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Rabby

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The c l i c k b a i t is TRUE. Hear me out...

The "ticket" to the promise made in the title, once you have an actual business in place, is...
CONTROLS

But don't worry, because CONTROLS can help you turn whatever it is you have into a business, if it's not already.

I could do a whole thread on REPEATABLE PROCESSES too, but I've harped on that elsewhere. And I believe that if you set out to develop CONTROLS, you'll tend to define processes anyway... how can you control something you can't define?

A brief interlude... you may refill your coffee...

In November 2015, I set out to make my business as consistent and repeatable as possible. And to make it independent of me, as much as possible.

I was already diligent about documenting workflows and making checklists, when they were called for, but I started taking it to a new level. I hired a full time software developer, even though I am a not-terrible programmer myself. We started automating what we could, designing and building systems, and making tools for humans to use whenever outright automation didn't make sense.

I began firing myself from jobs. Bots, employees, and contractors got these jobs. Funny enough I found that eventually, the employees and contractors were better at most jobs than I was.

And I thought I was good! Turns out I deserved to be fired :<

Admittedly, I have kept a few things for myself. I update certain technical information, usually once per year. I develop new products, if or when I have an idea for one; or if the market specifically asks for one. I pull the occasional win-win deal out of thin air and make it happen. Also, my wife still keeps the (mostly automated) books.

The business can run on its own for long spans. We can be anywhere in the world, awake or asleep. With trivial effort (assigning a person and process to bookkeeping and yearly updates and a few minor things), I could make the same claim whether we were alive or dead.

Telling you this actually makes me incredibly nervous, but I have to overcome that. It is too important not to share.

I am a real "coffee achiever," and the appearance of idleness bothers me. However, freeing up your time does not necessarily make you idle. It doesn't stop you from producing value. On the contrary, it gives you the ability to deliver ever more value.

Not only do you have time; you also have a business system that you control. I mean, really control, because it doesn't control your time. And that means you have a business lab from which you can run experiments, borrow underutilized resources, or whatever you need to do.

We return to the feature presentation...

So what are controls?

They are the means by which you measure and evaluate things. You didn't really do the job if you can't see that you did the job...

Controls mean you can trust the output of your business.

Controls also mean you can discover problems early.


For a long time, I've used checklists. They're probably the easiest form of control to implement. Want to know if a job was done, and no steps skipped? Require a checklist. Better yet, have it print out automatically with an order, or email automatically with a reminder. And not a stupid checklist, a useful one. When an order prints out, there's a checklist on a sticker for packing the bubble-mailer. When the reminder comes in to update the weekly or monthly "thing," there's a checklist with all the steps. When the surgeon sews up the guy's torso, a nurse is standing by with a checklist to make sure no forceps are left inside... Like other controls, checklists reduce the cognitive load of a job. They don't increase it.

My checklists usually grow out of some job that needs to be done on a routine basis, and is prone to error or missed steps. Any one person only has a few things that actually require a checklist... otherwise we would try to automate away tasks that are prone to error.

As time has gone on, I've developed more controls and more types of controls. These are not the same as enterprise-y, big company fake work permission documents. In case anyone has experienced those. The developer spends his time developing. The salesman spends his time selling. The admin spends her time admin-ing. The teachers spend their time teaching. Controls are for reinforcing those behaviors, ensuring they get done right, and providing feedback. If you try to design "controls" and they end up getting in the way, you've over-engineered them. If you bought Microsoft Visio, stop now and get a sketch pad and plain text editor.

Controls I currently use:
  • Printed checklists
  • Online "weekly report" form for incentivized activities
  • Two sets of eyes and two notification methods on incoming orders (alerts by email and Slack channel so nothing can ever be missed).
  • Automated calendaring and notifications for recurring tasks
  • Automation for most orders and order deliverables
  • Automated messages to customers triggered by events or timing
  • Defined reports for ensuring accurate tax payment, etc.
  • Separation of functions, e.g.: the person who checks the mail does not handle finances
  • Audit path for changes to customer records in management system
Recently... in fact in the past few weeks, I read Scale by Hoffman and Finkle (because I am thinking about scaling things... go figure). I like how they define controls, and I recommend the book. I've found myself adopting some of their vocabulary. I think one of the better ideas is that there are visual, procedural, and embedded controls. They include automation (e.g.: software) within embedded controls. I trust automation like my own cat! Maybe even more than my cat!

