Below is an excerpt from our book Startups Made Simple: How to Start, Grow and Systemize Your Dream Business. Learn more about the book here.
The Right Tools
I joked about the Office Space printer earlier, but I’m actually dead serious. Things like that can be really annoying for your team. Whether they are actual tools like in a machine shop, the office machines you use every day or virtual tools like office supply lists, setting up the right tools in your company can be a great source of efficiency and effectiveness.
I’ve been to some companies that have a great product or service but when I peek in the office, there are old computers, a dot matrix printer, carbon copy invoices, a whiteboard for planning and scheduling, and they generally look like they’re trapped a decade or two in the past. A company like this could definitely use some updated tools, especially if they’re already providing a good product or service. Good tools will make them more effective and profitable.
Warning: A lot of people obsess on the tools only (for example, a fancy CRM system or productivity software) but I’ve learned the hard way (I’ve actually developed productivity software before based on this misguided assumption) that it’s actually much more important for you to set up the other things well in your company, especially the Right Plan, the Right People and the Right Process before you focus too much on tools.
Sure, you can adopt the coolest new project management software in the world, but if you haven’t figured out your vision, goals, leadership and how to execute and hold people accountable then the software is probably not going to meet your expectations and may actually be counterproductive. You’ll likely be all over the place and only frustrate your team.
Once you’ve at least worked on those competencies in your business, The Right Tools for the job will be helpful because you’ve set up the underlying framework for a company that has a clear vision, has great goals, has great processes and hires great people and leads them effectively. You would ideally already have a system for getting things done well and adding great tools and systems will help you supercharge your effectiveness and can be a great competitive advantage.
Let’s go over some great systems and tools you should consider for your company (I will recommend vendors for many of these in the Chapter Resources):
The Issue List
I’ve discussed The Issue List previously (from the book Traction by Gino Wickman) and the concept is very simple: if you, your employees or your customers have a problem, hassle or even an opportunity to improve or streamline something then add it to the list. Let any employee add to the list and make it available for everyone to see, mostly so they can see existing problems and how they’re being prioritized and fixed.
Typically this will be a shared spreadsheet, task management software or even a simple whiteboard. Just make sure that it’s easily available to everyone. Consider even setting up an [email protected] email address to easily gather feedback from anyone.
Then, when you have your regular meetings (see the Right Routines), one part of that will be prioritizing, discussing and solving these issues one by one. You might consider having a private list for sensitive or employee issues. This sounds simple but it’s incredibly effective. Imagine all the various problems, hassles and frustrations in your company being solved one by one. This is how you build a great company and it will show your team you care about their problems as well.
The only rules I really have for the Issue List are 1) if an employee adds an issue, they need to add what their proposed solution to the problem is, which puts them in problem-solving mode rather than complaining mode and 2) if something is very urgent then feel free to email first with all the details and then determine if it can wait until the next meeting to discuss. If so, “hand the monkey back” and ask them to post it to the Issue List.
This should be pretty obvious but I think it’s valuable to have a “top level” view of the company and the many tasks or events that need to be done at or by a specific time. A good digital calendar that everyone can access is a valuable tool to have because it is a central place to see what the future looks like and gets everyone on the same page.
Add things like recurring meetings, recurring tasks (weekly, monthly, etc.), scheduled time off for key employees, employee birthdays, federal holidays, and even reminders of things like sending out holiday cards to customers or doing a seasonal sale or promotion. A good calendar is key to organizing your systems.
Task or Project Management System
Depending on the type of work your company does, you may need anything from simple checklists to very advanced project management software to make sure people get things done. I went over this pretty thoroughly in the Personal Productivity Superpower but my only real standing rule for task or project management software is that it’s available on all your devices and that it has recurring tasks (so you can begin setting up and delegating recurring procedures).
One more thing I’ll add is that it’s probably better to get your team all on the same system now rather than a hodge-podge of paper and various software solutions. Accountability will be easier if you can see all the tasks assigned to people and the status of those tasks or projects. A good software system will allow you to manage your personal to-do’s privately so if you can get everything in one system that will dramatically simplify your life.
These days there are several very reliable data storage drives that can be accessed from any device. This is a huge time saver, especially for companies that utilize a lot of documents. The most important thing is that it is organized well and that proper security (consider encryption) and permissions are installed for sensitive documents. A good start to your drive structure would be something like this:
It’s been said that an average office employee spends 20% of their day just looking for information and documents. A central website securely accessible to all employees by any device can be an incredible time saver and productivity booster. In my business, our intranet, which we call “Central” is where we:
How can everyone on your team quickly see how the company (and teams/individuals) is doing right now versus the goals you’ve set? As mentioned, having an easy to see Scoreboard for everyone to look at is not only very clarifying but can be motivational – like watching your team win or advance toward a shared goal. Some companies put this on a whiteboard, on their intranet, send it out weekly via email or even stream it to a TV where everyone in the office can see it.
