Live Free or DIY: How to get more customers increase profits and achieve work-life balance as a small-business owner
I’ve been getting requests recently from various publications for permission to post an excerpt from my international bestselling book Live Free or DIY. So I thought my friends on LinkedIn might appreciate a peek of their own. Below is an excerpt from Chapter 11.
About the Book
Live Free or DIY is the time-starved small-business owner’s survival guide.
From start-up to growth to pivoting in a changing marketplace, Live Free or DIYreveals how small-business owners in every industry encounter the same roadblocks—and how the solutions are simpler than you think. Whether wrestling with strategies for attracting customers, growing revenue, dealing with red tape, or getting the most out of every twenty-four hours, Live Free or DIY is an ultra-practical guide that will free small-business owners from the do-it-yourself trap, and unleash the kind of explosive growth you’ve only dreamed about.
Excerpt from Chapter 11: How to Double Your Profits by Making a Simple Tweak to Your Workflow
Do you know what is the all-around most common complaint I hear from small-business owners?
That they can’t find good people.
It is hard to find good staff; at least, it’s hard if you need to trust them with a ton of complex work and you’re not able to pay them a whole lot for all that responsibility.
As it turns out, Henry Ford had the same problem. Apparently, it was pretty difficult—maybe even downright impossible—to find a craftsman who could build an automobile from scratch, never mind the fact that Ford couldn’t offer much pay if he was going to make cars that were affordable for the everyday consumer while also keeping his operation in the black.
That’s precisely when he had his big idea, and the assembly line was born. He realized it wasn’t difficult to find good people who could put together component parts as one step in an assembly line that they didn’t even have to fully understand, much less, fully execute. Ford’s solution was a creative new way of using labor while also harnessing available technology.
And that’s exactly what we’re doing in this chapter. Just the way the last chapter applied the wisdom of the first Industrial Revolution to automate what used to be done by hand,we’re now going to combine the wisdom of the assembly line with cutting-edge technology in order to fundamentally rethink the way business gets done. The goal is to make your team more efficient, cost-effective, and profitable than ever before.
Am I saying you should run your business like an assembly line? Actually, yes— though you’ll see, over the course of this chapter, that it doesn’t mean turning your staff into a team of mindless drones. It’s the opposite, actually. Thanks to technology, your team shouldn’t really be doing any mindless labor. What should they be doing instead? Helping to grow your business in ways that are specific to their skill sets and your needs. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first, we’re going to explore how technology makes it all possible.
The new value chain changes everything.
It used to be that big businesses had a considerable advantage over smaller competitors thanks to their enormous staff. So many employees allowed for very focused specialization—each employee had his or her tiny domain—which was far more efficient than having employees do a little bit of everything. And that efficiency translated into a big advantage.
If that sounds a lot like an assembly line, it’s because the fundamental idea is the same. In today’s parlance, this is the concept of breaking up the value chain—that is, relying on increasingly focused specialists to do very specific tasks, and then putting their work together to yield a less expensive finished product. In the past, only big businesses were able to break up the value chain, because a big staff was a basic ingredient. A small enterprise could never afford it, nor would they have enough specialized work to occupy a full- or even part-time staffer’s time. And that’s why even ten years ago, this concept was almost irrelevant for small-business owners.
Technology means you’re no longer limited to the confines of your office building, and you no longer need job descriptions substantive enough to justify a commute. These revolutionary changes give you untold flexibility in how to design your workforce and workflow. And I’m not just talking about how e-mail and Skype make it possible for your staff to work from home just as easily as at the physical office. That’s certainly true—and there’s a remote workforce revolution underway—but I’m talking about something much, much bigger.
I’m talking about what I call the “commoditization of boring.”
Entrepreneurs around the world have examined business processes with a fine-tooth comb, looking for tasks being done over and over again by a lot of people. And they’re doing that because those tasks represent an opportunity for specialization—for a company to do one little thing, and to do it better than anyone else. They’re turning boring, repeatable tasks into a commodity by providing outsourced services, so businesses never have to do those things internally ever again. There are more of these B2B—business-to-business—companies popping up all the time, and they exist for no other reason but to help your business outsource boring tasks at a cost of pennies.
The last chapter introduced you to a variety of such companies. I’ve already mentioned how Ruby Receptionists can handle your phone calls. Meanwhile, the companyBench.co can do your bookkeeping, and Zirtual will provide you with an ultra-efficient personal assistant for a fraction of what you’d pay for even the most part-time staff.
But how about short yet important tasks like sprucing up your website or writing copy for a brochure? Sites like Upwork instantly connect you to a pool of tens of thousands of freelancers who perform very specific services—Web design and development, writing, and much more—while also allowing you to see how other business owners have rated their past work.
This directly addresses the number-one concern that I mentioned at the start of the chapter: finding good people. The new paradigm is both quintessentially twenty-first century and grounded in Henry Ford’s assembly line: It’s a lot easier to find good people when you’re trusting them with a very specific task, when you can easily see how well they’ve done in the past, and when you can quickly assess whether or not they’re doing satisfactory work for you. That’s why Upwork, and other similar sites, makes it easier than ever to get work done efficiently, regardless of how big or small your business is.
In other words, there’s nothing holding you back from creating a workflow that’s every bit as intelligent and efficient as one at a Fortune 500 company (or even better). You have a digital universe of affordable human and technological resources at your fingertips.
Making your business competitive in today’s marketplace means capitalizing on all those resources, and doing that means scrutinizing every link in the value chain of your business down to its smallest component parts. You can then determine the best way to execute each task, and thus design the most efficient workflow, just like Ford did.
For Ford, that meant breaking up every task between designing at the drawing board and putting rubber on the road. For a neighborhood pizza shop, the process of breaking up the value chain might look entirely different, though the underlying wisdom is the same. And when I founded my international shipping company several years ago, I used the same logic in order to dissect the traditional job of a vessel planner. I saw the standard job description in our industry had experts spending a lot of time sending e-mail and only a little time on the high-value work of drafting stowage plans. I broke up the process: I created a part-time administrative position for handling e-mail, then had the experts focus on creating great stowage plans at a fraction of the cost of our competitors.
Whatever your business and whatever your current workflow, separate your processes into as many bite-sized steps as you possibly can. Then examine each of the steps and ask yourself the following:
This is your business’s essential machinery. Once mapped, you can bring in all the possibility the Digital Revolution affords you:
Given the options of in-house versus outsourcing, automation, or some combination of the above, what is the most efficient way to perform this task?
With this line of questioning, and a commitment to designing the best workflow possible, you’re on your way to outcompeting a sea of small businesses that are stuck doing things the old way.
You’re also on your way to outcompeting those who adopt every shiny new bell and whistle without strategy or analysis. Indeed, technology isn’t always cheaper. Sometimes the least expensive means is manual; that’s most often the case when we’re talking about a task that takes only an hour or two a month. I’ve seen business owners get so excited about the newest, hottest piece of technology that they drop tens of thousands of dollars on a gizmo that will save them an hour a month. At that rate, it will take them a decade for the investment to pay off, and by the time you consider all the front-end work to get the automated system going, it just isn’t worth it. The point of technology is to give you the freedom and flexibility to design the most cost-effective workflow possible, not to use every technological innovation at whatever the cost.
If you want to read more – I’ve posted the entire primer to Live Free or DIY – titled Free to Focus – on the Agents of Efficiency website to read for free anytime (no need to give anyone your email or anything). Or, of course, you can grab your own copy of Live Free or DIY on Amazon if you’d like to read the full 250-page book.
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