The net result: if you're committed to implementing controls in your business, there's not much that can take you by surprise. At least, internally. You'll be on your way to the "passive ownership exit," and the business supporting itself (as opposed to your labor supporting it). Granted, you do need to sell enough goods for the business to breathe. But that gets easier, not harder, as you make things in the business more repeatable, consistent, incentivize-able.

I'm curious. What controls are you all using in your businesses? Do you think you could benefit from better controls? Better defined processes? More ability to delegate?

Or do you feel you're not at a place yet where you can implement this? MAybe controls are impossible in your industry because "everything is custom?" Want to argue the point? Inquiring minds want to know.

I kept this abstract to keep the length down, but I'm happy to field questions, or to learn from ops-masters more seasoned than myself. Thanks for reading!
 

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Bearcorp

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Great post @Rabby, I can relate to needing to fire yourself from roles in the business, I look forward to having people do some of my tasks better than I do/can!
 
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Rabby

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Thanks for all the nice comments :)

@Bearcorp I recommend documenting those roles, and the high-level steps, as time permits... even if it feels silly because you're the only one doing them. ;) That's the first step to hiring someone to help, without wasting your money on an employee who has no idea what you want them to do. It can also help you figure out when you're doing things inefficiently.
 

Bertram

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Wonderful discussion and challenge, thank you!
 
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Creed

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I'm shocked at how low the engagement has been on this thread. The contents came back multiple times at the Summit, which shows you how relevant it is. I think a lot of people could benefit from this info.

Thanks for sharing Rab, very valuable insights.
 
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Rabby

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I'm shocked at how low the engagement has been on this thread. The contents came back multiple times at the Summit, which shows you how relevant it is. I think a lot of people could benefit from this info.

Thanks for sharing Rab, very valuable insights.
Thanks :) All the world needs is a few people who implement it, and everything gets better over time.
 

ecommercewolf

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Wow great insight.

Any specific automation software you recommend if you don't mind sharing? The most common one I hear of is Zapier.

I realize that systems is something I need to improve on to obtain the lifestyle I want but not sure where to start.
 

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Rabby

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Zapier can be useful, but the biggest automation thing for me is just straight programming.

If you can prototype something yourself in Ruby or Python or something, that's great. Not everyone has developed that skill set, and not everyone needs to. If you do though, you can take things that used to take 30 minutes and transform them to under 5 minutes, or zero minutes. Sometimes better. Doesn't sound like much, but that's where you start. Save 20 minutes per day, and you also save the mental energy you would have spent in that 20 minutes.

If you can hire/trade-services-with someone to write code for you, even better. Most of our current automation is written in C#. It could just as easily be any other programming language.

One more thing that's not really automation, but that I think of as automation, is defining simple tasks and giving them to someone to do. Example: I wanted to scrape some county web sites for information about property, debts, law suits, etc. I did not want to write a web scraper though, and I didn't want to spend a lot of time on it. So I used Screenflow to record a video of myself doing it, then hired an overseas VA to do what I did in the video every day for a while. They would scrape the site, put information in a CSV in a certain format, and send me a report each day. Much cheaper in the short run than having someone code something (maybe $6/day), and took very little of my time. It's mechanical Turk style automation ;)
 

NMdad

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My kids give me sh*t about reading books like "The Checklist Manifesto"--I'm guessing you're a fan of it. Ironically, fast-forward a couple years, and both my kids regularly make checklists on their own. Be the contagion you want to see in the world. ;)
 
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Rabby

Rabby

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Ha! What a great title... The Checklist Manifesto. No, I've never read it, but it's exactly the kind of thing I would pick up. Now that it's in my head, the contagion will get me, I'm sure.

What I love most about checklists is I don't have to do them. I mean, I could, and I do use them for my own work. But if I can break something down into a checklists, I can get someone else to do it.
 
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Rabby

Rabby

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Ha! What a great title... The Checklist Manifesto. No, I've never read it, but it's exactly the kind of thing I would pick up. Now that it's in my head, the contagion will get me, I'm sure.

What I love most about checklists is I don't have to do them. I mean, I could, and I do use them for my own work. But if I can break something down into a checklists, I can get someone else to do it.
...aaaand because it's a checklist, I can make them keep copies, or send evidence, so that I can see if they did the thing that I didn't have to do myself.

Incidentally, this is making me realize that I had this in mind just a month or two before starting development on our new Saas (we started developing in Feb or March). I hadn't even thought the product up when I wrote this, other than having part of it implemented as a management system for my school.

We just got it to MVP and guess what one of its endearing features is? Yep, a very robust checklist builder.

Glad I wrote all this stuff down last year, because the thought might have just evaporated otherwise.
 

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