In this video, Susan Fennema speaks with Tom Freedman about Beyond the Chaos at an event for the DSBE membership group. They discuss how establishing systems and processes in small businesses will help unload the things business owners shouldn’t be doing so they can concentrate on the areas they need to lead.
Please find the full transcript below…
Tom Freedman: All right. Well, thank you for being on today. Susan, may I have your permission to record this, please?
Susan Fennema: Absolutely.
Tom: Any lawyers on here? Did you like that? Right? Okay. So let’s get started. So today’s topic, we’re talking about what to do when there’s too much to do. It is so nice to have you on the call today or in the meeting today. You have a crazy amount of experience in operations and now as an entrepreneur yourself, really trying to help establish systems and processes in small businesses and unload some of those things that they shouldn’t be doing to concentrate on what they could. Is that a pretty accurate statement there?
Susan: That is a pretty good gist of what we’re trying to do. We really work with our clients to get the owner out of the day-to-day details of their operations. So that might also entail some software and a few other things, but the process is a huge part of it.
Tom: Yeah, I love that. So you already told us a little bit about what you do, and I love that. Right? So let’s get into the next question, which is by far my favorite. We’re all entrepreneurs on this call. Let’s go ahead and hear about how you got started here. Why does your company exist? Tell me the founding story, and hopefully at least one or two juicy details that are really entertaining. Ready? Go.
Susan: All right. So I spent most of my career working for small business owners as the right hand to that business owner, and I always was the process person. I didn’t know this was a job. I didn’t know that even project management was a job when I first started. That was not in my world. All the businesses were very small business owners, and they have all the same character traits as the people that I still work with today. They’re doing too much, they’re overwhelmed, and they needed somebody to help them get out of that. I was that person, and so I went to work for many people. I learned so much from all of them.
My worst experience was working for a big company, which I only did for a year, and I got out as fast as I could because you cannot effect fast change in a big company. Everything takes longer. I like to see things move. So I eventually came to work for a software developer as the operations project manager in 2010. The really cool thing about that was it was a virtual company in 2010. I kind of started to outgrow that company. In 2016 I went to look for jobs. Every single one of them, I was like, “I would rather stab my eye out.” I cannot do this. I also realized I don’t want to GO to work anymore. I want to work from home. All of it came to life. I had had a side business where … Beyond the Chaos was a side business where I was helping people clean out their closets, essentially personal organizing. I realized I could transition that to essentially helping business owners clean out their lives. So we took that to the masses, and we are now helping multiple small business owners instead of me just helping one at a time.
Tom: That’s great. I love the story. Look, there are so many different founding stories, right, where you sort of get fed up. You’ve had enough, right? I’ve worked for somebody else, right, and I’m done with it. Right? I’ve been looking for jobs now, but jobs are no longer the answer. Then you find a problem that you can solve best. Right? So I love that.
Susan: Well, and there’s security. There’s security that you think you have in a job too. I was raised by a small business owner. So there was a lot of, “Oh man, he worked so hard. He worked so many hours, he didn’t always know where the next money was coming from.” So yeah, I wanted the security of going to a job. Well, guess what? Those are not secure. They can fire you any day for any reason, whether you’re doing a great job or not. So if you are able to put that security onto your own responsibility, it actually gives you more control over it.
Tom: Yeah. Yeah. That’s good stuff. How scared were you when you started your business and went out completely on your own? I know that you probably took a very responsible take on it, and that is starting a side hustle, right, so that you already have something going on and then sort of graduate into your own, which is without a doubt, a little smarter to do. But how scared you were when you pulled the plug and said, “This is it.” How did you feel?
Susan: I was not scared. I was relieved. Yes. I was also blessed because I did have a husband who had a great job, so we knew we could fluctuate the money a little bit. It didn’t have to be all on me. So I had that, and I had a huge network. I mean, I had been working with all of these people forever, so I knew who to reach out to immediately, and it was a relief. I landed my first client in the first week.
Tom: Oh man, that’s awesome. So you just said client, and you landed your first client. Who do you work with, perhaps what you started with and where have you evolved? Who are the people that fit your model best?
Susan: We really haven’t evolved. It’s been the same type of client the whole time because of my passion for small business. We work with business owners who have a staff, or I should say a team. So they don’t have to be employees; they don’t have to be full-time even. But a team of 25 people or fewer, where they are actively the owner. The owner is active in the day-to-day. They can’t step back. There’s a lack of ability to take a vacation. We always tend towards professional services, so software development, marketing, advertising, and that’s my background. So I bring a lot to that too, as well as we’ve worked with lawyers, accountants, and a few odd ones too, that you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t even know something like that existed.” One of our clients works with energy compliance where they help businesses reduce their energy use. I mean, kind of cool, but still a professional service.
