Phil Maguire interviewed Susan Fennema on the 6:19 Podcast. They talked about how getting your fulfillment area well structured is the first step to a well-run, process-driven business. They also chatted about what 2022 will bring.
Please find the full transcript below:
Phil Maguire: How’s Christmas? Are you prepared?
Susan Fennema: I’m ready.
Susan: I got to figure out what to cook. That’s it. That’s easy. It’s my favorite thing though, so that’s fun for me.
Phil: Yeah, so we’re live now and so I don’t have any specific agenda. So just FYI, letting you know. But I think the first thing we start off with, is what’s special that you cook in the house? What’s the special dish that everyone looks forward to?
Susan: Oh, gosh, the funny thing is that I don’t like to repeat things.
Susan: Yeah, I do dinner parties a lot and I actually have a spreadsheet of what I’ve served to different people over the years. And I go back and I’m like, “Has it been enough years? Can I serve that again?” So we’re always looking for something that’s more fun and interesting and exciting.
Phil: That’s cool.
Susan: We eat the normal week that way too. My husband and I will be like, “Didn’t we just have this like a month ago?”
Phil: If the Lord has a different direction for you, that might be a chef one day, sounds like?
Susan: You know? No.
Phil: No, really?
Susan: I want to do it for fun. I don’t want to do it with all of the other things involved.
Phil: Oh, got you.
Susan: Yeah, yeah.
Phil: I think when you start doing something professionally, you lose some of the creativity and spontaneity of the skill itself?
Susan: Well, yes and no. I just know what it takes to be a restauranteur and I don’t want to be another employee ever.
Phil: True. Right.
Susan: So that would be what it would be and talk about taking a … Because cooking is the least of the things that you do. And you’re also cooking for 300, not for 12 that love you no matter what happens.
Phil: That if something messes up, you can order a pizza and they’d be just as happy, right?
Susan: Right. You’re not going to get those Yelp reviews that are because somebody was just in a bad mood or didn’t ask for what they wanted or anything like that, yeah.
Phil: Well, I have to tell you, I’m happy we’re getting honest here. The last time we spoke maybe a couple of months ago and I was quite encouraged by your enthusiasm and your energy and so I love that.
Susan: Thank you.
Phil: Yeah, I run into a lot of folks that are more of the thinkers, if you will, and they’re more internal processors. And I’m not saying that you’re not or anything, but your energy and vigor were quite awesome. Quite awesome.
Susan: Well, thank you. I like to bring that, especially since what I do is not always considered fun, writing processes, managing projects, a lot of those things, especially for a business owner can feel so like the last thing they want to do. I love it. Of course, we do it. That’s why I love cooking so much. I love the planning part. I love making sure everything comes out at the same time part. That is not a normal business owner’s approach to that stuff. So anytime we can bring the energy or the funny titles like mine to the party, it just makes it a little bit more-
Phil: There’s some normality and some authenticity to it, I think, as well.
Phil: Yeah. Well, let’s jump into that a little bit.
Phil: Tell me a more specific niche and your specific expertise relative to the business owner environment.
Susan: Sure, we work with very small businesses, 25 people or fewer, usually in the professional services area. It is always in the professional services area, but usually, their deliverable is a project. And we define projects very loosely. So it could be installing the electrical work at a commercial building. It could be running a case as a lawyer. Any of those things can be run as projects and so we look at that as the fulfillment of what you’re selling. That’s the deliverable. And that’s always what we focus on first with our clients, is how is that fulfillment area working for you.
Susan: Who we don’t work for are people who deliver widgets or run manufacturing, that kind of thing. So we’re not into streamlining and optimizing those areas. It’s much more of that service-oriented work. The exception might be software products. So when you think of SaaS software, things that are delivered to you monthly and are always having updates, the fact that they’re always delivering updates, that’s really a service.
Phil: Got you.
Susan: In our mind, the product is a service-oriented deliverable. They’re still delivering that service that way.
Phil: Yeah, in that space, where there’s a service-oriented deliverable, whether that’s a project that takes three months or three years or whatever that timeline is, where do you see the biggest struggle for business owners in that space? Where do you see the biggest hurdle is and how is that typically met?
