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How to Scale and Grow Your Online Business by Systemizing

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If you’re running your own online business, there isn’t a day that goes by when you’d say “I’m not that busy today.”

We’re always busy!

There is never a shortage of things to do. For every task we cross off of our checklist, there are four more to add onto our plate. We work long hours, often sacrificing things like a “relaxing weekend” (what’s that?) and happy hour at the bar with friends.

But when you take a step back and assess your business — the big picture — what do you see?

Is your business growing? Is it becoming more efficient? Is your bottom-line increasing from month-to-month or is it staying flat?

For many online business owners, particularly freelancers, it can feel like you’re running in place. You’re keeping your operation afloat, but you lack the time and energy to focus on taking things to the next level.

You’ve left your job to create your own business, but you realize that all you’ve created is a new job for yourself without the freedom you had initially set out to obtain.

Sound familiar? It sure was the case for me. That’s what led me to begin building systems in my business, which allows me to focus on the bigger picture: Scaling, growing and taking things to the next level.

This article will help you get started on systemizing your business and building it into a machine that can run itself, with you commanding the ship.

A Vision of Your Future

Now that you’re thinking about the long-game, take a minute to visualize where you see your business heading in the next six months, year, three years...

Thanks to systemizing, I was able to make the transition from client work to building products.

If you’re running a consultancy, your vision might include things like attracting more clients, or attracting larger clients with higher-budget projects. That might lead you to grow your staff beyond just yourself, and transition from being a solo freelancer to a small agency.

Or if you’re like me, you might be thinking about transitioning away from consulting work to focus more on selling products. Thanks to systemizing, I was able to make the transition from client work to building products. In fact, one of those products, SweetProcess, was born out of my need to get systemized. More on that later...

The bottom line is this: You can’t begin to move your business forward until you establish which direction you’re headed. Take some time — yes, schedule it into your calendar — to give some serious thought about where you are today and where you want to be by next year.

Identify the Low-hanging Fruit

Ready to begin the process of systemizing your business? Start by identifying the low-hanging fruit, or the tasks that arise again and again, eating up precious time in your daily or weekly routine. These are prime targets for systemization.

It can be tempting to think that every day is different, every project is different, every client is different. You might think there is nothing that can be “standardized” in your business. Everything you do is unique.

But once you really give it some thought, you’d be surprised how many repetetive tasks rise to the surface. Take a step back and review what you worked on today. Look at what you did yesterday. Look at the list of things you worked on last week. There are probably lots of tasks that can be turned into systems.

Here are a few examples that apply to almost any business:

  • preparing and sending client invoices
  • bookkeeping and organizing your records
  • customer support and answering the most common questions
  • preparing and sending email newsletters
  • preparing project proposals

Here are a few that might apply if you’re a web developer:

  • cross-browser website testing
  • validating your code
  • preparing a staging site for the client to review
  • reporting and organizing bugs

Here are some ideas for designers, illustrators, or photographers:

  • cleaning up unused layers in Photoshop
  • preparing final work for delivery
  • ordering and mailing prints
  • preparing the web-based client review area

And some ideas if you’re a writer or blogger:

  • proofreading
  • formatting and scheduling articles in WordPress
  • background research and linking
  • social media sharing of content

The list will go on for your particular business and the way you do things. The idea is to start identifing the tasks that can be systemized — and ultimately delegated — to someone else to handle while you focus on more important things.

Start Documenting Procedures

Now that you’ve identified a few tasks that can be systemized, it’s time to begin documenting them into step-by-step procedures.

These procedures will become the backbone of your business; they’ll serve as the operating manual to keep your business churning. Your procedures will become a key asset to your business, as future employees will rely on them to execute their jobs. It will also make the process of hiring and training new employees totally seamless, avoiding the usual setbacks that come with employee turnover.

When documenting procedures, the key is to be as detailed as possible. No detail is too obvious or self-explanetory.

Even if you’re still a one-person operation, it’s important to begin documenting your procedures sooner rather than later. This will help you lay the groundwork as you prepare to hire your first employee. In fact, back when I was operating all by myself, I found that this excercise of documenting my procedures made me realize how much of my job can and should be outsourced. It made me progress to that next stage much quicker than I had anticipated.

