It's your typical day at the office. Like every other day, it started at 7:00 a.m. When you sat down with that first cup of coffee, you were hoping to get to work on some meaty stuff-strategic planning, ideas for that big project, a thorough review of your staffing needs for next quarter--the kind of long-term thinking that helps your business grow. But you'd barely gotten started when... it started. Urgent phone calls from clients. Personnel crises. Last-minute meetings. Stacks of documents, checks and other paperwork that need your approval or signature. Suddenly, it's 7:00 p.m., and all you've done is put out fires. Want tomorrow to be different? Then read on for 25 easy ways to simplify your business so you'll have time for what really matters. Put these ideas to work, and before you know it, you'll be finishing up that strategic plan... and maybe even have time left over for a life.
Streamlining your business technology can make life less of a headache for everyone. Entrepreneurs often "don't realize they can make things easier," says Kevin McElligott, founder of iTech Developers, a Nevada City, California, technology consulting firm and hosting provider. Here are a few ideas to get your technology in tip-top shape:
1. Serve it up. A server can act as a digital filing cabinet for your growing piles of documentation. Compared to daisy chaining several PCs, "Servers give you a lot more reliability and improve your business," says Mike Beltrano, supervisor of product management for servers at CDW Corp., a Vernon Hills, Illinois, server company. Another bonus: By keeping important documents on a central server, it's easier to back up all your important documents daily.
2. Phone it in. Are you wasting time running between voice mail on your cell and office phones? VoIP systems offer a great deal of personalization and features for a rock-bottom price. In fact, VoIP can be up to 40 percent cheaper than a traditional small-office phone system, and it offers useful features for any small business. Voice mails, for example, can be handled just like attachments--clicked, dragged, dropped and passed along. "Voice mail is becoming e-mail that can be forwarded where you want it," says Henry Kaestner, CEO of Bandwidth.com, a Cary, North Carolina, firm that provides VoIP services to companies. These systems are fairly new, but they're getting more popular and more reliable every day.
3. Take it online. If you've taken the leap of setting up an accounting package to handle your bills, take the extra step of automating the process. See if your accounting software can automatically generate invoices as well as e-mail reminders for late payments. "The system will literally tell me when it's time to call," says McElligott, whose automated billing process alerts him after each late notice has been e-mailed to a customer, and it automatically suspends the client's hosting services as of the third notice. Likewise, your accounting software (and your bank) can handle electronic transfers so you never have to worry about a late electric bill.
4. Hit the web. Your website is a potential client's main access point to your business. Don't worry as much about fancy graphics as making sure visitors can get the information they need. An online FAQ list can cut down on the time clients spend calling with basic questions and prevent a frustrated client from going elsewhere. You don't have to be a techno-whiz to set up a good website. Many web hosting companies can provide reliable websites for relatively little money, and many provide tools to help even technophobes set up online purchasing and billing.
Money might not be the root of all evil, but it is the cause of many headaches for business owners. Here are five tips for managing your money better:
5. Bank on it. "One of the assets business owners have is their cash," says Manny Calzon, vice president and finance manager for the central district of Merrill Lynch in Tampa, Florida. But many entrepreneurs don't understand how much they're paying in service charges to their banks every month. Request a bank analysis statement that breaks down the generic service charges found in your monthly statement. "You can make an educated decision as to whether you need [all the services you're] being charged for," Calzon says, "and if not, [ask the banker to] streamline and reduce costs associated with this account." You can then reinvest the savings in ways that take the business to the next level.
6. File taxes electronically. Companies with $10 million or more in total assets that file 250 or more returns a year are now required to file their 2006 taxes electronically. "Small businesses are going to be scrambling," says Bradford Hall, managing director of Hall & Company CPAs in Irvine, California. "They're going to [need] an automated payroll service that files electronically for them." So get a head start now to make life easier later on.
7. Pay now, not later. Can you pay smaller bills in advance? If you have a monthly bill for $15 but opt to pay $90 for six months of service, you'll save $1.95 in stamps and you won't incur late fees. Best of all, you're not wasting time paying bills.
8. Upgrade your accounting systems. "A business that's projecting $10 million-plus [in sales] should be on a sophisticated system," Hall says. Software packages such as BusinessWorks, Enterprise, Great Plains (which was recently acquired by Microsoft) and MAS 90 offer increased sophistication for a growing company and will make life much easier come tax time or, heaven forbid, an audit.
9. Make your (bench) mark. It's common for growing companies to do business without understanding how they stack up against similar companies in their industry. Most likely, your accountant has industry profit and overhead statistics at the ready--data you can keep on file for future strategy sessions without having to do your own legwork. Says Hall, "Businesses aren't taking advantage of it."
10. Obey the urge to merge. You might pay slightly more, but renewing all your insurance policies on the same date with the same agent lets you sit down once a year to review insurance for the entire business instead of having different renewals pop up three or four times a year. You'll save time, and your insurance agent "will do better with the full picture," says Scott Simmonds, owner of Insurance Consultants of Maine, a Saco, Maine, company that helps small-business owners navigate their insurance plans. Check out Simmonds' site or InsuranceBuzzer for tips on 40 types of insurance.
Day-to-day management of employees and processes is probably the single toughest job for any entrepreneur. Want to simplify? Here's how:
11. Hire strategically. Create an online application form, and have elimination criteria related to scheduling, salary and educational level. "Select out vs. select in," says Suzanne Zuniga, COO of CorVirtus, a Colorado Springs, Colorado, HR consulting firm. Being more selective means you'll hire sooner and get back to work.