Susan: Biggest hurdle is that they’re trying to do it all; they’re trying to fulfill and sell and market and manage the team and grow the team and figure out their finances. They’re trying to do all of it. So their biggest hurdle is not doing some things. And as small business owners, we come into it thinking, “Okay, we’ll have to be an expert in everything.” The bottom line is you can’t be and you don’t want to be, especially in this modern era, with all of the fractional options that you have in there. There are fractional CFOs, CMOs, HR, project managers, operations — people like us — and sales teams.
There’s this ability to tap into this great resource in this great experience without having to fully pay for a full-time employee to come in and do those things. Some people come in, set you up, and leave. Others will stay forever and work a day a week for you, but it’s an option that small business owners in the past haven’t had. And now it’s becoming much more common for you to go tap into that expertise and allow yourself the space to do your gift and to bring your gift to the business and to your team.
Phil: And that’s going to be a hard challenge in working with business owners. I’ve worked with a bunch over the years as well. We’re getting them to understand that they might be the bottleneck and they need to give up some responsibility or delegate and leave alone. How do you overcome that challenge?
Susan: Well, we’re always the bottleneck. There’s no way around it. And as you continue to work on your business and start to grow your business, you’re going to find other places where you’re the bottleneck. And those are the things that are holding your business back. You can’t keep pushing ahead if it stops with you. And that’s on two levels. So not only is being involved in your fulfillment preventing your team from continuing without you, but it’s also preventing you from focusing on something that’s probably more important than whatever that thing is that you have to do at the moment to keep things moving.
The other thing that it does is it actually reduces the value of your business at the exit. So if a new owner is not able to see themselves come in and sit in your seat, then the value of your business is tremendously lower. And so part of what you’re trying to set up as a business owner is that you don’t have to be there, that it runs without you, right?
Phil: And it makes complete sense. As a firm coming in to potentially buy your business or evaluate buying a bunch of business, if they see chaos in that seat like, “I don’t want to mess with the chaos” but they see cleanliness in systems. I guess it’s better described, you might do better than this and I can’t. But processes that allow for efficient changes and stuff like that would make someone want to pay a higher price for their business. That’s self-evident.
Susan: Absolutely. And that process and method that you’re using for fulfillment is also part of your brand. So even before you get to that exit, your clients are noticing it. What’s the cohesiveness between the sales process and the fulfillment process? Is it being handed out off well or are you starting over when you get to the other people, another set of people that are going to do the work?
And then in the long run, how do you end up getting that great review or testimonial or piece for your portfolio or whatever you’re looking to accomplish as an overall measure of success? How are you getting there? So what is the experience of your client from the first time they’ve touched you as a lead all through fulfillment to when you say, “Hey, would you mind writing a Google review for us,” and they say, “Absolutely, what great things can I say about you”? How do you build that path?
Until you have that fulfillment part right — that part that you’re selling, what you’re delivering — until that part is right and smooth and not chaotic, selling more into your business just starts to break it worse. And the more people you have that are mad at you, the less likely you’re going to get that great outcome in the end.
So we always focus on that fulfillment part first. We push the owner to do the sales and stay in that area until they’re ready to … Usually, by ready, I mean have enough money to hire a sales team or a salesperson or an outside fractional sales or whatever they need. And at that point, now you’re operating more like a CEO and less like a high-end freelancer who happens to have some people that are knocking out some stuff in the room.
Phil: Yeah, it totally makes sense. It’s a mind shift there. Do folks come to you guys or do you guys get engaged with folks that are wanting an exit within a year or two. And, then there’s this top-down of like, “Well, that might be premature, and here’s why. If we do X, Y and Z, it might be a two to three-year exit or three to four-year exits, but your value could go from here to here”? Do you see that happen often?
Susan: We’re usually working with people that aren’t there yet. And in fact, some have never thought of anything other than, “Oh, yeah, my business is an asset. It’s going to be sold one day.” They haven’t thought beyond that and so they’re still working so much IN it, they almost can’t even imagine exiting yet. That’s one of the things we try to bring up when we first start working with them is, “How long are you going to do this? 10 years? 15 years? Are you going to partially retire and keep running it and that’s going to be in lieu of sale or what is your long-run plan?” Yeah, and now my dog is excited about something. What’s going on in this virtual world?