Tom: Yeah, no, that’s perfect. So with all these people that you work with, right, there are problems. A problem with what they have is legitimately they’ve got too much on their plate and they don’t know how to solve that. Where do you go first, if you’re talking to everybody on this phone right now, right? I’ve got problems in all different categories. I mean, if you want to hear me rabble on 99 problems, right? My problem is not what the song suggests. My problem’s probably more on the other side and going, “I’ve got a lot of things to solve, not just one.” Right? Then ultimately, what do we look at first? Where is it? Is it sales? Is it marketing? Where do we go?
Processes in Small Businesses: Start with Fulfillment
Susan: Go to your fulfillment first. Because if you can’t deliver what you’re promising to your clients, stop selling it. You have to be able to deliver. You have to be able to deliver consistently, and you have to have something that you can deliver as a product, even if it’s a service. But as a product the same way every time. So if you can’t do that, focusing on the rest of the stuff doesn’t matter.
Tom: Yeah. I think that’s a good perspective. Right? If I’m hearing you correctly, you would rather have one client that you can service just fantastic, right, do the right things, fulfill it, right, versus 50 that you can’t fulfill at all. So what you’re saying is get your fulfillment down pat and then concentrate on really growing and expanding. Correct?
Susan: Absolutely. Because if you don’t do it that way, you just make astronomical problems for yourself. You’re constantly dealing with somebody who’s mad, somebody who wants their money back or won’t pay you. You’re dealing with a staff that doesn’t know how to fulfill for your clients if you’re using team members. Everything is chaotic. It’s not systemized. That should be the part, that fulfillment part should be the part as the business owner, you can just say, “Hey, I don’t have to do anything. That part just runs.”
Tom: Yeah. Yeah. I can’t tell you how much time until I actually created systems and processes for the fulfillment part. If you have to recreate the wheel every single time, it leaves zero time for everything else. So I can definitely see what you’re saying. So there are a couple of different things that you can address these problems with. Right? You can hire, right, bring on an employee. You can outsource or bring in a contractor. You can automate, right, bring in technology to do it, or you can create these systems and processes. So the question for you is where do you fall into this mix for your company? Right? Then what should we look forward to? In other words, if I’m literally evaluating how do I solve this problem, right, how do we do that? Which one is the best for me? How do you evaluate that, Susan? I mean, what’s the exercise you go through?
Establish Processes in Small Businesses
Susan: So Beyond the Chaos has done all of these things, but the thing is that until you have a process, hiring probably will not succeed. Outsourcing probably will not succeed. Automation will definitely fail. So you have to start there because if you don’t — if you’re not delivering something that’s repeatable — you don’t have something that can scale. So figuring out what you deliver that is repeatable is really important. Then once you get there, now you can start figuring out how to automate that or how to hire people to support that. Whether that’s hiring as an employee or outsourcing to a 1099 or another company, that will become more clear when you are more clear on how it works.
Tom: Yeah. Okay. Let’s back up for the whole crew right now listening. So number one, you’re saying start with your operations, your fulfillment first. Right? Look at those problems, those glaring issues. Right? Then after we know and identify what are those major problems in operations, the next thing that you’re saying is, look, hiring somebody to do it or bringing in a contractor or throwing some type of technology at it per se, is not going to answer any of those questions or those problems until we get the systems and processes down that those things could follow. Is that right?
Processes in Small Businesses: The Tool
Susan: Absolutely. One of my favorite things I hear from so many of my clients is, well, I got insert project management tool here: Asana, Trello, Basecamp, Teamwork.com, you name it. I got that, and it didn’t work.
Susan: Okay. Well, it does. All of those that I listed work for a ton of companies, but it’s a tool. Unless you have a process around how to use the tool, it’s not going to work. If you have a hammer and a nail laying next to a picture, the picture is not going to miraculously get hung on the right wall in the right room at the right height. You have to have a process.
Tom: Yeah, that’s a great analogy. Look, I don’t mean to offend anybody, and I hope with this audience that we have, people can take this the right way. But if we’re going to look at everything in your business as a tool, that includes your employees, your contractors, everything, right? We’re just going to loosely say it is a tool. Even though I have, obviously we love our people, right? But ultimately everything that comes into the cogs of this machine, yourself included, has to fulfill some type of activity or function that specifically creates effectiveness and efficiencies. Without that system and processes down the path, right, you just can’t move forward, right?
Susan: For sure.
Tom: Okay. I love that. Okay. So let’s do this. I want to really ask this question, right? In today’s world, because we’re seeing in … I mean, just staggering numbers right now, Susan. If you look at the data behind it, and actually I can pose the data for you guys so you can check it out. There have been more businesses than ever in history right now, thank you, COVID, and technology of solopreneurs and small businesses, small businesses that are leveraging outsourcing technology systems and processes to the point that they’re doing 10 times the amount of performance, right? Can you operate as a small business nowadays without using outsourcing or some type of automation, technology, and stuff like that? Can that even happen nowadays?
