One Small Way to Invest in Yourself or Your Business That Will Yield Big Returns

August 27, 2013 · 22 comments

The last six months have been huge for my company, Socialexis.

I hesitate to write too much about this yet because I think I’ll see the full picture more clearly — and be better able to pull out important lessons — once the transition is complete. But I also see the value in sharing while I’m in it, because a lot of you will find yourselves in similar situations down the road. When you’re living deep in that moment, working your way through the sludge, it’s nice to hear from someone else who has been there.

Image: Systems mean better ideas.

Systems mean better ideas.

My sludge this year is shifting from freelancer to manager. Over the last six months, I’ve clarified the company’s core services, solidified the roles of our 10 team members, and brought on a project manager who is making good things happen. With the help of a business coach, I’ve greased the wheels of Socialexis so everything runs more smoothly. The goal is to continue to over-deliver for our clients, while making room for the product side, creating guides and courses that help go-getters achieve big dreams.

Know what’s helped the MOST as we move from awesome to more awesome?

Putting systems in place.

Systems are, essentially, getting organized on steroids. If there’s anything you do again and again — whether for your business or in your professional or personal life — you can create a system for getting it done. Once you document every little detail about how you do it, you can often have someone else do it for you.

Even before I decided to reorganize Socialexis, we used some systems. We relied on collaborative tools like Flow for task management, had a process for editing and managing client blogs, and followed social schedules for each client so we all knew what would be posted when. But it wasn’t until I pushed myself to let my team do awesome work without waiting for me to approve every step along the way that I realized just how much more potential for systems we truly had, and how taking the time to put those systems in place would change the business — and my life.

Putting systems in place requires effort up front, but it has already saved us time and stress and paved the road for us to do better work. It has also helped me create clearer expectations for my team, so everyone understands their role and how to execute their piece of the puzzle.

Saving time and stress + clarifying expectations = an entrepreneur’s dream. That’s why systems, which once sounded utterly boring, have become, in my mind, totally, undeniably sexy. (Click to tweet this.)

Why systems are sexy

I realize “systemizing the business” sounds kind of vague and abstract, so let me give you some examples of tangible changes that have made us more efficient. These exact examples might not fit into your own projects, but hopefully they’ll spark ideas for how you can apply this mentality to your own business and life.

Example #1: New and improved editing funnel. In the past, we relied on emails to pass blog posts between editors for various stages of editing: content edit, copy edit, SEO optimization, inputting into WordPress and more. When you manage several large blogs, this quickly turns into a LOT of email.

That’s why we’ve transitioned to funnels that rely on folders in Google Drive instead. Editors push each post through 3-5 folders (depending on the blog), so we can easily see where each post is in the editing process and take appropriate action without the slew of email. Let’s face it: anything that cuts down on email is a smart move.

I should note here that this system wasn’t easy to figure out. I knew we needed a better way to publish as many blog posts as we do, but it took a few tries — and the patience of my awesome editing team — to discover what would work best. Now that we’ve done that, we have a system we can replicate each time we begin managing a new blog.

Example #2: Using Canned Responses in Gmail. Yes, this counts as a system. If you find yourself writing the same responses again and again, creating a Canned Response that you can insert into an email with one click will save you lots of time over the long run.

What types of emails are good for Canned Responses? Readers of this blog ask whether a webinar will be recorded or when the next Twitter Power course will run, and both of those questions require responses we don’t need to create from scratch. For blogs we manage, readers ask how to contribute, which is perfect for a Canned Response; we send them details and a link to guidelines with one click.

Example #3: End-of-month client reports. At the end of each month, we offer clients an analysis that shows how much their channels have grown over the last 30 days. Depending on the client, that could include growth of followers on Facebook or Twitter, engagement metrics, website referrals, newsletter open and click rates, and more.

Eight months ago, I did all this myself. I already had a team at that point, but I hadn’t written down exactly what needed to be included in these reports, so the process lived only inside my head.

Now, we’ve developed a system whereby one team member collects as much of this information as possible from places like Facebook and Hootsuite, and adds it to Google spreadsheets. Then our project manager pulls more complicated details from Google Analytics, calculates engagement metrics and drafts an analysis for each client. And this is the best part: by the time the work gets to my desk, all I have to do is look everything over, make a few high-level conclusions for moving forward based on the metrics and share it with each client.

Putting this system in place has not only freed up my time so I can focus more on strategizing and creating, it has also created room for us to offer even better reports than we did before.

