Operations is the fundamental throughline that moves your business forward. The paths and processes from sales, to onboarding, client interaction, off-boarding and so much more are what determine the growth and scalability of your business. Getting into the nitty-gritty details of operational success isn’t the best way for you as a small business owner to spend your precious time. Listen as David Knight, owner of Angel City Data and host of FMDiSC—the largest, and most influential FileMaker developer groups in the world—talks with Susan about helping business owners let go and the role of a fractional COO. Susan highlights the importance of process and stepping back so you can grow.
- What is a fractional COO
- Helping a small business owner let go
- The importance of process
- Developing a framework for growth
- And more!
Please find the full video transcript below.
David Knight: Good morning, everybody and welcome to the November 2021 FMDiSC. We’ve got some really great content today. We’ve got Susan who we’re going to be talking with, in just a second. We’re also going to have a nice little break after Susan, little breakout rooms which we’ve been doing recently. We’re going to do a quick, just probably about a 15-minute review of PauseOnError for those who were in attendance and have things to share.
She has labeled herself as the CEO or Chaos Eradicating Officer, Beyond the Chaos. We’re going to have a little chat. Susan and I are going to just kind of kick around and I’m going to just kind of ask her some questions. We’re going to learn a little bit more about what she does and how she can help various people and how she got where she’s at and so forth. So Susan, good morning.
Susan: Good morning.
David: Give us a little bit, before you ever touched anything in the FileMaker world, before you knew that such a thing existed, what’s your background?
Susan: Well, surprisingly in 1988, dating myself, when I graduated from college the first company, I worked for used FileMaker. And I actually used it to set up POs and invoices and that kind of thing. At that company, I was a desktop publisher, now known as a production artist, which is the same as graphic artists, that kind of thing.
And then from there, I went on to companies with mail order catalog type work. I helped set up the whole process. So we started from designing the products all the way to photographing the products, getting them into the magazines or catalogs, printing them, and then distributing them. And I don’t know if you’re already hearing me talk in process form, right?
So even way back there, I knew the steps. I was actually the keeper of those processes. What are all the steps we go through and how do you have to schedule that out to make those print deadlines? Back in those days, if you were printing a big catalog — it’s probably still true today — if you didn’t make the time on the press, you could get pushed off for weeks. So that was always the hard deadline.
Moving from there, I went to Chicago and became the director of operations at an ad agency there. Worked there for 10 years and essentially, I managed fresh out of school project managers. Coming into that environment, advertising is tough, really tough. Deadlines are not flexible at all. There is no understanding when something is met. It is hard-nosed; the people are not always nice.
So really learned how to manage a lot of personalities there. And I was responsible for pulling that whole company together. They were working in total silos. And guess what we did? We called Molly Connolly and she brought in a FileMaker solution for that agency.
And Molly and I worked together for about 10 years honing that and improving that tool until I left there, I decided I wanted to come back home to Texas. Molly actually helped me with that. She helped me find MightyData who needed a project manager/operations person to help out so I jumped into that role for six years and then off and running on my own.
David: That’s really one of the things I always find interesting, I think whether you’re a database designer, or I think we all, many of us see things in rows and columns. We like to organize and so forth. But from a world of operations, I think you can’t do what you do without having a pension for wanting things to be orderly. And we see that going back in many of us going back decades, right? Like, oh, as a kid, I used to organize my Legos by color or by size. We see those things, right? In ourselves back in the early days that lead to our careers.
Susan: You know my button story?
Susan: Okay. So I actually asked my mom for these buttons so that I could remind myself and keep them on my desk. Way back when I was three or four years old, my mom was a seamstress, she sewed. And to keep me busy, she would dump the buttons out on the floor for me to play with. Well, I was organizing them by color and by size and building little graphs out of them at four years old. So there’s just something in me that makes me do that, I’m sure it’s in you guys too.
David: It’s a defect, right? That’s what it is. So all of a sudden, you’re flirting with FileMaker solutions like many of our customers do, a lot of our clients and we all touch it. That’s half the people that I know professionally that aren’t FileMaker developers have touched it or used it and so forth. But all of a sudden, you’re in Texas and you’re working with Kirk Bowman, you’re working with Martha Zink, you’re working with a number of people that many of us know and you’re immersed in this whole, not just I’m helping in an operational standpoint, but I’m part of this bigger little ecosystem, this community of people and so forth. How is that?
Susan: For sure! I’d never experienced anything like it. The first year I went to DevCon, I was walking down the hall with Kirk and Molly and Martha and I had no idea that I was walking with FileMaker rock stars.
Susan: And I’m walking down the hall and people are actually stopping and they’re like, “Oh, that was Martha. Ooh, Ooh, did you see Molly?” Those kinds of things that I was like, “What is going on here?”
David: I’ve just joined Aerosmith and I didn’t know it.
Susan: I’m like, “Who knew that this is a thing?” And so I give a lot of credit to Kirk for talking me up in the community, getting me involved and known in the community. And man, I love it. That’s why I keep going back to DevCon even though I’m not working in a FileMaker shop anymore.
David: It’s funny we see a lot of people in the FileMaker space that are developers and plugin manufacturers, things that are directly related. But even for those of us who’ve been around long enough, we see a lot of people who have left and their primary focus is another facet of business or what have you and they miss, or they try to maintain that link to the community just because there’s such great energy and such great comradery in there and so forth too.
