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Work on the business from the outside, not in it – Book: Effortless entrepreneur

One of the key points of “Effortless entrepreneur” is that you need to create systems and delegate work so that you can free up time to improve your business.

p38. Work on the business from the outside, not in it. A great
entrepreneur builds systems to run the business as if it were a
machine, and stands over it instead of being part of its inner
workings. A business owner should sell that machine to clients and
perfect its functionality, but not sit in the gear room. How many
times have you seen a local store owner answering phones, doing
paperwork, and assisting customers all at once? This business owner
works IN the business, not ON it, and hasn’t identified the different
positions within his business, such as receptionist, salesperson, and
cashier. Instead, he does all those jobs himself.

Creating manuals and training maps for each position from the get-go
forces you to evaluate what needs to be done and helps identify tasks
you might not think of right away. That can mean fewer unpleasant
surprises down the road. At first, you’ll likely have to work IN your
business and do most, if not all, of the work for each position.
That’s common when you start out. But create a system that allows you
to just work ON it as soon as possible. Once that system is operative,
a business gains its true value.

Work on your business, not just in it. It makes sense, although lots of small-business owners find it hard to make that jump.

How can people practice this now? After all, even if you work for a company, you work for yourself, too.

It’s kinda like what Trent (The Simple Dollar) writes about in “Who is your real boss? Some perspectives on career success”:

My belief is this: the people that succeed are the people who invest that energy and time and patience and thought a little differently.
What do I mean?

  • Option A: Let’s say you go to work each day and leave it all on the
    table. When you leave work, you’re so drained you can barely make it
    home. You sit on the couch, vegetate for a while, eat dinner,
    vegetate a bit more, then hit the sack. Or perhaps you’re a parent
    and you leave work with just enough energy to get through your
    parental requirements in the evening.

  • Option B: On the other hand, let’s say you go to work and
    intentionally keep half of your energy for yourself. You give the
    company 50% of the gas in your tank. After you leave, you spend that
    50% improving yourself. You go to night classes. You go to the gym.
    You go to the library. You go to meetings of professional growth
    groups, like Toastmasters.

Well, maybe not 50%. If you can do your work with 80% effort, and then invest the rest into building skills and processes, then it’s like a savvy entrepreneur investing time into building systems, not just fighting fires. Sometimes it’s more like a full-energy work and 20% extra, but I enjoy the work and the learning along the way.

At work, I’m learning about the way we work on projects: the processes, the templates, the questions and conversations. I like making systems, processes, and tools, so I’m learning how to improve things.

I’m working on applying this idea of “working on the business, not just in it” in personal life as well. Hence the household optimizations: batch cooking and a chest freezer, tweaked routines, relationship-building. Capacity-building for future adventures.

I’m looking forward to do even better. At work, I want to to learn more about Drupal 7, consulting, and the processes we have. I’m also looking forward to writing up more notes and coaching others. In the rest of life, I’d like to experiment with delegating again, invest time into becoming a better writer, and continue building wonderful relationships.

How about you? How can you not only work in your business, but on it?

Effortless entrepreneur: Work smart, play hard, make millions
2010 Nick Friedman and Omar Soliman
Three Rivers Press
ISBN 978-0-307-58799-2

Book: Effortless entrepreneur 2011-01-10 Mon 19:27

Thinking about how to experiment with business and what I might want to do

“So, what are you going to do?” That’s always what people ask after I tell them that I’m leaving IBM in order to experiment with entrepreneurship.

“I don’t know yet,” I say. I explain that I haven’t yet experimented with anything that could be seen as competing with IBM, following our Business Conduct Guidelines – and that covers so much ground. I’m leaving without a solid business plan or a proven opportunity, just itch and curiosity and the sneaky suspicion that there’s probably at least one business that I can build considering how others have succeeded.

The first thing I’m going to do after I leave is to create a structure for experimenting. Despite the associated costs and paperwork, incorporation makes sense to me. Limiting the downside – building that part of the safety net – makes it easier to experiment.

