It doesn't have to be this difficult," you've told yourself a thousand times this year. "There has to be an easier way."
In most cases, there probably is. But rushing through the days and weeks trying to keep a business afloat robs most of us of the time we need to find that better way. Sometimes it feels faster and, strangely, even more efficient to bump along in a familiar rut than to stop and find a smoother route.
Hiring is always a headache, you think, but what the heck; you do it so rarely, it's not worth your time to try to find a better way.
Sure, it would be great to set up a teleconference instead of sending a trusted employee out on the road at the last minute--again--but who has the time to research new technology?
And you don't even want to think about those stacks of paper threatening to take over your desk. A little clutter never killed anybody, you rationalize.
Not directly, no. But clutter--whether it's physical, such as stacks of unanswered phone messages, or mental, like the thousands of small anxieties that distract you from thinking strategically about your business--can be hazardous to your company's health.
Like the secret shortcut that lets you breeze past a clog on the expressway and gets you where you're going, business shortcuts can provide an invaluable boost to the mileage you squeeze out of your days. Here, then, is a guide to some of the most effective shortcuts every entrepreneur should know about. These 15 tips represent the best advice of organization and efficiency experts, small-business management professors and entrepreneurs themselves.
Dennis Rodkin is a freelance writer who lives in Highland Park, Illinois.
Can You Manage?
1. Categorize your days. Ann Dugan, director of the Small Business Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business, understands how days seem to just slip away. She also knows how small obstacles can obscure the path of a successful, thriving business. So she advises that you set them all aside.
"Name some days `strategy days' and others `detail days,' and don't let one get mixed in with the other," Dugan says. "You can't put off doing detail work forever, but you can at least say this is not the day for details but for `big picture' items, things that move the business forward." Color-code your calendar or daily planner accordingly.
2. Go sideways. Rather than letting incoming correspondence, files and other to-do items pile up, devise a system for laying them out side-by-side. "When you pile papers up horizontally, you've created a paper graveyard," says Elaine Bloom, a professional organizer and owner of Maplewood, New Jersey-based A Place For Everything. "You can never find anything, and the one thing you want is inevitably at the bottom. You thumb through the pile looking for it, and the whole stack falls over."
Bloom recommends a change of direction. Get a wire rack, a cardboard accordion file or a wooden box with slots--anything that makes it possible to line up the papers. That way, you can see everything and pick out what you need when you need it, she explains. An additional advantage: no more forgetting about the items that are perpetually trapped in the middle of the pile. With everything visible, nothing can be forgotten for long.
3. Write a book. Remember that phone number you wrote down six weeks ago? Now you need it. Any chance you'll find it within the hour? If not, try keeping all your random notes in one place. Bloom's recommendation: Get a spiral notebook to use as a scrapbook. Put those phone numbers, dimensions and preferred typefaces in there for safekeeping. Novelists and other creative writers often use this method for storing observations, descriptions and other spontaneous material they want to retrieve later.
And if your work keeps you near the computer all day, don't plaster it with Post-it notes. Start an on-screen junk file where you can keep track of all those loose ends. "When everything is in one place, you know where to start looking," Bloom says.
4. The one-person meeting. If there are things you have to do but aren't finding time for, move them from the perpetual to-do list into their own reserved block of time on the calendar. "Somehow, putting those things on the calendar makes you think you have to do them at those times," Bloom says. And don't ignore the importance of these one-person meetings. Just because you're not meeting with anyone else, that's no reason to ignore or postpone these scheduled tasks.
5. Take on multiple identities. It took just a few years for e-mail, that great time-saving innovation, to create a whole new list of irritations for entrepreneurs. "Just scrolling through all the unwanted messages that come in [can consume so much time]," Bloom notes. She advises setting up several screen names--for example, one for queries from clients, another for messages from employees and a third for e-mail to and from outside contractors or suppliers.
6. Three points for showing up on time. Dugan says most entrepreneurs dread interviewing job candidates. Here are her tips for smoothing the process, from writing a classified ad to interviewing candidates:
- Write an ad that explicitly states what qualities or skills the successful candidate must have. List five or six key points--fewer, and you're casting your net too broadly; more, and you're being too restrictive.
"Ask yourself whether people who read the ad will really see what you're looking for," Dugan says. Vague terms such as "management experience required" may not say as much as particulars like "position requires five years or more of experience supervising a staff of at least 10 people."
It's likely you'll find at least a handful of candidates who took the time to read your ad before dropping their resumes in the mail. Among those, don't even bother to read names, addresses and other irrelevant information. "Just score them for how many of your top five skills they have," Dugan says. If too many people survive this round, trim your list of traits to the top three and see how many candidates are still in the running.
"If the resumes you get [aren't from] the kind of people you want, look back at your ad and decide whether you need to rewrite it," Dugan says.
- Before you start interviewing, make a list of 10 or so questions that will help you evaluate candidates. Be specific, and applicants' answers are likely to be specific, too. Ask everyone the same questions, and score their responses as your gut feelings dictate.
- Above all, Dugan says, remember that the interview is about finding out about the candidate, not publicizing your business. "What often happens when small-business owners interview is they get nervous about asking questions, so they spend 45 minutes talking about themselves," she says. They pay for it later when they discover they didn't hear much about the candidates and have little to go on when making a decision.
