Developing processes so that you, the business owner, are no longer the bottleneck, is vital. Susan talks to Neil Ball, host of The Entrepreneur Way podcast on her strategies for success as an entrepreneur. Listen as they discuss:
- How to take the first step
- How to make sure you hire the right people
- Susan’s best advice and other resources for entrepreneurs
Please find the full audio transcript below:
Neil: Hello! It’s Neil Ball here. Thank you so much for joining me today on The Entrepreneur Way. The Entrepreneur Way is about the entrepreneur’s journey. The vision, the mindset, the commitment. The sacrifice. Failures and successes. I am so excited to bring you our special guest today, Susan Fennema. But before I introduce you to Susan, I have a quote for you by Louise Hay: “I choose to make the rest of my life the best day of my life.” The Entrepreneur Way asks the questions, so we all get the insight and inspiration, and the ideas to apply in our businesses. Susan, welcome to the show. Are you ready to share your version of The Entrepreneur Way with us?
Susan: Yes, absolutely. Let’s go!
Neil: Don’t know where we’re going, Susan, but I’m really looking forward to it. Who knows where we’ll go, but it sounds very exciting, so let’s have a great time on the show today. And thank you very much for being here.
Susan: Well thank you so much for having me, I am really looking forward to this.
Neil: Susan Fennema is the CEO, AKA Chaos Eradicating Officer, of Beyond the Chaos. It’s a consultancy helping small business owners to simplify their operations, and manage their projects, so they can grow their businesses and get their lives back. With over 30 years of operations and project management experience in professional service industries, Susan is on a mission to improve American society exponentially.
When not making multi-course dinners, she enjoys Texas A&M football games, and Black Hawks hockey. She lives and works from her home in McKinney, Texas, with her husband, dog, and cat. Susan, can you provide us with some more insight into your business and personal life, to allow us to get to know more about who you are and what you do?
Susan: Sure. So, interestingly, I feel like the reason I have decided on process development and project management as my career path is just an innate, God-given talent or skill that I was clearly born with. When I was just three years old, my mom, she sewed a lot. She sewed a lot of clothes for us, and she had this huge button collection. I still actually have the buttons, now, on my desk. And I would sit while she sewed and I would sort these buttons, at three years old, by color, by shape. I would put them into a graph-type format with the greenest ones, and then fewer blue ones, and then a couple of red ones in order. And I was already creating structure out of chaos even then.
Susan: So from there, moving into my major in college, I majored in journalism. And at that point, I thought I’d be a writer. I am a pretty good writer, and I ended up not wanting to be a reporter. I thought maybe copywriting in advertising, so I came out and learned that, wow, that’s really hard. That’s really hard, to get to be a copywriter in an ad agency.
I did eventually work for an ad agency, I spent 10 years in Chicago Ad Agency as the operations director, where project managers, they call them account service managers, I think, but project managers reported to me. So I helped that whole company structure itself out of silos, and into a workflow that made the agency flow a lot more smoothly.
Susan: And so after that, I was a little tired. You know, there’s a reason that you don’t stay in advertising over 40. It is exhausting, and it takes a lot of energy to do it. If you’ve ever watched Mad Men, we weren’t actually drinking in the hallways all the time, but the rest of it is that much pressure. I decided I was ready to move on, and I found a software developer in Texas who was looking for a project manager/operations person, and I could work from home. I ended up moving back to Texas at that point and starting my first virtual job almost 10 years ago. It was actually almost 11 years ago that I started that job.
Susan: So I’ve been virtual for that long, and when I decided it was time to move on from there, I started looking at job descriptions. And throughout my career, I had always worked directly for small business owners. Always reporting straight to them, where I was helping them, being their right-hand girl, all of that. And I was looking at these job descriptions, and I’m like, “I do not want a job. I want to do what I am doing to help these small business owners. But, on a much grander scale.” So Beyond the Chaos was born.
Neil: And you are the first Chaos Eradicating Officer I’ve ever spoken to.
