It’s a common small business problem, and a mistake many small business owners make in the beginning.
When you first start out in business, you don’t have a lot money, so you bootstrap. The small restaurant owner will be the cook, the cleaner, the accountant and the waiter all rolled into one. The budding marketing consultant will share their marketing expertise, but they will also drive themselves to appointments, they will do their own accounting and they will also be their own salesperson.
As business owners, we derive a lot of pride from doing it all in the beginning. We pull up our sleeves and work hard, and through sheer perseverance our business takes off.
There comes a point, though, when our basic survival is taken care of. And suddenly we could perhaps afford to hire help – but it feels like the easy way out. Almost like an indulgence!
However, if you’re not aware of this common small business problem, it could choke your business.
Beware this common small business problem: there’s only one of you
A year and a half after setting up in business, I was on a trip for six days, and I hired a travel agent.
Say what?! Nobody hires a travel agent anymore! Especially not a very young business – that’s the time you should be ultra-frugal, not spending on frivolities…
The Internet has made travelling that much more convenient and much cheaper. Good thing for everyone. Personally, I don’t take on expenses lightly – every business needs to be smart with their finances.
So why did I incur the expense of a travel agent?
I could have bought my tickets for much cheaper on Ryanair, yes. Maybe.
I was visiting three European capitals on a tight schedule. My trip consisted of a relatively early flight to Amsterdam on Tuesday, getting a train to Brussels on Wednesday evening, flying to Copenhagen on Friday night and back to Dublin Sunday morning. It involved trains, planes and automobiles! I stayed in three different hotels and flew with two different airlines.
I wasn’t on a holiday where you can afford to leave certain things to “Oh well, we’ll see when we get there”. I really needed this trip to be “watertight“, with as little down time as possible.
Think of this: I needed to buy plane tickets. Book hotels. Make sure said hotels were clean and quiet with no unpleasant surprise on arrival. Think of airport transfer. Think of where the hotel would be in relation to the airport (when I was arriving and leaving), and in relation to where I was going to go during the time that I spent in an unknown foreign city.
Aaahhh, peace of mind
I went to Brussels, Amsterdam and Copenhagen looking for contacts to expand and export. It was a big, exciting, and of course somewhat stressful endeavour. I wanted to be able to concentrate fully on preparing for and conducting sales workshops as well as retention trainings. Travelling and running a business are two things that take a lot of mental and physical energy. Doing both at the same time compounds the effort!
Adding to all this the preoccupation of organising my trip didn’t really sound like a good idea. I would have botched something in the reservation, misread the small print and whatnot. And I couldn’t afford to be left stranded in an airport, kicking myself for a glitch in my booking.
In fact, I landed in Helsinki last week to find there was an issue with my hotel booking. It was dark, cold and I had been travelling twelve hours at this stage. All I had to do was pick up the phone to my travel agent in Ireland and she had me sorted within minutes!
There was an added cost, yes, since I had to pay the travel agent. But this was money well spent.
Interestingly enough, the travel agent actually ended up saving me a lot of money. Firstly, they can get rates for hotels that I can’t because of the nature of their business. Secondly, if I was to spend the time that they do on my travel itineraries, there are a lot of other things I wouldn’t have the time to do! That’s the other side of this common small business problem: when you insist on going it alone, you end up not having the time to run your business…
But most importantly, the value they brought was tremendous:
- I was able to delegate the organisation completely and relax: somebody very competent and knowledgeable about travel was handling it all. No need to worry about it.
- I was able to concentrate on what really mattered: preparing for important meetings.
- And also, I gave some business to an Irish firm. As far as they are concerned, this Irish travel agent is exporting their services. If I am travelling abroad for a meeting and a third party (my client) is paying for my travel expenses, as was the case, essentially “foreign money” is flowing into an Irish bank account. This improves the “Balance of Payments” position of the country… if only by a tiny amount.
Yes, I made sure to choose an Irish travel agent
Shouldn’t it be survival of the fittest? Shouldn’t I have hired a virtual assistant in the Third World for a fraction of the cost?
