’m at a stage where there are designers doing what they are good at for the customers and for themselves to become more skilled at what they do.
As for myself, I have to look at the bigger picture.
At the beginning, yes I was running the show on my own, honing my craft as a designer, doing nothing else, not even marketing. 90% of my customers came from word-of-mouth. The other 10% was my desperate measures doing cold-calling, cold-emails, cold-messages to ask around if people need help.
If this is something you are fine with, that works. But in my case I realised it’s not helping me reach a point where I can leave my business running on it’s own if anything happens to me.
Besides the hiring and marketing, as the owner of the business, I carry the weight on my shoulders to make sure we get the job done for customers and all employees feel safe knowing what to do next.
Hence, in 2017, I came up with an organizational chart:
This chart looks great with many positions labelled, but don’t be fooled, our business hasn’t reached half of this yet. I believe we will get there and you will if you are intending to go this route.
Anyway, point of this chart is to clearly map out every area of our business that will help to serve our customers. Yes, we want to hire people to help us, yes we want to grow our team. But we can’t do that until we know which areas we need help with until we decide which departments we want to create first.
Take each department as a small or tiny startup of the business. There’s no need for you to be an expert in each of the department, though I would find out more and learn a bit about it first.
In my case, I make sure that my customers have what they need first by hiring the number of designers sufficient to fulfil their jobs. As this is going on, I am heading the marketing and sales department of nobody.
Currently, I’d rather be the one doing the front-end promoter because I can have first-hand information of what prospects are looking for. While doing so, I’m bringing in more customers in the door, taking lots of notes and learning the best way to listen to them.
This is to ensure our service product is working well for a big enough market to sustain. Eventually, this marketing department will be taken from my hands to a leader to head this team with the processes I’ve created from the start.
Can you start a business to run without you?
I would say this is not impossible. It may not be on your first try, but based on Mike Michalowicz and his book Clockwork, you can do that along the way like what I’m doing now. Otherwise, you may not have to be the one working on the deliverables to your customers but hire people to work on them right from the start.
Then you may say “I have to write articles everyday to guest blog, go on podcasts or do content marketing to sell your services, that’s work too!“. Could you hire ghostwriters or content writers to do that for you? That’s possible too, which I’m intending to try out.
Ultimately, what stands between you and your version of success is nothing else but your mindset. I learned that the hard way.
Now, go do it!