systems

5 Things Every New Business Should Know

Starting a new business? There are probably some things that you find uncertain, and others you just don’t have the hang of yet. While there’s no cookie-cutter approach we can offer budding entrepreneurs, there are some general tips to keep in mind. Here are five:

Failure/Rejection (on small scales) are probably in your near future, and that’s a good thing. There are more lessons to be learned in rough waters than when it’s smooth sailing. Remember Newton’s First Law: An object at rest stays at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. A little adversity here and there will not break your business — depending on how it’s handled, it can actually help your business grow. There’s something to be said for a healthy amount of risk-taking, too.

The first 2 years are usually the hardest. This is a good stat to keep in mind as you develop your business plan, especially budget-wise. Remember — if things don’t go the way you planned, don’t worry. It’s fairly common for businesses to struggle in their early, formative years.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As a small business owner, you’re probably used to doing things on your own. However, that doesn’t mean you need to isolate yourself. There are lots of resources for small business owners. Remember to ask people in your network for advice.

Take a look at our post on Automating, Delegating, and Outsourcing to develop ways to include others in your day-to-day work life.

Show, Don’t Tell. To build both your business’ trust and reputation, showing is better than telling. Marketing and advertising are important to spread the word about your business, but performance and delivering quality products and services are more important. No amount of advertising makes up for a poor product, and there’s no substitute for trust.

Learn to be efficient with your time. It can be easy to become a martyr for your business. But isn’t it better to work smarter, not harder? Part of this involves delegating and outsourcing as mentioned earlier. Take charge of your schedule in a way that’s productive but keeps your sanity intact. Develop systems, stay organized, and jettison anything that doesn’t serve a purpose.

Here are some posts we’ve written regarding efficiency, including systems and getting organized.

Kassie is a distance runner and a distance reader really. She lives in Ellsworth Maine and, while she might be quiet when you meet her, will throw out something witty when you least expect it.

Online Systems: People and Relationships

Ah people. Chances are, you know a lot of them. Apparently 15ish years in the workforce and 35ish years in the world has translated into roughly 6,000 email addresses in my ‘Contacts’.

A pile of email addresses does not a system make. What to do with those email addresses? How do you use them?

You may also have physical addresses, phone numbers, birthdays, and other information about the people in your life you want to track or organize.

To CRM Or Not To CRM

If you just want to make sure you don’t forget your college roommate’s birthday, a CRM might be an overkill solution. CRM stands for ‘customer (or contact) relationship management’. Most CRMs integrate with your social media, cell phone, etc. and track how often you talk to certain people, what they are up to, and otherwise help you understand patterns that could increase your sales and otherwise help achieve goals.

A CRM may be right for you if:

  • you want automatic syncing/integrations.
  • if you want to cultivate some of your relationships intentionally.
  • if you are kind of scatterbrained and need occasional reminders.
  • if you don’t mind paying a little something to get any of these things to happen.

If you want to see what your options are, this is a good place to start.

Managing Your Contacts

Now that you have a list of contacts, if you have decided to use a CRM, you can kind of skip this section since most CRMs have some kind of system to do everything below.

If you are DIYing (ex: using an online address book of some sort), this section is for you. Here’s what’s next:

  1. Get them all in one system. Maybe you want to make Facebook and LinkedIn contacts go to your phone then import into Gmail. Whatever you decide, figuring out where you want your contacts to end up and making a list of all places where you have contacts will dictate how you do this. My CRM syncs everything together and updates information when it notices, say, a new phone number for someone or an address change. The price of a CRM may be worth it for this function alone but you can totally bring everything together without one if you put in some thought.
  2. Decide what is worth knowing or tracking. If you want to know peoples’ birthdays but not their wedding anniversaries, that’s ok. The more information you are tracking, the deeper your relationship can get… but it’s also more of a PITA to stay on top of. Draw whatever lines you want, I won’t judge you.
  3. Delete duplicates/update. You may need to combine some people together (ex: your friend got married and changed her last name on Facebook but not in Gmail so it’s treating her as two different people). A lot of times, the easiest way to do this is on a spreadsheet that you either work on online or print off. I had one client who DREADED this task so she literally made an appointment with me to make her go over her 2,000 contact spreadsheet. Guess what? It took her less than an hour once she sat down and committed to the task. I only tell you this story in case you feel similar pain. Like most things, it won’t be as bad as you think.
  4. Decide on a system to regularly check things. One idea is to check in quarterly you make sure new contacts are added into your system. Another is to set up some auto-syncing tool on your computer where you are dumping everything right off the bat. Whatever you do, you don’t want to make something awesome then have it not be maintained. Every system needs maintenance, especially systems you use often, so schedule some time to do this. It won’t take much but it’ll work so much longer (and better) if you do.

