How do I grow my business if I’m bogged down in day-to-day work?

“I am a 27 year old environmental consultant. I started an environmental services firm in 2007 and work with one other partner.  Things were slow at the start but have picked up considerably, to the point where we are busy all the time.

My question is, what would you recommend to someone like me, who wants to grow the company  in the future and does not want to get bogged down by the day to day work.  I know lots of other people who started their companies years ago and are still running around doing everything themselves, from collecting samples, to writing reports, accounting to trying to grow the business.  I don’t want to end up like that, what would your advice be?”

The Harvard MBA says:

Making the transition from individual contributor to manager can be challenging.  When it’s just you and your partner, you can spend close to 100% of your time on the work.  But when you start to hire employees, you’ll need to invest a significant chunk of time on management…not to mention the frustrations you’ll feel because any employee won’t have the same passion and dedication that a founder does.

None the less, at some point in time, anyone who wants to build a bigger business has to bring in outsiders.  I wrote about this topic on my personal blog:

Even the most dedicated entrepreneur is hard-pressed to work more than 12 hours per day.

That’s only 84 hours per week, assuming you never take a day off. And towards the end of those long days, I’ll bet our workaholic entrepreneur would only be working at 50% effectiveness–or less.

In contrast, if you simply get three reliable people to work for you 40 hours per week, that’s 120 hours of productive work, in addition to whatever you get done.

It often seems like young entrepreneurs think that working ridiculously long hours makes them morally superior. All it really makes them is tired.

So if you have to hire, how can you ease yourself into the process?  I recommend that you begin by taking a few baby steps.  Start by outsourcing some of the basics to contractors.  This way, you don’t have to jump into a full-time commitment.

Posting a gig on Craigslist is free, and will probably generate a ton of attention.  You can also use a freelancing service like oDesk (the folks I know who’ve used it swear by it).

As a bonus, being forced to carefully specify the work will prevent you from making the mistake that many inexperienced managers make–not providing enough guidance to new hires.

It’s the same problem that bedevils great athletes who try to make the transition to coaching–you know instinctively what to do…which, paradoxically, makes it harder for you to explain to others what they should be doing (See: Jordan, Michael; Johnson, Magic).  Scrappy benchwarmers may do a better job of conveying the plan to athletes that lack the preternatural gifts of a superstar.

When you hire someone for a full-time position, the temptation is to hire someone just like you, and then expect them to learn by osmosis.  Alas, this rarely works.  Far better to draw up a crystal-clear set of expectations.  This is useful whether you’re hiring a contractor on the other side of the world, or a right-hand wo/man.

It’s not going to be easy, but if you want to grow your business beyond you and your partner, you’re going to have to bite the bullet and learn how to manage.


  1. Posted October 6, 2008 at 1:32 am | Permalink

    You’re absolutely right — he needs to consciously make the decision to begin delegating work and accept the trade-offs that you’ve mentioned. This is 80% of the battle.

    Once you get past that, focusing some time/effort on being specific about what you can offload to someone else is great. But, it’s been my experience that many entrepreneurs drop the ball at this point and think “gee, it’s really kind of hard to outsource XXX and YYY because… [insert excuses here]” and then they drop the ball.

    Relentless execution is what you need to get through the final 20% — and, for the folks I know that have dealt with this problem (including me), the pursuit of a specific goal (e.g. “We’re going to double revenue in 2 years!” or “I really can’t keep working 100 hour weeks.”) is usually the primary motivation.

    If your reader is really serious about growing the business, he’ll need to make some tough decisions and follow through. It’s that simple, and (yet) that hard.

  2. Posted October 6, 2008 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Even if we “get it” that we need to move work from ourselves to others, it’s not concrete enough. Here’s some in-the-trenches steps you can take:

    1) Get in a peer advisory group with other business owners. They are experiencing the same things, and committing to this will force you to spend 4+ hours a month at least working ON your business instead of IN it. TeamNimbusWest, Vistage, TAB, a few others are all great places to start.

    2) Know where your going and WHY! If you don’t have a very clear one-page business plan for the next three years, forget trying to grow. He who aims at nothing hits it every time.

    3) Lifetime Goals – back to the WHY! If you don’t have a reason for being in business that is bigger than your business, you will have a tough time growing it. Making money is not an empowering vision. When the going gets tough, you will need a bigger reason to forge ahead. Your one-page business plan should support your lifetime goals.

    4) Where is my business NOW? What stage is your business is – 1) Startup 2) Survivial, 3) Subsistence 4) Mgt. by hands-on, ,and which stage do I want to end up at – 5) Mgt. by walking around 6) False maturity (others managing and I turn the business over too quickly), or 7) Maturity/succession?

    If you don’t know where you are, and where you want to be, you won’t know what the next step is, or be motivated to do it.

    5) Make a decision and set a date. a) I want my business to look like xxxx and I want it to be there by xx/xx/xx. It’s amazing what happens when we a) make a decision, and b) set a date. Know anyone who’s been engaged forever? It’s because they didn’t decide to get married, just engaged, and didn’t set a date. Make your decision, set your date, and get after it.

    6) Yield Per Hour – How much to you want to personally make? $500k per year? That’s $250 per hour. Knowing this lays the foundation for getting others involved in your business.

    7) Process Mapping – a) do a linear flow of every step involved in delivering your product/service (from advertising through getting the check to sending the thank you, etc. – everything). b) Look at each step as a 40hour per week job and assign it a labor cost – $10 per hr, $15 per hr., etc. c) figure out why you’re doing $15 ph work when you want to be doing $250 ph work. It’s a real eye-opener.

    8) Virtual assistant – if you don’t have enough $15 ph work to hire someone full time, get a virtual assistant (they’re everywhere and I’m a big fan) for $25-$30 ph 10-20 hours per week to do all those things you shouldn’t be doing. Replace those activities with $250ph work and you will make $225 ph more each hour! Keep replacing those less expensive activities with other people until you’re only doing things to grow your business.

    9) Back to the 1-page business plan. Laminate it – stick it on your wall, fold it into your wallet – review it every day. It is not a dusty document, but it drives everything you do with clarity of purpose. It should hav clear 1 year Milestone, with even clearer 90-day action plans that get updated every quarter. Be a slave to your plan – make it your boss. Get to Stage Seven – Maturity!

    10) Tyranny of the Urgent vs. Priority of the Important. – Knowing the difference will decide whether you get there. Urgent things shout at us but are rarely going to make us more money in less time. Important things whisper in our ear and are usually central to getting where we want to go. Stop living reactively working IN your business, take control, carve out some time each week, and work proactively ON the present and future of your business.

    10a) – have fun doing it all! Chuck Blakeman

  3. 27yr old env. consul
    Posted October 26, 2008 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for responding to my question. Your post and the other comments have given me lots to think about.

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