Where your investment comes in

Even once you understand how valuable systems can be, the hard work of putting them into place often gets overlooked or forgotten when we’re dealing with the everyday tasks of running a business or keeping up with a blog or simply getting through life. How many times have you deleted a newsletter you no longer want to receive rather than unsubscribing? The quick yet temporary fix is to get that email out of your inbox, but you’d be smarter to fix the root of the problem so you don’t waste time on it again the following week.

Most of us spend so much time fire-fighting — dealing with daily problems or maintenance — that we don’t take the time to create systems that will make us more efficient down the road. If you can set aside time to put even small systems in place, you’ll have more time over the long run to create new products or bring in more clients, both of which will result in more revenue. Indeed, systemizing will help you make more money. Or, if you care more about living your life than earning money, you can use that free time to go hiking or swim with your kids or read a novel.

While creating systems can be considered an investment, you can also see how NOT putting systems into place keeps you from accomplishing the big things that truly matter.

That’s why my whiteboard now reads, in huge letters: What SYSTEM can you put in place today?

This is my way of reminding myself to put one new system in place every day, even if I spend the rest of the day fire-fighting. Just ONE new system! It’s totally doable, and yet also like putting a dollar in the bank each day: If you save little by little over time, your pile begins to grow… and then your investment multiplies with interest, so you end up getting more back than you actually put in.

You can see then, why this is one great way to invest in yourself or your business — and reap huge rewards.

What systems do you use to make your life easier? Is there anything you do repeatedly that you know you should create a system for?

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Ryan Bonaparte August 27, 2013 at 1:52 pm

As a process engineer, my life is filled with creating robust systems. I’ve seen systems create organization from chaos and almost magically move a process into a much more effective, reliable, and less stressful state.

One question that comes to mind though, is when are there enough systems in place? We’ve all heard of the huge company that is crippled by bureaucracy that stems from too many systems hampering progress. Have you found a time when there were too many in place?
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Alexis Grant August 27, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Good question, Ryan! I imagine most people reading this post, though, are short on systems rather than having too many. I’ve got a long way to go before I’ll be able to say I’ve got as many systems in place as I need!
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Lisa August 27, 2013 at 9:05 pm

I love this blog post. When you own and run your business, it’s hard to pull away from the tasks that make it “yours.” But letting go allows you to consider the big picture, strategize, and take a breath every now and then!

Long before we signed the lease on our retail space, I said to my partner, “We need an ops handbook!” It’s just the two of us now, but when it’s time to add staffers, I don’t want to be scrambling!

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Alexis Grant August 28, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Lisa — That’s so smart! We’re having to document EVERYTHING now, and if I had done this from the beginning, it would’ve been easier at this point.

Getting all this in place will also make room for me to take a REAL, UNPLUGGED vacation, which I haven’t done in more than 2 years 🙂
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Frank Traylor August 29, 2013 at 11:35 am

I love to make things more efficient. So much so that I’ll waste a lot of time putting in a system that’ll save me time. Guess that works in the long run. Rather than creating like you Alexis, I read and share (and run businesses).

Here are my killer apps
Pocket – save stuff to read later, or have read back to me
IFTTT – connect services so you can automate all of your processes
Buffer – schedule my social sharing
Hackpad – new one I just discovered, great for collaboration
Google apps for biz – you’re right Alexis there’s so much to help you there

For example, I recently shared a blog post “The Product CEO Paradox” here was the workflow:
As I paged through my feedly one morning I came upon that blog post on techcrunch. I clicked the Pocket button on my browser. The next time I was driving up to the mountains I opened pocket on my phone and it started reading my queued articles with its text to voice feature. When I heard, and liked this particular article, I clicked “favorite.” IFTTT triggered on that favorite and queued the article in my Buffer to tweet it and post it on Linkedin at the optimal time (determined by SocialBro). When it got tweeted Rebelmouse picked it up and posted it on my personal webpage. Total time taken out of my work day to consume and share this great content: maybe 30 seconds (because while driving I would otherwise be listening to music).

I’d be interested in hearing other time saving strategies.

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Alex Sheehan August 29, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Wow Frank, I learned a lot about saving time strategies just from your comment alone. This is a great post, Alexis. It takes time to establish strategies in the beginning, what with so much trial and error, but it’s almost always worth it in the end. Thanks for the tip about Canned Responses – I had never heard of that before, and it is no already enabled in my Gmail.
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Alexis Grant August 29, 2013 at 7:14 pm

Thanks for sharing these, Frank! Always love hearing about other people’s systems and tools.
Alexis Grant recently posted…My Second Anniversary of Freedom and a Gift for YouMy Profile

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Frank Traylor August 29, 2013 at 12:21 pm

What a great question Ryan. I’ve worked in huge companies and run small ones. I have an opinion on this. You are completely correct that in many places there are so many systems that gum up the works. I think there is a distinction between processes and tools. Some places layer on process after process. I think what Alexis is saying is that with the right tools those processes can melt away. Her use of google docs reduces the need for “moving files around” processes. I’ve found that if you put the right tool in place it gets absorbed into the organization quickly and everything gets simpler. If you find that you have to force new tools on people (often by creating a process that requires their use) you’ve picked the wrong tools. Alexis, I love the tools that you have on your resource page.

