Are You Working on Your Business, or Just in it? Reflections on The E-Myth

About twenty years ago I picked up a book called The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, by Michael Gerber. It was a quick and easy read (not full of academic jargon), and it forever changed the way I thought about small business. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to. You can pick it up at your local library or any book retailer.

At the heart of this book are two basic premises. First, is that in order to start and build a sustainable business, you’ll have to play the role of three distinct personalities: the technician, the manager, and the entrepreneur. In short, the technician does the work, the manager oversees and organizes the work, and the entrepreneur dreams big for the long-term.

But it’s the second (albeit related) premise I want to focus on today, and that premise is this: in order to build a successful business, you have to work on the business and not just in the business. Let’s explore what this means.

Working in a business is almost exactly as it sounds. It means that you show up and do whatever work is necessary to meet the needs of your customers. For example, if you’re a plumber, it means you go to job sites with your toolkit and fix leaks. If you’re a bookkeeper, it means that you pick up your client’s shoebox of receipts and start organizing them. If you’re a pastry chef, it means you put on your apron and hair net and start baking. You get the idea. Think of it as working on today’s income.

In the early days, almost all entrepreneurs have to work in their business. There is no other choice. Most businesses start with one or two people and if they don’t do the hands-on work, then who will? But eventually they must turn their attention towards working on the business.

Working on your business requires a different mindset and a different set of tasks. Think of it as focusing on tomorrow’s income. For example, you might carve out time to work on a new marketing strategy, or begin developing a new product or service line that won’t pay dividends until sometime down the road. Perhaps you might start nurturing a relationship with a potential customer who won’t become a paying customer until much later. Or maybe you’ll enrol in a professional certification course to improve your skills and credentials (enabling your business to serve different types of clients). Think of this as planting seeds for your business: no income today, but a solid payoff in the future.

To be sure, finding time to work on your business (rather than just in it) is not easy. There are only so many hours in a day, and most early-stage businesses find it difficult to take care of today’s issues, let alone worry about tomorrow’s. Nevertheless, it is essential. Failing to develop a long-term vision for your business — and failing to map out a strategy to get there — will leave you spinning around in the proverbial hamster wheel. Always busy, but never getting ahead.

There’s one small but important caveat to add, however, and it is this: if you are working in your business but not on it, and you’re perfectly happy that way (and some people are), then by all means stay the course. Because as Gerber himself admits, “the purpose of your life is not to serve your business, but the primary purpose of your business is to serve your life.”

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Joel Stoddart

Joel Stoddart

Joel Stoddart is a heterodox hobby writer living in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. He is a loving father and husband. Opinions are solely his own.