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  • Aspire » System

    16 May


    This is a guest post from Stephen Heiner – in addition to living out his dream of being an entrepreneur in Paris, Stephen also has the experience of starting (and selling) multiple businesses here in the US.

    Time is the perhaps the most precious commodity for small business owners. There’s that pile somewhere on your actual or virtual desk of stuff you would get to…if only you “had time.” Today we aren’t proposing to solve the problem of time or to clear out that pile for you, but what we can suggest you do is bump something to the very top of your pile, and from there onto your to-do list: systems.

    Sure, you may be making money without systems. Maybe you’ve been doing that for years. But that’s only because of other factors, and indeed, in spite of your not having systems. There’s a better, more sustainable way to do things, and having systems in place will eventually give you more time to “get to” that other stuff that will help you grow your business, not just manage what you already have.

    For my MBA at Saint Louis University, I was required to complete a capstone project in collaboration with five other MBA candidates. We would work specifically on a project brought to us by a Saint Louis company that had applied for the program. We didn’t have any choice in who our teammates would be or which company we would be assigned to. That was part of the challenge too!

    For any number of important reasons I’m going to call this Company, based “in the county,” as they say in Saint Louis, Company X. It worked in the green and sustainability sector and we were really impressed by the charisma of the president and founder in our initial interview. Our assignment, as delineated by him? Develop a coherent social media and marketing program, as well as pinpoint some areas for improvement on the website. Simple enough.

    We were excited for the opportunity, and frankly, so were some long-suffering employees, we found out later. But during our first 2-hour interview on site we discovered a shocking state of affairs. Despite having been in business for five years and having done millions of dollars in revenue, the company was completely incoherent and leaderless. Everything they did was one-off, and any systems they did try to implement weren’t enforced. Payroll was sometimes late and morale was fair to low. It wasn’t surprising that turnover was high.

    I was a less seasoned entrepreneur then, but I was still an advocate of the “systems” approach taken by Michael Gerber in The E-Myth. Among other things, Gerber recommends that you create job descriptions for every role in your company, even roles that do not exist. For early stage companies, this includes the sometimes 3-4 different job roles one person might be carrying. (I relished adding “Chief Janitor” to my other, more prestigious job titles.) Create systems and expectations so that a sudden illness or absence (or resignation) among your key staff doesn’t cripple the business. You will be surprised by how often neither you nor your staff have thought through how something gets done. It doesn’t need to be as specific as UPS’ famous “key on the pinkie ring finger” system, but specific never hurt anyone! And most importantly, get buy-in from your staff and relentlessly enforce these systems.

    Once you’re happy with the flow of things you can codify everything into a manual – and I can tell you, that manual will put a big smile on the face of anyone looking to buy your company. I still remember the smile and added confidence I could see in the buyer of the last company I sold when I handed him what we called our “Blue Book.” Not only did it have Michael’s recommendations that I listed above, but it also had an updated business plan, historical timeline, and comprehensive financials.

    And as for Company X? Well, they never came to our final presentation. There we were, all dressed to the nines, with a power point presentation that we had laboriously and thoughtfully crafted, showing him all the ways he could implement a social media and marketing strategy. Even better – all of this consulting had been truly unpaid. To value the talent that surrounded me in that project would be a difficult task, but the presentation Company X failed to show up for was worth at least $5,000 in time and labor. When we called the founder of Company X to ask him where he was, he told us “he had forgotten.” The reality? We had given him a quick briefing on some of the things that needed to be dealt with to successfully implement our plans, and embarrassed at the possible pinpointing of failures in a public forum (albeit, just the team and our capstone professor) was more than he could bear. He didn’t forget. He chose to forget.

    Don’t be like him. Choose to do the hard work of creating, refining, and implementing systems. You don’t need to be anywhere close to selling a company to implement systems. You just need to be someone who wants his staff to sleep better at night because they have a map that essentially says, “This is how we do things here.” You would be surprised at how few workplaces bother to do this – and your doing it will make you stand out in a competitive labor market.

    Stephen writes about entrepreneurship on LinkedIn, his European adventures on The American in Paris, and various other matters on Medium.

    Shawn Kinkade   Kansas City Business Coach

    17 Nov


    I saw an interesting interview recently with Bert Jacobs, one of the two brothers who founded Life Is Good…the T-Shirt company whose business model is built around the idea of sharing optimism. Considering that they literally started with nothing (selling their first shirts out of the van they were living in…) they have had amazing success and last year’s revenues are over $100 Million!

