How to Work ON Your Business, Not IN it

Work ON Your Business, Not IN it

We get so caught up in the daily life of running a business, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.

Not that you have a choice! You’re fighting fires, handling a pissed-off customer, rending your face over an emergency bug-fix, the website just went down, and the accountant is coming tomorrow and the books are in shambles.

All normal. But still every month or so it’s nice to take a step back and see whether you’re missing a chance to make a more meaningful change to your business.

Here’s some things you can do:

  • View your website/product/service through the eyes of a new potential customer. *Do informal usability testing with a stranger. You’re too close to your own projects!
  • Find a decision about your product or your behavior which is really due to ego rather than making life better for your employees or customers, or rather than seeking revenue. *There’s no shame in having a big ego and it’s natural to not want to admit mistakes or change your position on things, but sometimes it’s the right thing for everyone.
  • Delegate activities you’re still doing yourself because “no one else can do them as well or as quickly,” but which don’t actually need to be done that well or quickly. *Delegation is hard, but healthy, and necessary if you expect to grow as a company and as a person.
  • Do one thing to increase your company’s visibility on Twitter, blogs, Facebook – wherever.
  • Identify one person who could really help get your company more exposure, and who might be personally motivated to do so. *Then spend real time trying to contact that person.
  • Find one “number” in your business you know the least about (i.e. conversion rates, trial/sales rates, length of a trial, number of people who hit the home page and nothing more). Then spend time trying to learn more.
  • Come up with one thing you could do that might increase conversion rates by 1%. Here “conversion” can mean any part of the funnel from home page hit to downloads to CRM opportunities to sales. *Usually conversion rates are in the 0.1% – 5% range, so just a single additional percent can result in a massive boost in revenue.
  • Collect 10 pieces of empirical evidence about why your latest customers decided to give you money. *Use that to tune your website, ads, pitches, and marketing material to attract the next customers.
  • Collect 10 pieces of empirical evidence about why people didn’t buy even when they were deep in your website or after they trialed your software. *The answer to more revenue lies with the folks who didn’t buy.
  • Do one thing to prove to the world that you’re an expert in your field. *People like to buy from experts they trust.
  • Identify one mundane, time-consuming tasks that you could outsource. *Even if it means spending money, it means you can spend your time on getting more revenue which will more than pay for the outsourcing.
  • Quantify how much completely disposable cash you have in the company’s bank account. *Whether it’s $50 or $50,000, maybe you should brainstorm how to spend it to get more revenue.
  • Defer something you’re working on now that really isn’t necessary to be done now. *Take a minute to reset your priorities. What’s really timely?
  • Admit one thing you’re doing because of an assumption rather than because of hard evidence. *You have to make assumptions to live in the world, but it’s worth stepping back and challenging even the most basic ones.
  • Identify anything you’re doing because of a “plan” rather than because of hard evidence. *There’s no glory in following a business plan. Do the right thing with information at hand today regardless of any “plan.”
  • Identify choices that don’t “feel” like the right thing to do. *If it feels wrong, it is. Do what’s right instead of what makes most revenue; in the long run Karma does work in business.
  • Change your home page to be more specific in describing how you help your customers. *General phrases and wishy-washy statements don’t excite people or win customers’ hearts.
  • Give your customers something wonderful, for free. *A deal on a related product, a free book, even just a thoughtful article of interest to them — give them something for free to show you care and they’ll reward you ten-fold.
  • Take one step to become more visible in communities related to your business. *On-line or off-line, how can you be a part of other social networks?
  • Further differentiate yourself from competitors rather than just try to “kill” them. *Explaining the niche you unquestionably own is a better path to sales than trying to win every deal on every point.
  • Congratulate yourself and your employees on the good aspects of the business. *We’re always battling problems instead of reveling in the good stuff; the good stuff is what makes business fun, and is kinda the whole point.
  • Do something to invest in your customers’ experience after the sale. *We’re so caught up in getting new customers we sometimes forget how to keep them thrilled one year later.
  • Take on a project that you could complete in under a week, and really ought to, but you’ve procrastinated because it sucks to have to do it.
  • Remove 5 blogs from your feed reader because they’re not worth the time, and add 5 blogs that increase your chances of having a successful business.

I hope some of these ideas inspire you to reconsider your priorities and shift your behavior. Don’t let fire-fighting or your personality get in the way of healthy revenue growth!

What other tips do you have? Leave a comment and join the conversation!

* * * * *

About the Author: Jason Cohen is the founder of Smart Bear Software and mentor at Austin-based startup launcher Capital Factory. He blogs at A Smart Bear about startups and marketing with a geeky twist.


45 Reactions
  1. I love the “incremental” approach to this. Just aim to do something relatively small and you will be amazed at how far that small thing will take you. Instead of holding back because you think you have to make HUGE changes — because you don’t.

  2. Great tips Jason. My feed reader could use a good purging. I’m going to give a few of these tips a try. Thanks!

  3. Hopefully your efforts on Twitter, social networks or blogging aren’t coming “every month or so”, but this is an area where you can delegate (or potentially outsource). The key with social media is to have a consistent presence. Update your blog twice/week instead of daily. Be realistic, but be consistent.

  4. @Robert — It’s true that Twitter takes more effort than just once a month, but blogging doesn’t have to, especially if it’s guest-blogging.

  5. Great tips! It is really easy to get wrapped up in the usual business routines. This is a great reminder to step back from your business and look at it with fresh eyes.