How can I go about testing possible business ideas? There are some conventional things I’d like to try.

Writing: I love reading and writing. If I can combine that with drawing and design, maybe I can create engaging e-books that will help people save time and be inspired. People have earned money from information products, so this has worked for other people before. Some have even succeeded without sleazy marketing tactics and without preying on people’s greed, which is encouraging! =)

I can test this by researching topics I’m interested in, writing blog posts and chapters, and eventually building up to e-books for things that people might buy. I’ll be writing notes anyway, so I may as well invest time into making them more usable for others.

Coaching: I’ve gotten so much value from writing, presenting, and experimenting with life. People find these things intimidating. Maybe I can help build scaffolds so that people can gradually try things out, succeed, and then gain enough confidence to do things on their own. (And I can write about what we learn along the way!)

Self-tracking: I like the results I’ve been getting from tracking my life, and I’m curious about building and tailoring tools for other people’s lives. Can I turn that into a recurring source of income? We’ll see.

Sales and customer relationship management for development: Quite a few developers have told me that they don’t particularly enjoy this part of freelancing, and it’s one of the parts I’m actually the most curious about. Maybe I can get started by helping my friends take better care of their clients and leads, and then see if the arrangement works out well.

Community analysis tools: Considering the success of the Lotus Connections toolkit within IBM, it might be interesting to make it more available to other companies. Right now, some of the functionality is available externally in a plugin for Lotus Notes, but things are still difficult to adopt. If I write a new implementation from scratch and I build the tool based only on externally-accessible information, that might be okay. It’s been quite a useful service within IBM, and it would be great to share it with more companies.

Testing ideas: How meta is that? If I’m going to be testing lots of business ideas and possibly working with other people to help them test their business ideas, then it would be great to gradually build processes and infrastructure for doing so.

Freelance consulting and development: I want to focus on the other initiatives first before I get into freelancing. I’m reasonably confident that I can figure out freelancing (especially with a little help from my friends). The kinds of work I’m considering (consulting, web development, technical writing, data migration) are similar to my work at IBM, so there’s less uncertainty to resolve. Custom work often means fewer opportunities to build compounding value, and I’d like to see if I can build a business that can scale up beyond my time.

I’m looking for things in the sweet spot: the intersection between what people need, what I’m good at, and what I love to do. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve probably picked up a good sense of what I’m interested in and how I might help you (and lots of people like you!). Is this list missing something that would help you even rock more?

Sketchnotes: Small business network meetup with Kristina Chau at the Toronto Reference Library

Notes from the Small Business Network meetup with Kristina Chau

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

I attended the small business network meetup at the Toronto Reference Library. The librarian (Margaret Wigglesworth) explained that the Toronto Public Library started hosting these events after people requested more networking time in the business classes that the library organized. Each session was structured as a short talk and a networking discussion. There were twelve of us seated around a comfortably-sized table on the third floor of the reference library. Many were thinking about starting a business but hadn’t taken the plunge, although there was a high school senior who was the president of his school’s business club and made some money buying and selling phones through Craigslist and Kijiji.

Kristina Chau (notyouraverageparty.ca, @notyouravgparty) shared her experiences in getting started. After working hard for someone else’s company, she realized that she’d rather work on her own. She did some freelance work as an event planner. At 29, she started her own event planning company. She applied to the Toronto Business Development Centre for the Although her application was denied, she found the rigor of the application process to be very helpful. She eventually funded her own company through the services she offered.

Kristina shared examples of the evolution of her brand: the business card versions she went through, her current website, even the Starbucks cookie bag on which she and a friend had brainstormed the business. It looked like a lot of people were reassured by the idea that they didn’t have to get things right the first time around. Kristina also mentioned that getting her website together took a long time and a lot of investment, and people had many questions about that.

In the discussion, a few people shared that they had lots of ideas they wanted to work on, but they didn’t know where to start or what to focus on. If I can figure out these micro-experiments for entrepreneurship, maybe that’s something I can help people with.