And then, as you have progressed, let’s not talk about Beyond the Chaos yet because we’re going to. But as you progressed in the FileMaker community, next thing you know, you’re boothing. I remember seeing you and Martha holding down the booth a number of times at DevCons and so forth and then all of a sudden, things like Women of FileMaker, Women Innovating Together and all of a sudden, and then PauseOnError sort of happening and so forth and all of a sudden, this woman Susan over here is starting to kind of float to the top with a lot of the other sort of leaders in the community in certain areas. So how did that feel?
Susan: Well, I have a problem that with any organization I’m a member of, I can’t just be a member. I always end up leading something. And when Molly asked me if I wanted to take over Women of FileMaker, I thought this was a great opportunity to really grow it into something more. She had set the idea of let’s do scholarships, let’s make this a real nonprofit. Well, when I got in and I started saying, “Okay, where’s all the money?”
And somebody’s got some in their bank account, somebody’s got some in their bank account. I’m like, “Okay, I don’t think this is going to work. We need to become a real nonprofit.” And so my contribution was naming it something that could be incorporated. We could not use FileMaker in a corporate name. And we asked and they said no, and I get it. It makes sense to me too. I wouldn’t have wanted my name used in somebody else’s company name either.
That’s why we went with Women Innovating Together and we were able to actually get a checking account and do some things like that that have started to make it a real organization with an official structure, as opposed to just being women who lunch. And I give a huge shout-out to Molly for starting down the path of going beyond just women who lunch into a greater good for the community.
David: Yeah. I mean, if nothing else one of the old dogs here of going to DevCons over the years, and by the way, kudos to Barb Levine, one of my dear friends here who was one of the early proponents of let’s get the women together.
Susan: For sure.
David: And I think some of those early lunches and so forth where you could count the members on a couple of hands, and now there’s like this whole wave of just incredibly strong and capable women in our community. I think we’ve really seen this thing going from this tiny little spec inside this greater community to like no, number one, it’s big, number two, it’s strong and number three, it’s growing.
And I think it’s been really a good testament to you guys organizing and helping bring in some structure and just visibility to what you guys are doing and how you work. And then obviously putting really good agenda items, bringing people to the conference and what you guys focus on. Those are really great items as well.
Susan: Well, and the other beauty of the organization is giving women the opportunity to lead something. That’s why I’m no longer the president of it, or as we call it “lead facilitator”. But we wanted to make sure that it continues to pass to other people who have the opportunity to grow it and learn. Because you’re learning more than basic FileMaker stuff when you’re doing that. You’re learning how to lead and grow things and some business acumen that you might not get otherwise.
David: Right. So that’s sort of your path through the verticalness of going through the FileMaker community, but at some point along the way, working within a FileMaker team was like, “Okay, I’m taking a different path,” and you started Beyond the Chaos. Tell us what the germ or the genesis of that was and how it had continued to kind of spawn.
Susan: So Beyond the Chaos was a brand that I had had for several years before I started pointing it towards business. In fact, back in 2008 when I was working for the ad agency, I was thinking, “Okay, I’m going to get laid off like everyone.” Sadly, they did not lay me off, they just kept giving me more and more work for the same pay.
But my whole plan was, okay, here’s a brand I’m going to take from cleaning out rich ladies’ closets, which is essentially what I was doing with it — I was a personal organizer type thing — and I was going to switch it to business. I’m like, this applies to business. I’ve always worked for small business owners, one at a time, helping them do what I do right now, which is simplify those operations, build a structure, get the owner out of the day-to-day.
And so when it came time… when Kirk was moving on to Art of Value and those types of things when it came time for me to exit, I looked for a job and I’m like, “I hate everything. This all sounds awful.” And now I also have this beauty of working in a virtual world, which I did not have the experience of up until then. And I just could not dream of going to an office and sitting behind a desk and earning people’s trust again and all of that. And so I said, “Let’s take this to the masses. Let’s stop working for one business owner at a time, let’s work for a lot of them.” So there we go, jumped into this.
David: And you talk about… I mean, one of the… I like the verbiage obviously chaos eradicating officer and so forth, but one of the things that you kind of use to describe what you do, which I think is interesting. Number one, I want to ask you, let’s clarify what you see as operations just to remind those of us who are like, “Okay, where does that start and stop within an organization?”
But you talk about fractional COO, right? You’re not just saying, “Hey, let me come in and run your shop. You’re talking about a sort of a hybrid model for how and where you fit into operations. So again, tell me about operations, tell me about this fractional COO vision you have.
Susan: So operations is what makes your company go, not finances, not marketing, but that process of from the first time you touch a client: what are all the steps to the last time you get a great review or a great testimonial from your client. What are the steps for that process, your sales steps? What is your transition, your fulfillment? Your off-boarding?
It can also include how you’re running things with your team. How do you onboard your team and train them? How do you make sure you have enough people and make sure they’re allocated properly? So it’s really all those little details that most small business owners just really hate to do. And it’s managing all of that and that’s operations, right?
David: It’s really, I mean, one of the things that I always sort of feel, which I think you’ll probably agree with is a lot of the times operation factors in with the planning, but the CEO is the visionary, we’re going in this direction. How are we going to get there? The execution, the execution is great. Operations are going to make this vision happen, right?
Susan: “Make it happen” is always something that I have in my vocabulary. You can love the idea, but unless we make a plan of how to make it happen, it’s just a dream, right? So let’s put into action what to do to make that happen. I’m not a great visionary. I think working for visionaries and making their visions come true is where my area of expertise comes into play.
