The 5 Universal Truths Of Small Business Operations

Lo Kidd

January 21, 2021

I’ll just say it – the way most of us do business changed this year. But that doesn’t mean that your business playbook needs to be thrown out the window! Instead, it’s time to focus on the parts of your small business operations that work. Then, pivot accordingly.

So, at Playbook 2020, the ultimate small business event, we chatted through all things processes and systems with 3 operations experts (Grammarly’s Josh MacIntrye, Ellevest’s Margaret Kim, and COO Alliance’s Cameron Herold). And here are their 5 universal truths for building fool-proof operations:

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1. Processes are an investment

Without documented processes, your business operations is a never-ending game of telephone, which skews and dilutes steps along the way. 

But by taking the time to invest in your processes now, you get a big pay off later. Such as standardizing all your best practices, capturing your team’s tribal knowledge, and keeping your operations consistent. 

Yet, for many small business leaders, sitting down to make this investment feels like a chore. Josh MacIntrye, Head of Revenue Operations at Grammarly, explains why. 

“When you’re moving really fast and understandably focusing on how to run your business, it’s difficult to take the time to actually document things,” Josh shared. “But for me, it’s about a mindset shift. Look at [documentation] as an investment – not a chore.”

Process documentation sets the foundation for scaling repetitive tasks years into the future. And when you consider it from an investment standpoint, you’ll start to see the return and find the time to get it done. Then, you simply have to tweak processes as they change.

The nuts and bolts that make up your processes can change over time. But the overall framework should remain consistent until you reach a certain scale. Then, you need to blow it up again.

~ Josh MacIntrye, Head of Revenue Operations at Grammarly

But here’s the catch! According to Margaret Kim, the Director of Strategy and Operations at Ellevest, it’s not enough for you to have this mindset shift. It has to happen across your entire team. Because if every employee isn’t 100% on board, there’s no way to guarantee protocol. 

“It’s getting that buy-in by showing the rest of the team that you can actually move faster if you slow down, put a process in place, and document [the tasks],” Margeret explained.” Then, you really set yourselves up to be on fire.”

Take action: Put time on your calendar this week to invest in your processes And start hyping your team about standardizing how you do things.

🔥 Trainual is the easiest way to rally your team around your systems and train them on your processes. Try for free.

2. Start with the goal 

Before you can fine-tune and document your processes, you have to be laser-focused on what your business needs to achieve with them. Margaret suggests starting with the high-level goal (sometimes referred to as your north star metrics) and letting it trickle down from there.

Find the biggest obstacles to achieving [the high-level] goal and start documenting and operationalizing those.

~ Margeret Kim, Director of Strategy & Operations at Ellevest

For example, imagine your high-level goal is to reduce churn. Then, one of the risks might be slow or ineffective customer experience. 

So, first, you need to understand what trends there are in the experience. Meaning, how does your team get tickets, what options do they have to offer support, and what are most of the tickets for?

Then, bubble up the main issues to marketing or product. That way, you can try and reduce the total number of tickets or proactively solve them. 

Cameron Herold, Founder of COO Alliance, has a similar theory and actually wrote an entire book on it (called Vivid Vision). But rather than starting with your biggest obstacles, Cameron looks at the bigger picture.

He says that this approach can impact more than just your operations. It can guide your team’s behavior and provide a filter for your team to make decisions. To do this, describe: 

  • What your company looks like
  • How your employees act
  • What your culture feels like 3 years out

Then, start communicating this to your team. That way, everyone is in complete alignment before you iron out your processes. Because, as Cameron puts it, “they all know where [the company is] going and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

Take action: Look at your business from a high-level view. Be sure to identify your biggest operational goal and obstacles. As well as map out a vision for your company. Then, use both perspectives to guide your processes and documentation strategy.

👉 Don’t know where to start documenting your processes? We have a free step-by-step guide for standardizing your operating procedures. Check it out!

3. Prioritize people operations

Often, hiring and HR functions are the last place people invest in their business. But if you don’t have the right people in the right jobs, your systems and processes are useless. 

So, Josh suggests that owners and leaders outline their people ops processes right away to avoid bad choices. Hiring, onboarding, and setting expectations included. 

“When it comes to hiring in general, it’s really important to have a process from Day 1,” he explained. “Especially when you’re small. Because if you get it wrong, the cost is massive to your business.”

But how do you know when a hiring decision puts you off course? Josh says it may not show up for months if you make a mistake. So, it’s all about circling back to your north star metric to spot the misstep sooner.

“The north star metric is what you’re [setting out to] achieve as a business,” Josh explained. And for most companies, it’s that big goal you set early on. The one that when you hit it, you’ll know you’ve succeeded. 

Then, look at each new hire as gas in the car that’s taking you to your north star metric. Ideally, you should be able to track how having them on the team gets you there faster. If not, it’s time to reevaluate. 

Take action: If you haven’t already, define your north star metric. Then, document your hiring process and HR functions. As your team grows, routinely check back in to make sure you’re still on track. If not, you might have people in the wrong position or outdated processes in place.

4. Put simplicity before systems

Setting up systems that are scalable starts with simplicity. That’s because if the right way to operate your business is too complicated, your team will do it “their own, easier way.” Even if it’s the wrong way!

So, according to Cameron, “if you can’t document a system on a post-it note, you’re probably not thinking clearly and simply enough.” 

He suggests that business leaders look for ways to “idiot-proof” their most repetitive tasks. Such as taking out unnecessary places for decisions or extra steps. This way, your process is easy to understand, and anyone can execute it, regardless of their experience level.

Then, once you’ve streamlined processes and systems, you’re ready to leverage technology to make it scale. “We work through the system. We use the system. And then, we bring it into a software – like Trainual – after,” Cameron noted. 

During the conversation, Margaret warned against overworking or over-committing to a process before you’ve really tested it out. 

When you’re first systemizing your business, you’re developing and reiterating processes. So, “it is important that you don’t automate your processes before you know what [those processes] actually are or should be,” she explained. 

Otherwise, you’ll spend more time building and rebuilding the automation than you’re actually saving with the fool-proof process. 

Take action: Edit your processes and systems to ensure each task could fit on a post-it note. And that everyone can follow. Then, invest in technology that makes it scalable.

5. Sell them, don’t tell them

Once your documented processes are in place, the real challenge begins. You need your employees to be all in on following these protocols. 

And to make that happen, you have to sell them, not tell them! “Our role as leaders isn’t to tell people what to do. It’s to support them,” Cameron said. 

Meaning, it’s up to you to equip your team with the resources and help them see how using them will make work easier. That way, they’re more likely to use the support you provide.

Our role is to give [employees] systems to be more efficient, help remove obstacles, and do it better. It’s less about telling them to do stuff. And it’s more about selling them on doing it right.

~ Cameron Herald, Founder of COO Alliance

Before founding COO Alliance, Cameron was the second-in-command at 1-800-GOT-JUNK. During his time there, he focused on 3 tactics for selling franchises on consistently following systems and processes. 

First, build a strong company culture. Second, obsess over the benefits of following protocol, like profitability, efficiency or impact. And third, make the processes simple and easy to follow.  

Cameron told us, “[The franchisees] would [follow the systems] because it wasn’t about driving revenue. But sure enough, because they followed the systems that drove revenue.”

Take action: Make sure your team knows what resources are available to them. And that they understand how using these resources will benefit them personally. That way, your processes are actually put to good use!

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