Phil: Yeah. I love the fact that we’ve gone from meeting in person or a phone call from many years ago to meeting in person or a Zoom call because there’s so much authenticity around these kinds of calls. Your dog was barking here. I can hear my daughter talking to my wife in the background about making cookies and it’s like, “What kind of cookies they’re making?” Yeah, yeah.
Susan: It’s nice to have life mixed in, right?
Susan: That’s what we’re all working for, is we’re all working for this life and I think that’s another thing that small business owners forget because they get so absorbed. It’s, “Why are we doing this? What’s the point?”
Phil: Everything is so … I’d be critical, but it’s two inches in front of your face because you’re wearing seven hats and juggling 20 different things and-
Susan: It’s overwhelming. It’s exhausting. It affects your relationships. And you’re not making space for the things that are important, your spiritual life and your health, and your family. You’re making those fit in around work instead of the other way around.
Phil: Totally, totally. Is it hard to show a business owner, “You are working 70 hours a week right now and you have some great revenue here? It looks like some decent processes here, but this is the proverbial burning candle at both ends. This will wear you out at some point. If you downshift to eventually upshift, this is what this will be”? Is it hard to get them to realize that relative to the expectation of the business owner they are supposed to work 70 hours a week? Does that make sense?
Susan: Yes. That’s really funny because when I started, I’m like, “I’m not doing that. I’m not going to do it. So I just built the structure, so I didn’t. But do we have that problem? No, because most of the small business owners who feel that way are just operating that same way. They’re not looking for help. They would not ever really talk to me about it because they just figured, “That’s just what we do until we die.”
Phil: That’s the expectation, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Susan: And so they haven’t gotten to that point of, “I’m not doing this anymore,” or, “This is too much,” or in some cases, something bad has happened, “My spouse is threatening to divorce me because I’m not spending any time with them,” or, “My kids are coming second to everything else and my kids are mad at me,” or even in a work world where a client didn’t end up going with you and you lost $100,000 sale because you couldn’t get your act together enough to send them the proposal on time.
Phil: Yeah, yeah.
Susan: And so some big things like that are usually what clicks in the owner’s mind that, “It’s too much,” and they can’t scale; they can’t exit; they can’t do anything; they’re stuck. This is all they’re ever going to have. And once they get that, now they’re ready to change. Their mindset has changed because they know they can’t do it that way.
Phil: It’s almost like the ability to scale is viewed as a function of the hours in the day and, “I don’t have any more hours in the day, all the eight hours in the day, thus I can’t scale.”
Phil: But, yeah-
Susan: But that’s not how you scale. It’s not by one person.
Phil: It’s by the whole organization, right?
Susan: It’s the whole organization and it’s the process that you put around it so that things can happen without you and you still get the outcomes that you expect and want. Doesn’t mean that the people are all going to do it the way you would or as great as you would. That’s not actually necessary. Good enough is not a bad word, right?
Phil: Yeah, yeah.
Susan: So you have to let some of that go in order to scale. And if you’re looking at your business from a servant leadership mentality, then what you’re providing is helping others. And if you’re holding your team back from helping more people, then that’s not fair to them either.
Phil: It’s true. It’s true. The Great Resignation, this term, has been coined in the last couple of years.
Susan: Months really.
Phil: Months, yeah, yeah. How has that affected what you guys do? Are you seeing a lot of folks out there that are starting startups or they’re jumping into spaces they’ve never jumped into before? Is this affecting you guys at all?
Susan: Well, it’s definitely bringing more light to the fractional-type employee. So that’s one thing that I have seen is that fractional C-level person is becoming more and more understood and more and more people have heard of it as an opportunity for them.
Phil: Makes sense.
