(Photo: Sarah Carr, CEO and Chairman, Earth Class Mail)
One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a young manager was to focus my time, energy and attention on what was most important, training my eye on the most critical people and things that needed to be done in order to succeed in business. I learned that the smaller, time-sucking details and minutiae were best avoided, left to delegation or outsourcing.
Most of my career has been dedicated to working with companies that are either poised for great opportunities or have inexplicably hit the wall and lost momentum. My first course of action after joining a new company is to identify which goals the company should strive to achieve. I spend time listening to employees and customers to understand their perceptions about the company and its ability to meet its objectives. I like to ask employees and customers, “What do you think is working? And what isn’t working?” The insight gleaned from these questions is often invaluable to making strategic business decisions.
Along the way, I’ve adopted a few productivity best practices to share:
1. Keep as many costs as variable as possible, rather than fixed. At Earth Class Mail, there is an administrative component of our processing called mail delivery. The resource need varies with the amount of mail that we receive for our customers. We used to employ four people to perform this task no matter how much mail there was. This was a fixed cost. Even though sometimes the team was very busy, other times it was not. After some evaluation, we decided to outsource this work to a partner company. Not only has this cut our costs in half, but the outside company is able to scale up or down depending on volume, and it simply charges us for the incremental cost difference.
2. Sometimes hiring experienced consultants can be more cost effective than recruiting expensive managers. Many times, after a launch period, businesses need “maintainers” and “improvers,” not “builders.” These types of managers are usually less expensive than the builders, and in fact they are usually far more suited to running the business in a steady manner than the builders. By relying on consultants who can assist with growth, the company doesn’t incur expensive overhead and additional headcount, and many times it avoids the disruption of significant changes to the management team.
3. Consider a strong social media plan to reduce money spent on advertising or direct marketing. Twitter and Facebook can be easily managed by an in-house resource and can be a fabulous way to reach new customers or understand the perceptions of current ones. Relative to other marketing programs, social media is also extremely cost-effective.
4. Utilize Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) technology companies that provide complete packages for core hardware and software infrastructure. Rather than hiring and managing IT staff and buying expensive software, rely on flexible providers who can bring the expertise to your company, only when you need it.
5. Make sure you are always focusing on the core tasks that require your specific expertise instead of administrative activities. Virtual resources that incorporate technology can be lifesavers, particularly for small businesses. For example, consider outsourcing research, scheduling, bookkeeping, accounting, and billing tasks to a virtual assistant. There are many companies that offer a broad range of affordable services to help companies with nearly any task imaginable. Also, leverage SaaS services for mail management, check deposits, and phone systems. By removing the burden of managing technology internally, employees can still have access to programs that make them more efficient, while eliminating the stress of learning back-end programs that don’t specifically fall within their level of expertise. These ideas, and many more, can be found in Timothy Ferris’ book The Four-Hour Workweek.
The bottom line is that business owners, entrepreneurs, and executives should be prioritizing and maximizing their time so they can spend it on the responsibilities and duties that are most important to the business. In today’s fast-paced, technologically advanced world, there are no limits to the ways that virtual tools and services can improve one’s life. In the interest of maximum productivity, take a few minutes to step back and identify resources and systems that will make your business more streamlined and effective.