Probably the most important success skills I’ve learned in business involve overcoming my own negative emotions and personality traits and habits. Call it learning “life skills for entrepreneurs.”
I’d like to share 5 lessons I’ve learned, that I wish I’d learned in college — or much earlier on in my business career. These five things have had the biggest impact on my success so far in my small business:
1. Stop Being a Control Freak
Learning the fine line between giving direction and delegating is one of the toughest things for me. My natural tendency is to want to do it all myself. Of course, I can’t.
I have to keep checking myself. I’m far from perfect. But I’ve found that it helps to visualize the power of leverage. Getting 5 sets of hands working on your business means greater success than one set of hands — even if those hands are part-time or just a few hours a month from a service provider.
Try visualizing this incredibly simple graphic if you, too, need help checking your tendencies to be a control freak:
2. Build Incrementally
There are different schools of thought about growth. Some are of the “go big or go home” approach. Been there, done that.
The approach that I feel most comfortable with is one of developing products and services gradually, making incremental enhancements.
Start small, spend as little as you can, and build on early successes. Quickly dump the stuff that doesn’t work out.
If you take this approach, your risks of going down the wrong path and spending lots of development time and money on offerings that fail, will be minimal.
It’s also a way to gather market research along the way. You learn what customers want and you’re early enough you can build that feedback into your offering.
3. Think About a Business Problem the Last Thing at Night
Often you hear advice that suggests you should compartmentalize and put your problems out of your mind, especially late at night when you want to get some sleep. But for solving business problems, I’ve found the opposite works. I will sit down at my computer for 15 minutes right before going to bed. I’ll look at an email message that outlines a troubling problem or I will just jot down a problem and study it. I say to myself, “I’ll think about this overnight.” Then I go to bed.
You see, your subconscious mind works while you sleep. Thinking about a business problem the last thing at night is how you harness your subconscious to work on that problem.
Sometimes I literally will wake up with the solution — or easily think of several potential solutions the next day.
4. Treat Your Computer Systems Like a Factory Production Line
For millions of business owners like me, our computers are the biggest set of business equipment we have — and they’re crucial. Without a computer system, I cannot operate my business.
Yet, why do so many of us still treat our computer systems as if they’re discretionary gadgets? That’s one of the mysteries of the universe.
It’s the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome — they “get no respect.” We don’t back up our data regularly. We don’t do maintenance (such as de-fragging or critical updates) the way we should. Our electronic files are a disorganized mess. We practically ignore our computer systems until a problem happens. Then the problem turns into a full-blown crisis.
When I worked in the corporate world, the division I worked in had a factory. The division was in the electronic publishing industry, and the factory involved scanning of documents, manual data entry, and the output of CDs and microfiche at the other end. Knowledge-work, but still a factory. Business was booming and that factory operated 3 shifts, 24 hours a day.
Often when I would visit the factory, I would see a part of one operation or another shut down for a few hours, while the employees worked on maintaining the equipment (including computer equipment).
The plant manager never said to himself, “we’re so busy we can’t afford to stop and do a few hours maintenance.” No, he knew that regular maintenance would keep the production lines running and yield the highest throughput each month.
5. Pretend you Have an Accounting Department
Everybody in business hears the standard advice about the need to track and understand your financial numbers. Unfortunately, that kind of advice is easy to give, but hard to follow.
Part of the reason startup entrepreneurs avoid bookkeeping in the early years is that the numbers can be flat-out dismal. I hate to look at bad numbers.
I like to work on things that make me feel good. Paltry numbers or negative bottom lines do not make me feel good.
But you know what? Those numbers are unlikely to get better unless we as business owners find the courage to face them.
The biggest challenge for me was getting past my emotional block. To overcome that block, I would pretend I had an accounting department. I scheduled a few hours every weekend to “be the accounting department.” It wasn’t ME personally looking at the numbers, something that would have made me feel like I personally was failing. Rather, it was the accounting department looking at the numbers — in a detached manner.
Looking at your financial numbers is one of the most clarifying of activities. I was able to “see” things in my business I never saw before, weed out the low value activities, and focus on profitability.