I had the privilege of being on the podcast “Freelance Transformation” which is hosted by Matt Inglot. It strives to help freelancers figure out ways to manage their small businesses, their workload, and even sometimes their personal lives. I joined Matt on January 29, 2018, to give some insight into these topics. In this podcast episode, “Free Yourself From the Chaos” we focus on keeping your business running and getting your life back through systems, processes, and project management.
Please find a full audio transcript below:
Matt: How do you allow your freelance business to let you lead the life that you want to live instead of consuming it? Let’s find out in Episode 152 of the Freelance Transformation Podcast.
Announcer: You’re listening to the Freelance Transformation Podcast, the show about turning your business into the lifestyle that you desire. Here’s your host, Matt Inglot.
Matt: Hey, it’s Matt here. One of the most difficult things that I had to learn when I became a freelancer was how to manage and organize myself and my projects and how to actually get things done. In the process, I made a lot of mistakes, and I burnt myself out a couple of times because I didn’t understand how to do these things. It’s easy to assume that because you are a good programmer or a designer or writer or whatever skill set you choose to earn your living from, that your clients will love you and, of course, you will be successful.
Once you start winning some clients, you start realizing that, yes, there is more to it. How do you keep track of everything that is going on? How do you keep yourself from being drowned by all of the details of running a business like invoicing and bookkeeping and communicating with clients and just managing what needs to get done and when?
It’s a learning curve, for sure, and today’s guest has built a consultancy around helping business owners to reclaim their lives by helping them set up the processes and systems that their businesses need. Susan Fennema is the CEO, or Chief Eradicating officer, of Beyond the Chaos, and she is here today to share some of the things that you can do today as a freelancer to start getting your business under control. Show notes for this episode can be found at freelancetransformation.com/episode152. Susan, welcome to the show.
Susan: Thanks so much for having me, Matt. I’m excited to talk with you.
Matt: Thanks so much for being here today. Let’s start with you just sharing a little bit about yourself.
Susan: Sure. I am the Chaos Eradicating Officer (CEO) for Beyond the Chaos, which helps small business owners systemize their work, manage their operations and their processes so that they can get their lives back.
Matt: Awesome. That’s an interesting niche. How did you get into doing this kind of work?
Susan: It’s interesting. Who would think that this is actually a job, right?
Matt: Yeah. Exactly.
Susan: I guess it all started when I was three and I was organizing my mother’s button collection, she sewed, by size and shape and color. I’m just naturally an organizer. I grew up organizing everything that I became part of, and naturally after college grew into jobs that used that, even if that’s not what the job was. My first job was a production artist, and I designed and laid out things on a computer. Again, it was organizing the creative into structure. I moved on to mail order catalogs where I helped run a whole system of starting from creating a product through the photo shoot, all the way to press check at the printing of the catalogs. I just naturally fell into this project management and operations world before I even knew it was a thing.
Lo and behold, I end up in an ad agency for 10 years being the director of operations and managing projects. From there, I went to my first virtual business, which was fantastic. I love working from home, and I love that unity between life and work as opposed to the separation. In that world, I did more software development project management and then went out on my own a couple of years ago to start to take my skill set to the world instead of just one company.
Matt: Love it. Love it. I’m curious, then. All of this makes sense. You discovered you can turn your organization skills into an actual job with your business, Beyond the Chaos, and you said you help business owners systematize their business. How do these business owners know to seek you out? What problem are they trying to solve? How do they know that they should hire someone like Susan?
Susan: That’s a great question, and hard because the marketing part of this is hard. I write a lot of blogs to address it and put it out there. Hopefully, I’m having a business owner that’s like, “I want my life back.” That’s one of the things that I look for. I do have a big following in the FileMaker software world. That’s what I did as part of the software development company I project-managed for, so there are a lot of default people that know of me there. As far as outside of that, it’s hard to break over. It’s hard to find that, so that’s one of the reasons I listen to your podcast, to get some of those tips myself.
Matt: I like that a lot. An awesome answer. Yeah, I’m curious about that because, obviously, people hire us because we’re trying to solve or they’re trying to solve a problem that they’re really struggling with. I like that you said that they’re trying to get their life back, and maybe that is the big thing that’s on their mind is, “My business is consuming me entirely.”
