Marketing and “working on, not in, your business” — How far should you go?

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I'll be in Mauritius in a few days. How will the business operate in my absence.

Plenty of consultants out there advocate that, if you want to succeed in business, you must reach the stage where you aren’t essential to its viable operations. You should be able to work on strategic and long-range objectives, rather than the nuts-and-bolts details. In the ideal concept, you have the equivalent of a well-oiled franchise organization, where everything (including leadership and management development) is systematized (think McDonald’s and Hamburger University from the previous post.)

I remember well thinking, yes, I should go that way, taking my first business trip to northern California to Michael Gerber’s e-Myth coaching program. (The program continues today, and is certainly worth considering as you are growing your business.)

Then everything fell apart. My then rapidly growing business had been built on an extremely weak foundation, based on a sales technique (a portion of the late Walt Haily’s “Breaking the ‘No’ Barrier” system), rather than an underlying and sustainable philosophy of generating real and sustainable value to clients. It almost died three years later before I saw the light and revised business practices.

Today, we have new challenges, including adapting to the digital economy. Like most media businesses, we have been hammered by changing advertising perspectives, largely driven by the power and effectiveness of Google and Facebook. (Fortunately, I’ve managed to hedge my bets somewhat by connecting well with Google to the point I’m invited back to northern California once a year for meet-ups and summits.)

But what about that “working on, but not in” your business? Somehow it seems laughable to imagine pulling my hands off the levers. And in most architectural, engineering and construction businesses, the founder/owner (or his/her family and perhaps a very small group of key executives and leaders) must be deeply involved in two fundamental aspects: Marketing/business development and fundamental business leadership. In the AEC world, the 2017 era of the “seller/doer” echoes earlier times when owners/principals had to build their business directly as rainmakers or founders.

Nevertheless, there is a test: Can your business adapt and survive if you aren’t there? And I am going to put it to a pretty good exercise within a few days when I head with my wife to Mauritius for a month-long vacation, visiting some really remote Indian Ocean islands and southern Africa.

Preparing for the trip required me to rethink some routine tasks and processes which I had started doing in the past few years, figuring out how to sustain them without blowing our business budget. Systems test results indicate that the processes won’t go perfectly smoothly, but they should work well enough to maintain the foundations. Some activities may be curtailed, including this blog. (I could write a massive number of posts before leaving and auto-time them for publication, but that is one heck of a lot of last-minute writing work.)

There is one difference between today and when I travelled/lived in Africa as a young adult. Then communications back home were expensive, slow and limited. This trip, if all goes as expected, I’ll be able to send and receive business emails as we fly 30,000 feet in the air and cruise the southern Indian Ocean, and there’ll be wi-fi and internet connections at virtually every land point along the way. Without the stress of “having” to be engaged in my business (because of systems development and management) I’ll still be able to enjoy and engage in it.

Conclusion: Sure, you can build the systems to break free from business drudgery and low-end tasks. But I don’t think you should rush to separate yourself from your enterprise unless you really want to move on to something else. If you do things right, you can work both on and in your business, and do it while you are exploring truly distant places.

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