Tip 1 for surviving the recession: Take time out to do the right things

Time and time again, I see small business owners in the Midlands totally immersed in their business.  Getting that order out, sorting out production or delivery problems, these things have become their whole world.  They work 12, 15 hours a day during the week, half a dozen on weekends.  They are on a treadmill, the business and they are merely existing, there’s no spark there, no zest, no va-va-voom: they and the business have got into a rut, unable to see the wood from the trees.

Nowadays it’s more important than ever to be doing the right things in the right proportions at the right time.  And that means during and outside of working hours.  But try talking to owners of small businesses about time management and they say they either don’t have the time to manage their time better or it’s not for them (it’s such a dry subject).  But it’s far more than time management, it’s a question of priorities and balance.

Michael Gerber is one of the most widely read authors on how to be successful in business in the late 20th/early 21st Century.  Here’s a link to his blog – it’s worthwhile subscribing to his blog, there are some thought provoking articles, his tip for the day is often worth thinking about.  His E-myth books have sold millions, there’s a lot of sense in what he says.

He talks about businesses needing three types of people:

  1. The ‘Technician’ – the one who actually does the work – the bloke with the Flat cap;
  2. The ‘Manager’ – the one who sets up systems for working and organises the Technicians – the bloke in the white coat behind the desk;
  3. The ‘Entrepreneur’ – the one who decides on business strategy – the gentleman with the cigar (remember CJ in the Rise & Fall of Reginald Perrin).

A good many small businesses in the Black Country were set up either by technicians who saw an opportunity and either had a burning desire to be their own boss or had little choice but to set up on their own – they could not get a job elsewhere or frankly have reached that stage in their life when they are unemployable.  A good many other small business were set up by managers in a larger business who saw an opportunity and were driven by similar desires, sometimes as a result of having been made redundant.  The technician and manager small business owners have one thing in common, they lack the full skillset needed to succeed in business nowadays: they are one dimensional.  The result is that when times were good, they were able to muddle on through: some made profits without really fully understanding why, without really understanding how their business works, while others struggled and made losses from the start but carried on in the hope that somehow hard work would pull them through.  Now the recession has kicked in both are struggling, they are working ever harder but nothing seems to work.

Two months ago, I fell into the trap of working far too much in the business, doing far too much of the technician’s work myself (because the work I had to process was highly technical and I didn’t feel I could trust others to do it as well as I could). For me, it was a truly horrible time, even though I could pat myself on the back for the amount of work I was shifting.  If I hadn’t done something, my development plans for the business would have had to be put on hold, or eventually all the hours I was working would have broken me.  I had a ‘capacity’ issue I had to resolve, I was not doing the things I needed to be doing to move my business forward, I was doing the things my clients needed to move their businesses forward. Since then I’ve sorted the capacity issue, and have regained control of my business.

So how did I regain control of my business, and life?

For me, firstly I had to recognise the existence of the problem I had to understand how it arose, and looked into the options for solving it.  What worked for me is that I started keeping a paper diary which, over several weeks, graphically demonstrated the problem.  In my paper diary I recorded the time I spent on various types of work. I actually have quite a sophisticated time recording system in my business, but what worked for me was simple, free, and easy to implement paper based system.

I recorded the time I spent making money, my chargeable work (arguably mostly ‘technician’ time), in blue – there was a lot of this, I was making a lot of money, but interestingly my business and me were both suffering!  Typical blue time for me was general case work for fee paying clients, report and letter writing, client meetings, calls received from people who dealt with my insolvent clients. For engineering clients, it could be customer meetings, supplier meetings, setting up the machinery.

I recorded my ‘problem solving and dealing with pfaff’ time in red.  This was the time spent on things which did not make me money, which did not help my business move forward one jot.   For me, red time included working on cases which were not fee paying, preparing my own accounts, paying my bills, some networking events, chatting to the people with whom I share an office, chasing debts.  For an engineer red time would include actually working on the machines on the shopfloor, dealing with employee issues, cash management, doing the books.  Such pfaff is often work that can be delegated or contracted out, or avoided entirely if systems and working practices are improved.

I recorded my ‘entrepreneurial and managerial time’, that spent developing the business and systems, in black.  For me, this would be ‘quality’ networking events, meetings with accountants and other potential introducers, training of myself and staff, developing my website and brochure, developing systems, writing articles, working my Business Resuscitation Programme, working with my business coach, and thinking time.  For an engineer, this could be board meetings, planning and completing mergers or joint ventures, staff training, new product development, learning new techniques, training of themselves and staff, working with a business coach and thinking time.

I recorded my ‘me time’ in green.  For me, ‘me time’ included holidays and days off – doing the things I actually work for – ‘chill time’ including lunch in the pub down the road, time spent with and supporting my family, and my hobbies.

I found that for several weeks my balance was all wrong, there was far too much blue time; virtually no black time;  too much red time; virtually no green time.  No wonder I felt the way I did.  I had set up in business with specific targets, personal and financial: for a few weeks I was nowhere near those targets.  Short term, I was exceeding my financial targets by a country mile, and although people said this was ok because ‘you had to do the business while it was there’, I was not happy.

Having identified the problem, how did I rectify it? Again, this was not rocket science.  Firstly, don’t underestimate luck.  There was a natural beak in incoming technical work.  Sure, I did turn down several pieces of work that I was invited to tender for which was to be awarded by potential new clients based purely on price.  I didn’t need the work financially, it didn’t fit with my plans to regain control, the work didn’t fit in with what I wanted to do, the clients were not the sort of people I wanted to work with however big they were.  I had set up my business in such a way as to give me choices as to what I do, where, when and for whom.  I simply made that choice.  Many small businesses owners don’t make such a choice, they get taken along the journey by their customers.  By turning down work of dubious profitability, I gave myself time to put things right, I had got off the treadmill.

Secondly, I set aside time to train staff on the specific work that needed doing.  Sure, it took a lot longer this time around, but the next time …….  Thirdly, I contracted out some of the manager type work – I asked professionals to work on my brochure.  Fourthly, I made time to meet the consultants and joint venture partners I am working with to develop new parts of the business, to further develop existing ones, and then worked on them.  Fifthy, I went on several training courses, to make me think, to change the way I looked at things.  And sixthly, but by no means last, I put time to spend with my family and on my hobbies in my diary and stuck to it, regardless.  I took the view that if client or other professionals I work with didn’t understand, then they were not the sort of people I wanted to work with.

In summary, I decided to do the do all the right things for me in the right proportions at the right time.  And do I feel happier, more rounded as a result?  You bet your life I do!

You will note that there are a lot of ‘I’s there.  It was me that had to make it happen.  I didn’t allow circumstances to dictate what I did, when or how.  It was me who decided I had to have control, there were to be no compromises on this.

Here are some questions it may be worthwhile asking your clients:

  1. Is your client on a treadmill going nowhere?
  2. Who is really calling the shots in the business – the owner, the employees, or a major customer?
  3. What do they have to do to regain control?
  4. What additional resources do they or the business need to make it happen?
  5. Where are your client’s weaknesses? – in themselves, in their business, in who they work with or for, in what they do or how they do it?
  6. Has your client an open or closed mind?
  7. Is your client living in the past?
  8. What is your client doing that they shouldn’t?
  9. What are they not doing that they should be?
  10. Is your client truly committed to doing things differently?

Finally, a tip for you: if you as adviser are having problems getting together with your client, with the client only able to squeeze you in on an evening or weekend or some weeks down the line, you know that he/she has a major problem, they are not committing enough time to their entrepreneurial activities!

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