Entrepreneurs working all hours and burning themselves out is so understood to be the norm that it’s become a cliché. But if you mind the three Ps, you can avoid overwork and help your business thrive.
Starting a business is risky and expensive, so a lot of entrepreneurs do all of their work themselves, feeling like they can’t afford staff. But the problem with this thinking is that you end up in a terrible cycle of overwork, and you never have enough time to think or plan to build your business thoughtfully and purposefully.
I had seen this pattern develop with colleagues, so one of the first things I did when I began my own business was hire an assistant. Everyone around me said I was silly to be spending so much money. But after 22 years I can happily say I’ve always had assistants and people supporting my endeavours, and I credit that fact with my longevity and success.
Hiring people is a tricky balance and one that takes some fine tuning. Sometimes we hire people because they can do a job adequately and don’t command a very high salary, but this type of hire has always ended up costing me more—I have to hire more and more people to fill the gaps created by a lacklustre employee. Underperforming staff can also strain relationships with other staff members and with clients. The small amount of money saved on a mediocre talent gets spent many times over making up for their shortfalls, and I’ve learned to pay more for excellent people so that all of us can succeed. From assistants to lawyers, accountants, and bookkeepers, your people make your business.
Your community counts as “people” too. While all of us are supported somewhat by our home-base community (family, neighbours, church, etc.), it’s important to reach beyond the people you already know and start forming other communities that will nourish you and your business. Find people who are running their own successful businesses too, to get inspiration and support for the challenging life of an entrepreneur—and, bonus, they’ll probably know clients who need your expertise. The more people you know and support, the more people will know and support you. Don’t just approach the world as a mercenary and see everyone as a potential business target; rather, build genuine relationships with people you admire and your business will flourish naturally.
As our businesses grow, we need different processes from those that worked when we were first starting out. Usually those first processes are the most laborious way of doing things, repetitive and tedious tasks that burn through our resources and time. We need to create value without destroying ourselves in the process. Finding ways of streamlining processes and scaling up is vital to delivering more products and services to more people. Of course, hiring the right people helps, but automation is key. Spend time and resources to organize your files and resources so you can always find what you’re looking for. Automate payments, invoicing, inventory, anything that can be automated! If you produce a lot of written material, like blogs or newsletters, and find yourself strapped for writing time, consider recording audio files while walking, driving, or just while you’re away from your computer, and use a transcription software or service to create the document. Your processes should be practically invisible so you can fly when delivering your products or services.
The final P isn’t just about overwork but also should shape your whole approach to entrepreneurship: purpose.
You probably asked yourself at the beginning of entrepreneurship the most important question: What is it that I’m here to do? And it’s also vital to continue to ask yourself that question. Not only will the answer help you grow your business, it will also help you adapt and develop your business if work dries up.
When I first struck out on my own, I said yes to everything, but a) it was terrible for me and b) I wasn’t good at everything, so it wasn’t great for my clients either. I soon realized that the only way to work sustainably was to pick a particular area of endeavour and stick to it. So now, I help groups and individuals reach their potential with excellent, genuine conversations. That’s it: my purpose.
Once you know what you’re here to do and where you add the most value, then even when the market seems to be going a little dry in your area, you have a precise understanding of your skillset and purpose and can find unconventional ways to apply them. For example, I used to facilitate civil society consultations—finding out what Joe Blow Canadian thinks about a given topic. When that work dried up, I started facilitating inside organizations, helping departments have good conversations and come to decisions and get their best results. Then when that work started to dry up and everyone was getting cut back, I began working with individuals to facilitate their transitions and career progression and outplacements if they’d lost their job.
Through all this, knowing my purpose shone a light on the twists and turns the market took and kept my business thriving when it could easily have gone belly up. If you’re clear on your purpose, you can pinpoint training opportunities to help you shift to a different context while exercising the skills that make you great.
If you’re not clear about who you are and what you provide, you’ll try to provide everything to everyone, like I did at first, and nothing will burn you out faster. If I say yes to facilitation then I’ll say no to training, for example. I’m not particularly good at training; I’d rather facilitate conversations where people come to their own insights or a-ha. I present new models as required, new ways of thinking and perspective, but mainly I’m focusing on what folks can find out for themselves.
When a job comes in that requires training, I refer to a colleague. Clients trust me, and so they come to me with jobs that require process improvement or financials or things that have nothing to do my purpose. To meet their needs and keep our relationships intact, I refer out to my robust network full of excellent people, some of whom I’ve been referring to for twenty years. My contacts deliver great results, I get a referral fee, and the client has the best possible experience.
What about you?
Are you constantly overworked? If you never have down time or space to plan and strategize because you’re always working too much, it’s time to ask yourself if you’re in the right business, with the right people, processes, and purpose.
Dominique Dennery has had her own HR consulting business for over twenty years. She is also an award-winning facilitator, coach, and sculptor.
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