And also taking the compassion and understanding of the small business owner and what kind of world they live in, what their responsibilities are, and how it can impact their family, friends, coworkers, team, vendors, clients — and changing, changing that approach, lightening their load so that they can change the way that they’re interacting, I take that on as well. I feel that that’s an important part of what Beyond the Chaos offers that some others might not get involved in.
David: There’s an art to grabbing what’s on the whiteboard of the chief and being able to go, “Great. What do we need to do to execute that? How do we break that into digestible actions? Who do we delegate those too?” A lot of that, it sounds like, notwithstanding the fact that I think you helped spot, this is going to be a problem and this is going to be a… some of that as well, right?
Susan: Okay. So you want to quadruple your revenue over the next two years but you don’t have enough people and you’ve already got all your clients mad at you because you can’t fulfill what you have. Maybe that’s not that realistic. Let’s take that back a step and let’s make sure that the people we’re working for now are happy first and then let’s figure out how to scale that. So there’s a lot of considering the scalability for the future involved as well.
David: I think in my career as a software developer, I started with whatever the boss wants, give it to him. And I think as we get a little more mature, we get a little more experienced, there’s a certain amount of responsibility to say, “What are you trying to do?” And if your stated plan has holes in it or is flawed to have the wherewithal to be able to push back and say, “Hey.”
Like you just gave an example, “Hey, your existing customers are not happy, let’s not talk about growth yet but let’s see if we can get to that.” So there’s a certain amount of pushback that has to happen as you guide business leaders who are used to being the smart guy or gal in the room and all of a sudden, you got to go, “This is great, but here’s what I’m seeing and here are some things that we might want to help you modify to get you there.”
Susan: We say a lot of hard truths as gently as we can.
Susan: And I’ll tell you that skillset is important for everyone in this meeting. You’re working with clients who are going to ask you for something and you’ll be like, “Oh, I know how to fix that. I know how to solve that.” And you go in and do it and all of a sudden, you find out, “Oh, it wasn’t worth that many hours or that much money to them to do that. That was just their off-the-cuff question.”
And so if you’re not thinking through, how does this affect the whole picture, it’s a big thing. So developers need to look at that too and say the hard things. It’s really our responsibility as professionals to share that with people who don’t know better.
Susan: So the fractional thing, I didn’t answer your second question.
David: Yeah, no, please.
Susan: So fractional C-level employees have become a huge rage these days. You’ve probably heard of it more in the finance area, CFOs coming in. They might work for you for half a day, take care of all your financial issues, and then they’re out until next week or next month or whatever. It’s the same concept for fractional COOs. So companies that cannot reasonably afford or that I would never recommend to bring a full-time, experienced operations officer on board can get the expertise of these fractional C-level employees, so to speak, in an affordable way.
So, instead of spending $200,000 plus per year, you’re looking at a fraction of the money and all you need is a fraction of the expertise really. Quite honestly, in many of the companies, I work with, I could push and push and push until you’re exhausted if I was an employee there. So phasing our work down so that it’s less is good for you, it’s good for us and it gives those businesses an ability to grow in those areas that they would’ve not ever thought possible before.
David: Right. Again, most of us are software shops. We see similar circumstances frequently with customers. Oh, they’re reentering data twice into multiple systems, or they don’t have the ability to run reports. We see these things; they don’t have a mobile component to their workflow and so forth. So we always kind of see these things that happen over and over.
What are the things in your business when you’re doing this eval of an organization and so forth, and you go, “Oh, the top things that I always see at many of the small businesses that we work with, these are the things that…” Is it delegation? Planning? Execution? What are the things that you broadly see across many of the businesses that you tangle with?
Susan: Well, you named three already.
David: Oh, look at me.
Susan: That’s great.
David: I could work for you.
Susan: Right, thanks. We’re done. No. There’s also a feeling that you have to tackle everything of the small business owner. And we work with companies of up to 25 people. So, the business owner is very involved in the business. But the lack of willingness of the small business owner to let go because they don’t trust what’s going to happen. And part of that is because they’ve had their fingers in everything, they’re doing everything.
They might have a process for it, but it’s in their head. It’s not something that they could share with someone else. When they hire team members, they struggle with being able to bring them up to speed and sharing the expectations clearly. So a lot of those team members will either fail because, in the business owner’s mind, they didn’t do what they were supposed to do, but the team member is going, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” So we see a lot of that, that’s another symptom.
We also will see where the owner and the team are just reacting to the squeakiest wheel. So, there’s no planning of, we’re going to do this on this day and this on that day and that means we can’t take a new client for two weeks or two months if you’re really busy. But there’s a little bit of suffering under that way to success where it kind of gets out of control and you don’t know what’s next until somebody yells at you because it’s not done.
Susan: So, we see a lot of that. And then sometimes in some companies — we just did this with a marketing advertising firm who works in the financial world — they had so much success so quickly and they had hired great team members. So, all the team members are handling their area, but nobody knows what’s going on, right? Everybody’s handling it differently. There’s no way to common… a common process running throughout, they’ve all just figured it out. That gets you scaled to a certain place, but then you’re stopped again.
Susan: So, lack of software is another one. We have a lot of situations where people don’t use any project management software. And another example of that — I hear this a lot, “Well, I tried Asana and Basecamp and Trello, but none of them worked.” Okay, well, it’s probably the process around how you’re using it, not the tool because any of those tools will work as well as Teamwork.com, and ClickUp, whatever you pick will work, you just got to have the process. You can’t put a hammer next to a nail and pray that the picture gets hung on the right wall at the right level. You have to put a little bit of process around the tools.
