Systems-building for a thriving, single-player, creative business
Not everyone wants to build a small startup that grows into a large one. There are bootstrappers (like me), one-person offices, and digital nomads all over who want to keep things small. Small has many advantages. One person operations can be some of the most-nimble. Everything is your responsibility. You answer to no one, but the client and the market. Other peoples’ livelihood is not dependent on your ability to sell your work.
But there are solopreneur downsides too.
As a single-person business we’re vulnerable to all our personal quips. Both the positives and negatives of our personalities will be magnified by our business. Disorganized? There goes your bookkeeping and timely invoicing. Too shy? The last thing on the list might be new client acquisition.
I won’t list them all. You get the idea. We’ve all got traits where we thrive and parts where we dive. As solopreneur creatives, our job is to push our best traits into the lemonlight and keep the nasty bits in check.
How do we do this?
One word — systems. At least once every couple years I re-read Michael Gerber’s book, The E-Myth Revisited. You’ve heard of it. Maybe you haven’t read it. You should. Some of the book feels dated, but the core message is timeless. Inside the book, Gerber shows us why we need to develop a franchise, system-based model for our business, not matter how big or small.
Wait. I don’t want my one-woman design shop to look like McDonald's.
OK. Cool. I don’t want that for you either. But if you design your business to operate like McDonald's, you’ll give your business (and yourself) the biggest gift you could possibly give. We’re in business to serve our customers, right? I mean it’s cool to do our own thing and all, but if we don’t serve our customer as promised, we won’t have the opportunity to get paid for our best work.
Since the customer’s experience is key, the franchise model helps us get there.
Couple the McDonald’s approach, with Boston surgeon (and Harvard professor) Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, and you’ve got yourself the best business design you’ll ever find. When we remove our flaws from the equation our customer gets the best possible experience and our solo business thrives.
I’m a creator, not a robot.
I get it. I’d never suggest you compromise your work to develop some sterile shell of what you once were. Quite the opposite, actually. When we rock our customer experience, we spend less time apologizing and doing re-work for botched orders. We spend less time acquiring new customers, because the loyal customers don’t leave often. We can spend more time doing the work we love, because our business has an operating plan. Our business can appear organized even if we’re not. Our business can make bold moves even if we’re shy. Our business can thrive like a big franchise even if we operate from our bed.
It’s time to ‘go McDonald’s’ on your one-person creator’s business.
Franchise models aren’t just for big companies
Although we’re a franchise of one, there’s no reason we shouldn’t operate as if we’ve got three hundred locations. Reason being, we want the customer to get the same experience on her first visit and her two-hundred-fifty-first. We deliver this experience through systems.
Our franchise model will change as we learn more. The first go won’t always be the right model. But we’ll get there. We start small, maybe one or two fixed procedures, and watch the outcome.
When we take the franchise approach we develop small systems for every key part of our business — especially the parts that impact the customer experience, or our revenue.
We’ll create SOPs, company color palettes, messaging, and workflows — all to ensure the customer gets the same, positive experience every time.
Ever been to a business on opening day? They treat you like a king when you walk through the door. You get free coffee, a handshake from the owner, a pat on the back, a proud, shop tour. Then you go back a week later and you practically have to ring yourself up at the register. This is not the franchise model.
Even if you design band posters in your basement, you’ve got customer interaction. Does your web header match your invoice graphics? Do you answer the phone the same way every time? Are your lead times consistent with every project of similar size? Do you keep your customer updated with measured progress reports (think of the UPS package tracking)?
Your customers want to know you care about them.
They’ll forgive a lot if you keep them in the loop. They want to know they can order the same candle next year and it’ll smell the exact same as the one they bought three years ago. They expect the same thank-you card in the bottom of the box, as you place in their order four years prior. Your customer wants to feel important.
But there’s only one way to keep atop of all these details.
Without the proper system and checklists in place, parts of the customer process will get dropped. Maybe it’s a thank-you card here. A candle ingredient there. A terse phone answer on a bad day. Add two or three of these together and you’ve lost a customer. She knows she can go down the digital street and be treated better, elsewhere.
Remember, we want to keep our customers for life. Our current customers are much easier to re-sell than a new customer.
When we adopt a franchise model we make it easy for ourselves to overcome our own shortcomings. We give ourselves more time to do our best work. And we keep our best customers happy longer.
Gerber shows us the way
In the E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber shows us the core parts of a successful franchise model:
- We provide value beyond the customer’s wildest expectations. We provide extraordinary experience the customer cannot (or won’t feel like she can) get anywhere else.
- The model is so simple to operate a person with the lowest possible skill level can operate it. We’re systems-dependent, not people dependent. This isn’t to make you feel like an idiot. The point is that your system prevents you from getting in your own way. You decide how you want your customer to experience your business in advance. Then you give them that experience.
- The model will stand out as a place of impeccable order. When a customer interacts with your business all she sees is a well-oiled machine of the highest integrity.
- All work in the model will be documented in operations manuals. These can be single-page documents, or you can write yourself an entire business process map from start to finish. When we place the work in written form we find holes in the process — holes we can patch.
- The model will provide a uniformally-predictable experience for the customer. We run the business for the customer, not the owner.
- The model will utilize a uniform dress, color, and facilities code. We want our look to be instantly-identifiable to our business and our customer service. This includes your email, your social posts, your live interaction, your Skype calls. Pay attention to the background in your videos, the look of your website, even you avatar (I use a lot of orange on my site, so I’ve got an orange background on my avatars).
We use checklists to make the work fail-proof
If checklists work for brain surgeons and fighter-pilots, you probably won’t melt if you incorporate them into your candle-making business. Atul Gawande shows us the life-saving power of checklists in the air and in the OR.
We take the major steps of our franchise system and make a checklist for each major task.
If you ship physical goods, make a checklist and use the checklist every time you pack a box. If you have phone coaching as part of your business make a coaching checklist. If you’re a designer, make an project interview checklist to ensure you get the scope of the project during the first call.
When you combine simple checklists of all the critical steps of each of Gerber’s six landmarks, you’ll have a franchise of one. Not only do you save yourself from yourself, but if you ever got sick or injured, you’ll have a way to hand-over your system to a brave stand-in until you recover.
You can also give these documents to temporary workers who may need to help you during peak customer times where you get a little overwhelmed.
We work smart so we don’t have to grow
When you operate your solo-business like a franchise, you’ll have the option of selling a system later, if you wish. This option alone can be very comforting. You’ve made the business bigger than you alone. You never have to sell or grow beyond a business of one, but the knowledge that your business is secure will help change your mindset and look for new opportunities to expand.
Your customers will thank you.
They may not feel as though you’ve provided all these additional steps to make their experience perfect, but they’ll see the end project. They’ll tell others about the way you treated them. They’ll recommend your work.
When we build a franchise of one we can operate lean. When we operate lean we give ourselves room to grow. As a solopreneur we’re limited by our work capacity. When we use a franchise model we can offer a premium experience with premium prices. When we offer premium prices we can increase our income without increasing our workload.
It’s time to build our franchise of one.
Our customers will appreciate the experience. Our bad habits will be kept at bay. Our re-work we be kept to a minimum. And our revenue will grow in the process.
We’re waiting for you.