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Grow Your Business by Protecting Your Life With Guardrails

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The mission of our organization is to help entrepreneurs succeed. That's why these Small Business Administration statistics bother me:

  • 50 percent of businesses will close within seven years
  • 70 percent won't last beyond 10 years
  • 99 percent won't ever see a million dollars in revenue
There are, unfortunately, countless reasons why small businesses fail: lack of funding, misguided business plans, a lack of understanding of a repeatable model, over or under-estimation of market size and more.

We believe there is something more fundamental at play here that doesn't get mentioned enough. Too often entrepreneurs don't put up simple guardrails for their businesses.

By guardrails I mean how much you're willing to give to your business and how much you're willing to let your business take from you. As entrepreneurs, our natural tendency is to give everything to our businesses and we often fail to realize how much of our time and energy it can take from the rest of our lives. Anyone who has started a business can tell you that it will require 100 percent (though it seems like more) of your time and focus in the beginning.

This is OK... at first.

See, when we're in "startup mode," we have to answer every call, fill every order, talk to every client and make sure the business gets the attention it deserves for it to have a chance at success. At the beginning we don't really have a choice but to devote a ton of time and effort to the details, and the business will dominate our lives.

If you want a successful business, you almost always have to go through this intense startup period. When the business gains success and momentum, far too many business owners fail to recognize they can and should shift the intensity and begin to put up some simple guardrails.

The issue is that when your commitment to your business is absolute (i.e. it comes at the expense of all else) and the time period that you commit is indefinite, you can (and probably will) burn out. In fact, when we ask our clients what the biggest challenges with their businesses are, two of the most common answers we get are "there's not enough time" and "feeling burned out." A total commitment to your business that extends beyond the start up period and lasts years and years will challenge your personal life and eventually cause you to be de-leveraged in your business. You'll feel as if you don't have enough time, as if the business is demanding more and more, and as if you're the only one who can really solve problems. You may even develop resentment toward your business. Sometimes this is difficult to admit, and these feelings manifest in constant challenges and issues in the organization. There may be other factors that affect the success of a company; however, we know that one of the most complicated and damaging is a disillusioned or -- even worse -- a disengaged owner.

No one would expect to stand on the accelerator of a car and redline the engine for weeks, months, years and then expect the car to continue running well (or run at all). Yet we watch business owners do this to themselves all the time. Our coaches work with entrepreneurs daily to reverse the conditioning that says things like "if it's going to be done right, I have to do it" or "of course I do it, there is no one else who can!" Most of the time the entrepreneur doesn't recognize these patterns until they are pointed out.

"Stepping away from your business allows you to see new opportunities." @AlexCharfen

I had a particularly telling exchange with a client on stage at one of our events where she actually said "if I stop working then I may die." To the casual observer this might seem an exaggeration, but I saw it as an entrepreneur who was in touch with her feelings and being painfully honest.

We know it is challenging to get out of startup mode, and to move into the mode of running and growing a business rather than getting one started. We estimate that a very large percentage of businesses stay small because this transition is never completed, and the owner hovers somewhere between manic startup and fledgling, established business indefinitely. In fact many business grow and gain stability only to be thrown into start up mode again by changes or new initiatives.

One solution to move you out of startup mode, is to develop guardrails for yourself and your business. Guardrails, in our terminology, are the simple rules you create for yourself that act as a buffer between your business and your focus. By setting up easy-to-follow rules, we move ourselves into a more sustainable level of activity, which in turn almost always leads to a higher level of contribution to the business. I want to make this clear: by deliberately spending less time and getting space from your business, things will get better.

We recommend that most business owners begin with the following four guardrails:

  1. Hours of Operation: When you're in startup mode, if a client calls, you have to answer. Each call means could mean the survival of your business. But down the road, when you are established, should anyone in your company be taking calls at 8 PM on a Sunday? Except in very specific situations, probably not. Setting up hours of operation for your business can help protect your (and your team's) time in the future. And don't worry, the right clients and consumers understand that businesses have set hours of operation.
  2. Your Personal Availability: How available should you make yourself? How easily can you be reached by your team and your clients? Limiting your availability to only the critical interactions will buy you more time and can increase your focus. It will also cause members of your team to learn how to be self-sufficient.
  3. What You Do For the Business: When you are working, what are the things you are and are not doing? As entrepreneurs, we often want to handle everything and control everything; this will always leave large areas unattended and, even worse, neglected. By asking yourself repeatedly, "is what I am doing of the highest and best use to my company?" you will soon find that there are activities that you are doing daily that desperately need to be handed off. As a CEO, I delegate at least 85% of the productivity of my organization to someone else. Our typical small business client may be as low as 10 or 15 percent, yet they don't understand why they aren't growing.
  4. When Are You Deliberately Away from the Business: How much time you spend away from the business. When you go on vacation or spend time with family, do you truly disconnect from work? Disconnecting completely--avoiding email and office check-ins--can not only reinvigorate you, but can also give you a different, broader perspective on your business. Sometimes, we're so close to our business we can't see the forest for the trees. Unplugging and pulling back can help tremendously when it comes to developing strategic perspective.

If you're truly committed to the success of your business, treat it with the respect it deserves. Once your business reaches a point of sustainability and success, set some boundaries for your time and focus. Sometimes a little structure is what we need to truly flourish.

To complete the metaphor, when we drive over a bridge, the guardrails along the edge are reassuring. In our businesses the guardrails we set up are not only reassuring, but should we veer off course, they can help bring us back.

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Alex Charfen is the CEO of the Charfen Institute.