Susan: As far as hiring people, it hasn’t really affected me. The people that we bring in are experienced and have more need for less work than more work. So those are the people that work with us. They’re very experienced and they’re looking for that. But with my clients, it does affect them because they can’t hire. And so we’re able to help simplify that process a bit or get that fulfillment process down on paper so that the owner is less involved. And the owner can focus on the bigger picture or on the business analysis or whatever it is, as opposed to something else. So something else goes off their plate to somebody else on the team or is automated or is sent to an outsource company like a bookkeeper or something like that.
We can help them figure out what those things are and how to let it go and how to keep it gone. Because that’s the other thing too: is that’s when you get nervous as a business owner, right? Sales are down a little bit. You’re like, “Oh, I’ll just take it all back.” “Okay, well, you’re undoing everything and you’re losing that focus on, ‘No, it’s your job to go get the sales, not to do the rest.'”
Phil: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Phil: It’s the proverbial guy in the mineshaft that’s chipping away and he’s like, “I’ve been chipping away for days and I’m not there yet,” and he’s like an inch away from getting to that point he wants to get and he turns away, that he just keeps sticking with it.
I’m wondering, the number of folks that are moving out into starting their own business, that there’s going to be this heightened need for folks like yourself and that they have a vision of what they want to do. They think they know the basic process of what they want to do and they’re going to make that leap. But what they don’t realize is there’s a lot of what’s called connective tissue that the organization that came from had that they no longer have and they’re going to be in a spot of feeling like they’re reinventing the wheel when they don’t have to.
Susan: For sure. I think some eyes are going to be opened as to maybe the benefit of having that structure and working for someone for some of these people. I used to manage a creative team and one of the creatives came to me one day and said, “I just can’t wait until I get so successful that I can just create what I want.” I’m like, “When do you think that’s going to happen?” Because even if you go and start your own business, you’re still not creating what you want. You’re creating what your client wants and needs. That was, to me, the very basics of the difference between somebody who works for “the man,” right?
Phil: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Sure, sure.
Susan: I’m doing the air quotes anyway. I don’t know if you see us, but versus somebody who works for themselves. It is a very different mindset from your expectations. Your expectations aren’t that, “Oh, great. Now, I can go make more money and do what I want.” That was never going to happen. If those are your expectations, just back off now and go look for a job. You are developing and growing a thing that’s living and breathing that you have to care for all the time. It is like a needy child. There’s always something.
I can’t even tell you the number of things that I’m like, “Oh, I want to try that. I want to try that. Let’s try that”. And you have to cut yourself back to the things that you’re capable of doing the highest priorities, they’re going to make the biggest impact and you can’t do all of it. And I think some of the people that are leaving because they just don’t like the culture, “So I’m going to start my own business and create my own culture.” You’re also going to find out how hard that is.
Phil: That’s a task in and of itself, yeah.
Phil: Yeah, yeah.
Susan: So I think there’s going to be some eye-opening things that happen. I do think that there will be some of these people that succeed for sure. Because when you have a horrible culture at your company, the ones who usually leave are your best people. And your best people probably have the capability of figuring the stuff out. And so if that’s what’s happening, that is going to probably give us a whole bunch more small business owners and a whole economy of everybody serving each other which is really interesting to me.
Phil: Yeah, yeah. You guys localized here in Collin County. Do you guys work throughout the Southwest?
Susan: We work nationally.
Phil: Nationally, okay, okay.
Susan: We started as a virtual company in 2016. I worked for a company virtually for six years before that, so I’ve been virtual since 2010. So none of this stuff is new to me. When I decided to start the company, I was like, “We’re going to serve nationally. It doesn’t matter. The beauty of being in Texas is we’re in the middle. You can serve the East and West Coasts.”
Phil: That’s right.
Susan: And it really gives you so many more people to seek out, to sell to, to work with and-
Phil: Sure, sure. Social media and branding and stuff like that, how has that changed over the years for you guys?
Susan: Oh, wow. So when Beyond the Chaos started, I was like, “We’ve got to be everywhere.” And a year ago, two years ago? I was like, “I cannot stand being on Twitter or Facebook. I cannot stand it.” So I took a quick look to see what kind of traffic are we driving from those places. and we-
Susan: So did we have a presence? Yes, if somebody went and looked, we had a presence, but I’m like, “That is not worth it to me,” and I just deleted all the accounts; just flat out deleted them.