David: Right. You allude to something that, again, I think we’re organizing day data and we are as software developers, we’re often, I got to build a screen and what’s the implication of this screen? Well, the user’s trying to do X, Y, and Z and therefore we want to build a workflow that pulls these tasks together and so forth. I think a lot of what you do has some similarities.
But one of the things you spoke to which resonates with me is that sort of siloed or tribal knowledge, oh, Marg has been at the company for 40 years and she does this one thing one way and nobody else understands how or where it works. You talked about hiring people who maybe can do their tasks, but don’t understand how it all flows together into the greater good and how it all fits the vision of where the company’s going. So it sounds like you see a lot of that as well.
Susan: We see a lot of that. Another thing that we see is owners feeling like they can’t hold their team accountable for things.
Susan: There’s no way to say you did that wrong because there’s no process. There’s no written expectation of what it’s supposed to be. Part of what we do is train them on the process. And once that process is trained, now you can manage the process.
Susan: So someone messes something up, you say, “How did our process go wrong?” And now you and the team member working together to improve the process instead of butting heads and being at odds.
Susan: And it not only makes that leadership better, but it also makes your process better. Now you’re still going to run into some people who are like, “Oh yeah, I didn’t even look at that.” Well now you know you have an accountability problem, and you can hold them accountable to that and then manage the person.
David: Yeah. That’s an interesting approach because there are times when you want to take the emotion out of the situation. A perfect example of that, just a sort of a metaphor. You sit down with a customer, you tell them, “I’m going to build you this system, it’s going to cost this much.” There are really broad expectations on both sides. I’m going to make this money, I’m going to get the software I need.
But if you write it down, if you establish, here’s the design spec, here’s the contract, here’s when it’s going to be delivered and so forth, now you have a written thing that you can say, “Hey, the software design document said it was going to do X, Y, and Z. It only does X, Y, it doesn’t do Z.” You’re not mad at the person, you’re holding everybody accountable to this plan, right? This agreement. Your point that you just made strikes me as this process is what we’re trying to achieve and if we get off of it, it is the document that we can be frustrated at, but not necessarily the people.
David: And if the document needs to be adjusted or modified, that can happen, right? But you’re not anchoring these intentions back and forth at people, you’re using something much more objective.
Susan: Well, and it gives you a framework to grow into because maybe this person has run into something they haven’t thought of before because your business hasn’t taken that next step or worked with that type of client. And it gives you the ability to evolve. I mean, your processes grow and evolve with you. You don’t write them once and then forget them. That’s a waste of money. Don’t do that by the way. That’s a bad waste of money.
They have to grow and evolve with you and the company, and as your software changes and all that. And it shouldn’t be a weight on you. As a small business owner, right? We like to be flexible and do what we want and all that kind of thing. And so I have to say. I did this yesterday; it was perfect. I’m like, “Ooh, I’m going to send this proposal out to this new client.” Yeah, I don’t know how to do that anymore. I have a team member who knows exactly what to do.
I would have to go look up the process and follow the steps to do it correctly. It’s there if I need it. It’s there if the team member goes, but having that ability just to say, “No part of me not knowing is that it’s not my job. I’ve got to let that go.” So that process can evolve. As she comes up against something where she’s like, “Ooh, am I supposed to copy somebody on this?” Oh, okay, great question. Maybe that needs to go into the process document of how you find that out. So you can evolve and grow as you change.
David: Right. As you start to execute, one of the things that we’ve done some at Angel City, we’ve done some personality evaluations at times and some of these types of things. Obviously, I would imagine within you’re sitting down, you’re working with a group of 15 people at a small business. You’re probably looking at what is the CEO, what kind of personality, what do we see in terms of him, who are the people surrounding him that are going to be… I’m going to pull into the equation and help instill in them some of these processes, some of these operational plans, and so forth. Do you look for certain kinds of people within an organization like that?
Susan: Absolutely. A perfect example. We’ve been working with The Scarpetta Group for a long time, they’re a long-time client. And Joe is definitely a visionary. He does not love the details. And so we’ve been handling the details up until he hired Beth Murillo as his new developer. That’s what she came in as. But I identified very quickly, this is a process-oriented person, this is a detail-oriented person.
I could tell from the questions she was asking me. So Joe and I were able to work it out where we were able to hand that off to her. She is now able to do the project management and they have that in-house. When you can find those people in-house that are going to be good executors, you always want to empower them. Because they’re going to take more ownership and they’re going to be there day-to-day and it’s great.
David: Yeah, there’s a great fit. I have that sort of person for me, Angela in our office. She’s my right hand. She takes the dribble that comes out of my mouth and says “okay, this means we need to talk to the accounting people”. This is what our developers need to do or our project managers need to do that. Having that person who can be very supportive and a bit more structured can just really help implement a lot of those things in a much faster way than you can get to yourself sometimes
Susan: Totally will change your world if you have that person. Totally.
David: Yeah. When you are… I hear you talk about, you’ve mentioned project management. In working with you, I know also you’re penchant for different tools, communication styles, and so forth. So what are some of those things on the wheel that you’ll bring to an organization? We’re going to look at utilization. We’re going to look at time entry, or we’re going to look at how we communicate when we communicate. What methodologies do we use? What are the things that you find yourself doing in terms of what you’re executing within an organization?