Susan: In my built-in niche in the FileMaker world, I find that a lot, people that can’t, small-business owners that don’t have any time to spend with their kids or work every weekend or work all night, those kinds of things, and this is just not necessary.
Matt: Yeah, absolutely. Yet, it’s something that I think a lot of our listeners can absolutely relate to, having that problem. I can definitely relate to it. There’s been a couple of times in my business career where exactly that’s happened, and it’s taken real, actual work to not have that happen. That’s really why we’re bringing you on here today, is to get that expertise out there and have you teach us, freelancers, how it’s possible to run your business in a way where it’s not taking over your life.
Susan: Right. I think the first step to that is just exactly what you said, is remember you’re running your business, and so you’re in charge. Raising your prices is absolutely one way to make sure that you have less work to do, but the other is to structure your world so that you’re making realistic decisions and promises to your clients. In order to do that, you have to set up some systems and some processes and some software, in most cases, to help keep you on track.
Matt: Absolutely. If we unravel that a little bit and, obviously, we’ll get into specific things you can do. When we say setting up systems and processes, what is your typical solo business owner, particularly solo freelancer, missing? They have this little business that they … Well, I don’t want to say little. Have this business that they’ve built that’s primarily dependent on them. They’ve got clients. They’re doing work. They’re paying the bills. When we say we need to implement some of these things, what’s missing?
Susan: Most of the time what’s missing is a project-management world, how they’re making sure that they’re meeting the obligations and promises that they made to their clients. They tend to respond to the squeaky wheel instead of to actually respond to what the next priority is. That’s one of the ways that you can tell if you might be in need of that, is are you always operating in a state of urgency and emergency, or are you operating more in a planned, structured way?
Matt: How does operating in a planned, structured way look like, practically speaking? If you could just paint the vision for us. I think a lot of freelancers can definitely relate to the whole squeaky wheel thing and just feeling like everything is on fire. What does the day look like for someone that does have this stuff organized?
Susan: Sure. There’s more structure to it, to start with. You have a plan before you start the day. The way I do it is I look at what clients have I promised how much work for the week, about how much time is that going to take me. I’ll block that out on my calendar so I know if I have to spend 15 hours to accomplish this goal for a client, then I have three hours a day or however I’m dividing it up that week blocked to make sure it happens.
Then, I might also come in and remind myself I need to work on my business too. There’s billing, those kinds of things. Blocking on my calendar every Wednesday morning that I’m running payroll and paying bills and all of those things for about half an hour or however much time you need for that. You start to build a structure into your calendar, and then you’re able to see more readily when someone asks you for something when you could get it done and how realistic what they are asking for is to your schedule.
Matt: Yeah. I think that’s a common problem. Sorry.
Susan: It is a common problem. It’s absolutely, especially in the freelancing world, especially when you’re subcontracting and you’ve promised, “Oh, you know, yeah, I can give you 20 hours a week and I can give you 15 hours a week and I can give you 10.” Okay, wait a minute. Start adding. Where are you on that? Once you start booking yourself for more than 40 hours a week, you know you’ve lost your life.
Susan: Making sure that any of those promises you make, that you’re honoring them. That also makes you hirable. Right? If you tell someone that you’ll give them 20 hours a week, but then you only give them 10, they’re more frustrated with you than they are happy. If you can set it up so that you are giving what you promise and that you are regulating it yourself so that you can say, “Ah, you know what? This project has me booked until the end of next month, but I could start for you after that.” You give people choices, and you give yourself choices.
Matt: Okay. A big part of it so far is we’ve got the planning, we’ve got the calendar. Before we get into some of these in depth, is there anything else about how that day looks like for someone that’s organized versus someone fighting chaos?
Susan: Good question. You also want to make sure that you’ve planned your own stuff in there, right-
Susan: … so that you eat lunch, that you walk the dog. Did you leave those times in there? Your day feels a lot more structured and a lot less panicked.
Matt: Yeah, absolutely. We all want that. We have the calendar. It sounds like in your system a lot of these things revolve around the calendar, which is awesome. I actually put a lot of effort into my calendar. It doesn’t necessarily mean everything always gets done, but my calendar is definitely my number-one reference point for my entire week. It’s where I know where I’m talking to people or doing interviews such as this one. I’ve got times that I have booked off entire days oftentimes for just quiet work, so no phone calls or anything. You can’t schedule on my calendar those days because my scheduling software won’t let you, stuff like that. I definitely agree with you on the calendar.