Phil: Really? Okay.
Susan: We’re on LinkedIn and I am very active on LinkedIn. And that is much more of a professional social media.
Susan: Some people that left Facebook are oozing some Facebook stuff into it and so, “Stop doing that!”, but I enjoy being able to read the stories of my colleagues, a little bit longer posts than you would see in these other places too. So you get to know them a little bit better. We are active on LinkedIn. We have a website. And, we have a blog. We send an eblast out. So we do a lot of that kind of thing and play with the SEO in regard to-
Phil: Yeah, yeah. I was talking to someone the other day in the marketing space, more social media-oriented, and if I get this right, they said that since COVID started — and this is probably no big surprise — there’s been 17 times more attempts, interactions, and associated interactions on LinkedIn, Facebook and another social media presence he was talking about, from a professional setting. And so his question to me was, “How are we distinguishing ourselves from the masses that is 17 times greater in size than it was a year prior to that?” It was a convicting question, “Am I telling my story the way that I want folks to hear my story as best possible?” I don’t know the answer to that, but I know-
Susan: The fun part about that is marketing never ends.
Susan: It never ends. We have told our story, in many different ways and it evolves and it grows and it learns. So what we’re saying and the words I use today are not the same words I used five years ago at all. Even though in my head, it’s the same thing, for some, the same thing. But in the words I’m using, I’ve learned, “Oh, when I say we help you manage projects,” that is not all we do. And so you think, “Oh, great, we can hire a project manager,” and that’s not what we’re doing. We’re doing much more operational-level work with a business owner. And so it evolves over time as you learn, “Oh, that’s not landing” or, “That doesn’t make the sense I thought it made in my head when we started saying it.”
Phil: Yeah, often people speak in their value statement that is a two-dimensional statement if you will, and they see it as a very descriptive statement about what they do, but the consumer hears a one-dimensional statement from a sophisticated all-encompassing statement. Our intent was a three-dimensional statement.
Phil: Yeah, and so I was thinking about that and it’s like, “Am I using nomenclature that is specific to my industry that I think is actually simple?” but then when someone else hears it, it’s based on their interpretation of what the meaning of those words are. And then I went off and get another cup of coffee and spiral, was out of control. So yes, yeah.
Susan: And that just keeps going. It just keeps going.
Phil: It does, yeah.
Susan: And even right now, we’re saying fractional COO that’s scaled down for small businesses. I think that that is being heard the way I want it to, but we have to get that feedback. So when we get that feedback and they’re like, “I don’t understand what that means,” as you start to explain that to more and more clients — we’ve probably served about 120 clients over this timeframe — and as you serve more and more, you start to get that answer more clear in your head. So your clients are the ones that tell you what they need to hear.
Phil: Totally, totally. What do you see coming up in 2022? So what are some hurdles? What are some challenges? What are some successes, I think, that you guys think you’ll have?
Susan: So there’s a couple of things that we’re looking at. One, I’m looking at more targeted partnerships with people. We, like many people, got EIDL loans during COVID, but our revenue stayed the same. I got it just in case, right?
Phil: Sure, sure, of course.
Susan: Just in case, very inexpensive money in our revenue state and I’m like, “Okay, we’re good. We’re good.” So I decided I was going to spend it on marketing. Those things that I would have never spent that money on, let’s see what impact they have. And what I learned through 2021? And that was the same two things that at the end of 2021 were driving my sales were the same two things before all that.
Susan: Yeah, it’s relationships, people I know, and word-of-mouth referrals. Sometimes it’s a speaking event or something like that, but I count all of that as word of mouth. The other one was my partnership with Teamwork.com which is a project management tool. I’m listed as an expert on their site. I have a little page and it links back to us. Those two places are where we get all of our leads. Very minuscule amount comes from anything else. So I’m like, “This partnership thing is what works, and — that’s strategic partnerships with other people.”
Right now, I’m in a partnership with Trusty Oak, out of Austin, which is a virtual assistant company. They help place virtual assistants which works great with us. It’s perfect … We are usually recommending that people get virtual assistants and they are often getting people that need more than what they can do. So it’s a perfect type of relationship. So I’m looking for things like that with other partnerships with software tools or EOS implementers or those types of things for 2022. That’s really my focus on where I see lead generation coming from.