When documenting procedures, the key is to be as detailed as possible. No detail is too obvious or self-explanetory. Include every step, sub-step, and explanation as you document your procedure.

I like to start by providing an “overview” of the procedure, to give the person some context as to why this procedure is important and what the desired outcome is. Then I start from the beginning and include every step to get there.

As an example of the type of detail I include, here is a public procedure I made a few weeks ago on how to set up and launch a new podcast.

Make Your Procedures Visual with Screenshots and Videos

It’s incredibly important that your procedures aren’t just a long text document without any visuals. Long blocks of text are incredibly hard to follow and make it too easy for the person to mistakenly skip over an important detail.

That’s why I always recommend that you include images (screenshots) and/or videos to add clarity to each step. If your team works remotely, and most online businesses do these days, then you know how important it is get your point across visually, since you don’t have the luxury of sitting next to the person and demonstrate how it’s done.

I try to include at least one screenshot with every step. On the Mac, I take a quick screenshots and drag them into SweetProcess, my tool for creating procedures. I also like to add notations to the images, like boxes and arrows. For this, I’ll use the built-in notating tools in SweetProcess, or sometimes use external tools like Clarify.

When I really need to make sure I get my point across, I’ll record a screencast video and embed that video in a particular step in the procedure. There are various tools that make it easy to record screencast videos. For short recordings (less than 5 minutes), I like Screenr because it is browser-based and easy to fire up quickly. For longer recordings, I use ScreenFlow on the Mac. Camtasia is a good alternative for those on Windows.

Delegate Tasks

In the beginning, it’s always a good idea to execute the procedures yourself, just as you’ve been doing. Only now, make a point of following along with the procedures you’ve created to confirm you haven’t skipped over any details. Every time I do this, I find at least one thing I’ve forgotten to include.

Hired your first employee or a virtual assistant? Brought in a contractor? Now it’s time to give them something to do!

Good thing you’ve documented a few procedures. Send them a procedure and tell them to follow it every time they execute this task.

Monitor Efficiency, Get Feedback, Improve and Repeat

Now that you’ve begun delegating those procedures, you should start to feel a sense of relief. Things are getting done, but taking up less of your time, which has freed you up to focus on more important activities.

But your work is far from complete! You must continously monitor your systems and processes, tweak and improve them to make them more efficient.

There are several ways to do this:

1. Monitor Efficiency, Especially in the Beginning

Are there steps that are tripping up your team? Were certain aspects done incorrectly? These reveal immediate areas where you can troubleshoot your procedures. Look for ways to add more clarity or address common misunderstandings.

You must continously monitor your systems and processes, tweak and improve them to make them more efficient.

2. Encourage Your Team to Suggest Improvements to Procedures

As time goes on, you will become detatched from the nuances of how things work “on the ground”. That’s okay. It means you’re focusing on big-picture things, which is what you’re supposed to be doing.

Luckily, you have someone who does have intimate knowledge of the nuances of your procedures: Your employees who are executing them! Empower them to give their suggestions on ways to improve procedures when they encounter a better way of doing it. Ask them to leave comments on the procedure itself, or simply send their suggestions directly to you.

3. Be on the Lookout for New Technologies and Techniques to Streamline Procedures

In the online world, things move fast. New tools are constantly becoming available that make our jobs infinitely easier than they once were. Your procedures can benefit from new tools as they come to market.

Always be on the lookout for these and ask your employees to look out for these as well. Over the course of a year, you might find a new tool or technique that can shave multiple steps off your procedures, making your entire business more efficient.

Your Business is Systemized. Now What?

With a library of standard operating procedures powering your business, you’ve built a machine that runs itself! You have set the stage for an exciting phase of scalability and growth.

So where do you go from here?

You as the business owner can stop being tied down working in your business. Now you can start working on your business.

With your new-found freedom, you can spend more time focusing on things like:

  • transitioning from a one-man-operation to hiring a team
  • transitioning from client work to products
  • improving your products or creating new ones
  • attracting and landing more/better clients
  • enjoy some free time and win back your work/life balance

Have questions or suggestions for how we can systemize our online businesses? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

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