I’ve read Work the Pond, the first book that Kristina recommended. It has a particularly good chapter on tag-team networking (see my linked notes), and is overall a good networking book. I’ll check out the other two books she mentioned and post my notes as well. In terms of books on entrepreneurship, Lean Startup is one of my current favourites, and I’m looking forward to trying the ideas.

I’m planning to attend the next meetup on March 13. Got any favourite small business events in Toronto? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

Experience report: Incorporating a federal numbered corporation in Canada

This was not at all as complicated as I thought it would be. After twenty minutes, several multiple-choice and fill-in questions, and one credit card transaction, I had my very own company: a federal numbered corporation ($200) with extra-provincial registration in Ontario (free, yay). On a Sunday, no less.

The government publishes a guide to federal incorporation that explains the different option. The online incorporation form is easy to use, guiding you through the steps with an almost wizard-like interface. Common cluases are available as multiple-choice options, and you have the ability to fill in your own text as needed. The form will tell you what to print, sign, and keep with your records.

If you create a numbered corporation, then you don’t need to wait for name approval. I got my confirmation e-mail with the automatically-assigned corporation name a few minutes after I submitted the form.

In the process, the only thing that gave me pause was the requirement that 25% of the directors be resident Canadians, with “resident Canadian” defined as:

(a) a Canadian citizen ordinarily resident in Canada,

(b) a Canadian citizen not ordinarily resident in Canada who is a
member of a prescribed class of persons, or

(c) a permanent resident within the meaning of subsection 2(1) of the
Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and ordinarily resident in
Canada, except a permanent resident who has been ordinarily resident
in Canada for more than one year after the time at which he or she
first became eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship;

I have permanent residency in Canada, but I can’t apply for Canadian citizenship yet (all those trips cut into the physical presence requirement). I should be in the clear, especially as I plan to apply for Canadian citizenship a few months after I become eligible. (That should take care of any other trips I’ve forgotten to include in my history…)

Still, surprisingly not scary. My next steps would be to:

  • Put together the bylaws and other parts of the minute book: Many of the people I talked to bought a kit from their local office supply store and worked with it. Corporations Canada also has a good set of instructions, complete with examples of by-laws and resolutions. I’ll start with that, and then go for a kit
  • Check the zoning bylaws for my neighbourhood: Toronto City Hall 416-392-7539
  • Set up a business bank account: I’m thinking about either the BMO Business Current Account or the RBC Small Business eAccount. One of my Twitter contacts recommended BMO and there are quite a few blogs praising their business account, so I might go with that.
  • Interview accountants

… and work on sales and operations, of course, not just admin! =) (I figure I should eat the frog first and get the paperwork properly set up…)

It’s okay to not know

“Congratulations! What’s your new business about?” “What will you be working on?” “So, what do you do?”

I don’t know yet.

One of the most challenging aspects of starting something on your own is this uncertainty. We expect people to have clear, compact descriptions for what they do, even if we don’t understand it ourselves. For example, I got away with describing my work as, “Oh, I’m a web developer,” or “I’m a consultant on emerging technologies and collaboration,” or sometimes even the catch-all, “I work with IBM”. This last introduction often needed little explanation, eliciting an “Ahhh, I see,” from glazed-over networking contacts who probably filed me in their mental category for “people who do stuff with computers.”

What do I do? What do I want to do? What challenge do I want to address? What problem do I want to solve? What vision do I want to realize?

I’m not sure.

I’m tempted to be prematurely certain. I’ve listened to my fair share of “Oh, I’m working on a startup” people who confidently declare that their audience is “Well, everyone, I guess…” and who deflect further questions with, “We’re keeping our plans secret for now.”

I’m tempted to flee into the familiar. Consulting, web development with Drupal or Ruby on Rails… People ask me for these services, and it would be easy to focus on that: well-defined, well-understood. I know I can deliver when it comes to that. I also know that those services won’t take me all the way to where I want to go.