  6. Jason,

    You said, “Give your customers something wonderful, for free. *A deal on a related product, a free book, even just a thoughtful article of interest to them — give them something for free to show you care and they’ll reward you ten-fold.”

    I did the math but still came up with 0! (something free X 10 fold = 0)

    Just an observation!

  7. Jason this is really a great tip or rather i will call it highlight as you pinpoint a good way to stay in business.

  8. Jason,
    Fantastic article! You have shared enough tips with me to keep me busy for a long time.

    (Once a month, of course)

    The Franchise King
    Joel Libava

  9. What a wonderful list of a lifetime of great things to work on! Now we need a way to prioritize these ideas. Here’s my ordering of which ideas to pursue:

    1. Those that increase customer trust
    2. Those that monetize customer trust
    3. Those that project this trust to prospects
    4. Those that create new revenue streams from customers and prospects
    5. Those that reinforce or create stronger branding not otherwise done so already

    Now I am going to go write more about this and implement what I have learned! Thanks Jason!

  10. Great list of small things that you could do in a short period of time.

  11. Interesting list Jason. Here’s another we use at our software company:

    * Ask your employees one way you could improve the company.

  12. Before resetting the priorities I would rather have great brainstorming. Although, engaging some one on social communities for more exposure is beneficial as well. Asking people who didn’t buy anything what went wrong with them. So after done with all these things just stick to the plan whatever it is and hope for a better outcome.

  13. A great list of interesting actions.

    I believe that the key is having the high level vision/goal of the business in mind, and then devise these small step actions to move towards your vision/goal.

    Day-to-day business firefighting is inevitable. It is important to keep our sight on moving the business ahead one step at a time.

  14. Jason,

    Not what I expected from the headline, but there were some really great tips in there. I like how none of your suggestions take much time to implement, and all of them are measurable.

    Great post!


  15. I tweeted this also but another tip is to get comfortable in your own skin. When entrepreneurs feel confident about their business, not arrogant, it is easier to apply your tips. Like your first tip, misplaced ego blinds and deafens you to what customers really want, trends that totally fit your business model, and opportunities to grow more sophisticated company.

  16. Great tips!

  17. Wow, Jason. Awesome post. Just about everyone said that. You struck a real chord. It is almost a ZenHabits kind of post!

  18. Great post. I always try to look at my own company as a potential i n v e s t o r, even if your business is not for sale. That helped me a lot to do the right decisions and to prioritize. What really drives the value of the company in the right direction. Is that “shareholder value” – maybe, but for small businesses.

  19. Dear Mr. Cohen,

    thank you very much for this article which is a helpful ressource for entrepreneurs like myself. I also liked your last phrase:
    “Don’t let fire-fighting or your personality get in the way of healthy revenue growth!”

    Best regards from the island of Mauritius!

  20. Jason,
    This is right on the mark. very well put together..I would add that most entrepreneurs try to much to soon…..Chet Homes gets it right..find 10 things and do them 4,000 times!

    Keep the ideas coming!

  21. Business Consulting Jamie Welsh

    Very helpful article. You’ve managed to break down every detail that is needed to be know by people planning their own business. Would definitely try to adopt some of the tips that i believe would help me improve on areas that I’m currently having difficulty on improving. Thanks.

  22. It’s all about maximizing your time to create the most value for your Business, in everyday chores, there are always activites that provides the least value and the most value.
    Start by writing down a list of activities that you do in your Business on a day to day basis, and find out what you can delegate to maximize your time so you can focus on the more important activities.

  23. If interested, I made an italian translation of some items and published it on my blog. They are really useful for small business interpreneurs and indipendent workers also in our market.. Thank you very much for your help!!

  24. I was surprised at the content of this article, but liked it. I actually was expecting a lot more about outsourcing and then working on one or two executive management type of things that can move your business to the next level. We not only talk about this a lot in counseling small business owners on what they need to handle and what they can afford to outsource, but we do it ourselves.

  25. Martin Harshberger

    All valid observations. What I see missing is any reference to vision, plan or direction. In my 35 years working with clients I see the biggest reason they work IN their business not ON it is they have no clear vision or plan. Absent that they do what they always do, and are comfortable doing. With a clear direction, things get evaluated by the simple question, “does this decision take me closer or further from my goal”

  26. Great list of tips. Thank you. This list will hopefully become my 2010 new years resolutions.

  27. Jason Cohen raised some good points and the suggestions are very much appreciated. After reading this article you can find a peace in your business and you may be now “ON” your business.:)

  28. I`d like these ideas you have presented here.

  29. One of the biggest mistakes I see small owners make is doing their own bookkeeping or having their spouse do it. I always ask “What is your time worth?” and of course everyone says $100 an hour. So that means you have the most expensive bookkeeper this side of the Mississippi and your getting below average results.

    No one would dream of changing the transmission in the company truck – but then turn right around and use QUickbooks with abandon.

    98% of all businesses fail, or struggle (less then $1,000 a day net profit) and yet of the 4,000 small business clients I’ve seen fail over the last 40 years NOT ONE had good bookkeeping.

    It is so cheap to hire someone to do your books today. I have found 400 of the best small business accountants in America and they can do the books for about half what it cost in house and you get good numbers every day at 5AM.

  30. Nice advice. I will take these and run with them. I know a few people who need to implement at least 5things on this list!

  31. Good One. Thanks for sharing!