I think a lot of problems freelancers then encounter is, okay, the calendar thing’s good. How do we manage all of these different client requests? Are there other tools and systems that you use to actually manage three or four different clients all wanting stuff from you and keeping it straight in your head and not forgetting what to do for who or when, project management stuff?
Susan: Right. Project management, that’s a big one. Yes, absolutely. I like Basecamp 2, not Basecamp 3, which is the latest, but Basecamp 2 as a great entry-level project management tool for people that just need a little bit of help. It’s easy, it’s straightforward, and I will give you the straight-up rule is to make sure that every task you put in there is assigned to a person and has a date on it. That way, it won’t get lost. That’s a great tool to start with.
Make different projects for your different clients and start collecting the information that they’re telling you. That is a great way to document. You can invite them into the software as well, and they can interact with you in there. That way, you keep all the communications in one place. All that reference when you have to go back and look for something is in the same place.
You can use it if you’re having meetings with the client to let them know what you’ve accomplished and what’s still left to do. Build timelines in there. If you’re a software developer or even in a creative field where you might have people ask for changes to something, you can track the changes that you need to make in that software. It’s a great centralized area to go back to and make sure that everything is in a structured, organized way.
Now one of the challenges is that a lot of people’s minds don’t work that way, right?
Matt: Mm-hmm. Right there.
Susan: Yeah. It’s too much. At that point, maybe you want to consider hiring a part-time project manager or somebody that could come in and just help you stay on track a little bit. Not overwhelming. I’m not talking about some rigid bureaucracy that is heavy, just somebody to give you a simple reminder for now, for every now and then, or to say, “Oh, this is due Friday. Did you have that on your radar?” Those types of things.
Matt: Yeah. I was thinking of somebody that does regularly struggle with putting everything into a project management system, even though my agency is all very well set up on processes. The way I get around that is exactly that. I have an assistant who is super detail-oriented and just amazing at everything that you describe. She’s the one that makes sure a lot of this stuff actually happens, and that’s been a night-and-day difference because it’s one thing to have the tool.
Matt: The tools out there are awesome. I personally use Asana, but Basecamp 2, I think is in many ways similar, although we’ll get into why 2 and not 3. The tools are there, but the issue is the user, of course, and actually using those tools. For example, when a client … One of the processes that we just finally set up, which should have been set up a long time ago, is it used to be when a client okayed some work, I used to be the one that would actually enter it into our project management system.
Of course, I’m very busy, so oftentimes that would get entered days later and then there was always the risk of it not getting entered at all, which, as you can imagine, is a problem, so my assistant does all that. Now, when a client approves something, I just hit Forward on my email and she sorts everything else out. She checks out the email conversations, sees what the heck we were talking about, what needs to be done, and boom, presto, it’s all entered.
Susan: That is brilliant if you can find somebody that you can trust like that and work really well with. I have a project manager on my team, and the very first time I was able to just send something to her and say, “Can you make this happen?” and I didn’t think about it again until it happened was awesome. It was eye-opening. As the project manager, I’m always reminding myself to remind someone else to do something. When there’s that person that just takes care of it for you, it frees you up to really focus on what you want to do.
Susan: And what you’re good at, so if you’re not really good at that, that’s okay. Use your skill set for your things and look for the right people to help you with the others.
Matt: Absolutely. It was a total game-changer. You mentioned Basecamp 2, and you specifically said Basecamp 2 and not 3, so I guess that leads us into a question of what makes a good project management tool? What are you actually looking for in that? Why specifically did you say Basecamp 2 and not 3?
Susan: Yeah, it’s a really good question. Basecamp 2 interacts with people outside of the internal team, so clients, better than Basecamp 3. Basecamp set up its software to work for its projects. If you’re running an internal-only project, Basecamp 3 might work great for you. It has a lot of tools and functionality that is actually better than Basecamp 2. Basecamp 2, though, I think the design is more straightforward, and I think that it’s easier for clients to pick up on and for clients to interact with.
You can separate what the client can see from what the team can see. Basecamp 3, you really have to force the communication to the client and say, “I need your approval on this task,” and make it send out. Whereas in Basecamp 2, they’re on the task and you can share it with them there, but you can also hide things you don’t want them to see. You get kind of the best of both worlds. I find the communication with clients in Basecamp 3 cumbersome. If you’re using Asana, it works more like Basecamp 2 does.