    The reason for the interview is a tour promoting their new book simply titled Life Is Good: The Book. In the book they share what they’ve learned – what they call the 10 Superpowers that have helped them succeed. This includes ideas like:

    • Openness
    • Courage
    • Humor
    • Fun
    • Authenticity

    However the concept that came up in the interview and the one that seems to be an overriding driver for them is Simplicity.  Jacobs attributed their ability to scale…and their ability to continuing enjoying what they do to continually finding ways of keeping things as simple as possible. And that makes a lot of sense – as your business grows and as you increase the number of employees, how you operate naturally gets more complicated. And if that complexity grows as you scale then you will eventually hit a ceiling and your business will be a painful experience for you, your employees and your customers.


    Ideas for embracing Simplicity

    Unfortunately streamlining and embracing simplicity is not as simple as you might think. The world is getting more complex every day in terms of technology, government oversight and the many different ways that people now expect to interact with you (mobile, social media, phone, online, in-person, etc.). But even with all of that going on, there are a few things you could be thinking about:

    1 – Business Model and Pricing

    If it’s not painfully obvious and easy for people to figure out what you’re charging them and what they get for their money, then it’s probably time to change up your pricing model.  Could you adopt an all-you-can eat pricing model? If you offer a lot of options but there’s a clear group of them that are the most popular or the most useful ones – could you offer that as a package?  How about a subscription model?  A monthly or annual fee that would cover the value you provide to clients?

    Obviously many industries or products don’t lend themselves to these ideas – but there’s still a good chance you could streamline what your pricing.

    2 – Do Less

    When your business is growing, it can be easy to fall into the ‘Yes’ trap…in that you’ll likely say ‘Yes’ to anything that generates more revenue.  Early on that’s not a bad idea – it’s important to figure out what people are willing to pay for and what you’re really good at and/or enjoy. However…over time you’ll end up selling or servicing so many different things that it will be a nightmare to keep up with it all.

    Try this – do an informal audit of all of the different ways you’ve made money within your business over the last year and categorize those efforts into major groups. Do you have chunks of work that don’t really fit with anything else?  Is there a clear winner in terms of a type of product or service that generates most of your revenue? Whatever the case may be, this exercise should help you identify where you might strategically cut back and focus.

    No one ever wants to give up revenue – but by streamlining you could dramatically increase your profit margins on the type of work that you do best! Remember what’s really important is the bottom line profits…not the top line revenue.

    3 – Embrace Technology

    One of the drivers for complexity in your business are the changes and advancements in technology.  Think marketing, sales, delivery, communication – regardless of the type of business you’re in, the technology around you is changing fast.  The bad news is that it can feel like it’s impossible to keep up.  The good news is that things are possible today through technology that couldn’t even be imagined a few years ago.

    Look at your business – are there significant areas where you are still using paper as a key part of any process? That’s good sign that you could upgrade. Take the time to do some industry benchmarking and study what industry leaders are doing – what apps, devices or new technologies out there might make a difference and how could you start using them?

    These are just 3 of many potential areas for simplification in your business. It’s not realistic to make huge sweeping changes to your operations…but it is realistic to identify 1 or 2 key areas that would benefit from a new approach. Make those upgrades a strategic project for the upcoming year and start realizing the benefits of simplicity!

    What areas of your business do you think could be simplified? Have you seen anything that’s really worked for this idea? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Shawn Kinkade  Kansas City Business Coach

    09 Feb

    Prefer to listen to this post? Just click the start button below:



    Picture from Loren Kerns via Flickr

    This past month an area high school teacher was honored with an Educating Excellence Award.  (The award is sponsored by Perceptive Software and KU’s school of Engineering.)   She is part of growing trend of teachers who have adopted the “flipped classroom concept” and found it to be a more effective way of teaching (and communicating) with their students.    Like it or not as a business owner, leader, or manager at any level, a significant part of your long-term success will be directly tied to how well you are able to teach and communicate to your employees the systems and processes that drive your business.

    No business is immune to this.  From the start-up entrepreneur to a business with a 1,000 plus employees, having solid systems and procedures in place reduces mistakes and increases productivity.   The goal isn’t to turn your employees into automatons, but simply to make your business more bullet proof and reduce errors while improving efficiency.

    What is flipping?

    The traditional classroom has a teacher lecturing to the students during the class period at school.   The student then completes the “homework” outside of the classroom.   Using the “flipped model”, the teacher records a video of the lecture and the students watch the lecture outside of the classroom.  The classroom time is spent doing the actual homework.   It creates an environment for the students to learn at their own pace by being able to pause, rewind, etc. while watching the instructional video.    Conversely, in the classroom it creates an environment where the students can ask their questions, collaborate on concepts, and have their teacher there to guide them when they need assistance.