Now since I’m lazy/sporadic/business oriented, my CRM does this stuff. And I am thankful it does every day, though I do want to figure out how I can get it to track birthdays automatically (I see it has ‘birthdays’ as an information field but no way for them to automatically get pulled in according to the documentation).

Managing How Often You Communicate With Those Contacts

OK so you have your contacts in a central location with useful information associated. Now the only thing to decide is how often you communicate.

Some people may be ‘happy holidays’ only, while some may be people you want to check in on more frequently. You may want to create groups for your use only ‘Acquaintances’ (the kind of happy holidays only types), ‘Contacts’ (happy holidays and birthdays), ‘Friends’ (happy holidays, birthdays, and quarterly hellos), or ‘BFFs’ (happy holidays, birthdays, and monthly check-ins).

Now you can name these groups (and add people to these groups) however you want, the point is you’re being intentional about how and when you contact people. 

If you have a CRM (not to keep coming back to this), you can ‘set the pace’.

If you are DIYing, you may want to use something like http://www.miniwebtool.com/random-picker/ and put your list in there and have it pick someone random (or several random people) every day. If you said you’d contact someone at a specific time, make sure it goes in your calendar so you can keep your word.

Your network is a powerful thing, whether you want to throw the best holiday party ever or upsell your favorite clients on your new service. Making sure you have a centralized, organized system to keep their information at hand and your relationship a priority is a great investment of your time. 

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

Online Systems: Tasks

You’ve probably read something, somewhere, about cutting down on the time it takes you to do one thing or another. Maybe it’s building a Rube Goldberg Machine or Sam Carpenter’s approach to a systems mindset (or, my own translation, ‘Everything and its mother has a system”).

Now, I’m not saying we all need to be quite that level of hyper-efficient. The majority of us probably have more curveballs and unexpected things thrown their way throughout the day, especially when you throw in kids, pets, or even just enjoying some spontaneity. After all, you don’t want to have the daily rigidity of a worker ant. (The below video is my favorite clip to reference when mocking myself for the inability to cope when something throws a wrench in my planned day).

Since I’ve never found it realistic (in terms of my happiness/sanity) to be rigid about every detail of my life, I have systems in place for some things but not all things. I’ve found that there are some tasks I perform on a regular basis. Having a system in place for these tasks actually increases my effectiveness, which increases my free time. Win-win.

How to Create Tasks

The past few months, my life has been fairly rigid with scheduling, but it took me a while to figure out how to effectively juggle all the tasks I had to do in a given day. I’ve finally figured out a routine that allows for whimsical spurts here and there. Here’s how I finally got organized for personal tasks (this can be applied to professional, too).

  1. Write a list. What’s your daily schedule like? Are there tasks you find yourself performing on a regular basis? Weekly basis? Or, if it’s work related, what are the tasks you perform consistently? Like most people, my schedule varies day to day, but I always eat, run or some other type of workout, and go to work.
  2. Break it Down. Choose one or two items on this list and walk yourself through it, step by step. What needs to happen? It’s important to be realistic/honest here- sometimes there’s a discrepancy between what you think needs to happen and what really happens.
  3. Look for inefficiencies. Just by looking at the list, you can find time leaks in your task boat (apologies for the analogy reach). And, if it’s a business related task, another person might notice a way to make something more efficient. Or you may notice it makes sense to group things together (ex: updating a website’s software and publishing the latest blog post while you are logged in).“Unquestioned procedures can lead to inefficiency.” 
  4. Run with it. Start applying your new ‘system’ to the one or two tasks you looked at. Has it made your life easier? If not, are there ways to improve what you’re already doing? You may even want to ask someone else to try out your system for feedback and potential improvements.

You’ve probably noticed even a task that seems simple (ex: making a bank deposit) really requires multiple steps to accomplish (gathering the checks/cash, filling out the deposit slip, bringing it to the bank, balancing your checkbook). This is where procedure lists and documentation come in.

Procedure Lists/Documentation

A procedure list is a to-do list for a certain task. These especially come in handy for tasks that are business related, where completing all the steps and often in the right order is what matters, not just reaching a desired end result. An overly simplified example is laundry. An important step is separating whites and colors. You’d get the same end result (clean clothes) by skipping this step, but they might look a little different afterwards.

For instance, at Breaking Even we have documentation (a procedure list with screenshots essentially) for more technical items (i.e. website maintenance, creating payment forms, etc) so, in theory, anyone can jump in and complete this task. They are bit like a manual, with written steps and pictures. The bonus for procedure lists for businesses is that if you have a team, it ensures things are getting done the way they need to be. It makes it easier to perform a task if the person who usually does it is sick, on vacation, etc. This isn’t to say that person is replaceable, just that tasks can be performed as needed. When I was first hired at a law firm after college, the systems for various tasks (intakes for new clients, intakes for existing clients with a new issue, responding to emails, ordering coffee/paper/toilet paper, preparing invoices, etc) that were in place really helped me navigate the new position.

