How to build a business that can survive without you

If you spend your time working in your business rather than on it, you'll fall into the dreaded owner's trap, say SME consultants Andy Mee and Graham Robson.

by Andy Mee and Graham Robson
Last Updated: 29 May 2019

You’ve started your business because you have a skill or a talent, or because you’ve worked for someone else and you just know that you can do it better. You’re good at what you do, so you’ve been successful – customers love you, suppliers love you and your bank balance is healthier than it’s ever been.

But then, slowly but surely, your spare time dwindles and gradually becomes non-existent. You’re spending less time with your family and more time in the office or on the factory floor, but the end never seems to be in sight. But you’re busy, so that’s good, right?

Wrong. We’re sorry to be the ones to break it to you, but you’ve fallen into the owner’s trap. And, while your turnover may be high and your profits healthy, your business has no value; take yourself out of the equation and it will collapse. All your hard work has been for nothing.

It’s a scenario we’re faced with almost every week, and it’s one of the most common reasons why businesses plateau, despite their owners working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. But, with some simple changes, you can create a sustainable business that will continue to grow if and when you decide to take a back seat.

Do the sums

A common issue with business owners is not being aware of the value of their own time. You may be very good at a particular task – operating the payroll, for example, or writing html code – but it’s essential that you identify low value activities and either hire someone else to do them or outsource them. People caught up in minutiae of their business, particularly in the early days, often don’t see that if they pay someone £20 an hour to do simple tasks, they could be going out and generating business that’s worth £200+ an hour. Work out what you’re worth and don’t do any tasks that can be easily done by someone who will cost you a lot less.

Trust your team

You’ve been through the expense of recruiting the best people for the job. You’ve interviewed, you’ve checked references - you may have even done psychometric testing to make sure they’re a good fit. So why on earth aren’t you letting them get on with it? If you don’t trust your team to do the jobs that you’ve hired them to do, they’ll soon lose interest and find an employer who will value their skills. And when they go, you’ll tell yourself that you were right all along, and that you are clearly the only person who can do this properly.

Grow a strong company ethos, make it clear what’s expected of your teams, set clear goals and then leave them to it. A happy, trusted workforce will be much more productive and successful than one which is stifled and told they’re not good enough for the important jobs. And while they’re busy doing what they’re being paid for, you can seek out new business.

Education, education, education

You’ve established a solid customer base, and they trust you and your product or service. And when they call, they insist on speaking to you and you alone. It’s flattering, right? But there’s a limit to the amount of time you can make yourself available, and your strategy of providing the personal touch for five clients becomes impossible to replicate when you have 50.

By educating your customers into trusting your team, you can gradually hand over responsibilities and free yourself up to concentrate on new business, have a holiday or even one day take a back seat. Take that call, but explain that you’ll be passing their query over to your trusted deputy; leave a meeting early and in the capable hands of your sales manager; introduce your new highly-valued engineer during a client’s site visit. Manage yourself out of the day-to-day operations, and you’ll create a sustainable business with clients who are happy in the knowledge they’re receiving the same great service they signed up for.

Just say no

When you’re good at what you do, you can become the go-to guy for everything. Customers trust you – you built them a great wall, so they want you to add a gate. You wrote them some very efficient software, so they want you to design them a website. In the early days, it’s easy to say yes to these added extras – business is business, after all.

But as you grow, these little jobs turn into time consuming extras that don’t bring any money into the business. Clients love you and you have glowing testimonials, but you’re working seven days a week and 12 hours a day to keep up. But busy doesn’t necessarily mean successful. Take a step back, work out the profitable areas of your business, and say no to everything else.

Begin at the end

The best way to avoid the owners’ trap is to plan your exit at the very start of your business journey. The only way you can create a business that’s valuable is to ensure it doesn’t revolve around you, and you alone. Ask yourself, can I realistically sell this business in five, 10 or 15 years’ time? If the answer is no, then you are caught in the owners’ trap.

Andy Mee and Graham Robson are SME consultants with national network Business Doctors

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This article was originally published in November 2017


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