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Tuesday, 07 August 2007

Start smart: 5 quick ways to set up business processes on the fly

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If you are just launching your business, chances are, setting up business processes and infrastructure is the last thing on your mind.  Usually, you are more concerned with things like:

  • How in the world will I get new customers?
  • Will my business idea work in the real world, or am I deluding myself?
  • Was I insane to leave my "stable" job and put my family's financial future at risk?

If you keep your focus and work diligently, these fears will generally dissipate.  But you may quickly become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of details related to keeping a whole business afloat by yourself. 

One of the best ways to make sure you are efficient with your time from the start of your business is to adopt the practice of only going through the excruciating process of gathering information or crafting communication once.

You will find that in the start-up phase of business, many of the vendors, government agencies, potential customers, media contacts and partners want the same kind of information about you and your company.  So instead of digging through file folders and your "sent" email, here are five suggestions for setting up quick and dirty business processes and organizing your information for easy access:

  1. Create a "General Company Information" cheat sheet.  This can have things on it like:
    -Legal identity information (your business name, when you were established, when you were incorporated (if different), official contact information, tax I.D. numbers, trademark registration info)
    -Contact information for your key business partners like your accountant, lawyer, insurance agent and banker.  Make sure to add the complete contact information of name, address, phone, fax and email.
    -Current supplier contact information for credit applications.  If you are applying for credit the first time, often they will ask for references to ensure you have a track record of paying people on time.
    -Client references.  Prospective customers may want to talk to some past clients to be sure you are who you say you are and will meet their needs.  Just be sure to check with these references to see if it is OK to have someone  contact them.  As a general rule of thumb, I don't like to give out the same name more than three times, lest I waste the time of a satisfied customer.
    -Policy information for insurance.  This can include coverage for life or liability insurance.  Make sure you note what the total value of the coverage is.
    -Financial information about your company.  This can include current revenues, projected sales, profit margins, and, for bank and credit applications, personal net worth.
    -Major business assets if your company requires major equipment.  Write down the name and description of the equipment, year, make and model, purchase price and date of purchase.
  2. Create email templates for common inquiries.  If your marketing is in order, you will get inquiries from prospective clients that say things like "please tell me about your services."  I have a very basic email template that I send out to people who inquire about my services that describes the process of coaching in a few bullet points, outlines basic services and encourages them to sign up for an introductory session.  Anytime you notice that you are sending the same general emails to many people, create a quick template to save time.  These can be for things like:
    -Company background for prospective clients
    -Explanation of standard billing procedures or processes
    -General agreements for joint venture partners
    -Media inquiries (see next bullet for more on this)
  3. Whip up a "media page" if you plan on courting the press as part of your marketing strategy.  I just put together a quick and dirty one myself, since my "About Me" section in the blog was a bit long-winded (it still needs editing, but one step at a time!)  A Media Page (or Media Room) should have the following information to make it easy for the press to contact you and see if you are the expert they are looking for:
    -Brief bio that describes what you do and what qualifies you to do it.  This is not the place to say things like "enjoys listening to Journey songs and doing yoga on the beach" since most media contacts really don't want to get to know you that well.  Do include things that make you unique and press-worthy.  It can be appropriate to include personal information like marital or parental status, if that would be relevant to your status as an expert (I chose to mention that I am married with kids, as much of my target market struggles with issues of supporting a family while starting a business)
    -Media appearances.  This can be online and offline media appearances in print, radio and television.  It helps to put the most noteworthy towards the top, since one of the best ways to be characterized as an expert is to be featured in a prominent mainstream news source.  Include the name of the publication or media outlet, title of the story and date of publication.  If you want to link to the story itself, that is fine, but not totally necessary when you first get up and running.  Be careful when displaying video clips on your site (such as from T.V. appearances) since you can run into copyright issues if you don't get permission first.
    -Story angles.  Help the media think up newsworthy articles by suggesting story angles based on your expertise. 
    -Interview questions.  Outline the major types of questions that are of critical interest to your target market.  This can save the reporter time, and make sure that you get to reinforce key messages as part of your brand and company mission.
    -Contact information (again).  Even though you have the contact information up front, put it at the bottom.  Reporters are busy, busy people, so the easier you make it for them to contact you, the more likely they will.  Final tip on that -- call the media RIGHT BACK.  They are often under last-minute deadlines, and will quote whichever expert gets back to them first.
    (I stole much of this layout from my friend Andy Wibbels - check out his media page here.)
  4. Start a bare-bones operations manual for common business processes.  This doesn't have to look great or have a huge amount of detail.  Just start by capturing the basic steps required to execute key business activities such as:
    -Bringing on a new client
    ("Send welcome email" "Send agreement in the mail with pre-paid envelope" "Enter contact information into Outlook")
    -Starting a new project
    ("Send billing procedures confirmation to accounting contact," "File final version of proposal in project file," "Enter project milestones into calendar.")
    -Purchasing a new piece of equipment
    ("Update general business info sheet with information," "Add equipment to insurance policy," "File warranty paperwork.")
    -Conducting a presentation,  event or workshop
    ("Book event location," "Send confirmation notice to participants," "Book catering 6 weeks in advance.")
  5. Create a folder of frequently accessed documents on your desktop.
    These can be things like your general business information sheet, head shot, one-page company background or current press release.  Over time, your folder structure can get more complex, but there is no need to create many levels of folders at this point if you just have a few key documents.

