Why every business NEEDS systems…. what I’ve learned, the hard way (again).

Getting serious about “business”

The last few weeks have been slow with client work, which has actually been a god-send… giving me some much needed time to reflect on the past year and all I’ve learned, as well as to adapt my direction, get clear on my goals for 2018, plan my action steps, and begin implementing these plans.

In my last post, I wrote about what I’ve learned over my first 5 years in “business,” in very broad strokes, and how 2017 was when I really began to take it seriously (for a number of reasons)…

And, for me, “seriously” is in a way that I can attribute to a quote from Filomena Fanelli in an interview I did with her on my podcast.

She discussed the idea of taking her business seriously, as a thing outside of her self, and taking her self a little less seriously.

I took that to mean, really believing that her business is a real thing, and is not part of her identity. And, as such, that it is something that deserves attention and care.

To me, the last part is really about having a little less ego and a little more openness towards others and more compassion towards yourself.

Being like Nike and just going for it.

In any case, in January I dubbed 2017 my year of “just going for it.”

And, I did in a number of big ways… one of the most crucial being that I left my “steady and safe” side job to go at this thing full time.

Of course, I was a bit terrified when I went to give my two weeks notice, but I had just received a few fairly large checks so I knew that I would be fine for at least a few months, if I didn’t get another client.

I even thought that I would have a ton of “free time.” (ha ha ha) So, I made lots of plans on strategic things I would do in order to ensure getting more clients.

But, it turned out that the moment you decide to take your business seriously and separate it from your ego… there are suddenly a million things to do that you didn’t even realize were things that could or should be done.

 

Not just “business”… but “busy-ness”

So, between client work that I already had in progress or had already booked, my new list of business development tasks, social media, networking events, multiple trips, conferences and my new living situation (I moved in with my boyfriend 1 month before leaving the job), I had about 6 solid months of non-stop action.

To the outer world, I was on fire. Things kept happening. It was great and I was grateful (still am).

But, privately, I was in a constant cycle of

  • excitement (amazement, disbelief) for having new clients/projects,
  • stress for managing the production process,
  • overwhelm due to a lack of general organization, structure or routine,
  • pride about finally being able to pay my bills early (not at the eleventh hour),
  • and fear of running out of money and that the whole thing would just instantaneously collapse.

So, to put it in a nutshell, I realized, when you start to take your business seriously, there are suddenly a lot more things to, not just do, but manage.

…And if you don’t have systems to manage the various areas of the business, or at least an understanding of your step by step processes for making things happen, it is really easy to get scattered and lost… which ultimately can lead to much frustration, both on your own side and from your customers.

And… that is exactly what happened.

Lack of systems = being lost and not having a map

Since I was suddenly doing so many more things, and trying to balance multiple simultaneous projects without understanding my own processes in a step-by-step way, I had no real way to know what stage things were at, what was next, or how long it would be until it was finished. Not to mention, I have always struggled with prioritization…

(You know those “final papers” in college… the ones they assign in the beginning of the semester? Come on, how can you prioritize that over something due tomorrow?)

In any case, things generally took longer than they should have on all fronts. Partially due to not understanding how long they would take/planning enough time, and partially due to having too many things to do, period.

And, I was embarrassed. Which, spiraled into less than stellar communications/customer service.

Which turned into frustrated customers. Naturally.

A look inside = the tides of structure are rolling in

Frustrated customers is not something I am proud to admit to on the Internet… but it is what happened. I was so embarrassed. I felt like a failure.

But, I have since learned, and am working hard to change.

In addition to taking a deep look into my creative process, and getting super clear on the steps involved, specifically in post-production (the point that projects typically were held up), as well as how long each part might actually take, I created (and adapted) a system, in real time, that shows me where each project is at, and what is next.

And, it’s not digital. It’s literally on a cork board in my home office. (When in doubt… keep it simple, people.)

And, you know what is amazing about that?