Susan: I might be the only one out there. I hope so.
Neil: That’s an amazing title for somebody who works in a business called Beyond the Chaos.
Susan: It’s intended to be fun. At my last company, we did fun titles, and I wanted to tie that in. What I do can be boring and structured. So I wanted to be able to convey that, no, we’re going to do it in a fun way.
Neil: So you work with small businesses, because that’s who you want to work with. What’s the process you go through when you start working with them?
Susan: So we have a two-part process. We start with discovery, essentially. We spend about a month getting to know the business owner, learning how they navigate their systems. What tools are they using, what types of projects are they running, what types of clients are they serving, and where are the pain points in their business? We can find that that ranges anywhere from, “I don’t even know how to keep all of my email accounts straight,” so from that all the way up to, “I think our business is running pretty well, except we have some people who are really stressed out and I don’t know why.”
Susan: So it can range anywhere in between, and we then put together an implementation plan for them. And that implementation plan is, in priority order, it tells them which issues we should tackle in which order, and it tells them how we can help them implement it. So as opposed to how most consultants go and see a small business owner, and say, “Hey, here are all the things you’re doing wrong, and here’s a list of things you should do!” We actually even come back and say, “And we will help you do them so you’re not on your own.” We implement as well.
Neil: What do you enjoy most about what you do?
Susan: Giving people their lives back. That’s really part of… it’s one of the main reasons we do this. Working with small business owners, I see how it affects their whole world, and how they can’t have dinner with their families, or don’t, really. It’s not that they can’t, it’s that they don’t. That they don’t go to their kids’ games, that they don’t take care of themselves. And we prioritize that, and make sure that a small business owner knows that unless he has his family and his health, and his spiritual guidance, then what’s the point of the rest of this? Work will always fill in the blanks, so we want to give you your real life back.
Neil: What drives you to do what you do?
Susan: Peace of mind. I have always found that just even when I was a project manager, having that structure, and having everything in its place, where it goes, I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night afraid I forgot something. And sometimes realizing I forgot something major. Having that structure gives you such a great peace of mind, that you’re able to be in the moment in the other parts of your lives, including sleep.
Neil: How do you relax when you’re not working in your business?
Susan: Oh, you’ll love this one.
Neil: I’m looking forward to it.
Susan: I plan things.
Susan: That is absolutely one of my favorite things to do.
Neil: What you do in your job, you plan things. And then you relax, and you plan things.
Susan: Right. Right. When is my next dinner party, who is coming, what am I cooking? I love to cook, and so planning a dinner party, to me, is almost as fun as actually having the dinner party. I always laughed that people are like, “Oh, well, cooking, that’s so creative.” And I’m like, “Well, it is.” But you also, I lived in Chicago. And I lived in an 800 square foot condo. I’ve served 12 people 7-course meals in that small of a space, and to do that, it’s got to be planned or else you’re eating dessert before you even get the main course. So I plan things to relax.
Neil: Do you have any entrepreneurial role models?
Susan: Oh, for sure. I’ve worked for so many, and I’ve learned so much from all of the ones that I worked for. But the one that’s my main role model, I never worked for. It’s my dad. He is about 80 years old, he is owning now his last business. He was in the manufacturing world, as opposed to professional services. But he’s manufactured all sorts of different things at different companies that he has owned. And he’s always done it with great integrity, with great leadership, and pride. He’s so proud of being able to make things like that happen.
Susan: And so making things happen I learned from him, having systems in your business, I learned from him, and the biggest thing I learned from him was what it meant to be a CEO. And I’m not there yet, but his comment to me was always, “You know you’ve made it when you don’t do anything. You just set the tone.” And that’s one of the things I aspire to, and it’s one of the things I hope to help some of my small business owners aspire to, is that ability to work yourself out of a job, essentially. You’re just leading and you’re setting the tone of how you want your business to run.