With any of these quick and dirty business infrastructure tips, you can go crazy making them look  pretty or technically flashy.  A common trap for new entrepreneurs is to take too much time with internal processes and not enough time on external processes like marketing or pressing flesh with prospective customers.  So while you could spend 40 hours creating a beautiful database to house your general business information for the next 5 years, don't -- at least at this point.  Instead, spend 40 minutes creating a Word document, then enhance it later.  When the big bucks are rolling in from all your new clients, you can hire someone else to make everything look great and function perfectly.

As a final note, an added benefit of documenting these basic processes from the beginning of your business is that it will be much easier to delegate tasks to assistants and partners as you grow.  I have known many entrepreneurs who grew substantial businesses with all key information in their head, and nothing on paper.  When they were totally overwhelmed with work and ready to outsource to others, it took lots of time and effort to hand over tasks. 

Any other quick start up tips from those of you more seasoned entrepreneurs out there?

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» Small Office Administration 101 from THE SMALL BUSINESS BLOG
Pamela Slim has a nice post Start smart: 5 quick ways to set up business processes on the fly - I can recommend you reading it:..You will find that in the start-up phase of business, many of the vendors, government agencies, potent... [Read More]

» Processes: Diagrams, Maps from Technology Headstart
On the business blog and for a long time now I've been banging on about business processes and how they're vital for business success. If you want to create some 'quick dirty' processes for your business, Pam Slim has some [Read More]

Comments

John Dodds

Absolutely right on the focus Pam. Nobody sees your internal stuff so as long as it works, what does it matter if the font's not right, if it were would that increase your revenues? Of course not.

G. M. Conyers

A general company information cheat sheet? Why didn't I think of that?

I've been fumbling around with all the little nuggets of information written on sticky notes stuck to my desk. Now that you've put thought to blog, it makes perfect sense. Create a cheat sheet that contains all that stuff!

I don't know where I'd be without blogs that offer practical tips like these.

ceptera.com

Matt Langdon

That is a set of priceless advice. I'm printing it out and aiming to cross everything off by the end of the week. Thanks a lot Pam.

Suzanne McLoone

Wow! You don't say? Do all of that fun stuff, eh? You are absolutely BRILLIANT, woman! :)

Laura

This is a great list of tips for the self-employed. I especially liked #4 and #5. In the same spirit, I keep an empty style template (that I created) on hand for one my frequent clients. Having it has really saved me time.

Maria

Great list of tips, Pam.

I would also suggest setting up automatic payments and orders for frequently needed supplies. The less brain space those mundane tasks take up the better!

Trina Lamarche

What a great article! Why didn't I have those tips when I first started my business? I am definitely going to keep this URL in my bookmarks and when a new business asks advice, I will send them to this article. Thanks for the great advice!

Trina Lamarche
http://www.vaassistant.com

Duane Benson

Hi Pamela;

I really enjoyed this piece. It speaks to one of the more common traps that I continually rage against; the very popular misconception that good marketing (or professionalism) is all about form over function. In reality, both are all (or should be) about form not getting in the way of function – a subtle but critical difference

People get overwhelmed with the idea of compiling this set of materials in a professional manner, so they end up putting it off or keeping it scattered or in their head.

As you suggest, make it brief and to the point. You don’t need to add flash or superfluous detail – just make it all clear and easy to find. That’s what really makes it professional.

The comment I would add, or perhaps just reinforce, about a media page / bio, is to spend more time here. In your “quick and dirty” media page, the very first sentence tells 95% of the Pamela Slim story. Everything else is just supporting data. You can’t get much better than that and aspiring entrepreneurs would be well served to study your bio and spend extra time on their opening sentence or two.

The last bit about putting your database in Word made me laugh. Every reasonably successful start-up I’ve been in has the Excel stage, the QuickBooks stage and then the “okay how do we do this right” stage. Almost without fail if the start-up tries to “do the infrastructure right” from the start, they don’t last long enough to really need it.

Duane Benson

Peter

We Guide you on examination techniques, common and unique industry issues, business practices, industry terminology and other information to assist your business improvement

Tim

Excellent advice Pam. In Australia we have quarterly and/or yearly tax reporting obligations that we need to fulfill. Because it can be a long time between instances of these tasks, I find myself having to "relearn" or "re-figure out" how to do this. So I now have a one pager for each task, including pertinent phone numbers, URLs, reference numbers and process steps to get the job done. I think unloading these details into document form is a huge relief for an over-loaded brain!

Coach Outlet Store Online

That sounds great!

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