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The KickStarter

I Said “I Never Want to Work Full-Time Again” — See What Happened In 6 Months

I’ve always dreamed of working by the beach or ski field with good Wi-Fi. But over the years, I’ve found myself doing more hours, for less money, on others’ time.

In a startling 2021 shake-up, I decided to flip the script and map out what it would take to grow my business yet work less hours. But where would I start? I turned my goal into a project with a deadline. Enter: “6-Month Project Me”.

Below is a real-world rendition of how I waved “goodbye overtime” and “hello part time”.

If you run a service-based business with employees and constantly feel like you’re chasing work-life balance, this story is for you.

The context: How I got here

I’m no stranger to testing how my business can run without me. At the end of 2018, I went on a 3-month scuba diving holiday in Mexico without checking my emails once. It was amazing, but not sustainable; there was lots of hustling to do when I came back.

After successfully refilling the pipeline, I left Melbourne for Texas to focus on my agency’s global expansion. My team did an exceptional job — even during COVID — but in 2021, I found myself back in Australia working too much, losing sleep at night, and desperately wondering how to replicate my past wins for the better.

(Kudos at this point goes out to Rhys Martin, my incredible Director and Head of Delivery, who has taken the reins every time I’ve needed some serious time-out.)

To free myself from the stress, I decided to dedicate at least 4 hours per week towards taking myself OUT of the business.

I brainstormed what it would take to step back. My goal? To never work full-time again for the rest of my life.

Month one: April 2021

Time to reset, refresh, and review my resources

Carving out 4 hours per week was one of the hardest parts of this project. I already had a jam-packed schedule but started scheduling in “Project Me” every Friday afternoon as soon as I could.

The plan was to treat the work like any other client project — and if something wasn’t in my diary, it didn’t exist.

I brain dumped all my to-dos onto sticky notes. From basic tasks to vision planning, I mapped out activities — even the most mundane ones — in priority order (urgent, medium, low) on my wall. Some of them included:

  • Update LinkedIn profile
  • Rewrite position descriptions
  • Create new staff onboarding guide
  • Get new staff photos taken
  • Take a nap (yes, true story!)
  • Book in some time off.
Here I am mapping out all sorts of tasks on sticky notes in priority order — then ripping them down with joy once they’re done.

I also took the time to reconsider Avion’s talent pool. It was a unique opportunity to build a team to propel my vision of part-time work, forever.

I jumped on rewriting everyone’s position description, including my own. It was a stark reminder of how much the business relied on me for sales, people and culture, and complex content strategy.

This exercise helped me consolidate:

  • how everyone’s skills had evolved since they first started
  • what contribution they could make to the company moving forward, and
  • what salary I could offer them to reflect their growth and input.

Before making any changes, I needed to know what I could afford. I hate maths. Luckily, I have a fantastic accountant, Aiden Elbaz at AE Partners, who works as Avion’s CFO. We jumped on a Zoom call to explore how Avion’s P&L would shift if I increased wages and professional development.

What I really wished for was:

  • a Business Development Manager (to help with sales)
  • a Studio Manager (to help with operations, and people and culture), and
  • another Senior Copywriter (to help with billable work).

After tweaking the dollars in Excel, we determined we could bring in these roles if we upped monthly sales targets by 30%.

I started advertising right away.

Month two: May 2021

Time to map employee ‘flight paths’ and build in-house capability

I knew it would take some time to find the right people for the team, including a Studio Manager, but I didn’t want that to stop my employees from evolving. So, I brought in Bienna Chow to fulfil this role short-term, on a contract basis.

Back in March 2021, Bienna had facilitated our annual Brand Planning Day. At the time, employees were loud and clear about wanting more direction with their careers — so it made sense our priority was to design ‘flight plans’ for everyone in the team.

Yes, we are throwing around ideas on paper planes at our annual Brand Planning Day. Our wonderful facilitator Bienna Chow has her sunglasses on to avoid eye injury, haha.

After establishing what software we’d use to track progress, Bienna contacted everyone with her availability via Calendly and started running sessions immediately. The platform we chose was the Premium version of Officevibe; we were already using it to survey staff engagement.

Initial feedback from employees about mentoring was great. An uptick in staff motivation and output made me feel more confident about the future.

Here’s a screenshot of questions flagged for discussion in the Officevibe platform for employee professional development.

While Bienna was identifying everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, I was busy thinking about ways to upskill the team.

I’m often a bottleneck when it comes to kicking off projects; teaching others how to scope and strategize would help me hand over projects earlier. I started creating content for internal training sessions that I promptly put in the company calendar.

  • Frequency: Fortnightly for 1 hour. 20 minutes of presentation. 20 minutes for Q&A. 20 minutes for an activity.
  • Topics: Strategic thinking, start to finish. From how to price a project through to researching quick wins.
  • Attendance: Optional. Sometimes we’re busy, and that’s ok. The slides are always available and the opportunity to learn is there.

To further strengthen efforts to upskill the team, my Head of Delivery Rhys Martin also decided to implement 1:1 tactical copywriting sessions to continually improve our team’s digital skills.