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Kimmoy August 29, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Great examples Alexis! I’m a technical writer and I can’t tell you how many companies lack systems and even worse, lack the documentation that supports them. I still run into situations where a procedure lives in an employee’s head who’s been there for decades and works in a completely different department! lol It takes time to hash out the ideas and procedures, but once they’re written, it is very much worth the investment to implement.

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Ashley Brooks August 29, 2013 at 1:23 pm

I love this! I keep hearing about how systems can make such a huge difference in your business, which is why my top priority when I come back from vacation in September is to brainstorm areas I can delegate to others. Then I just have to be diligent about documenting everything I do!

My business is still less than a year old, so I know getting started on things now will be ten times easier than trying to do it all later. Thanks for the encouragement and implementation ideas!
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Alexis Grant August 29, 2013 at 7:14 pm

True! Document everything from the beginning!
Alexis Grant recently posted…My Second Anniversary of Freedom and a Gift for YouMy Profile

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Melanie Meren August 29, 2013 at 2:34 pm

This is a great post, Lexi. Would be great to work with you to build more systems sometime in the future!

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Alexis Grant August 29, 2013 at 7:13 pm

Yes! Or just hanging out would be good, too 🙂 Hugs.
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Jen August 29, 2013 at 7:17 pm

This is a great post and reminds me yet again that even with it just being me, I need to integrate some coherent systems in my business. I know I’m not being as productive as I could. I realize any time is the right time to start implementing systems but when did you hit that tipping point? Was it when you started bringing on people to work on the business?
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Alexis Grant August 29, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Hey Jen,

I hired helpers pretty early on, as soon as I realized there were a lot of things I didn’t really need to do myself. We put a lot of processes in place along the way, but I didn’t start proactively implementing systems until the way I was doing it before become unsustainable.

In retrospect, I waited too long! I had a team of 10-12 but no one else to help me manage. I was juggling too many balls. I couldn’t take a vacation for fear one of those balls would drop. Now we’re moving in a direction that makes this much more sustainable for me — planning a real, unplugged vacation later this year! — AND it allows us to serve our clients better, too.
Alexis Grant recently posted…My Second Anniversary of Freedom and a Gift for YouMy Profile

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Ryan Bonaparte August 29, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Frank you have quite the impressive system in place, I’m a little jealous. I think your description of the difference between systems that are tools and systems that are processes is spot on. I’ve never thought of it that way, but I’m going to try and apply some of that at work under that understanding and see what comes of it.

Thanks.
Ryan Bonaparte recently posted…What if I don’t have a passion?My Profile

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Louise August 30, 2013 at 2:59 am

Hey Alexis! We met briefly at WDS this year and we talked about this very subject. This is so great! I think systems and creativity can coexist beautifully and this is such an example of that.

I’m such a huge fan of collaborative tools like Google Docs and documenting processes. There is no need to reinvent the wheel every time you do something (especially if you’ve done it before!). Your shift in thinking is only going to continue to help you grow and make your business more sustainable. Great work on getting to this point and good luck!
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Robert September 4, 2013 at 9:59 am

Hi,

Nice article. Over the past 2 months I have really come to understand the power of a system in streamlining processing and enabling you to work ‘on’ the system rather than ‘in’ the system. When processes are standardised it allows you to step back and see a holistic overview of the task.
Do you map out systems or do you simply write them down? I have found that creating a ‘system map’ (much like a process map) is very effective, has anyone found the same?

I can highly recommend the book E Myth Revisited – it speaks about the process of creating systems for small businesses. If you don’t have time to read the book (although I highly recommend you do), you should at least take a look at these notes by Derek Sivers – sivers[dot]org/book/EMythRevisited

Robert

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Ahmad Moore September 5, 2013 at 6:35 pm

Hi Alexis,

This blog post is so on point for where I am in running my business at this time. I’ve recognized for a little while now that systems and processes are the needed missing link in making my business run more efficiently. The situation now is actually putting those systems in place. Just this morning I wrote down as one of my goals, put a least one system in place. And then I come to read this post. Wow, nothing but confirmation for me. Thanks for writing this and I was encouraged and motivated to do my one a week. I know you said, one system a day, but I’m going to start with one a week and work my way to daily systems. Thanks again Alexis.

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