    To some degree, I think many businesses are already practicing this.   If you have ever documented any procedure of your business for future reference, you are already using this model.   But, most businesses have a lot of room for improvement in this area.   In the last week alone, with in our own client base, there have been at least 3 different client instances where the lack of executing a task without a formalized procedure has cost their businesses both time and money.

    There are a lot of business owners who still point to their head when asked where something is or how do you know?   If this sounds like someone you know (maybe you  🙂 ), they are using a model with a lot of one-time instructing and then expect the employee (student) to follow the instructions without making a mistake.   If you’re instructing a manager or supervisor who in turn is repeating it to another employee it is easy to see where breakdowns start occurring.    If any of this sounds familiar, you may be ready to start flipping in your business.

    How can a business start flipping?

    • Identify 2 or 3 areas where you (or a manager) find themselves repeatedly teaching members of your team a process or procedure.
      • These are the best places to start. When they cost your company profit, loss of a customer, or cause employee conflict.  But keep the first list short no more than three.


    • Identify Acceptable Recording Devices.
      • The great part about this is that today with technology this couldn’t be easier to do. Most cell phones shoot video in 1080 high definition and take great photos for reference.



    • Schedule and Accountability
      • Agree on someone to be accountable for this project. Multiple people may be involved but your success rate will be higher if only one person is ultimately accountable.
      • Create videos or photos with instructions and store them in the cloud.
      • File and label them so they are logical to recall and access.
      • Share them with the appropriate employees for training. (Yes, you may have to pay them to watch the videos!)
      • In lieu of an instructional meeting, have scheduled meeting times to review the assigned video content and answer questions, after the group has already watched the video or viewed the instructional photos.

    The great part about this is should the employee (or you) ever need to get a refresher or review a process, they can do so simply by opening the appropriate file and re-watching the video and you or their direct supervisor doesn’t have to be involved.

    What do you think?  Are their places in your business where the Flipped Classroom Concept could add profit to your bottom line?   Reduce customer complaints?  Improve employee engagement?   As always we would love to hear your comments in the space below.

    Chris Steinlage Kansas City Business Coach

    12 Aug
    Dead End?

    photo by Nicholas Canup via flickr

    Clear, documented, easy to follow processes are critical to business success…but they could also be a reason why you’re struggling right now.

    For a business to grow, systems and processes are the cornerstones in creating a scalable business.  Everyone knows the story of how Ray Kroc bought a small chain of hamburger restaurants from the McDonald’s brothers and turned it into one of the largest franchises in the world.

    What most people don’t recall is that it was the McDonalds brothers, Dick and Maurice who actually pioneered what they called the “Speedee Service System”.   This was the initial process that captured Ray Kroc’s attention and sparked the vision for what was possible.  The McDonalds started the idea, but it was Kroc who expanded the idea to systematize not only the food delivery segment, but every segment of the business.   By creating efficient, repeatable ways of doing business, he saw the potential to make it much more than a small local chain of hamburger restaurants.   It would be the tool he would use to create a “How to manual” so every franchise could provide a similar experience at every restaurant regardless of location.

    So what does this mean for your business?   There are few businesses operating without a number of systems or processes in place – they may not be documented, but they’re there. With a little effort you can identify numerous procedures you have systematized in your business. Which is a great start – congratulations, you’re already on your way to being a protege of Ray Kroc.  Having a formal way of doing things…your system is the right way to make sure you and your team consistently do the most important work the right way.

    However there’s also a dark side to getting too much into processes. Once a procedure is established a company can get so focused on repeating that process, they will discount any other way of completing the task even if it means a better way of doing it.   The entire business gets fixated on completing the repeatable process and they block out other possibilities or considerations, because it doesn’t follow the established cookie cutter approach.

    Why is this? How does a once creative business full of energy and new ideas become a stagnant company repeating the same routine procedures day in and day out?   Their growth stalls and they have no idea what is causing the resistance.   Has your business ever experienced this?

    Currently AT&T has a popular “Rethink Possible” commercial series that features an adult posing questions to young children.  They are simple questions that an adult would answer with little thought.  Through experience, an adult is quick to jump to what they know and end up giving the logical answer.  But for this young audience there are no preconceived limits holding them back.  Their answers show the creative mind of a child and challenges the viewer to rethink what is possible.

    This stagnation unfortunately is what can happen in every business; even yours.   When your business is young, like the children in the commercial, you question everything.  You didn’t know any different and asking questions is one way you’ve learned.  But as your business matures you gain experience; you became an expert in your field, and you have fewer things to question because you already know so much.  Regrettably, it is when some companies reach this level of expertise they stop asking questions.