Any well-run franchise has an “operations manual” that tells the franchise owner how to run every aspect of their business from opening the office/store, to managing employees and providing their product or service. In Step 6 we’ll go over putting The Manual together but it’s important to start documenting your procedures and centralizing your various management checklists and systems as described in the beginning of this chapter. Ideally The Manual would be accessible from your intranet.
Your communication systems will include your phone system, employee cell phones, email, chat and other systems. The particular setup will vary dramatically based on your needs so the main advice I can give is to put some thought and planning into your communication systems because while constant communication might seem like a great idea, it can actually be very disruptive and prevent your team from getting any Real Work done. Also, do you really want to be available and reachable by everyone at all hours of the day? That might seem ideal at first but it gets old quickly, trust me. At the least I recommend that if you’re not technically inclined (and probably even if you are) that you utilize a cloud provider for most of your communications simply because they will be supported and consistently updated.
Customer Relationship Management (CRM) or Help Desk Software
It’s been joked that one way to run a successful private equity firm (firms that buy, improve, then sell other companies for a big profit) is to find a company with several million dollars in sales but without a help desk or CRM system, then buy the company and simply install and train on the software to dramatically increase the company’s value.
Seriously though, a CRM or help desk can drastically improve how you sell or service your clients. It’s very powerful to centralize all the customer data in one place (accessible to all employees), have access to their entire history, keep detailed notes and have things like email templates, due dates and even performance reporting.
Like everything else, the key is pick the right system and implementing it well. Once you’ve done that, put one person in charge of service or sales and create measurable goals for things like response time, customer ratings and more.
Process Management Software
As I mentioned in The Right Process, there are now many great solutions for tracking and documenting recurring processes, procedures and tasks. We use these at my company and they’re a game changer if implemented correctly. Imagine having a dashboard where you could see and track the status of every workflow or procedure in your business.
You can create “activated” checklists and workflows (meaning you track when each step is completed, and by whom, instead of someone doing them in their head) for each of your processes or procedures (for example, an Onboarding Checklist). Each checklist is assigned, has an accountable person and is accessible from all devices. For a process oriented company, this is life in the next realm and a huge source of freedom.
It should be obvious but I believe every business should have a website, even a simple one page site. It’s important to realize that younger generations have no concept of the “yellow pages” and that the vast majority of research on business is done online now. Seriously, if you don’t have a website you may as well not exist to a large percentage of the population. I recommend at the least that you secure your domain name, use one of the many “site builder” services to get your basic website up as soon as possible and then continue to add information, FAQs, content and even blog regularly to show people that you are actively in business.
Custom Built Systems
I’ll briefly mention custom software systems, mostly because we use them heavily and there are some important things to keep in mind about them (especially if you are building a system as your product). First, a huge percentage of big software projects are late, over budget or simply outright fail. I’ve seen a small business waste six figures on a failed project. Second, custom software is so difficult that you should always try to find existing software to manage your business if you can or a systems integrator who can customize existing software (instead of building it from scratch).
Writing extremely clear software specifications, providing screenshots, mockups of what the final product should look like and written narratives on exactly how a custom system needs to work is absolutely critical. Do in-depth research on writing great specifications, hiring great developers and managing a project including penalties to the firm or developers for missing deadlines. Carefully review legal contracts with them and be wary of foreign contractors who have little incentive to abide by US law. Trust me on this, entire years can be lost to technical projects gone bad. Finally, consider hiring a few different developers or firms for a small test project to see how effectively they work then working with the best one.
The last thing I’ll say about Tools is that there is a remarkable difference between people that have mastered their tools and those that have not. What I mean is that almost every tool can be customized or tweaked to work best for an individual or team.
I see a lot of people never even bother to check the settings or research the best practices, tips and tricks for their task manager, chat, calendar, email, etc. and they aren’t optimizing how the tool should work for them. For example, too many notifications is a problem I see a lot and many people won’t take two minutes to find adjust the settings. This is a huge waste because many of these tools are not effective “out of the box” and need to be adapted to your workflow and style.
This was an excerpt from our book Startups Made Simple: How to Start, Grow and Systemize Your Dream Business. Learn more about the book here or see our previous excerpts here.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 27th, 2022 at 8:35 am and is filed under Small Biz Management, Starting A Business, Startups Made Simple Book. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.