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Working ON The Business Not Working IN The Business


Nov. 16, 2018

Business mantras come a dime a dozen. Don’t stagnate, innovate. Be lean and mean. Lead from the front. And each of these sayings offers valuable insight into business success. The truth is, though, that these sayings get thrown around too easily. Entrepreneurs and business leaders say them, but they don’t always know what they mean or how to actionably apply them to their own business practices.

This is why I wanted to dive into one of these sayings in particular. It’s a business mantra that I believe can transform how a business owner looks at their business and approaches building it.

Work on your business, not in it.

What Does It Mean To Work In Your Business?

Employees around the world are working IN businesses. They show up to their job every day of the week and work for a set number of hours. Their goal is to achieve results for the company and it’s clients. And in return for this, they get a paycheck.

The truth is, though, that it’s rarely just the employees who are working IN the business. Business owners are doing the same. They feel an obligation to show up to the office each day and pick up the slack in places where employees are falling behind. If someone is sick, they’ll take their place for the day, whether that be taking care of bookkeeping in the back office or answering calls at the receptionist’s desk. If one of the employees is overwhelmed with additional orders, cold calls, or whatever else their role might be, the owner steps up. In other words, the business owner is kind of acting like an employee.

If you answer, “Yes,” to the following questions, you are working IN the business:

  • Are you doing a task that one of the employees usually does or could do?
  • Are you working on a task that achieves results for clients in the short-term but not for the business/yourself in the long-term?
  • Are you attending to a matter that was unplanned and needs to be addressed to avoid damage to the business (i.e. putting out a fire)?

What Does It Mean To Work On Your Business?

George Arabian - working on the business for 2019
Talking at our annual retreat about the business goals for 2019

It is the successful business owners of the world, rather than employees, who work ON the business. When you do this, you are aiming to provide results not just for your clients, but also for business growth and profits (i.e. yourself and any investors). It’s not about the paycheck at the end of the month. It’s about building a business that you can sell and retire or that you can grow into an industry mammoth or that you can proudly hand down to your children and grandchildren and even your employees.

If you are doing any of the following, you are working ON your business:

  • Getting mentored by a business veteran
  • Pursuing continuing education about business (i.e. training courses, podcasts, a degree, etc.)
  • Creating content that is published on your own website or in outside publications
  • Developing new and more efficient business systems and processes (i.e. automation, monitoring, analysis, etc.)
  • Setting and measuring goals and objectives
  • Expanding the business’ reach and audience (i.e. developing marketing copy, networking, pursuing new forms of advertising)

The Balance Of Working In And On Your Business

I don’t want to give you the idea that if you are working IN your business, you are doing the wrong thing. Every business owner needs to work in the business. Doing this can encourage current employees and sometimes it’s just plain necessary—if an employee is on vacation and invoices need to be sent out, you need to pitch in or your bank account could start drying up.

However, the key is balance. Sustainable, long-term results can only be realized if you work both in AND on your business. And this is the eternal struggle for every business owner. It is easy to get stuck into a rut of just doing one or the other. Working in the business seems nonnegotiable sometimes—and then you just keep doing it, because you see it working. Unfortunately, this is a reactive strategy and is short-sighted. And while working on your business is more proactive, neglecting to work in your business can cause it to fail before the work you’ve been doing on your business can come to fruition.

The How-To For Creating Balance

So how do you create balance? I’ve found that the best way to look at this challenge is to see it as a goal. And goals can only be attained if they are tracked and measured. A good place to start is keeping a time sheet. This may sound like a low-value task that just takes up precious time in your day, but it can give you the bird’s-eye view that you need.

On the timesheet, you should have a column for ‘IN’ and another for ‘ON’. Then, for each day of the week make a list of what tasks you did that qualify under each and how much time you spent on the task. See what this timesheet looks like at the end of the week and over the course of a few months. We use Harvest as our timesheet tracker internally which easily allows us to measure how frequently we fall into the IN and ON columns.

Knowing that you need to list these tasks will make you more cognizant of how you spend your time. If you realize your ‘ON’ column is looking a little too sparse, you’ll likely set aside time for training or monitoring your current systems. Alternatively, if you see that your ‘IN’ column is a little light, you will start asking your staff what they need help with.

So what is the right ratio? I wouldn’t suggest that you give the same amount of time to each. Most of your day should be spent putting out fires and attending to your employees’ and customers’ needs. In my opinion, a good rule of thumb is to set aside 10% of every week to work on your business. And you can decide what this will look like. Maybe it is one hour at the beginning or end of every day. It could be a half day once a week. Whatever works best for you and whatever you can stick to consistently.

At the end of the day, the key is to understand the difference between these two types of work and to prioritize each. To find out more, please contact us.

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