It’s okay to be uncertain. It’s better to admit that I’m figuring things out than to fake this. It’s better to draw people into the experiment than to present a façade. It’s all right to say the words that terrify most people when they try to use those words themselves: I don’t know.

Besides, it’ll be fun to find out.

I might not see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I can figure out some of the steps along the way. Writing is my favourite tool for figuring out complex branches. I want to write about what I’m learning: entrepreneurship, the steps to setting up shop, ways to figure out what you want to do with your life (or at least the next year).

This is a good time, a useful time. I shouldn’t rush out of it. I deal with this scale of uncertainty rarely. I never agonized over what course to take in university. I’ve been into computers since childhood. I remember the ups and downs of searching for a research topic for my master’s thesis, but I had a supervisor’s help. Even marriage was the logical (and emotional =) ) follow-through on a relationship that was already clearly a good thing. IBM was the same. This entrepreneurship, this uncertainty – this is me stepping up to bigger risks and bigger opportunities for discovery, having done well with the training wheels of past circumstances.

It’s not actually that scary when I can call the uncertainty out of the fog and name it. I know it’s there. I know it’s normal. I know it will pass, too. Each step I take throws light on something, even though some steps add more questions. If I do this right, each step won’t be about getting closer to a definitive “I know this to be forever true”, but rather towards springboards for more experimentation.

People-centered entrepreneurship

Practically all Many of the books I’m reading about entrepreneurship assume that you start with a big idea for a product or service, and then you find and validate the market for it.

Many of the people I talk to start with the same assumptions, too. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to start my own business, but I’m waiting for the idea to hit me.”

Starting with the idea seems like putting the cart before the horse, and the cart is full of things you want instead of things other people want.

I was mindmapping where I’d like to start with this business experiment. Consulting is handy, but hourly billing’s not going to get me to where I want to go: a family-friendly business where value isn’t directly tied to time.

Every time I tried to come up with a snazzy business idea, though, I hit a brick wall. It didn’t feel right. It felt like I was approaching the challenge in the wrong way.

I thought: Well, if entrepreneurship is about going from having one boss to having a hundred bosses, maybe I can pick the kinds of bosses I’d like to work with. Maybe I should start by picking the kinds of people I’d like to have as clients, then looking for ways I can delight them, then looking for ways I can take advantage of my talents or skills to deliver more value than it costs me.

I figure that if I pick a segment of people who have demonstrated the willingness and ability to pay for products or services, and who have some idea of what they want, then that’s as good a place as any to start experimenting.

The wild “You don’t know what you want yet, but I’m creating it for you anyway” innovation can wait for when I have more business experience. In the beginning, it’s okay to take a well-known model and a well-known product, and look for ways I can put my own spin on it.

So I brainstormed personas representing some of the kinds of people I would love to learn more about and help out. Maybe I can make their lives better. Maybe I can help interesting people do interesting things. Here are some ideas:

  • Ive, the introverted independent
  • Ell, the Emacs enthusiast
  • Val, the visual thinker
  • Em, the excited entrepreneur
  • Quinn, the Quantified Self tracker
  • Pat, the practical parent
  • Bobby, the bashful blogger
  • Chris, the conference commando
  • Cathy, the cat cuddler

More details in this outline view of my mindmap

I “bump” into people like them often. Who knows, you might even identify with one of them. (Who? Tell me in the comments, or e-mail at [email protected] – I’d love to pick your brain!) Don’t see yourself there? Tell me what kind of person you are. =)

I think it would be great to look for small, cost-effective ways to make their (your!) life more awesome. I’m good at building systems, automating, sorting things out, and setting life up for constant improvement. There might be ways to scale across time or across more people. Hmm…

I described what I was thinking about to Mel Chua. She laughed and said it was like user-centered design. That made me think of Karen Quinn Fung, another friend of mine, whom I had met when she was working at the IBM User-Centered Design lab under Karel Vredenburg.

Where can I find more business/entrepreneurship books that start with people first instead of assuming you’ve got some genius idea? =) (Lean Startup is somewhat related to this because of pivots and watching how people actually work…)