Susan: I don’t think it can because the requirement to go faster is there. There’s your technology, right, you can’t do it on paper. The requirement to have the best people and to find people — many of us are challenged to find people — especially if we need to bring them into our office, and have them onsite. So the ability to outsource nationwide or even globally is huge. If you are not tapping into those options, you’re going to fall behind. Can you do it all yourself? No, the answer’s no, we cannot. You can do a very limited amount of things on your own. Even then you’re probably not good at a lot of the other things that surround that. So even if you’re an excellent consultant, you want to be a solopreneur and only do one-on-ones, maybe you still aren’t good at invoicing. So maybe you still need a bookkeeper. Maybe you still aren’t good at setting your own appointments, so maybe you need a virtual assistant. There are a bunch of things like that that can still help you do your job better, even if it’s just you.
Tom: I like that. So let’s back up and go to this now, operations first, fulfillment first.
Tom: Then you’re going to go into your systems and processes, and then we’re now going to actually select how to solve that problem. So if we choose and figure it out, then let’s say we get our systems and processes in place, right? We’re there. Now we’re going to outsource, right, in that category. Maybe it’s fractional, right? Maybe it’s direct outsourcing or something like that. How do you identify the right one for you? Maybe what are the one, or two questions that you ask to say, yes, this is the right fit for me? Because look, we’ve probably all on this call tried this before. Right? We’ve tried outsourcing, we’ve tried automation, we’ve tried all these things. Sometimes it works, but oftentimes it does not. How do we manage that risk?
Susan: A lot of times it doesn’t work because you’re not being clear on what you need them to do because you don’t have your processes in place. So do you have a clear job description of what you’re asking that person to do? Have you tapped into the written process of what you’re expecting them to do? So for example, my job descriptions are all written. Take, for example, a virtual assistant, who checks my email and manages my calendar daily based on this process. Well, we have a whole long list of things that have come up that they can review and handle themselves. So that gives them the tools to succeed. It lets me hold them accountable because I can come back and say, “Why didn’t this happen according to the process that I understood we were following?” You’ll either find out one, okay, they’re horrible, they can’t follow a process, they got to go. So you find that out fast or you find out your process wasn’t clear. Now you’re working together with that person to fix the process. So it not only fixes the current issue, it solves the HR issue that you’re having with your employee, and you just made your team better.
Tom: That’s really solid information. I like that. We’re going to go into the last question, right? I think we’ve come to this pathway, and thank you for that, Susan. We literally now know that we go operations first or fulfillment systems and processes. Now we know actually how to find the right outsource or a fractional or something like that. My last question is this. This is not your first rodeo. You’ve been doing this thing for a long time. All of the people on this call want to grab. They want to elevate from getting out of the weeds. Do you know what I mean? In the day-to-day grind, these daily activities consume us all. If you could leave us with one or two things today, right, as a takeaway to go, hey, listen, let’s go ahead and apply this to our conceptual framework, our life, our business to make us better, what would that be?
Susan: I got two things. The first one is to track what you’re doing every day and then start rating what kind of job it is. So is it an admin job? Is it a technician job? Is it a manager’s job? Is it something no one else can do but you? Put a price tag on what you would pay for those roles, and now you’ll start to see how you can’t afford not to outsource it. So that’s exercise number one. Don’t just do this once. Do this every quarter. Because guess what? You’re going to always be the bottleneck. So this is your way too, of figuring out what processes you need to create to get things off your plate. The second thing, and I swear by this, I don’t even know how I would make it without it. Calendar-block your time. As business owners, we can let our business and that world sap the life — literally — sap the life out of us.
Tom: Know that too well.
Susan: Be intentional about prioritizing your spirit first, whatever that means to you. Your health. Are you moving? We have to move. Your family and friends, make sure your kids’ soccer games are on the calendar. You are the business owner. You are in charge of your time, so you can go. Don’t give an excuse that you can’t be there. The work will fill in all the holes. It’ll fill in all the other holes. So prioritize that stuff first. That theory is kind of stolen from Steven Covey’s rocks, pebbles, sand, and water in the vase. How do you get it all to fit the best?
Tom: Wow. That’s so powerful. I think you’re right with regard to this… I’ve seen it firsthand. If you really don’t take full control over your calendar, it will take full control over you.
Susan: Yes, it will.
Tom: Well, Susan, I really appreciate you being on today. I hope the audience learned a little bit about some of the things that you’ve said here. If anybody has questions, please put them in chat. I’m also going to follow up with this for Susan’s information in the follow-up email that will come. If you need to connect with her, please do. Susan will also see the chat. Should I say this again? Transcript. We did it. All right. So if you have a question, she may be reaching back out to you to answer it later. I’m going to-
Susan: I absolutely will, Tom. It’s not a maybe. I will absolutely do it.