(Counterintuitive) Tips to Run a Small Business

05/27/2016 11:38 am ET Updated May 28, 2017

Working a 9-5 job is hard. You spend years doing a job you hate to climb higher on a corporate ladder that probably isn't too crazy about you, either. You think you work too hard. You loathe the 45+ hour work weeks that tend to fall closer to 50-55 hours more often than not, and that says nothing of the weeks when you have big projects to finish. (Those weeks are probably closer to 60-70 hours, and you're ecstatic when they're over!) You think there has to be a better way; that you're killing yourself for someone else. You think that if you're working so much, and so hard, that you'd be better off if you were working for yourself and reaping the benefits. You're right. ...Sort of.

Being an entrepreneur or business owner is, for a lot of people, choosing to work 80 hours a week for yourself to avoid that 40 hours you'd be working for someone else's corporation. That was absolutely true for us when we first started. In our first few months as entrepreneurs we each got in a minimum of 80 hours per week - that's a lot of work! We realized pretty quickly that we needed to change something. We were drowning!

After analyzing our situation we honed in on 3 areas we needed to tweak. Our habits needed to change if we were going to be able to keep living our dream, and once we started implementing changes we were shocked. The changes we saw in our effectiveness and our time management were staggering!

So first, so there's no temptation to skip to the end, we'll give you the grand reveal. Here are the areas we changed in business to change our lives for the better:

We learned to structure our business activities.
When you're an entrepreneur, especially if you're a solopreneur, you have SO MUCH on your plate that you can easily become overwhelmed. That isn't your fault. There is no shame in admitting that you need to change things up to get things done. Beyond all the work that goes into running a successful business, you also have decisions to make. Those decisions, on top of all your tasks, can weigh you down and can lead to even more "must do now" activities. (Just think about it - should you use Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest to promote? Do you need to learn SEO, Adwords, or retargeting right now? Should you use Asana, Evernote, or Slack to communicate and collaborate with your team and clients? - The list of questions goes on!)

You need to change the way you address productivity.
People who are working from home, as many small business and entrepreneurs are, often struggle to be productive. This can be for a myriad of reasons, but the bottom line is that it's a trend that you can see coming and stop. You will not be one of those people.

You need to find ways to work smarter, not harder.
We'll share some systems, tips, and checklists that helped us to turn our lives around and get back to less intense working schedules. We still utilize this approach today, and so do many of our clients!

Now you're probably wondering about what our secrets are. Cutting your work week from 80 hours back to a more sensible number is no small feat. (For us, it's more like the typical job we left, but it could be any number that works for you.) Getting back to a "regular" work week is probably high on your list of priorities if you're feeling overwhelmed and burnt out. The good news is that the ways to stay focused, be productive, and run a smart business are applicable across the board, regardless of your industry. We faced the same issues and challenges when we began our businesses that our clients have, and that our friends who are in business have, so we'd go so far as to say that our approach is pretty much universal. (At least until we find an exception to the rule.)

First, the best ways to structure your business.


Limit Yourself.

Hear us out, we know this sounds completely counterintuitive. People want to do a lot, right? Dream big, have a lot - that's the conventional wisdom approach. The only problem is, that approach doesn't work. If you have too much on your literal plate you can't eat it all, so why should your workload be any different. Don't try to do it all, you can't!

- Limit your goals to 5.Will it be a pain to pick five things you want more than everything else? You bet, but it will force you to think about your priorities. Think about what stuff, out of all the stuff you've heaped onto your massive work load pile, is stuff you actually need to do? Great. Now that you have that list, pick a few monthly and weekly goals that are in line with your big five goals. (Limit the number of smaller goals, too.)

- Limit the strategies you try. Heard of a new app, method, or platform? Great. Unless it addresses a specific problem that is standing between you and one of your big five goals, write down the details on that new, shiny thing and table it for later. You can't be on top of all the new things that are popping up every minute. Don't feel guilty for not knowing about and using everything. Your aim is to advance your business, not to master all the tools. Need some tool rehab? Paper and pencils are a great way to get back to basics.

Stop Running Without a Plan
Sure you're busy, but no one is too busy to plan. Even pausing to take ten minutes to plan now will save you more than double that later when it's time to actually do the work. To move forward you need to stop, take a step back, and see the whole, bigger picture. Don't just react to things that happen, carve out a plan you can stick to. Then stick to it! Craft your goals and go after them with all you've got. Having trouble? Spend some time daydreaming about your most ambitious business goal. Now write it down. If you're having trouble putting it into words, draw it, cut and paste it onto a mood board, or turn it into a Pinterest board. Whatever you do, just don't limit it by what you think other people might say or forget about it. You can make it happen.

Do the Boring Stuff.
What needs improvement in business? From our experience, three things are typically at the top of the list. Clients, financials, and analytics. Clients get taken for granted, while financials and analytics seem both boring and difficult. What happens to financials and analytics? They get swept under the rug; abandoned for "more important" things.

Why are these things so important? Clients are important for obvious reasons. They are the root of every business. Spend time figuring out who they are, what they need, and what pains them. Really dig deep when you're trying to sort through who you're actually creating products and services for. Women are your customers? Great. What else? Are we talking working moms in metro areas or stay at home moms in the midwest? There's a huge difference in what they need, what they want, and the type of words you'd use to reach them. You probably wouldn't even reach these demographics in the same place, so don't skip these important steps! You need to know who your clients are so that you can create things that will convince them you are worth their hard earned dollars.

Financials are important because they are your bread and butter. If you aren't making money, then you aren't running a business. Calculate your margins, break-even point, profits, costs, and taxes. It doesn't have to be complicated. (You don't have to be an accountant to calculate the numbers that make your big picture and make your business tick.)

You won't need to be a statistician to appreciate your analytics, either. It's really just about measuring your money and time expenditures. Then once you have those figures down, you have everything you need to know. Spend your time and money on things that are worth it. Simple, right? You're looking for the best deal for your business any way you look, and there's no easier way to do that than this.
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Using these guidelines we became more structured, were more aware of what we actually NEEDED to do at every moment, rather than allowing ourselves to dart from fire to fire. With time, and after sharing our specific methods with colleagues and clients, we developed a paper planner. The planner outlines, in great detail, our exact tools and tricks. We love sharing the secrets that have made us successful, and hope you find ways to implement the tips we've described here.

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Mike is the co-author of an acceleration program for entrepreneurs, startups, and young companies looking to make their businesses and business practices, smarter. His experiences are primarily in helping businesses grow through marketing strategy development and innovation. One of his greatest joys is being able to support people who are making the difficult transition from corporate job to entrepreneurship. (Though, a close second would be the
work he does as a business ethics consultant.) In addition to these roles, he is also the co-creator of two physical products. Rebel's Agenda - a business planner designed to help startups, entrepreneurs, and those in the corporate world get a leg up by implementing some of his proven organization and strategy methods. Rebel's Desk - a portable and lightweight desk designed to have you greet the health and productivity benefits of standing desks while maintaining the capability to work anywhere. Rebel's Desk design means that your desk can get up and go with you, whenever you need it to.
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Every entrepreneur worth their salt is a bit of a rebel.