Susan: One of the first things we always do is a discovery process because everybody has a little bit of a different problem. Some might be using their tool well, but everybody’s using them differently. And so streaming that into one method, and training that is one. Some people have outgrown their tools.
Maybe they were using Trello because it was free and now they need more. And so we will advise on what tools to move to. We recommend Teamwork.com, by the way, it’s an awesome tool. You’re able then to help them and train them on that tool. Help them actually pull the projects that they have in there, create some templates. So we’re actually doing the physical work there for them.
Susan: So that it’s not overloaded. The other thing that we look for is, are all the team members on the same page? Do they understand what their jobs are? If you ask one person and get an answer and then another person, you get a different answer. Okay, there’s something that’s not being communicated well. So what’s the truth and then how do we disperse that?
David: How do you, on that particular point, Susan, how do you…let’s just say, you’re talking with again, within our community, you’re a developer, you’re a project manager and you should be doing A, B, and C and when I ask you, you seem to be doing B and C but not even aware that A is on your… How do you instill that? Not just go, “Hey, you’re doing it wrong,” but how do you instill that you keep that from happening again?
Susan: Right. So there’s your accountability. So first is the process clear to everyone? Okay, let’s take an example here. John Sindelar‘s method of recording everything before you deliver it, is to make a little movie, right?
Susan: The number of developers who have ended their movie with a curse word and stopped to fix it. That’s part of quality control and it’s part of training a client. Some team members do it great. They love it. That’s their method of testing their work. They love that it’s perfect. Others are going so fast that they skip that part and just tell the client it’s ready. Let’s say that that’s happening in our organization. Okay, how do you handle that?
Well, one team member is moving faster than the other one. They’re able to accomplish more because they don’t have to back up and redo. The other team member is struggling often to manage their workload because they’re interrupted nonstop with things that didn’t work. So teaching to that point of, “Hey, did you actually make the video?” Okay, that’s going to help you with all of this. You have to identify the problem in the moment as opposed to a lecture from above, right?
Susan: I can tell you to make that video until the cows come home. But if you don’t want to do it, I have to wait until you’re in your pain point to say, “Do you see now how that could have solved the problem?” Just like kids, right? Don’t touch the stove until they touch the stove. It’s the same kind of thing. The other is that when you’re a project manager when you’re working in that realm, you’re not the boss of everyone, right? You’re the coordinator of everyone.
And so you have to adjust your style to be different to the different people depending on what they need and what they need to hear. But the other is you have to know when to get the owner or the boss involved to say, “This person can’t or won’t do this.” And we either need to invest in some training or you need to consider a replacement. And that’s a hard conversation too.
David: Yeah. One of the things, when we are… As software developers, I often consider us agents of change. We’re coming into change a process and then hopefully improve it and make things better. Getting the very first thing is to get a broad stroke, senior-level buy-in. The decision-maker, yes, we’re going to do this and it’s going to be great because of these four or five things that Dave and his team are telling us. That’s big.
And then it allows me to walk within the organization and go, “What are you doing over here?” Oh, I’m doing X, Y, and Z. Well, the boss, his goals are to do A, B, and C over here and I’m not quite seeing that. So, I like to sort of, let’s see how we can get you in step with the boss. And then of course, if you don’t get that buy-in if you’re getting resistance from the golden rule.
The golden rule is what is the mission statement of what we’re here to do, right? We’re here to improve your processes or what have you. If you’re not allowing us to do that, and this is what the boss is asking, sometimes you got to tap the boss on the shoulder to either again, put the foot down, I think to your point on a worst-case scenario, do we have to get this person out of the organization?
Susan: We’ve had some interesting experiences where we go into groups and somebody loves, they love, this employee. This employee hung the moon. Well, as you start to put accountability into place, that employee tends to be the one that’s not doing any of it. And so it doesn’t matter how great you are at coding or how great you are at selling. If you cannot work within the organization’s structure, you’re not very useful.
David: Right. And you-
Susan: That’s a hard thing to think through.
David: Again, a lot of these small businesses, everything’s organic, everybody’s focused on what’s on their plate. One of the things that you were saying reactive, I always find small businesses to be sort of playing defense a lot. And to use a football metaphor, they’re blocking, they’re keeping things, bad things are happening, and we’re trying to block this and keep it from happening as opposed to going, “We need to get the ball and go down the field and score some points.”
And we can’t get to that because we’re playing so much defense on being pummeled around by some of those things. But when you’re talking about these people who can be blockers or potential issues — it would seem like you need some sort — do you use some sort of measurement or is this just sort of, wow, I’m floating around in this organization, nobody looks at the things I’m seeing and I’m noticing this, or do you guys actually track and tabulate things on that order?
Susan: We don’t track or tabulate, as you can. You can say, “Look, this person has 25 late tasks and all the clients are mad at them. All their projects are the ones off the rails.”
David: It’s pretty simple.
Susan: You can point to those things. You can also point to, nobody else can get along with them.
Susan: Or in our case, a lot of the time, especially when we’re working with software developers, we can’t get a hold of them for two weeks, not even a could you respond and tell us you’re too busy.
Susan: Those kinds of things. That’s where it’s easy to identify when you’re more in the muck, so to speak than you’re looking at a finished product or looking at an interaction between people, just that top line.