Phil: So the marketing efforts didn’t pan out, as you thought. That’s interesting. I’ve always thought that the better and faster technology gets, and I’m not even articulating it well enough to understand really how technology guides our lives, but it will never be able to replace the human-human interaction. No matter how good it gets and fast it gets, it just won’t. There’s a dynamic there between two people that you cannot replicate. And so-
Susan: Nobody buys from Beyond the Chaos who doesn’t trust me. And so I remain the face of the company, but that was one thing we did make a change about last year. We changed the website to be less me and more company. I’m still the face of the company. I still speak. I still do the sales. And while I still do all that, we wanted it to look more like a company and less like Susan’s company.
Phil: Got you. Got you.
Susan: So that was one thing that actually was a cool interesting marketing tool that we did last year. It has not dramatically affected things one way or the other, but I do think it makes people understand more what they’re going to get when they come to us.
Susan: So that’s one thing for 2022 that I’m looking for as a challenge and will be an interesting different approach. The other is that, and fingers crossed and if Goldman Sachs is still listening to me, I still want it. So Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program and they’re taking 10,000 small businesses over the country and putting them through … It’s essentially like a mini-MBA. They spend time in each area of your company. You get a mentor. You have homework. Your end deliverable, your final, so to speak, is a strategic growth plan for your business. And I am really hoping to get acceptance. I’m supposed to find out this week.
Phil: I hope they accept you. So yeah, I pray that they will accept you. I don’t know much about that, but I know you’d be an invaluable asset to all that.
Susan: Oh, thank you. It would be a great learning opportunity. I can’t even imagine. I’m happy to absorb that. So that’s my other goal, but of course, if they don’t accept me, I’ll have to come up with a new one.
Phil: Are they moving headquarters to Dallas?
Susan: I don’t know if that’s the case. Everyone’s moving to Dallas, right? But-
Phil: It’s more of who’s not.
Susan: Probably, probably, but this is the Dallas one and I actually go to class in person all day once a week.
Phil: Really? Okay.
Susan: Yeah, that’s going to be cool too.
Phil: Back to being a student. Yeah.
Susan: I’m just excited to go be around people all day.
Phil: Yeah, yeah. I’m learning more about that. I didn’t know anything about that. That sounds really cool that they’re making that investment, taking the initiative to do that.
Susan: Some of my colleagues have gone through it and said it’s amazing.
Phil: Okay, got you. Wow.
Susan: Like anything though, you get in what you put in or get out what you put in.
Phil: Got you. How can people get in touch with you? So I’ll spread this to all ends that I’m aware of and so I want folks to hear your story and have more questions for you and then get in touch with you. How can they do that?
Susan: So I’ll give them a little free giveaway. Go to beyondthechaos.biz/ebook and you can download our free ebook that gives you Three Ways to Remove Chaos from Your Small Business and a little bit of structure on how to do that. If you’re not into reading the ebook and you’re like, “Too much, too overwhelmed,” all of our contact information is on that page too. So you can email or hit me up on LinkedIn. All of that is on that page.
Phil: Awesome. Well, this, this has been wonderful. And if I don’t cut us off now, I know we could talk for a couple more hours.
Susan: Probably could.
Phil: Yeah. So it’s been a pleasure getting to know you and I know we’ll talk soon as well. Sure, we’re five, eight miles from each other, so-
Susan: I know. We need to go do something in person.
Phil: That’d be great. I’m actually looking forward to an invite to one of your dinner parties since you’re doing something new every single time, so yeah.
Susan: That could happen. We’ll have to figure out how we can make that work.
Phil: Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you don’t invite us, we will invite you to one of ours. So we do that as well quite a bit.
Susan: Cool. Turnabout is fair play. I like it.
Phil: It is. It is. Well, hope you guys have a wonderful Christmas …
Susan: Thanks, you too, Phil.
Phil: … everything as well.
Susan: And thanks for having me. This was great.
Phil: As well-