Month three: June 2021

Time to revisit staff onboarding

Weeks passed by and I was in the throes of candidate interviews. In June, I signed on:

  • 1 x full-time Senior Copywriter (we already had the amazing Jacinta, but she was always at capacity)
  • 2 x part-time Business Development Advisors (one in Australia and one in Austin, Texas)
  • 1 x full-time Copywriter (as we needed to replace someone who was leaving)
  • 1 x full-time Communications Specialist (to lead a new project that had just landed).

With so much going on, I realized it was time to redo our employee onboarding guide. A lot had changed since COVID, and I really wanted to give our recruits the best start possible.

A new employee onboarding guide also provided the perfect opportunity to consolidate everything about Avion in line with our recent rebrand for the entire team.

Diving into detail, here’s a snapshot of what the new 37-slide PDF covered:

  • A bit about us
  • Our latest branding
  • Why clients choose us
  • The Leadership Team
  • The Delivery Team
  • Who we currently work with
  • Our target markets
  • International expansion
  • Project fulfilment
  • Day-to-day stuff
  • Regular meetings
  • Life at Avion
  • Performance and planning.

Putting this together was a mammoth undertaking. I really had to dig deep and pull everything from inside my head onto paper. The process had me questioning how and why we do things.

I strongly recommend any business owner go through this process — not only does it open your thinking, but it also gives employees confidence in representing your company.

More team members also meant organizing more headshots for our Avion About Us page (there were already a few staff patiently waiting). I asked around for recommended photographers and arranged for one to come in as soon as they could.

A sneak peek into one of the sections of our new 2021 employee onboarding guide. It’s crucial that new recruits get a sense of the agency and can articulate what Avion does with confidence.

Month four: July 2021

Time to Marie Kondo work admin

I had become reacquainted with my finances. I had lifted the spirits and productivity of my employees. I had devised ways to boost my team’s content strategy and copywriting skills. But there was still more work to do.

I had to ensure my new business development associates had all the information they needed for sales at their fingertips. Part of this involved crafting new case studies. Straight away, I delegated the writing of some new material to the team.

I also workshopped marketing goals with members of the team. Things we discussed included:

  • KPIs for website and social analytics
  • Future inbound marketing campaigns
  • Improvements to the Avion website
  • Dream clients (who we wanted to work with)
  • Unique offerings for different industries.

I also took the time to reflect on what else needed some love. Thanks to COVID, many of our internal processes had changed. Updating documents in our team Dropbox folder was something I’d wanted to do for ages.

(If you don’t have an inventory of how you do stuff — gasp! — please read “Bulletproof projects and processes” in my article A Leader’s Cheat Sheet To Stepping Up In Hard Times.)

Bringing in business development support means giving your team up-to-date knowledge, tools, and the resources it needs to represent your company. If you don’t have this written down, start doing it now!

However, the most significant change I implemented was how I checked my emails.

Inboxes are full of distractions, and it can be easy to lose an entire day getting lost in thread after thread. So, I finally mustered the courage and asked Rachelle, Avion’s administration all-star, if she would help me with this.

There was a bit of back-and-forth exploring how we could make it work. There’s a delegate function in Gmail settings that makes it easy for an executive assistant to help you. However, there’s still the step of trawling through emails. In the end, Rachelle and I came up with a system using Slack, shared Google sheets, and the ‘STARRED’ option with Gmail labels to filter what’s urgent and what’s not.

I’ve now managed to slash time spent on emails by 50% and my brain feels so much fresher having messages filtered into a particular structure.

Honestly, if you can delegate sorting your inbox, do it. It’s been a lifesaver and I can’t believe it took me 12 years in business to get around to this.

Did you know you can delegate the reading, organizing, and publishing of your emails in Gmail? Partnering with someone I trust to do this has been an absolute gamechanger. I can’t recommend it enough.

Month five: August 2021

Time to reimagine service delivery

Running a small business meant I was spread too thin, too often. With such a talented crew, it didn’t need to be this way. With some things starting to fall into place, I had time to think about Avion’s service delivery process — more specifically, how my team could help lighten the load.

What could I do to ensure the right people were involved in sales, project management, and client relations, at the right time?

I pulled relevant team members into a 1.5-hour brainstorm over Zoom. Looking at my function within the business alongside my employees’ strengths, I facilitated a conversation about how we could slice and dice my responsibilities across different staff. And how they could fulfil all parts of the process without me.

The goal was to design a sustainable approach to attract, manage, and retain clients (while upholding Avion’s finances and reputation) if I went on vacation. A flowchart explaining how staff could lean on each other would provide an outline for them to follow.

I was really pleased with the outcome of the brainstorm.

  • We defined how each person could be more involved at certain stages.
  • We co-created rules on who would support who, for what, how, and when.
  • We figured out next steps, so we could bring it to life, including what knowledge my staff would need to fulfil this new model on their own.
Mapping out who does what, when, at Avion. Many agencies and consultancies have similar models, but potentially different names for each stage. Apologies for blurring out the dot points, but I won’t give away how the sausage is made!