Teamwork is another option. I think of it as Basecamp on steroids. It has a lot more functionality. Everything has 100 options. I have to look up a lot of, “Oh, I know I can do this. Where can I do it?” If you’re in a bigger, less entry-level project management world, I would say go with Teamwork. The other beauty of Basecamp is that you can start with that and when you’re ready, you can import the project into Teamwork. You can actually take that step up when you’re ready, and I’m sure Teamwork had that in mind when they started their solution as well.
Matt: Okay, I gotcha. We got a couple of things. We got the client communication piece, and you’re basically saying that with Basecamp 2, it’s actually feasible to communicate with a client and bring them along as part of that project, and that’s kind of a really big advantage of it. We’ve also got the idea that you can start with a simpler system like Basecamp and you can kind of grow your way into a more complex system, which I think that makes a lot of sense.
I’ve used a lot of project management tools. We use Asana now and we used to use another tool, and in between those I tested out something like 15 systems. It can get overwhelming, all the features and functionality. Maybe the most important part of this whole system is how do you actually use a project management software like Basecamp or Asana effectively? Because it’s going to give you everything and the kitchen sink, but it’s kind of up to you to now use that effectively.
Susan: Right. Some of it is to put some basic structure about how you use it. It does give you a lot of flexibility, so what do you want to do with it? Do you want to just manage milestones in there? Maybe you just want a list of milestones, or do you want every detail in there? If you’re a project manager, you want every detail. If you’re someone like you, maybe, that that’s overwhelming to… maybe you just want a top-line list, but you can make it what you want.
The important part is to make sure that you are doing it intentionally, so making sure that you say, “When I open a project, I always have one task assigned to me so that when I look at my list …” That’s another important thing. All of these softwares have a place to go that’s just for … You see everything assigned to you across all projects. Here’s my tip. Make that URL, make that your homepage on your browser. Makes you go to it every time and see what’s on your list, but make sure you have something assigned to you in every project with a due date that’s not late. It needs to be something in the future so that you remind yourself to look at it if you’re not doing it in very small details. At least that gives you a bigger picture thing to look at, and it won’t get lost.
Matt: Right, because when things start … This is the problem with due dates and project management systems is they work very well up until the point you’re late, and then everything just kind of, I guess, does get shoved down instead of having, I guess, the late stuff come up to the top and be like, “Oh, my god, this is late. We got to do something about it.” It just becomes very easy to just fall into this trap of just having just this long list of tasks that’s overdue and you don’t even know what’s a real task anymore or what’s not if that makes sense.
Susan: It totally makes sense. With that, I would encourage that if you get a couple of steps behind that you stop and reassess the project and reschedule it. Unless you know you can catch up tomorrow, that timeline’s no longer realistic, so you’re going to have to go and rebuild it. Also, once you realize that, that’s a good time to give that heads up to your client because if your client’s asking you where it is, it’s late even if it’s not late. If you’re not communicating to them in advance what’s going on and making them wonder, they’re already worried. In their mind, it’s already late.
Matt: Yes. Go ahead.
Susan: If you get to the point that you realize you are behind on a few tasks, that’s a really good heads up to you that, “Ah, I need to communicate with them that we need another week.” Make sure that they know that before it’s due. That’s when they’re going to get mad at you if it’s due today and you say, “Oh, yeah, I need another week,” as opposed to two weeks ago you told them that. Now, they’re all cool. It doesn’t even matter.
Matt: Oh, yeah. That is such a huge point, and just it happens all the time, and it’s so tempting to do, just put it off, don’t talk to the client and then surprise them that this thing that they expected to be done on time no longer will be, or worse, not communicate with them at all. I’ve had numerous people do that to me, and none of them work for me now. The problem is it’s very easy to forget that you’re only one piece of a bigger puzzle usually.
When your client, for example, is expecting that homepage banner to be done next week, well, maybe they’re launching a new product and your home page banner is part of a bigger piece of rolling out their product across multiple marketing channels. Now, because this marketing banner is going to be late, this is going to be a problem for them, or they got somebody else that’s expecting to take your work and be able to do something else with it and they told that person they’re going to get that thing on Monday because they’re expecting you to deliver on time and then you don’t. It creates this domino effect of you missing something and, therefore, a lot of other things get missed, possibly very important things.
