When I imagined what it would be like to run my own business, never in a million years did I think it would involve feeling trapped. I left my well-paying 9-to-5 job only to be stuck in a 9-to-9 job that had zero benefits and little-to-no pay. My roles changed hourly, so it was unstable. I went to work as the front desk administrator and left work as the bookkeeper. In between, I dabbled in marketing, procurement, customer service, cleaning, and maintenance.
I used to have one boss—now every customer who walked through the door was my boss. If I failed to meet their expectations, I'd be met with a scathing review, but when they found that my work was good, I'd be lucky to get a thumbs up. Worse still, the only times I'd spend with my son were the morning drives to daycare because he'd already be asleep when I got home at night.
Post that as a job description, and nobody in their right minds would apply. But anyone who starts a small business ends up there.
Changing your mindset
I get it—these are some of the sacrifices that we as entrepreneurs make in the early stages of our businesses. The problem is that we get so used to carrying the business on our backs that we don't realize when it's getting too heavy for us to carry alone. We either wait for the business to stagnate or for the pressure to bring us to our knees before realizing that we need to do things differently.
So how do you drastically change your business from one where you do everything, to one that can run smoothly without you?
When I first thought about this, I thought it was a lost cause. Nobody could do everything exactly like I wanted it done, and even if they did, I probably couldn't afford them. Of course, that wasn't true—the real problem was that I didn't have any documented processes, which meant I was the glue holding everything together.
Why it's important to break free from the trap
When you start a business, you wear many hats—more than can fit on your head. But for the business to grow, you have to go from being a generalist in your business operations to specializing. That means playing to your strengths and then finding and hiring others who can fill in for your weaknesses.
One of the reasons for starting a business is to have freedom and autonomy—and nothing eats more into that freedom than refusing to let go. Of course, it's not only about your personal freedom. Stepping back also helps the business.
It allows you to focus on strategy. You started the business with a vision. After you've proven that you have product-market fit, you need to focus on ways you can turn your vision into a reality. This involves crafting a strategy that will pave the way to that reality. And because strategy is constantly evolving and growing, you need to continue to have time to devote to it.
It allows you to be a better leader. As your business grows, you're going to have to focus more on being a leader for your team: guiding people toward a unified goal and reinforcing the company vision, so that everyone knows what their contribution means and how it's valued. If you're busy with drudge work, you won't be a good manager or leader.
It primes the business to sell it. Your brand should be able to stand on its own. Whether you plan to sell the business or hand it over to the next generation, the business will only look attractive to potential buyers or investors if you can prove that its success is based on the vision, systems, and structure in place—not on your influence. People want to see how well the business does without you at the helm.
The escape plan
If you're tired of being an operator in your business, here are five steps that lay the foundation for you to eventually remove yourself from your business.
Audit your time
What are you spending time doing? The key here is to identify low-value or no-value activities to better understand how much of your time is spent on them. You can start with this guide to tracking your time, and then pick one of the best time-tracking apps to help.
I tracked my time while running my nail bar, and it ended up helping me increase revenue, while better understanding my role in the business.
Tracking your time doesn't have to be a slog. Here are 5 ways to automatically track your time so you can figure out where all those hours are going.
Choose your role
They say that the best way to find your dream job is to create it, and becoming an entrepreneur is the easiest way to have that control. Sure, you may not be able to eliminate tedious work completely, but you should be able to do work you're excited about at least 80% of the time.
Once you've done an audit of your time, you'll have a clear picture of the types of roles you currently hold—and you can decide what you want to prioritize. The goal is to find your "zone of genius," as dubbed by performance strategist and author of The Genius Habit, Laura Garnett. It means combining the thinking or problem solving that you're best at with the impact on the world that's most meaningful to you.
I started my business because I was a big-picture thinker and loved defining and implementing strategy. That's not what happened. I ended up becoming a nail technician—it wasn't my strength (or my purpose), but it needed to be done for the nail bar to bring in money. Unfortunately, because I was working in the business all the time, I never got to work on the business. I wasn't growing and neither was the business, so I hired for the nail technician role and focused my own energies on the strategy.
Document your processes
If all of your processes live in your head, there's no way for anyone else to execute on them. There's no two ways about it: you need to document.
And documentation isn't just for what-if-you-get-hit-by-a-bus situations. It also serves as training material for new hires, and allows you to audit your processes to understand if there's anything that should be improved upon.
Here's more guidance on how standard operating procedures can help you grow your business.
Create a not-to-do list
Once you've figured out what you want to work on and have documented your processes, it's time to decide what to do with the rest. What will you dump? What will you delegate? What will you automate?
Dump it. If it's not adding value to the business, you won't lose money by not doing it, and nobody will realize you've stopped doing it, then dump it. In my business, I dumped house calls. Most of my clients preferred coming to the nail bar, and the time we spent traveling to clients and back wasn't translating into increased revenue. Once we dumped it, the house call clients came to get their treatments at the nail bar, and it was business as usual. No loss.Not sure when to automate a task?
Delegate it. The things that need to get done but don't fall into your zone of genius can be delegated. Here's how to delegate on a budget—including some tips on what to delegate. I delegated stock-taking to my assistant manager. By documenting processes, I empowered her to make decisions regarding what stock to reorder and what items to discontinue—it ended up giving me back two days of my month.
Automate it. What about the tasks that are consistent and repetitive? Automate them by connecting the tools you already use. One thing I automated was posting content on social media. If you're not sure what to automate, start here.
Making one thing a priority means putting something else off—and that's ok. Here's how to refine the art of deprioritization.
Test with a vacation
Here's the best part: test your new systems with a vacation.
Your vacation should be long enough to see if the system is actually working—not just a weekend when you know nothing will happen. You want to see people making decisions without you. If people need to contact you while you're gone, it's a sign that something in the process is broken, or that your staff doesn't feel confident enough to resolve the situation on their own. Both of those are things that need fixing.
I took a one-month break from my business and traveled across Africa by myself. This experience was so enriching that, when I got back, I made traveling a priority, which meant that my systems and structures had to always be on point.
I won't lie: it was hard to completely let go at first. I still checked my emails and told my assistant manager to contact me on WhatsApp if she needed me. But once I managed to successfully leave my business the first time without it imploding, I delegated more responsibilities and took more time off. I used this time to travel across Europe for a month in complete do not disturb mode and, during that time, came up with the strategy to open my second nail bar. I was in my element.
Your business has to be functioning efficiently with you there before you can even think about removing yourself. That's why it's important to spend time creating good systems and structures to support your business. Only then will your business support you.