Month six: September 2021

Time to tighten things up

I’d rejigged my budgets. I’d hired more talent. I’d delegated responsibility. Now, I needed to pull the trigger on any final tasks that would empower my people. This involved refining Avion’s systems and tools in a way that worked for them.

  • For branding and marketing, I reviewed the Avion website for best practice improvements I’d never gotten time to action (this is a work in progress now). We’re a content agency after all, and I wanted my team to feel confident we could walk the walk and provide a shining example of what we could do for others.
  • For sales, I upgraded our Hubspot accounts to include Marketing Starter and Sales Hub Pro (an eye-watering extra $500 USD investment per month). I also outsourced an expert consultant to help with the setup. My team now has ownership of redesigning the sales process in a way that’ll support business growth without me.
  • For operations, we revisited project management and decided to add phases (i.e. discovery, first draft, revisions) to Harvest, our time tracking software. This level of detail allowed for more transparency.
  • For team culture, I started planning our annual team retreat — an off-site in which my employees reset, recharge, and refresh. What’s most exciting about our team trips is that staff brainstorms new ideas that push Avion in a forward direction. (Thank goodness by the time our trip rolled around, COVID lockdowns had been lifted and we could run this over 3 days in person.)

Crunch time: October 2021

Time to see if my plan works

It was time to wrap up “6-month Project Me” and see how my hard work would pay off. I knew the transition to 4 days per week wouldn’t be perfect, but overall, I was happy with what I’d achieved.

Launching into part-time work, there were some critical questions I had to tackle.

  • Which day of the week would I take off? Many people asked if I would work shorter days across the week or take one full day off. I decided to take Mondays off because I often work with US clients and they’re one day behind. It was important to me to take off one full day rather than scatter hours throughout the week. Not having to juggle work commitments would give me the opportunity to sleep in, take a yoga class, and do life admin without the stress. In theory.
  • What happens if a client pulls me into a meeting on a Monday? It’s only been a few weeks, and this has proven to be a little tricky. I don’t promote that I only work Tuesday to Friday in my email signature because this might confuse clients overseas. As a result, Australian contacts assume I’m available 5 days per week. Until they know about my reduced workload, it’s only fair to accept some Monday meetings in the short-term.
  • Will I really take the day off or end up working anyway — for less pay Anecdotally, I’ve heard many stories of women working part-time but doing extra hours without the extra pay, because there’s always so much to do. To combat this, I block out Friday afternoons in case I end up working a few hours on Monday. It’s my emergency parachute to leave the desk without the guilt.
  • How will clients feel about my reduced workload? Clients are always thrilled for me when I tell them I’m down to 4 days. But from experience, I’ve learnt what makes or breaks the relationship is how I manage the transition to another Avion team member. Clients want to know they’re in good hands. Sometimes they nominate who they want to work with too, and if you can make it work, that’s even better. There’s always a level of apprehension when a client’s point of contact changes — no matter who it is.
  • Can I genuinely let go and allow the business to run without me? I won’t harp on about this hard truth, but relinquishing control and trusting your people to do their thing is something every entrepreneur goes through. It’s hard. Your staff may not know all the answers to your clients’ questions, but they’ll never grow if they’re not given the opportunity to lead. The key is putting in time to give advice. In advance of meetings, I help them prepare. Post-meetings, we sit down and reflect on how it went and what they could’ve done differently.
Sharing more responsibility across your team doesn’t mean stepping back from the business entirely. You still need to help staff prepare for meetings and reflect with them on how things went so they can grow.

How it started VS how it’s going

It’s November and I’m pretty chuffed with how it’s going so far. A recent notable event was our annual Avion team trip (the off-site I mentioned earlier). Hosted immediately after lockdown restrictions in Melbourne lifted, it was a fantastic way to kick-start new ideas and strategies that gave employees more ownership and influence over how Avion could operate. Sadly, we couldn’t fly in our overseas team members, but they dialled in!

With the gloom of COVID hopefully behind us and “6-Month Project Me” finishing, I feel more in control of my time, my mental health, and my aspirations for 2022. In saying that, nothing in business is ever set-and-forget. I don’t proclaim to have all the answers and understand everyone has different circumstances. Let’s see how things pan out.

When cashflow is tight, investing on a team off-site can seem daunting. But for business owners looking to delegate more responsibility, it’s a wonderful way to explore how your team can evolve. I recommend hosting one every year (except when there’s a pandemic, of course).

About the author: Natalie Khoo built her business in Australia off the back of the 2008 recession. Having made all the mistakes since day one, she’s passionate about sharing her learnings with other business owners on a similar journey. Natalie’s career highlights include taking a 3-month scuba diving vacation in 2019 and not checking her emails once. She travels between Melbourne, Australia, and Austin, Texas, with her partner James.

To find out more: Visit the Avion website or follow Natalie on Instagram.

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Natalie Khoo

Natalie Khoo

How to do a stint on the other side of the world, build a business, cancel your wedding & not kill your partner during a global pandemic & more. 🇦🇺🇺🇸🇬🇧

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