Systems are the essential building blocks of every successful business.
—Ron Carroll, entrepreneur, business coach
As a computer science major in college matriculating with some of the brightest students from around the world, I quickly learned that my computer programming skills were not the most economical. I could get the job done, but not in the most efficient way. I would take one hundred lines of computer programming code to do something that my peers could do in ten. Such efficiency translates into faster programs and smaller-sized files. I eventually improved my programming skills because success in technologically related fields relies largely on the ability to implement efficient systems and methodologies.
The pioneer in creating systems that increase work efficiency was Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company. Ford created an assembly-line system that enabled him to mass-produce the Model T car. Before his introduction of the assembly line in 1913, a small team of specialists made cars, and the process was lengthy. Ford’s methods, though, reduced the time from more than twelve hours to two hours and thirty minutes. His innovation put the car in the economic reach of an average family and improved productivity rates across many industries.
Not only did Ford’s system boost productivity, but it also cut the need for the jack-of-all-trades. Instead, workers on the assembly line could be specialized, which also made them easier to replace. Before the assembly line, if an employee who built most of a car was out sick, productivity would slow down and the arduous process of building a car by hand would be much more difficult to continue.
I didn’t understand the importance of building and implementing systems in business until my company had become too dependent on people. For instance, when I started my first popular website in college, I learned that a growing business that relied totally on me wasn’t sustainable. I would eventually burn out and be unable to serve the growing number of users. And if, for some reason, I couldn’t run the business, it wasn’t clear who would do what to keep it going. I had to make a change. Consequently, I created a content management tool to expedite web updates and give me more time, but even that wasn’t enough after a while. I was growing too fast and needed to bring on other people. The need for a clear system and way of doing things was obvious.
As a result of these growing pains, I learned to do two things when I begin a business venture: First, clearly separate and describe the roles in the business in written form. Second, use technology to map out and build systems that simplify and automate important tasks.
Even if you are a one-person show, take the time to delineate the roles and expectations that people in your business will play. Write a job description for crucial positions like CEO, CFO, vice president of sales, vice president of operations, and so on. You may be doing one, two, or all of these roles at the start, but this activity forces you to conceptualize how each role, not an individual person, relates to your business. As alluded to earlier, people come and go, but the functions needed to keep your business going do not.
Moreover, using technology, create process maps to visualize how you will execute different tasks. This step helps you determine where your processes can be improved and see where technology can make your processes more efficient. For example, my company uses several tools to help automate social media campaigns. Powerful tools like HootSuite enable users to manage several social media accounts through one interface, and its functionality automates messages. One person can do the work of tens or hundreds of people. This technology has made my company more efficient, saving valuable time and increasing revenues.
Being a start-up doesn’t mean you have to operate haphazardly and without systems. While some degree of organizational chaos is unavoidable, you should still create, think through, and continually optimize your systems so that you are less dependent on people. Taking this step up front puts you further along the path to reaching your goals and allows you to know you’re in the mode of building a company.