Susan: Absolutely. It’s hard to remember when we’re working in our own little world that we’re good at, and it’s all day, that to our clients this isn’t their job. They have a whole other thing they’re doing. They’re just counting on you to do what you said you’d do when you said you were going to do it, and if you don’t, you might not even know what that’s going to mess up. Having that clear, concise communication consistently with your client is so important.
I always suggest if you’re waiting on something from them and that’s what’s making you late, making sure that you’re sharing the consequences with them, “If I don’t get this by Friday, I don’t think we can hit your deadline. We might have to move it out.” Let the client then make the decision. If they don’t get it to you by Friday, you gave them the consequence, so they kind of made the choice that it’s going to be late. If you don’t tell them that, though, and then it comes on Monday and you say, “Oh, well, if I’d had it Friday, I could have done it,” well, you didn’t give them the choice. Now, you’ve backed them into a choice they might not have made.
Matt: Yeah, absolutely. That goes back to communication as well. Yeah, this definitely also happens. The client doesn’t really realize the impact of their actions on your work, and then you get freelancers complaining that the client sent them something yesterday and now they’re expecting it to be done tomorrow. Well, maybe the client is unreasonable and crazy, but more likely, they just never knew any different.
Susan: Right. They don’t know what it takes to do your job, so a lot of the time … One of my favorite things is when a client will say, “Well, can’t you just …?” which really implies, “No, we can’t or else we would.” That always implies that they don’t know what you have to do to reach their goal. Making sure that you’re communicating with them what you need from them and why is really important. To your point, you said, “You know, sometimes it’s easier just to kind of avoid.” It’s a lot easier to avoid until it blows up in your face. If you feel yourself avoiding or if you say something like, “Oh, there’s fear surrounding the communication,” it is much more important to have it, because it’s going to be worse if you delay it.
Matt: Yeah, I think that’s a very tough lesson to learn. Personally, I don’t think it ever quite goes away. There’s just some conversations you don’t want to have, but you’re absolutely right. Not having them is a bad idea. I’ve seen it both ways. There’s stuff people should have talked to me about it. There’s times when I’ve slipped and didn’t have the hard conversation. Never ends well.
Susan: It never ends well. If you think about it from the standpoint of how you’re serving your client the best, you’re the professional. You’re supposed to be leading them. They trust you, and so if you’re not sharing those hard messages with them, you’re letting them down. You’re not giving them any sort of help in how they can manage their end of the situation or even just to say, “Oh, but you told me it’d be Friday,” and just to complain a little bit and vent and get it out, but then to trust you again because you were honest with them.
Matt: Yeah, absolutely. Where all of this seems to be going in this conversation goes back to this idea of actually hitting deadlines and managing your time. You talked about setting up timelines in the project management system and if you slip, making sure to rebuild that timeline and not just keep going off a faulty timeline. That takes us to maybe something even more central to all of that, which is how do you actually get your work done on time?
Usually, if you’re a freelancer, you’re working for yourself, so you’re typically working on your own, and I think that’s one of the biggest transition issues. You’re an employee, someone else is kind of managing you and your time, in a way, whereas now you’re a business owner. You have to decide what to fill those eight hours a day with, and you have to be the one that does the work and doesn’t get distracted by the laundry machine or deciding to make a fancy meal for the kids instead of doing the things that you’re supposed to be doing during your work hours.
How do you actually adhere to that timeline and consistently put out work? If that’s even a fair question to ask you.
Susan: Oh, I think it is. It turns out all this is hard, right?
Matt: It is.
Susan: If it was easy, anybody would do it. I personally am not a fan of drawing a line in the sand and saying, “This is business and this is home life.” I work from home. I sometimes do laundry between conference calls because it’s more efficient than doing it on Saturday all day in a row. Some of it is productivity. If you are driven to be productive, you will naturally fall into the right habits, but if you are not, if you have to force yourself to focus, you need to get to know yourself a little bit. Do you focus better in the morning or do you focus better in the evening? What do you like to do most?