If you decide to create a procedure list for your company, think about ways to make it useful for employees with different learning styles. Some may be more visual (i.e. pictures or video), while others may prefer to read, and still others prefer hearing things explained to them. Trying to cover as many of these learning styles as you can in one list can motivate others to actually implement the systems. For instance, having a video with a written caption covers visual, auditory, and reading elements.

Systems for tasks will save you time, money, and headache. Something to keep in mind: Sometimes systems take longer to implement at first but once you get everything lined up… it’s on.

Kassie is a distance runner and a distance reader really. She lives in Ellsworth Maine and, while she might be quiet when you meet her, will throw out something witty when you least expect it.

Online Systems: Outgoing Messages

You may ask yourself why we separated the incoming messages systems with the outgoing message systems. (Missed the last blog post about systems for dealing with incoming messages? Click here.)

For me, incoming messages are mainly reactive to while outgoing messages are more proactive.

We all have things we need to communicate about and figure out our system for sending these messages into the world.

From You: What Needs To Be Said?

The first kinds of outgoing messages that need to be sent are your outgoing (likely marketing) messages. Now this could be businesswise (sale!) or personalwise (birthday party!).

Answering these three questions quarterly about upcoming communications can frame this process:

  1. What do I need to say?
  2. Who do I need to say it to?
  3. What medium(s) will work best?

Make a list of all the messages you need to communicate over the next three months answering these three questions. 

Examples:

I’m having a Sappy Holidays low key gathering (where we watch ‘Love Actually’ and ‘The Holiday’ with a cookie baking intermission).
I need to invite my local (driving distance) friends.
Facebook event

I have an email list I want people to subscribe to for my business.
I need to tell my customers, friends, and potential customers. Maybe even some colleagues.
I need to remind people with twice a month posts on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter, and Instagram. I need to tell people when they come to in-person events. I should probably put it in my email signature. I should publish the email newsletter regularly as part of this. All these things will be scheduled ahead of time.

I know this sounds REALLY STUPID. But it’ll force you to look and think ahead, which is something most of us need to be prompted to do occasionally. I just made this list for Anchorspace messages and realized ‘dog friendly’ and ‘fast WiFi’ are not something we’ve been communicating at all. In other words, this list you make, whether for your business life or personal life or both, may surprise you. Also doing it quarterly will feel less nuts than doing it weekly or monthly.

Responding To Others: Now or Later?

Every message you get begs the critical question “Do I deal with this now or later?” My tips:

  • Strive for zero inbox, in all areas of life (texts, Facebook, etc.). If you get a message you can act on/respond to in five minutes, do it in the moment. If you can’t, put it somewhere: on a calendar, in a project management system, wherever you are capturing the needed information. There is a reason this concept has been cool since 2007, more here: http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/inbox-zero
  • Message the person. Responding to someone and acting on the item can be two different events. Acknowledge you received the info and, if you want, set a deadline about when they can expect to hear from you about it. People appreciate this step, even if it does take an extra 30 seconds. I am trying to be better about this myself.
  • If you don’t have a way to capture needed information (ex: Where do I put my grocery list?), that means you need a system. Your message box, whatever kind of message it is, is not a system!
  • Check ‘drafts’ folder and make sure that message you thought you wrote actually went out. I try to do this once a week and I always find something in there I thought I had sent out.

So in making sure your important communications go out and responding to other peoples’ communications go out, you are now in control of your outgoing messages! Congratulations! 

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

Online Systems: Incoming Messages

If I was going to pick an area I felt least equipped to write about, it would be dealing with messages. I go through stages where I am super on top of things. Sometimes, I’ll completely miss a message only to get a polite ‘Um, did you get my text?’ three weeks later.

systems-graphic-incoming-messagesSo in some ways, I am the most terrible person to write this blog post but  in other ways, I am kind of the perfect person to do it. Here’s the steps I am following to rein in my own message demons:

Step 1: Make A List Of Everywhere I Get Messages

So I get messages the following places:

  • Email
  • Text Message
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest
  • Snapchat
  • WhatsApp
  • Phone
  • Google Chat
  • Skype
  • Snail Mail
  • Asana

Now clearly some of these need to be checked/responded to more often than others.

Step 2: Set Up Filters

If I get one more “You can be approved for $500,000 cash to use in your business’ call one more time, I may scream. So getting an app that filters these calls from even making it to my voicemail is a wise thing for me to spend time setting up (I may even pony up $0.99 for the best app to do it with).

Finding ways to filter messages will decrease the overall volume of what you are dealing with so it’s a good first step. You can also avoid duplication. For example, do you need Facebook to email you when you get a message? If not, turn that feature off and save yourself an email to read. If you follow a company on Instagram, do you also need to follow them on Facebook if they are posting the exact same messages? Ideally you want to deal with every message once, or as few times as possible.