I don’t have to log onto a special website or install a special app to see it. (And there are no monthly subscription fees or project number limits… am I right?)

Best of all, I just simply turn my head and I can see what’s happening.

I can get a clear picture of the client work that is upcoming, what is in progress, and what stage it is at.

For more complicated projects, there are other pieces, including spreadsheets and other processes, but for the broad strokes, it’s incredible.

I did experiment with different levels of detail or numbers of stages, and I have got it to a point where it seems ideal.

And, what else?

I don’t have to remember to email a client or wait for them to send me a frustrated email wondering when they should expect their photos… I can proactively look at the board and email a client to let them know what’s going on. Or, if they do email me to get a status update, I can look at the board and tell them the details, quickly.

In addition to this, I do have a digital side to the project management, which helps keep the miscellaneous details of each project organized.

This has been amazing, and I imagine, once things pick up again, it’s going to have a massive impact on my efficiency in project turnaround. I’m excited to put it into action this year.

Here’s my system to master “systems.”

In case you are like me, and you get caught up in the idea of “systems,” keep reading for a “system” to crack your own “systems.”

Firstly… what is a system? Isn’t the word starting to sound a little weird, now that I’ve written it so many times?

Anyway, what I mean is, of course I had heard about “systems” and knew I “needed” them… I mean…it’s just like one of those “business” things that you need, like “marketing” or “branding,” right? (How I used to think.)

But, to be honest, these concepts were kind of nebulous to me for a while after learning the terms.

What I mean is, I could understand the literal definition of the word, or even the idea in a conceptual way, but in order to apply it in real life… well I had no idea what that really translated to, action-wise. And, honestly, it took going through something to really understand them and make the concepts actionable.

So, with systems… I’m like “oh yeah, I need systems.. because of course, it’s literally how you do things…”

But, in reality, I didn’t quite put it together how to actually “create” a system.

But, then I realized… systems don’t necessarily need to be created. They can be “found” and, then, optimized and documented.

So, that’s my new system for “systems.”

  1. Pick an area of business where I am successful at accomplishing a task.
  2. Write down all the steps I take in order to accomplish the task.
  3. Poof! You have a system! Yay!

The Master of all Systems

Now, this is only somewhat useful, to know how you generally do things, and so you can train someone else how to do them if need be.

But, where having systems really shines, is for managing things that have previously been a struggle to keep in check and to create consistent results where you previously couldn’t.

So.. in order to find and optimize, rather than “create” your systems:

  1. Choose an area of business where you struggle to maintain order or have consistent results (e.g. project management).
  2. Get super clear on the desired or ideal results that you want to consistently achieve.
  3. Write down everything you are currently doing.
  4. Analyze what worked/didn’t work and see if you can find any repeatable steps, repeatable categories/buckets of tasks, or preliminary/pre-requisite tasks that need to happen in order for the big goal to be achieved (eg. fulfill a client project).
  5. Experiment with it until you can identify the tasks/routines and sub-tasks/sub-routines that you will need to carry out for every (in this case) project.
  6. Write it down and implement it.
  7. If it isn’t ideal, keep iterating and trying out different structures, chronologies, tools or otherwise until you can find something that works.

This is exactly what I did, in real time, to try to fix my lack of project management organization, this past summer and fall.

And, now I am applying this technique to other areas of my business.

 

 

What areas are you looking to improve in in 2018? How might you apply this technique to get better results? Let me know in the comments.

 

Caylena Cahill is a creative entrepreneur on a mission to create a healthier, wealthier and happier world. In addition to being an advertising and editorial food photographer, she is the founder & creative director of the Hudson Valley company, CC Photo & Media, which provides commercial photography and consulting to regional businesses and entrepreneurs. She hosts the Put a Fork In It Podcast, sharing stories of game-changers and entrepreneurs in food, health and creativity. She is an “Accidental Entrepreneur” and is sharing her journey through her blogging.

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