7. Magic mirror. Want to improve your customer service skills? The quickest way to train yourself and your employees to adopt a friendly demeanor during calls is to put a mirror next to the phone, says Richard Chase, professor of operations management at the University of Southern California's (USC) Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles. "[If you're] looking at yourself in the mirror," he says, "you're not going to frown or scowl."
8. No joke, it's poka-yoke. Chase is a proponent of the Japanese method of designing work sets and kits to reduce the potential for error. For example, if assembly of a certain component requires four screws, compiling sets of four screws in advance saves time and reduces the likelihood of one component getting only three screws.
Can you find a poka-yoke solution to rid your business of mistakes? Maybe it's creating sales kits so salespeople don't have to collect the items they need each time they want to send information to potential customers. Or in a packing/shipping company, Chase notes, it might mean putting a box, tape and packing material together in a kit. "Anything you can do to keep employees from having to root around in one bin and then another is going to save time," he says.
For situations where kits don't apply--such as asking someone to clean up a stockroom--Chase suggests offering a photograph that shows the person the solution as it was reached before. "This is an old trick for getting your kids to clean up their rooms the right way," Chase says.
9. Get the message. When Shel Lustig and his two partners moved their Chicago radio-production company, MediaTracks, into a new suite of offices last year, one of the most important decisions they faced was what kind of phone system to purchase. "We had to have something where, if a message came in to me but it ought to have gone to one of my partners, I could forward it directly to that person," Lustig says.
It's a simple feature called message forwarding, a service that's available from your local phone company. Lustig says his firm relies on it. "The information conveyed is 100 percent accurate, so you save all the time you used to lose on confusion and mistakes," he says.
10. Start a commune. You have a file on XYZ vendor, and so do three other people on your staff. Eliminate duplication and the risk of errors, and make all the information available to everybody at once by starting a communal filing system. There should be a main file on each vendor, major order or other ongoing issue, so anyone who needs to check on it can do so whenever necessary. Each file should be kept in the appropriate person's office--the person who refers to the file most often; other employees should have access to it as needed.
11. Keep it brief. "Any time there's something people ought to know, I'll pull everybody together for a three- to five-minute meeting," says Jeannie Miller, president of Canton, Ohio-based mail order retailer Kids Stuff Inc. "That way, we know everybody's on the same page right from the start. There's no `Gee, I thought Bill would tell you.' We save a lot of time [by not having to] write and pass out memos."
Hit The Road, Jack
12. Tools that float. When any of the 70-plus Kids Stuff employees have to go out on the road, they first dip into the office pool of cell phones and laptop computers. Portable office equipment that's available for any traveler saves time for both the road warrior and the home office, Miller says. "They can make the calls they need to while on the run or log in from a hotel room--whatever they need to do," she says. "Those of us back here who need to reach them or get something to them can get it done without a lot of crossed wires."
13. Stay home. A client in Cleveland calls with some new worries, and you instantly dispatch a trusted employee to get out to Ohio and put out that fire. But could you have done it sitting in your office? "There's a knee-jerk reaction to put people on a plane and send them here or there without asking yourself if the trip was necessary," Dugan says. "There's so much technology available now, you can probably do just as much for the client with a teleconference, and you keep from wearing out your staff by not putting them on planes all the time."
Personal meetings may be important, but many businesses seem to be cutting back on them, using sophisticated communications equipment instead. A recent survey of businesses by the National Business Travel Association found that 54 percent of respondents reduced the number of trips their employees make, while 52 percent now rely on videoconferencing, and 35 percent use teleconferencing.
14. Smooth flying. Everybody knows the worst part of business travel is spending time in airports, the great black holes where productivity is concerned. USC's Chase urges anyone who travels for business to become "a self-contained unit, as decoupled from the airline and the airport as possible." This goes beyond traveling with only carry-on luggage, he says, to bringing along a snack or a bottle of water and knowing your gate number before you enter the airport.
The National Business Travel Association takes it one step further by recommending you keep a log of flight numbers, airline customer-service phone numbers and car-rental confirmation numbers. This helps if reservations get lost or computers go down.
15. Finally, take a vacation seriously. There's nothing worse for peace of mind than scheduling family time, a special trip or simply a day of nothing and having phone calls from, to or about work periodically intrude. Vacation time isn't for lazy people; it's one of the best shortcuts to success. Just as athletes know their muscles need a break between workouts, you also need time to rest and rebuild. "We all need time to recharge our batteries," says the University of Pittsburgh's Dugan. "When you go back to work refreshed [from a vacation], your creative juices are flowing again, and you're more effective."
Dugan warns that free time has to be treated as sacrosanct. "Pick up the phone to answer one call, and it's no longer free time. There's a second call you have to make because of that one, and on and on it goes." Think of time off as the best time you spend on your business, Dugan says: "Downtime makes it possible to develop [new ideas] and start thinking strategically and creatively about your business again."
A Place For Everything, (973) 378-9002, http://www.organizeit.com
Kids Stuff Inc., (330) 492-8090, fax: (330) 492-8290
MediaTracks, (847) 299-9500, fax: (847) 299-9501
National Business Travel Association, (703) 684-0836, http://www.nbta.org