Step 3: Set Up Times And Deal With Outstanding Messages

So if you are anything like me, dealing with your initial backlog will be painful, not just because you realize you missed some stuff but because it may remind you of past/unpleasant relationships or interactions. Remember, facing it now will save you having to review it later.

I have made a half hour each week in my calendar to deal with the following outstanding:

  • Email messages
  • Text and phone messages
  • Gchat/Skype
  • Snail Mail

(I check my social message for a half hour daily.)

Now part of this step is I need to find a way to ‘archive’ stuff I want to save but not look at daily (the voicemail ‘happy birthday’ message from my memere). Again, an initial time sink of doing this, I will save myself a few seconds every time I don’t have to relook at the same communications. Clearly, overall a worthwhile investment. I doubt once a few months go by and I chip away at past messages, I’ll even need half an hour.

I’ll talk about outgoing messages in our next blog post (to me these are clearly related issues but can be treated separately) but looking at my plan, my seemingly endless messages now seem manageable in a couple hours a week.

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

Online Systems: That’s a Lot of Info

As we move about our day, we might see a blog post we want to revisit, or a video that looks interesting but can’t watch right this second. Maybe we have a cool idea for something but need to table it for later when you can give it more thought. It’s really annoying to forget these ideas or lose track of something you wanted to follow up on, only to remember it at another inopportune moment (like, I dunno, the dentist’s chair, when you can’t really do anything about it and will probably forget again).

Fortunately, we live in a day and age where it’s relatively easy to have a systematic approach to organizing this type of ‘stuff,’ so you can access it whenever and in whatever way that works best for you.

Everyone’s brain works differently, so an efficient way for me to store information may be totally ineffectual for someone like my brother. My brain is best at retrieving information when it’s separated by “type”- (Work related, Fitness, Just for Fun, Decor/DIY/Baking, etc) but that doesn’t mean everyone thinks that way. No matter how your brain works, there are systems you can implement to save and store incoming information online.

Information that Comes from Internet Browsing

This information is typically in link form. Here are a couple ways to save links for later reading:

Pocket

Pocket is a pretty incredible service when it comes to saving online information for later. You can have it on all your devices, so nothing gets lost between phone to desktop browsing and vice versa. And, part of what makes my brain happy is that you can organize the articles you save into different categories, which makes it easier to find again later. As a bonus, you don’t need internet connection to read articles you’ve saved for later. Pocket will also offer recommended reading if you are looking for new material.

pcket

Pinterest

I like using Pinterest for information in the realm of DIY/Baking/Cooking/Anything vaguely creative. You can create different Boards, which are the categories where you’ll save different articles. Like Pocket, the way you choose to organize this information is totally up to you. My Pinterest Boards have names that make sense to me, but maybe not everyone else.

Some websites have pinnable articles/images. If you’re browsing outside of Pinterest, sometimes a little “Save” button will appear (example below), which allows you to pull that into one of your Pinterest boards. As you “pin” things, you can write a little caption that can either explain what the pin is or why you’ve saved it (like “Recipe for Dad’s Birthday cake).

pinterestsave

Information that Comes from Email/Messaging

Sometimes, information comes at you in a way that isn’t browsing the internet/social media. Most people get a lot of incoming information from email- the kind you don’t necessarily need to act on but need to organize anyway.

My “system,” if I can’t deal with the email right away, is to star it or put it in a folder for later. Then it’s a matter of extracting important information and putting it in the right place– if it’s an event, it goes to the calendar, if it’s something I’ll need to follow up on, it goes in Asana (our project management system), and so on. Extracting and organizing information as you read it can really boost your productivity.

Another idea for gathering incoming information is to use a note taking service, like Evernote, have it synced on your phone and desktop, and pull any information from text/email that you need into a note form, where you can add your own annotations. More on that here. 

Other Tips For Creating Your Own Online Information Systems

  • Be consistent. If your system is only applied every two or three times you collect information, it’s not really much of a system. Find something that is a bit of extra work but doesn’t feel like pulling teeth.
  • Do an information clean-up every month or so. Any notes or articles that you no longer need can be removed from wherever you’re storing your information. This keeps your bank of information easy to navigate. After all, your retrieval method should take less time than it did to find the information in the first place, right?
  • The best piece of advice I’ve seen about organizing information? Put it where you look for it. This may sound a bit obvious, but trust me, when you’re hunting for that article you wanted to read and can’t find it in your usual spot(s), it may be time for something different (just think of all the time you save by not digging around for missing links).

Do you have a system for organizing the “I should probably file this for later” type information that wasn’t mentioned above? Tell us about it!

Kassie is a distance runner and a distance reader really. She lives in Ellsworth Maine and, while she might be quiet when you meet her, will throw out something witty when you least expect it.
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