Hey, I’m a project manager. I like to check things off the list. That’s my favorite thing, little things that I can see I’m making progress on. If I have to have a big something I have to focus on, I need to block some time on that. I need to kind of psych myself up that I’m not going to get to check off 15 things during this three-hour block. I’m going to have to think and I’m going to have to shut out the world. I think about what time of day am I usually more energized to do that. Then what is my reward for it? I actually do better if I can check off a bunch of little things in the morning and then in the afternoons block time to sit and think and write, as opposed to if I’m trying to do it in the morning, I’m thinking of all those things that I need to get done.
Other people do the other way. They find that checking those things off exhausts them, and so in the afternoon, they can’t focus. Maybe they want to flip their day. Maybe they want their mornings to start out with the big things, the big focus, the development, the creative work and then use that more tired time to do the little things.
Knowing yourself and how you work will help you structure your day better so that you’re more productive overall.
Matt: Yeah, definitely. How can you know yourself and how you work? It’s the necessary follow-up question.
Susan: Okay. Here’s something I tell my ADD clients, and it’s funny how many ADD clients are small business owners. I think that there’s just something in a small business owner’s head that they have to be ADD, too. It might be the creativity in them, right?
I think, first, what do you find yourself distracted by? Are you distracted by new ideas? Are you distracted by, as I am, checking things off a list? Or are you distracted by being sucked into something that you’re learning? A lot of people like to spend a lot of time on learning for the next thing, and maybe they don’t necessarily feel like that is worked into their schedule. Those things that you’re distracted by can be your rewards. If you say, “You know, I really got to work on this client today, and if I get this work that I really don’t want to do done and out of the way this morning, then this afternoon I can take that class online that I’ve been wanting to take.” Those things that you’re distracted by become your rewards for doing the things that you really don’t want to do.
Matt: Awesome. Awesome. We talked quite a bit about project management systems and setting up these processes, but you mentioned something in particular that I really want to come back to, which is you mentioned hiring a project manager. Again, my assistant helps me a lot in a lot of different things, and she’s supremely invaluable. You pointed out that it’s hard to find someone that is going to be able to do that for you. It’s hard to find the right person. If someone’s considering hiring … I don’t know if the title is project manager or virtual assist or executive assistant. However you’re thinking about this, how would you go about that? Who are you looking for and how do you find the right person to help you manage the kind of things that you don’t want to manage?
Susan: Well, obviously, the first is to identify what you don’t want to manage. Usually, those are the things that don’t play to your strengths. They’re not the reasons you went into business, bookkeeping, project management for a lot of people, marketing. Man, if I could have somebody to do all my social media, that would be fantastic, and there are people out there that do it. Finding those people to fill those slots is important, but the first thing is identifying what it is. What are the things you hate? What do you hate doing the most? Those are great things if you can afford to delegate it out to someone to find someone to do it.
But then, you’re right, how do you find the right person? There are some virtual assistant companies out there that have some good leads. I’m trying to think of the one right now. Maybe we can add it to your show notes. I’ll look it up and we can add it to the show notes. There is a great virtual assistant company out there that I have heard from many of my clients gives them a lot of good leads. There are a lot of good assistants.
You also want to make sure that you’re delegating your work properly, and this is part of setting up your system. How do you do it? Is it written down in a way that somebody else can follow? Then asking the people when you’re interviewing them, “Hey, can you do this? Here’s the list.” If they say, “Oh, yeah, that’s great. I love it,” well, give them a try, but make sure you’re checking their work initially until you can trust them. Once you know that you can trust them and the communication is there, you can start letting things go.
Setting up the ability to be able to delegate like that is part of the challenge. One of the ways I do that is I record myself doing it. I might pull up Zoom or GotoMeeting, record myself doing it, talking through it, and then I have that transcribed. Now I have a process and I have a video that I can show somebody, “Oh, this is how I want you to go through and do my email every week, how I want you to finish my blog and convert it into an email.” Whatever those tasks are, setting them up into those little training tidbits, now you have a whole system of how you do things that somebody else can help you with.
Matt: What kind of things would you typically start delegating, especially if you’ve hired someone or contracted someone and you’re not quite sure yet if this is going to be the right fit or not? What are the safest things that you can delegate?