David: Right. One of the things as a small business owner and as the visionary for our company, we’ve got a number of people that help us with our vision and we’ve got a great team and I always try to exercise them to think everybody should think a little bit as creatively as they can and so forth. But every once in a while, you’ve got 20 agenda items. Oh my God, we want to increase our marketing and be better at project management and all that. How do you whittle those down again, as, as database developers, the same deal? We want to have a system that does these 40 things. Let’s start with these three or four things. How do you triage or how do you prioritize?
Susan: So we look at it doesn’t matter how much you sell. If you can’t fulfill properly, it doesn’t matter. Keep selling, all you got is mad people and giving people money back and all that kind of thing. So we start with the fulfillment process.
Susan: Are you delivering what you said you would deliver when you said you were going to deliver it? That’s really the starting point. And then we’ll back out to the before and after parts. That part sometimes takes a lot of effort. And the other part of that is in that fulfillment process, are all your clients having the same experience? Are you walking through it in a systemized way that could be scalable so that you could hire five more people and do 20 times the work? Is that set up that way or is it too convoluted or complex that you can’t scale it?
And so we look at that and then we look at sales. Now we’re generating, this is working, everybody knows what to do and how to execute it. Let’s start working on that sales process so that you’re not dropping leads and you’re making sure that your proposal gives the team the information it needs to execute properly.
Susan: And has all the information in it that is required. And then what is that handoff from sales to fulfillment? And is that smooth and clear? So always we start with fulfillment and making sure that you’re executing to the people that you’ve already won first.
David: Nice. That’s interesting that you started that fulfillment and that you, number one when I ask somebody about their business or their process, I like it when somebody responds quickly like that’s our DNA. When I asked you that question, you said fulfillment. It wasn’t even, well, sometimes we do this and sometimes it’s like… Are you getting the job done well? And you went right there and that speaks a lot to your internal processes of how you attack a company issue and answer that one word, fulfillment. Is fulfillment happening as expected? That’s fantastic. I like that.
One of the things that strikes me — there are times, so again, I keep pulling the parallels between what we do as software developers and you because I see there are so many similarities and it’s very interesting. The way you work is very… It’s what a lot of us should be doing as business owners but it’s what a lot of us should do as software developers as well.
So, as a software developer, every once in a while we go, “Oh my gosh, we need somebody who’s an expert at Unix, or we need to get somebody who’s super checked out on Oracle Financials, because we need to integrate with it or what have you.” Do you find yourself you’re going in here, you’re dropping, you’re airlifting into the middle of a small business going, “Oh my God, they have this and this and this. We have an inventory problem or we have a payroll problem or we have…”
Do you find yourself kind of bringing in other partners? They need a software system, well, guess what? You can talk to 50 people that you know about that. But do you find yourself bringing in other professionals to help support what your core agenda items are within an organization?
Susan: For sure. I spend a lot of my time networking with others and getting to know a lot of other C-level fractional people. So that when I go in and they’re like, “Oh, my QuickBooks is totally screwed up.” I’m like, “Yeah, not my world. We are out of that, but here, call this person.” And so I have built referral relationships, that’s actually one of the things I think somebody said it the other day and I don’t remember where I was, they’re like, “Oh, she knows everybody.”
I’m like, “I don’t think I know everybody, but I might know the right person.” So being able to pull those people in. I have a great marketing person that I work with. Finance is harder because it’s so all over. It’s some people are big strategists, others are bookkeepers so it really depends on what you need there. We’ve brought in HR experts for things like writing policy manuals and that kind of thing. So if we identify it and it’s not in our wheelhouse, we’re going to recommend somebody that can come in and help with it.
David: Yeah. That’s nice. So we’re talking about a lot of things and you’re giving us a good idea, fulfillment, and the different areas that you touch on, some of the project management, some of the tools, and so forth. And when we earlier, we’re kind of just talking about most small businesses, some of the things, delegation and execution and measurement and accountability, you’ve kind of done a nice job of doing that. Do you find…
One of the things that I know about you, oh my gosh, you’ve touched number one in full disclosure, Susan’s helped us recently at our shop, she’s fantastic and I’ll talk about that in a little bit. But you’ve worked with like you said Sindelar, Scarpetta Group, and so forth, you’ve worked with probably about 15 or 20 FileMaker shops that many of us know by name. What do you see without divulging John and his crazy penchant for movies or whatever, what are some of the things that you see as a real commonality within our community that you find yourself going, wow, a lot of the people in this community seem to need help here, here, and here?
Susan: So to be fair, I know John, but I have not worked for John.
David: Got it.
Susan: I got that from one of his DevCon presentations. But I have worked with, I counted the other day, it’s over 20 FileMaker shops. Consistently, what I have found is that most of you have started out as a great developer and you kind of became a freelancer. From there, I’m going to do my own thing, I’ll sell my own thing. And because of it… so this is all mentality really.
Once you get into your business, you’re trying to kind of tackle it like a software developer and you’re not taking the step back to look at the big picture of the business. You believe you can fix everything because you’re capable of building software that fixes everything. But you’re not looking at it, okay, I might not be an expert in accounting and maybe I need a bookkeeper.
Or some of you have worked yourselves to death and you’re nonstop working and maybe you have some family members that might like to have dinner with you or kids that might like to see you at their soccer games. And so that’s another area where we really focus. And not just FileMaker world, I mean, all of these things happen everywhere.