Neil: Folks, we’ve talked to Susan about her business and her personal life. Now what we’re going to do is go back in time, talk about the time before she was an entrepreneur. Susan, what difficulties did you have to overcome when you started your business?
Susan: Well, when I first started out, I traded a job that was not exactly what I was loving, for a client that was the worst. It was like jumping out of the frying pan, into the fire. I did not even feel like I had started a company, I felt like I went to work for a bad, bad boss. And that was very difficult for that to be… When the opportunity came across my desk, I’m like, “Oh, this is great! I get a client and it’s a well-paying client, and I have a bit of a fear of if I’m going to get enough clients, so this will be fantastic.”
And I realized real fast that I didn’t… I traded better for worse, here. And I needed to fire my first client. So that was a big difficulty. But man did it help me figure out what I wanted my business to be like.
Neil: Did you have any doubts that delayed you starting your business?
Susan: Oh, yes. I absolutely did. I didn’t start it until I was 50 years old, so clearly I’m a late bloomer. Security was really my big doubt. I liked knowing. I’m a planner. So I liked knowing how much money I was going to make on which day every week, and that I was taken care by a company, essentially.
Neil: So why didn’t you plan it earlier?
Susan: I know, right?
Neil: You say that you’re a planner.
Susan: I know. Well, it’s funny. I have most of my friends and family are all small business owners, and when I did actually start my business, you hear stories of people starting their businesses and their friends and family are like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you doing? That’s a bad idea.” Mine all said, “Well, it’s about time!”
Neil: What mistakes did you make that slowed your journey?
Susan: Well it’s that security thing. It’s believing that security came from someone else. Once I realized that if you provide your own security, then you’re secure, is very, very different from relying on someone else. And that held me up. That security thing held me up for a long time, but once I was able to really click… And it’s not that I didn’t know that, I always knew that, because I had plenty of people telling me that security doesn’t come from a company. But at some point I just clicked to it, and my eyes opened, and I’m like, “Oh, yeah. Security doesn’t come from another person, or another company, it comes from within you. What can you create?” So it took me a long time to get to that point.
Neil: Well I think someone else said this, and I thought this was an interesting way of looking at it, is that when you work for a company you have the security of one company providing you with a paycheck. When you have your own business, for most people they’ll have more than one customer, so they’ve got lots of customers, effectively, providing them with a small part of their paycheck. So lots of paychecks effectively make up your paycheck, which is more secure.
Susan: Yes, exactly. That’s a great way to look at it. I think Marc Cuban said something like, “Once I became an entrepreneur, I can never be unemployed again.”
Neil: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Susan: So even if you don’t have as many clients as you want, well, you’re working. You’re selling. Marketing. You’re doing all those kinds of things, so you always have a job, so to speak.
Neil: What are some of the things that you did before you started your business, that would be helpful tips to some of the listeners who haven’t yet taken the first step on the entrepreneur way?
Susan: So, mine of course is going to be all about planning, and being ready to go. First, don’t just quit your job and throw up your hands, and say, “I’m going to go start my own business.” That’s short-sighted, and it’s going to be substantially harder than that. It doesn’t matter how good you are at your trade, or that task, it doesn’t matter how good of a project manager I am. It matters how I figure out how to incorporate that into a business model, which is different from being good at my job.
Susan: So be prepared. Make sure you have a website ready to go. Do you have some branding in place? Find a list of contacts, friends, colleagues maybe, and figure out what message you’re going to share with them. If you’re, “Hey, I’m starting my new business, how can I tap into my network to find clients?” Figure out how you’re going to talk about that without being pushy or desperate, and make sure that you’re communicating to the right people. If you’re still working, some of those colleagues you might not be able to talk to yet. You might have to talk with friends and family first, and then after you quit your job, you might be able to tap into some of those colleagues that it would be a weird, awkward conflict if you mentioned earlier.
Susan: But work your way there. Don’t just one day turn it off and decide you’re going to go do it. You’re going to be in a lot more of an insecure place. Especially if you’re security-focused if you do it that way.