Susan: That’s a great question. I would start with things that if they got messed up aren’t public, so maybe social media is not your first thing that you want to trust them with unless you’re using something like Buffer, where they can go through, set it all up for you, and then you can go look at it. I would look at things that they can do on their own but that you can check. Converting a blog into a mail chimp email, that’s another one. Tell them not to send it out. You’re going to send it out, but you want them to do it. Eventually, you could get to the point where you’re like, yeah, you just send it out as part of the process.
There are lots of ways to check and balance, but the check is the important thing and the public things are the scary things. If it’s something that’s internal that gets messed up, it might not be that big of a deal. It might just be more work for you to fix it. To be able to send it out publicly is the issue. One of the things I have my VA do is work on my CRM so that every month she goes through my CRM and sees anything that I added in there and make sure that the records are complete. Then they have the website that they have, the whole full name, the address, and all those things in there. If she does that wrong, it’s not the end of the world, but it helps me because I know it’s better than how I would have left it.
Matt: Definitely. How do you gauge if somebody is working out? Because I think that’s one of the harder things to do when you first start delegating things. I’ll give you an example from me when my first experiences trying to find an assistant specifically were very difficult because I had read the book The 4-Hour Workweek, which I think is a terrific book and has taught me a lot, but it also highlights the importance of execution. I read that book, kind of jumped on that bandwagon, and the first thing I did is I hired an overseas VA. Quite frankly, the result was disastrous. I think I went through two or three of them, and over the course of a couple of months, not a whole lot got done.
When I look back on that experience, I think I spent more time delegating and training and trying to help this person than I saved by far in the end. That was kind of an extreme example. Over time, I got better and better at hiring and also figuring out how to help others hire for me, and now I can work over a much better team, and it’s excellent. When I was first starting out, I didn’t really understand what my expectations should be. How do you know if this person is performing the way that you should expect them to be performing after two weeks, four weeks? Or how do you know that this is a hire that just is probably not going to get to that level that you want them to get to and you should let them go instead?
Susan: It’s a fine line to walk. Upfront you’re going to be saying to yourself, “Oh, I could do this so much faster than I could explain it,” but through the explanation, that’s how you’re developing your system and your delegation ability. If you don’t, they cannot meet your expectation. There’s no way. You have to spend that time with them. That expectation needs to be in your head. It is going to be hard to teach them. It is going to be hard to train them. You have to be available to answer questions. But there is a line, and sometimes you just know. You’re just like, “I can’t do this anymore. This person is frustrating me.” The first time you get to that stage, it is probably not the right person and you should move on.
Not being afraid to go through a few up front is probably a good expectation to set for yourself too, because you’re going to mess up too. It’s not just them. They might work great for somebody else, but if you don’t know how to manage them if you don’t know what your expectations are, it’s going to be very hard for them to meet them. If you are writing down your systems, if you are writing down the steps, it is a lot easier to set the expectations for them.
You want to make sure … One of the things that’s really important is that if they’re going to touch a client in any way, that they’re touching them the way you would to repeat your successes. You’re going to have to give them a lot of guidance around that. I wouldn’t let them do that off the bat. Unless it’s a very trained, very experienced person who you’re probably paying more money for, I absolutely would make sure that they stay away from your clients until you’re confident that they can do your work first.
Matt: Yeah. That could definitely be a really challenging one. I think you raised a good point that, yeah, they might not interact with your clients the way that you want them to, but the other thing that you don’t want to have happen is you have this person start interacting with your clients and then four weeks later they’re gone. That’s awkward.
Susan: That’s awkward on your part with having also then to take back the work. It is just weird. It also sets up the expectation in your clients’ mind that you’re wishy-washy. You want to make sure that they’re confident in you. I would trust my project manager to talk to anybody’s clients, but she has been doing this for a long time. I have a track record of her taking very good care of things first, and she didn’t do it by herself initially. I worked with her to explain what we were about, what Beyond the Chaos meant, what our plans and systems were, so she had a better idea of what would Susan do in this situation.
That’s what I want her to be thinking as opposed to, oh, I’ll just do it my own way because nobody gave me any guidance. That’s where you’ll get into trouble. That way of communication and that the way the owner does it is part of your brand, that it really is part of your brand and how the client feels when they interact with you. Making sure that that’s communicated to the person and that they grasp it and understand it is important before they get involved with any of your clients, for sure.
Matt: Yeah, the client experience thing is key. Maybe you could tell us what are some examples of the processes that you have set up in your own business, Beyond the Chaos.