Susan: It’s not just FileMaker. We want to focus on that business owner and what are you doing every day and put a list of, okay, this is a list of all the things that I do every day. Okay, great. How much would you pay somebody to do these things? Is it a $10 an hour task or is it a $200 an hour task? So with FileMaker developers, I think, especially, they’ve not stepped back to think about that. They’ve just dug in and decided they can get the work done. And that’s where you grow, is when you take the step back.
David: I did a session at a DevCon a couple of years ago where I talk about growing your shop. And one of the metaphors I used was when you’re a solo developer, you’re a kayak. You’re one person and you control all the rowing, right? The start, stop, you can turn on a dime, you can do whatever you want. Once you get a team of people, it’s like being in… You’re in a full rowing situation.
You’re really just the coxswain just sitting there saying, “Stroke, stroke, stroke,” and everybody else is providing the momentum and you can’t stop and start and turn on a dime as much. You’ve got more power and you can move faster in a straight line. But you go from being sort of a speedboat to more of an ocean liner and learning that you being at the oars is not necessarily the best place for you.
That developer headset that you put on and go, “I can develop this,” is not necessarily the right approach, do you have people who can develop and other things. You need to be focused on cash flow and marketing and communications with your customers and future technologies and all those types of things. So you can’t do that.
I always tell people, if you’re below decks rowing, you can’t be up on the deck of the ship steering. You need people to do both of those. And many of us started organically in the trenches as a developer, and that’s hard to make… And that goes for whether you’re a cabinet maker, a baker, or a FileMaker developer. You get to a certain size and it’s the craft of what you guys do is being done by other people and somebody needs to steer, and that’s a hard adjustment sometimes.
Susan: And if you’re a business owner who wants to develop, that that’s where your passion is, well then you need another setup. And then make sure you’re carving out time every week that you are going to develop. But I would also suggest you shouldn’t be the one working on a deadline. You need to be developing some backend systems that your team can take and run with a product if you sell a product, those kinds of things so that you can continue to stretch your wings and do those things that you love, but not impact your team and your clients by missing deadlines because somebody pulled you off your thing to go do something else.
David: You are preaching to the choir. My team, there are very few times that my team on very few occasions, everybody busy, a new customer, and I go, “Okay, well, I’ll start this,” and everybody’s like, “No, no, no, no, no, no.” And they throw themselves, “No, I’ll divorce my wife and move into the office, but let’s not give Dave another project.” And to that point, I do work on internal things that have no deadline and I can work on those slowly. But that’s a really good point. That’s a really, really good point. I’ve learned that through hard knocks, but you are hopefully saving other people some blows by calling that out early, right?
Susan: Absolutely. I think it’s really important as the owner to decide what is my passion and how do I keep doing that without doing the other. And I also think it’s interesting that over time, most of the owners have evolved away from the coding. Just like I started my business thinking, “Oh, I’ll just be a project manager.” Okay, yeah. But that’s now that’s all I’m doing. I can’t do anything else if I’m managing projects for 5, 10 people. I’m just glued to my chair all day. I’m not doing the things to grow a business.
David: Right. You’ve mentioned some of the tools that you used, obviously, Teamwork.com, if I’m not mistaken, you and I have talked about this, you’ve done… You became Teamwork.com certified or something like that. But you’re pretty deep in their community as well. Is that correct?
Susan: They’re actually, outside of word of mouth, my number one referral partner. Teamwork.com, I found the tool early on in my Beyond the Chaos years. And I’m like, “This is amazing. It does all the things. All the things.” And I sought them out. I had sought out Basecamp actually earlier because I’m a big fan of Basecamp, especially if you’re entry-level into project management.
Susan: And I sought them out and I’m like, “What kind of partnership type environment do you have?” And they don’t have one and they don’t want one. Basecamp is a very interesting company. I do like how they are who they are and they make no excuses for it. So I’m like, okay. Well then, I ran into Teamwork.com and I’m like, “This does so much more. It’s Basecamp on steroids.” And it pulls in… It eliminates the need for several other tools to get done.
Susan: And so, I reached out to them and they’re like, “Oh yeah, here’s a test. You take a test.” It was a ridiculous test. And it turns out that, originally, they had said that they gave you the test based on support questions that had come in. So, there were all these things that you’re like, “What?” I mean, you guys probably have that experience on the FileMaker test.
But I managed to pass it and became a partner because I loved the tool so much. And my team now, I mean, we run on it. When I hire people, we train them on it. Now we’ll work in whatever tool you have, whether it’s a homegrown FileMaker solution, which by the way, I recommend you do not create. If you have a product like that that you’re selling, then maybe you want to eat your own dog food, but do not just create something for your in-house.
These tools that exist today do what you need to do. Save your development time to go out and sell and make some money off of it instead. Otherwise, you’re just going to have this tool that’s buggy and doesn’t do what you need it to do and you become a slave to it. But Teamwork.com, I’m on their website as a partner and I think I’m one of the few that targets very small businesses, so I get a lot of referrals from that.
David: I like that’s one of the other things too when I said earlier, where do you find yourself working and you said fulfillment. I like when somebody also says we do best when we’re working with this size of work. Not, oh, we work with anybody from 5 to 5 million. I think it’s nice to know where you belong in that. Just full disclosure.
Again, recently, Susan worked with our team just again from a now that we’re in this hybrid environment where everybody’s not in the same office, we’ve got a new office and I’ve got one or two people in the office at a time, but we still have a lot of remoteness to our business. And one of the things that we can do to help improve the communication. And she was just fantastic at helping us just kind of re-remind us of the things that we should be doing, giving us some new insights.