Think for a moment of the non-monetary benefits of spending your money. Cheaper is not always the good choice for the economy at large. Cheaper is a downward spiral. If I refuse to pay a fair rate for work that brings value, how can I demand being paid a fair rate for the value I provide? If I despise everybody else’s work because “I can get it cheaper elsewhere”, why should people value my work? They can find it cheaper elsewhere, after all.
But you don’t get “it” cheaper. You get something else entirely. You never get the exact same thing when you want to pay less. You get a lower quality version.
No, you shouldn’t just spend because everybody says you should, to put the economy back on track. Your overspending is not the solution to the Irish crisis. But you can certainly spend smart. And when you have to spend anyway and you have decided on a purchase, make sure to make every euro do as much good as it can.
Spend money, grow your business
Particularly at a startup phase, you have to bootstrap because you don’t have a lot of money, so you try to do everything yourself. But when you do everything yourself, you are the biggest obstacle to the expansion of your business. You are spreading yourself too thin and putting out fires all the time, instead of focusing on what you do best. That’s one of the most common small business problems.
I know, it sounds like a vicious circle: can’t afford to pay someone to do it for you – have to do it yourself – can’t expand because you don’t have time to go after new clients – no money – can’t afford to pay someone…
There is only one of you, and you went into business because you knew there was something you can do that nobody else does as well as you. If you spend your time doing other things than what you are actually best at, you are stifling your business and preventing its growth. By wanting to do everything, you are in effect killing your business.
Yes, it’s difficult and money is tight. Still, I really think that, once your survival is taken care of, you definitely should invest back in your business. And yes, spending money on delegating certain tasks is investing in your business. It frees you up to focus on growing your business.
But wouldn’t you have the trip booked in the time it takes
to articulate all the details to a travel agent?!
You might think that it was a waste of time since, instead of booking my tickets myself, I had to explain what I wanted to somebody else and make sure they understood exactly what I needed. But…
1. It takes longer than you think to research hotels, book flights, organise train tickets, double-check everything, etc. On the other hand, I sent one e-mail to the travel agent and she isolated the details that I was missing.
2. You should always, always make the effort of delegating. Learning to delegate is the number one crucial skill that you will need to expand your business. If you’re too busy to delegate, guess what? You will only get busier and more overwhelmed. Nobody will be able to help you because you never took the time to train them to. A common small business problem is that all the knowledge about the business and its processes is concentrated into one person: the business founder. If you’re not delegating, that effectively stops the business from growing completely.
3. Remember, I wasn’t talking to just anyone, but to a seasoned travel expert. It didn’t take longer to explain because they actually knew what would serve me best, better than I would have known myself. Always choose somebody you can trust, and then – actually trust them. Verify, yes, but don’t micro-manage them.
4. You can never be good at absolutely everything. Seriously. Focus on what you do best, delegate the rest. The travel agent focuses on what they do best, that is, booking well-organized trips.
Spend money to save money, and spend time to save time
At the end of the day, the only important question is: when am I creating the most value with my time? This is a very good rule of thumb for action: what activity brings my clients the most value? Me booking my own trip? Or me preparing in depth for meetings and trainings with my clients? The answer is crystal clear. After all, I am NOT the Positive Travel Agent.
If you need some help in figuring out what you could outsource, write down everything you do in a day related to your business on one half of a sheet of paper. On the other side, write down if it could be done (as well) by somebody else and if so, who would that person be ?
This will give you a very good sense of what is “core” and what is “outsourceable”.
Hire a cleaner to clean your house so you can spend the time on your business. Hire a driver so you don’t have to worry about rush-hour traffic in Dublin. Hire an accountant, a secretary, whatever. If you can’t afford a professional, hire a student. They will be grateful for the experience you give them, as you will be saving them from the “I can’t get a job because I have no experience, but I can’t get experience because I don’t have a job” conundrum.
Trust me, I’m far more productive now than when I started in business, and it was all thanks to learning to delegate!
Remember: focus on what you do best, delegate the rest.
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