Susan: Sure. One is an onboarding process, so what are all of the software solutions that they need access to, set them up with an email. What information do they need to be communicated with right off the bat? That’s an important list that I have. I actually have that list in Basecamp. I duplicate the list when I bring somebody else in, and we go through things that apply or don’t apply. By having that list, if something else comes up and I’m like, “Oh, forgot. This should be on the list.” You go put it on the list and the next time you copy it, it’s there. The other thing that I have is an offboarding list. Do the same type of thing but reversed so that when you do have that turnover, you know what access to turn off to people.
That’s important. That onboarding list might include things like access to a client’s project management software, in our case. I want to make sure that they don’t have access to that anymore if they leave, and I don’t want to forget. In the middle of that departure and that drama, trying to remember those things, that’s a huge challenge. Making sure you have that list is important. Making sure that you know what to do, that’s really the important part of it, you know what to do when they come in permanently.
Another one I have is how to enter timesheets and what I expect from them on entering timesheets. I have that process of this is where you log in. This is what the client needs to see. I’m not a big believer in billing by the hour, but many of my clients are, so we have to accommodate the way they bill their clients. Making sure that there is a way to track that and what information the individual clients need is one of the processes I have. Something that they’ve told me I make sure gets communicated to the people that are working on their things. I have a social media process. When is it entered, how many times a day are things posted, what they can pick from, and where are all the places they share. That’s written down.
Those are the types of things you can start to get a handle on. I do all my own sales, but if you’re bringing in somebody to help you with sales, having a sales process is absolutely imperative.
Matt: Mm-hmm. Definitely. If you read between the lines, you started talking about some of these processes that you have set up, such as the social media process, and you quickly realized, well, hey, if I have this process, it’s possible to delegate this now.
Matt: Whereas before, it’s like, well, here, manage my social media, and the person doesn’t know what to do.
Susan: Exactly. The best way to document it is the day you do it, record yourself doing it. There you go. You got it.
Matt: Absolutely. Since we talked a lot about hiring people to manage some of the stuff that’s not your core skill set or maybe isn’t the thing that you want to be doing, when do you know that you’re ready to do that? When are you ready to take on an assistant or project manager or somebody else in your business if you’re currently solo?
Susan: Well, the first thing is can you pay them. That’s the first thing you have to make sure you can do. Even if it’s at the risk of not paying yourself, you have to pay your employees. That’s first. The second is are those things starting to interfere with your ability to serve your client? Do you feel like you could be making more money or you could be making happier clients if you weren’t working on them at midnight because you spent all afternoon trying to figure out your QuickBooks problem instead of just hiring a bookkeeper?
Matt: I think I could relate to that.
Susan: Those are the types of things that really … Oh, it ends up costing you money in a way that you don’t realize in the middle of it. If you can’t focus on serving your clients well, well, are they going to come back? Are they going to refer you to other people? If you’re only doing the bare minimum because you’re exhausted from making sure that you are continuing with ongoing sales, those are good signs that maybe I need help here. Almost all of those areas are places that you can hire help, and it doesn’t have to be a full-time person. It can be a part-time person that maybe just does five hours a week for you or 10 hours a week for you so that it’s not so overwhelming to your bottom line.
Matt: Yeah, that’s definitely a huge thing too is you don’t have to hire full time.
Susan, I appreciate your coming on. I really hope this conversation has got in people’s mind. It’s worth this idea of, hey, I’m building a business here. Even if it is a solo business, you don’t have to hire, but I’m building a business. I got to put systems and structure into place so I can reclaim my life so my business isn’t running me. It really does make a huge difference.
Susan, thank you again, and how can our listeners find you online?
Susan: Sure. My email address, anybody can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. My web address is beyondthechaos.biz, and I do have a sign-up there for an email list where you can get our blog posts early in advance, so feel free to sign up for that and we will share some valuable information with you.
Matt: Awesome. Awesome. Thank you again for being on the show.
Susan: Thanks, Matt.
Matt: That was Susan Fennema of Beyond the Chaos. Show notes and instructions for subscribing to this podcast can be found at freelancetransformation.com/episode152. I’m your host, Matt Inglot, and I’ll be seeing you next week in Episode 153.
Announcer: This was the Freelance Transformation Podcast. For more episodes, visit freelancetransformation.com.
Also published on Medium.