Neil: Folks, we’re now going to jump forward in time, and talk to Susan about when she became an entrepreneur. Susan, do you think culture is important from the beginning in a business?
Susan: Not necessarily if you start as a one-person show. Because you don’t have to create a culture when you are the business. But once you add one person, yes. It’s absolutely important. Because now that one person needs to be conveying and working the same way you do, and be on the same page as to where you’re going, who you serve, and what that delivery, that fulfillment, whatever your fulfillment is, is to the end client.
Neil: Yeah. Certainly see your perspective on that. The only thing I would think with that is that ultimately when you employ your first person, you must have an idea of how you want the business to run. So even at that point, you’ve perhaps created some culture, or idea of how the culture is going to be.
Susan: You do create that if you’re running it on your own. You’re creating it as you go, you just don’t realize it, you haven’t written it down. Once you add a person, the first person, whatever role that is, you know what you expect of them. The importance is how clear can you be in setting that expectation so they can meet it. And that’s part of the culture. We’re clear on our website about our values. I hire to those values now. I didn’t for the first person, but I do now. And whenever I have someone start working for me, I mail them a poster of those values to put in their home offices. Since we’re virtual, it’s not like we can post it in our kitchen wall for everyone when they come in for break.
Susan: But that, to me, is important to be on that page, because all of them that work with me, and for me, have to understand that improving the life of that small business owner is our culture. And then how you do it, we talk about that and we try to do that consistently. But every small business owner is different as well, so it’s so important to know that expectation and to convey it, because nobody can fulfill that if you’re not sharing what you expect.
Neil: How do you make sure that you hire the right people, so that they fit with the culture in your business?
Susan: Sometimes, you don’t know. I started by saying I’m going to hire advertising project managers. Because if you can do advertising, you can do anything. I still believe that’s true. And some of it is your interview questions. I think making sure you’re asking how they do things, and not things that are just yes or no. Listening to their language. One of the things that we are is tech-savvy. So we give a few little tests that are not only the answer that matters, but how did you use the technology I asked you to use to get me the answer?
So some of it you can test. You can share it, because if you say, “These are our values, these are what we work with all the time,” and they don’t relate to them, they might self-eliminate. And then once you get them, if they are not a cultural fit, you need to figure out how you’re going to remove them, because that will affect everyone on your team.
Neil: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Is there anything that if you’d known it when you started out, it would have helped you to shortcut the learning curve?
Susan: Absolutely. Keep it simple, is what I wish I had known. And that’s one of those lessons, again, we all probably know it, but how you apply it to a consulting situation is a big challenge. We didn’t start out with a straightforward process. We started out with, Susan will do consulting. And when it gets to project management, then we’ll hand off to a project manager. But to be able to get it to serve more people, we had to somehow systemize the process through our discovery and implementation, our plan, our format. So that it was simple and could be repeatable. And to me, in retrospect, when you’re working by yourself, everything seems simple because you don’t need to have someone else do it. But until you can repeat it, it’s not simple. Until someone else can repeat it, it’s not simple.
Neil: How much does gut feeling influence your decisions in your business?
Susan: It affects a lot who I work with, as far as team, clients, and provider partners. That feeling you get sometimes, when you’re just like, “Something here is not right. There’s something squishy going on that doesn’t seem right.” I trust that instinct a lot. It’s just not worth it, especially if you’re questioning a morality or an ethic, or something that doesn’t fit your culture, or even somebody you think, “Oh man, this would be a great opportunity to work with this customer, but it doesn’t feel like it fits into our model.” That’s one that’s probably harder to say no to than the others.
Saying no that the client doesn’t work is a lot harder than a provider or an employee, but it is important to trust that gut. It’s, man it can make a huge difference in going down that wrong path. Like my first client that I was talking about. That just, I should have trusted my first gut instinct there, which was, “He just seems really difficult.” I learned to trust that gut a little bit more after that.