One of the things you also did was just kind of spearhead some new initiatives in terms of how we use Slack and how we can use it purposefully and not just reactively and so forth, which I thought was good. But my question to you, and again, this is not about us, I’m just trying to throw some light on the fact that you’ve helped us in an area that we haven’t mentioned yet, which is like Slack and communications and so forth.
What are some of the streamlining and takeaways? What are some, if you had to sit back and go, oh gosh, four years ago, we had this customer, they were a mess and now—what are some of your big successes that you would sit there and go, “Oh my God, this was such a fantastic win for us.”
Susan: So, years ago we had a client that came in, they had a project that was a disaster. They had put all their team members in it, all eggs in one basket, it’s huge and it’s going down the tubes. And they’re like, “Can you please come and fix it?” I’m like, “Okay.” So, I jumped in and I looked at it. I’m like, “Look, this is not fixable. Nobody even knows what the deliverable is.” So we’re like, “We have to have a reset, and ain’t nobody going to be happy here. The client’s not going to be happy and you’re not going to be happy.”
But they had gone down this road so far deep there was really no way out for either party. So the client was going to have to pay more money, it was going to have to be on a discounted rate and we were going to have to define what had to be executed for this to be complete. That was torturous. Meanwhile, nobody could even focus on other clients.
So we got it ironed out and we got it happening and then all of a sudden, there’s space for more clients and the money’s turning around. Now, that client is still a client of theirs which is great. They managed to finish it and are now supporting it. And so that type of thing makes me so happy to see. Everybody involved had to go through these really rough waters together but came out on the other side successful.
Susan: So, we can cite examples like that with other clients too. We recently worked with a financial digital agency and man; the owner was not… He was working 70 hours a week. And nobody knew what anybody was doing. I think I mentioned them earlier, but at the end of this engagement, the whole team was happy. They’re like, “We all know what to do and it’s all in front of us.” And the owner knew what was going on and he was able to cut back his hours. So those types of things where we sometimes help save a family or somebody’s sanity-
David: Or their life.
Susan: That’s even better.
David: We love those. We’re kind of coming near and I want to make sure that we point out this. And I also have… We’ll talk about this slide in just a second, but I also have a question. Lynn Allen is asking, how has COVID and remote working affected your business?
Susan: Lynn, that’s a great question. I’m virtual. I’ve been virtual since 2010. So that part didn’t affect it at all. However, it made me realize that I knew something about virtual work and remote work that other people didn’t know. And isn’t that always interesting when you’re like, “Oh, this stuff that I just know, somebody else doesn’t have a clue about it?” You guys probably run into that all the time. You just know this and you don’t even realize it’s marketable, right?
So that’s actually something that we were helping Dave with. How do you take a team that was used to working in an office and expanding it to not always be here? I’ve been able to watch companies because I’m in so many of these companies’ Slack groups, right? I was in Proof’s before Proof’s was Proof+Geist. I’m in Scarpetta’s. I’m in mine. I was in MightyData’s, and what I find very interesting is how you can see the culture of these organizations by watching the communications in Slack.
And it’s very definitive and it’s very interesting to see how they’re very different and how they’re managing things very differently. So that I’ve been able to bring an additional piece of value to the companies that we’re working with because they’re all being affected by this now. And don’t make any mistake about it, it’s never going back. There’s always going to be part of this moving forward, no matter what.
The people saying, “Oh, I can’t wait until it gets back to normal?” That ain’t going to happen. So you’re going to have to figure out how to attack that. So positively, that’s how COVID affected my business. Negatively, I had some clients that were really hard hit, so it was a rough year. We managed to maintain our revenue, but it was a rough year. We certainly did not grow.
David: We got another… I’m going to probably tie this off because we’re going to start running long in a bit. But Heidi is asking, what do you mean by culture? What are some of the sort of when you’re talking about in Slack, what are some of the different cultures that you sort of see in a Slack feed?
Susan: Some of it is what is the value that the owners place on culture. Is everyone interacting in a friendly way and chatting as they would in a kitchen during lunch break? Are they supporting each other? Are they jumping in and saying, “Oh, you have to go because your kid’s sick. I can take that over for you.” Or is it much more silent? Is it that they only jump in when they need help or do they only share negative input or process changes only? Is it their water cooler tool or is it nothing but the facts-ma’am type communication tool? It really tells you the personality of the owners there.
David: Yeah. I think the owner and the management team are really a part of what’s permissive, what’s encouraged, and what’s permissive, and what is beyond the scope of that. And we internally we try to keep different areas for here’s something silly and stupid and funny, and there’s something that’s pertinent to X, Y, or Z.
Susan, you’ve done a fantastic job. Again, I think it’s just always so inspiring to hear you talk about how you get into the guts of an organization and find problems and smooth them out and apply these processes and so forth. For everybody at the meeting today, Susan offered these up to us. I think it’s fantastic that she did. So the opportunity to get some insights into your own business and how she may or may not be able to help you with that.
Also, I think she just posted in the chat how to reach her. So congrats on the success of your business and thank you for imparting some of your wisdom with us. And I hope any number of you guys will consider reaching out to her if you have some things in your business that you feel are web spots or choke points or whatever. Because boy, she sure has… She’s helped a lot of my friends; she’s certainly helping Angel City Data and she’s got some really great insights. So, thank you again for that.
Susan: Thanks for having me. This was really fun.
David: Oh yeah. It’s fantastic. I’m so glad that you were a part of this.