12. Stay on schedule. Creating a schedule for employees is a time-consuming nightmare for every employer, especially in retail. But there are software packages-- Asgard System's Time Tracker, TimeClock Scheduler and TimeCurve Scheduler , to name a few--that let you scan for scheduling errors and track employee hours and earnings in real time. Some, like TimeCurve Scheduler, also integrate with QuickBooks to make payroll easier. Scheduling software packages range in price from around $125 to more than a thousand dollars with site licenses depending on the size of your staff and what you want, but it's an investment that will save you time in the long run. Many of these companies provide free demos on their websites for you to try, too.
13. Rent a CFO. At some point, a bookkeeper won't be able to keep up with your burgeoning bottom line. "One of the biggest mistakes business owners make is they don't realize they need the sophistication of a CFO," Hall says. Today, there are employment agencies that specialize in hiring out CFOs. You can "rent" a CFO who will come in one day each week or month, depending on what you need. A temporary CFO's services can be expensive--$1,000 or more per day--but is worth the cost if he or she helps focus your business and make it more profitable.
14. Tighten your supply chain. "Strong partnerships with suppliers and service providers [are] critical in the supply-chain excellence area," says John DuBiel, managing partner of Raleigh, North Carolina-based Supply Chain Edge , a firm that helps companies identify, develop and execute their supply-chain strategies. Keep relationships strong by leveraging your buying power with as few service providers as possible. Says DuBiel, "Simplify and leverage all the volume you can."
15. Outsource your HR function. Entrepreneurs spend up to one-third of their time doing payroll and benefits administration. They're also risking penalties if tax payment deadlines aren't met or filings are incorrect. "When you pay a company that you outsource to, you're paying for the benefit of their mistakes on their dime, not yours," Zuniga says. So outsource HR, and make your time count.
16. Have fewer staff meetings. Do you really need a staff meeting every week when an e-mail update might do? Fewer staff meetings mean less talk and more action. Workers will thank you for your brevity: In one survey, 60 percent of executives complained about the time they waste in meetings, and 74 percent doubted the meetings they attended were effective.
Catching consumers' attention is only getting harder. Here's some advice for revving up your marketing efforts:
17. Do some data mining. What do customers think about your company? "You don't build your brand by yourself anymore; your customers are equally involved," says Michael LeBeau, CEO of Byte Interactive, a South Norwalk, Connecticut, digital marketing company. Simple customer comment cards or web-based survey forms can save market research costs.
18. Leverage partnerships. Strategic partnerships with local businesses will help you rise above the noise. Picking the right partner, however, can be very time-consuming. Simplify the process by looking to your own customers, vendors and suppliers first. You already know each other's strengths in terms of services, products and marketing, which will let you move more quickly to develop effective cross-promotions and sponsorships.
19. Go directly to the consumer. Are you spending all your time knocking on big retailers' doors and saving for TV ads when half of U.S. consumers have lightning-fast broadband connections? "I'm seeing more entrepreneurs starting to market their products directly to the consumer," says Peter Koeppel, founder and president of Koeppel Direct, a Dallas direct-response TV media buying agency that works with clients including Cigna, Columbia House and DirecTV. It's never been cheaper or easier to make your own commercials and post them on your website. "There's technology now [so] that when someone goes to your website, the commercial automatically comes up," Koeppel says. "That's a way for a small business that maybe can't get on TV to advertise."
20. Get the message. It's easy to lose brand focus in a world of in-person, over-the-phone, online, catalog and direct-mail sales. To simplify, divide your business into five main channels (website, catalog, direct mail, employees and customer service) and have one main marketing message every week (a sale, a new product, a new partnership and so on) that you communicate and track for consistency across all channels. You'll see fewer customer-service hassles and less turnover from frustrated employees who can't read your mind.
21. Consolidate your advertising legwork. Most business owners invite random interruptions from advertising representatives throughout the week. Instead, set aside a block of time--Monday afternoon, for example--when advertising people know they can reach you. Everyone will save time, and you won't have to hide anymore.
"It's very easy to let work consume you," says Bo Short, president of the American Leadership Foundation, a Charlottesville, Virginia, nonprofit organization that offers leadership conferences and seminars. "But if you do, will it eat you alive?" Here are five ways to create a more balanced life:
22. Decide what to outsource. You don't need to have your hand in every single pie anymore; let someone else carry part of the load. Outsourcing a few tasks gives you time to focus on something else--even if it's a round of golf now and then. Plus, "You're the customer, and they'll treat you better," Short says. Learn to delegate to employees, too.
23. Create boundaries. Set aside 10 minutes after lunch to make and return personal calls. Set a time for leaving the office every day, no matter how busy you are. And spend at least two hours doing something fun before you burn some late-night oil. Your family will thank you.
24. Shorten your to-do list. "A to-do list is nothing but a wish list," says Barry Izsak, president of Arranging It All, an Austin, Texas, firm that helps companies get organized. A long to-do list leaves less time to focus on revenue-generating ideas. Instead, focus on the top three urgent tasks for the day. The rest can wait.
25. Love your inner Luddite. Entrepreneurs who become slaves to gadgets "are running reactive businesses and being reactive with their time," Izsak says. Try working unplugged--this means no internet connection and absolutely no phone calls--for one hour every morning. It will give you a sense of accomplishment that lasts all day.
This article was originally published as "Keep It Simple" in the February 2006 issue of Entrepreneur magazine.