Neil: Yeah, it’s one of those things though, isn’t it? You sometimes try to use logic to justify ignoring your gut sometimes.
Susan: Yep, for sure. And I feel more like your gut should drive maybe the noes, and your logic should drive more of the yeses.
Neil: What makes you uncomfortable as an entrepreneur?
Susan: I’ll tell you one of the biggest things that makes me nervous, is when I look at my schedule for the week and I’m not talking to a new lead. When you’re worried that your pipeline’s not full enough. I think that’s when I get the most nervous, because I feel like that we have this amazing secret of how we can change people’s lives. So the selling part isn’t the part that makes me nervous, it’s the not having someone to talk to about it that makes me nervous.
Neil: And what do you think are some of the secrets to success?
Susan: Confidence, for sure. Without question, you have to be confident. You have to be a leader, even if you are a solopreneur who’s a single consultant or a coach. That confidence plays into everything, it’s how clients trust you. There’s a quality of leadership involved in that, that you have to display. That when you’re taking someone down a path, that they can trust that they’re going to end up in the right place. And that’s a lot of responsibility to take on, and so you have to be confident that you can lead them that way.
Neil: Life is made of constant change, whether we like it or not. And many people say that the only constant in life is change. Susan, how do you try to keep up with change?
Susan: The main way is listening to my clients. I have so many small business owner clients, from all over the country. They’re various sizes. I mean, some are solopreneurs, all the way up to about 15. One of them is 25. And what are they doing? You’ll go in, and you’ll know all these tools, and then all of a sudden somebody’s using a tool that’s killing it, and you’re like, “Oh, I better learn what that is.” So that’s absolutely one way. I’m also a member of a Vistage group. It’s a mastermind-type company, it’s national. And I am a member of a fractional C-level group, which is really interesting.
Susan: So other people like me, who fractionally serve as CFOs, CIOs, CTOs, I would be the COO, in that group. So interesting to see how they are tackling problems in their business, and what I can learn from them. And what value I can provide to them as well. And lastly is listening to your friends. I mean, having those conversations. I’m blessed to have friends and family that are small business owners, so I listen to them a lot, too.
Neil: What is your favorite book on entrepreneurialism, business, personal development, leadership, or motivation? And can you tell us why you have chosen it?
Susan: Well this is an old school one that I’m sure, I hope, everyone has read. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey. To me, when I learned about the working styles. And now they have all sorts of different personality profiles that people take all the time. But when I hit the working styles part of that book, and working in the different quadrants to be effective, it was really eye-opening to me to understand why, as a driver who is a control specialist, and a do things now, and is fast-paced, and I talk about facts in business, why I had such a hard time working with somebody who was more of an amiable, steady person.
And it helped me figure out so much about working in a task and tell oriented world, versus working in an ask and people-oriented world, and how I needed to change my… not my personality, but my communication, so I could be heard by others.
Neil: Folks, when you have a busy life, listening to audiobooks is a great way to expand your knowledge in the time when you may be doing other things, such as driving, or when you are at the gym. We have a special offer for you, of a free audiobook of your choosing. To choose your free audiobook, go to Free Audio Book Offer. As long as you’ve not already signed up, then you will qualify. Susan, are you ready to speculate about the future?
Susan: Sure, sounds fun.
Neil: Oh, good. What one thing would you do with your business if you knew that you could not fail?
Susan: Oh, this is already on my radar, so this is a good one. I want to start a small business conference, where small business owners can come together, learn from each other, speak to each other, be speakers, and get that experience that they can also take out into the world, and socialize together. I have been to a couple that targets the very small business owner, and they’ve not been good. And so having that bigger conference that is at maybe a travel destination, that small business owner makes time to go to, I think that’s the part that worries me about the failing, is would they make time to go to it? I think that would be awesome. I would absolutely do that.
Neil: There’s one thing for sure if you don’t put it on, they definitely won’t make time to go to it.
Susan: Well, there you go. That’s a good point. Are you saying you’ll invest in it with me?
