Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book or other book of interest.
Here’s the flat-out truth about running a small business: you, the business owner, are where the buck stops. Period. Small businesses are a great way to start earning more money, but they’re not easy.
When something goes wrong, it’s up to you to clean it up. Yes, you may have employees who will take care of it, but those employees are far from perfectly reliable – and often, when you’re in startup mode, you don’t have employees to take care of the problem.
You’ve also got the demands of needing a certain level of income, either to survive off of the business or to earn enough to jump into the business full time, which means that when something does go wrong, you’ve got a powerful motivator to drop everything and fix it.
The end result? Sometimes, starting and running a small business can inject complete chaos into your life. A server goes down and you’re forced to choose between that and your child’s first soccer game. An employee fails to show up and you have to fill in, ditching a date night with your wife. Or, you choose to forget about the business and it begins to fail because of unmet customer expectations. Either way, you lose. (I have to make choices like this sometimes – I decided a long time ago to sacrifice the long term health of The Simple Dollar at the altar of my family’s needs when the choice comes to that.)
How do you manage all of the chaos of a small business without going crazy? That’s the topic of Clate Mask and Scott Martineau’s book Conquer the Chaos. Small business really is a juggling act, particularly during the startup era. Does this book have solid advice for dealing with this? Let’s find out.
1 – The Entrepreneurial Revolution
Why do people become entrepreneurs and start their own businesses? Time. Control. Freedom. Running your own business gives you these things in a way that being an employee simply cannot. You also, of course, have the direct relationship between your work and your income, which means that you aren’t merely a cog in someone else’s machine. All of this can be incredibly tempting. But…
2 – Enter, Chaos
When you make the choice to dig into entrepreneurship, you find yourself constantly have to make very difficult choices between your small business and your personal life. Do you choose to spend this evening watching a movie with your wife or building a better website? Do you meet with this great potential customer or do you make it to your daughter’s recital? No matter what you choose, you’ll have some regret about missing the other choice. Even worse, you’re often making these types of choices – the things that form a huge part of the foundation of your life – on the complete spur of the moment. It’s stressful and chaotic.
3 – Grow or Die
Making the challenge more difficult is that your business has a very simple imperative, especially during the startup phase: grow or die. Most businesses don’t open the doors with the ability to pay the bills. They have to grow to make it. In order to grow the business, you’re going to be pushed strongly towards the “business” choices instead of the “personal” choices, especially at first.
4 – Emotional Capital
What you begin to find is that you have only so much passion inside of you. How are you going to use that passion? Are you going to channel that passion into your personal life and view the business as merely a support structure (one that probably won’t survive over the long term)? Or are you going to channel that passion into the business, growing something tremendous? Alternately, you can try to split the two, but this will deal a lot of difficult choices onto your plate.
5 – Disciplined Optimism
The solution? Discipline. Spend some time figuring out what the priorities are well in advance so that you’re not stressed out and torn when a challenging decision comes before you. Better yet, resolve those priorities to the point that you feel good about your choice and you feel optimistic about what you’re building, whether it’s your family or your business or whatever you decide.
6 – Entrepreneurial Independence
Another challenging factor is the double-edged sword of independence. Independence means you get to make your own decisions, but it also means that you don’t have the guidelines, advice, and parameters that a typical job has. My best solution for this is to find a mentor who can guide you through some of this difficult transition.
The rest of the book really focuses on some of the resolutions for these problems, after the authors made clear what the challenges are.
7 – Centralize
One thing that many harried small business owners do is that they keep tossing in “solutions” for specific problems. While this can help in the short term, eventually there are so many “solutions” in place that the regular operation of the business can be confusing. You’re far better off centralizing things with only one system for handling everything – much like GTD handles everything for your personal tasks.
8 – Follow-Up
Another thing that often happens with small businesses is that you find yourself with tons and tons of loose ends, all of which need to be followed up on. While it’s often tempting to just go start new initiatives, it’s usually more rewarding in the long run to devote time to tying up all of the loose ends in front of you before moving on. If you don’t do this, the sheer weight of all of the loose ends will crush any forward progress you want to make because so many of the things you need in order to move forward will simply be undone.
9 – Automate
This chapter doesn’t refer so much to automation as it does to having a series of very standardized procedures for various things you’ll be doing as a small business owner: customer follow-up, inventory, and things like that. Part of that standardized procedure relies on having a reliable calendar that reminds you of when specific steps of that procedure needs to be done. An example: if you would ideally like to follow up with a new customer three times at certain intervals after their initial purchase, these can be entered into your calendar immediately after the purchase. Then, on that day, you just look at your calendar and boom there’s the reminder of the follow-up you need to do.
10 – Avoiding the Backslide
Once you get things rolling well, it’s easy to sometimes fall back into chaotic situations. One easy way to tell whether or not you’re falling back or you’re about to run into trouble is to ask yourself if your business would survive if you disappeared for a few weeks. If you can’t say yes, then you’re on the verge of backsliding – your systems aren’t up to snuff to avoid potential chaos.
Is Conquer the Chaos Worth Reading?
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is in the planning stages of running a small business or is having difficulty with their current business. Conquer the Chaos really isolates what most of the common problems are for a small business owner and provides at least the outline of some solutions for those problems.
I would probably couple this book with a great book on time and information management, like GTD, which focuses heavily on implementing a centralized system that can deal with a lot of the challenges in this book.
This book works best when it’s applied during the “thinking” and “planning” part of small business preparation – once the ship has started to sail, much of what’s in this book is harder to implement and consider. In other words, if you’re looking at entrepreneurship in the future, particularly the short term, give this book a read.