    The once innovative processes used to grow the business stops working and improving.

    Questions aren’t asked. The company stalls.

    What can you do?

    Here are 3 simple suggestions any business owner or professional may want to consider to see if their current processes are holding them back.

    1)      Think like a kid, ask lots of questions.   

    • Forget about all the current processes you have in place and start asking yourself questions about everything, just like you did when your business was young, before you knew everything.

    2)      Use internal resources

    • If you have different departments, bring employees from other departments into the picture.  Have them observe and provide input.  Have them review the current processes in place.  Do they see opportunities or roadblocks?

    3)      Get a fresh perspective

    • Invite someone from the outside into your business.  You may be surprised what a fresh set of eyes may see.   Maybe you know another business owner that would be willing to exchange this process evaluating experience with you?

    Whatever you do, continuing to just repeat your existing “perfected” processes day after day without questioning why you do them isn’t the best way to keep your business moving forward. Especially in today’s environment of constant change.   Those once cutting edge processes may have evolved into procedures that are today actually holding back the potential of your business.

    What do you think?  Could this be happening in your company?  Please share any thoughts or suggestions you have in the comments below.  As always we value your opinions.

    Chris Steinlage Kansas City Business Coach

    20 Nov


    There is an almost magical component to sustainable business growth, but it’s not obvious and most business owners are missing it!  The key word there is sustainable – you can have growth without this component, but it won’t be easy.

    When you think of business growth…what comes to mind?

    Great marketing?   Really effective sales?  New products?

    Super flashy advertising?  Signing a huge new client?

    All of those will definitely contribute to business growth, but there’s a more fundamental attribute in sustainable successful businesses that no one talks about. It’s an unappreciated idea, but it really can be make or break when it come to taking your business beyond the brute force stage (where you’re putting in a lot more than you’re getting out).

    That secret ingredient is Systems!

    What are Systems? Simplistically effective Systems are a combination of written processes, tools, automation and applications that allow you…as the business owner to get things done the right way without actually doing it yourself.  A successful business is made up of a whole series of systems that work together in a seamless way…generally without any direct input or oversight from the owner.

    Want to get a quick read on how well  you’re doing when it comes to Systems in your business?  Here’s a quick quiz – a few statements you can use to judge your progress.  If you want to play along at home, score yourself from 1 to 10…with 10 meaning that you absolutely are in alignment with that statement (and a 1 if you aren’t even close).

    Systems Statement #1

    As the owner of the business, I fully understand that my primary role is to ensure that the business is run by systems (step-by-step processes).

    Score 1 to 10?

    Systems Statement #2

    All of the functions necessary to successfully run our company have been clearly identified and documented in a company operations manual.

    Score 1 to 10?

    Systems Statement #3

    We regularly consider outsourcing options to reduce expenses and increase efficiencies.

    Score 1 to 10?

    Systems Statement #4

    We regularly review our systems to ensure they are as efficient and effective as practical in delivering the desired outcome.

    Score 1 to 10?

    Systems Statement #5

    I’m confident that my employees would know what to do if the leadership team or I were not present for an extended period of time.

    Score 1 to 10?

    What’s your score?

    How did you do?  This quick little test certainly isn’t comprehensive, but it will directionally give you a pretty good idea of where you and your business stands from a Systems perspective.  There are several key ideas represented here:

    • Do you view your primary role – where you spend the most time (as the business owner) as purposely building your business…and the systems that run your business?
    • Are you documenting everything down to a level that a new employee could jump right in?
    • Are you and your team consistently looking for ways to improve?

    So overall how did you score?

    If you scored above 40…then you’re in pretty good shape…keep it up! 

    If you scored between 30 to 40, then there are some things to work on, but at least you’re headed in the right direction. 

    If scored 20 to 30, you at least understand it’s important, but you have some work to do.

    If you scored less than 20, then it’s a good bet that you didn’t have time to read this post and you are working really, really hard all the time…and your business is at risk!

    When you’re ready to unleash some magic and start building systems into your business, the best bet is to carve out some free time and lay out all the big components of your business (how business comes to you, how you close it, how you satisfy it and how you collect from it).  Once you’ve got that (in writing) then you can start digging into the details over time. 

    Make sure you get your employees involved…they probably know the details in a lot of areas better than you do and they’re going to have to live with whatever system or process is developed – so make them part of the solution.

    Also – get an outside perspective…maybe a coach or some kind of advisory board to help you focus and get some insights that might be hard to come by on your own.

    What’s your experience with Systems?  We’d love to hear your thoughts (and share your score) in the comments below.

    Shawn Kinkade   Kansas City Business Coach

    Photo by Pink Sherbet via flickr

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