Neil: I like the way you did that. I don’t know when it is. I don’t know where it is yet. Tell me more. What skill, if you were excellent at it, would help you the most to double your business?
Susan: For sure the financial planning part of it. If I had more of a CFO, financial officer approach to how I was running the business, I think it would help double it. Not necessarily double the business, but double the profit. And doing better budgeting, looking at my numbers. My weak point is definitely knowing my numbers.
Neil: How could you get better at knowing your numbers?
Susan: I know, this one’s hard, right? Well, one, you have to start working on your numbers, and not ignoring them, and just looking and seeing how much you have in the bank. I am a planner, so I budget, but I don’t control it as much as I should. And if things are going well, and I’m making money, I tend to get more satisfied with it than investigating more as to how I can use the money more wisely.
Neil: In five years from now, if a well-known business publication was publishing an article on your business, after talking to your customers and suppliers, what would you like it to say?
Susan: I would like it to say that Beyond the Chaos has affected US society exponentially, by changing the interactions that overwhelmed small business owners have with their families, their teams, their clients, and their vendors. And how exponentially each of those people have taken it out into the world and talked to their people differently and better.
Neil: It’s now time for three golden nuggets. Susan, what is your favorite quote, and how have you applied it?
Susan: My favorite quote is by President, or General, Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” And I apply this all the time in working with the small business owners I work with. A lot of people will say, “Oh, I can’t plan it, because it just changes.” Okay. Well, that’s true, but Eisenhower planned D-Day, and then had to move it because of weather.
So you really think that the act of planning it didn’t help him be able to do that? The act of planning lets you assess everything that could change or affect your project and your system, so that when something changes, because everyone’s right, it will, you know how to adapt to it.
Neil: Do you have any favorite online resources you can share with us, that will be useful for other entrepreneurs?
Susan: My resources online tend to be more along with the software tool world, and yes, I would recommend people look into Teamwork, it’s a project management software. It’s awesome. We use that as our favorite. It is a higher-level software, so if you are new to project management, look at Asana. The other online resource that I almost can’t live without as a virtual business is Slack. And that, if you’re not using it to communicate with your team, especially as you’re remote these days, it’s such an amazing tool to allow for actual, not only water cooler talk, but brainstorming talk online. So those would probably be my two favorite online resources, and they both have great knowledge bases to teach you how to use them.
Neil: What is your best advice to other entrepreneurs?
Susan: Systemize your business. Figure out how to develop a process, so that you are not the bottleneck in every single step.
Neil: Folks, if you didn’t manage to get a hold of Susan’s favorite resources, you can find the links on Susan’s show notes page. Just go to TheEntrepreneurWay.com and search for Susan, or Susan Fennema, in the search box. Susan, is there anything else you would like to add about your business?
Susan: We have been serving small business owners for the past five years, and we’ve probably served 50 to 60 small business owners. And from that, we’ve been able to create a little book about three ways to remove chaos from your business. So that would be something that I would suggest people go download for free, if they wanted, at beyondthechaos.biz/ebook.
Neil: Well thank you for that, Susan, and Susan, thank you for coming on the show today, and telling us about how you’ve got to this point on your journey as an entrepreneur. As we’ve talked and you’ve reflected on that journey, you’ve shared some of your philosophy and your thoughts about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. You’ve shared some examples with us, and you’ve given us some great advice as well. So thank you very much for coming on the show today.
Susan: Thank you so much for having me, it was a blast.
Neil: Susan, you are very welcome, I had a great time as well, and thank you. Folks, you have been listening to Neil Ball, chatting with Susan Fennema on The Entrepreneur Way. If you have enjoyed the show, please share it on social media, and subscribe to our email on The Entrepreneur Way website. Also, please add your comments on Susan’s show notes page on The Entrepreneur Way website, at www.TheEntrepreneurWay.com, and search for Susan Fennema in the search. Thank you for listening, and until the next episode tomorrow, goodbye!
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