Nathan is an entrepreneur who started a medical device company four years ago. The enterprise is really beginning to scale with 47 employees and top-line revenues that exceed $10 million. His gross margin is steadily improving and serious profitability is within sight. With all of his success however, Nathan is finding each day to be more and more frustrating. He is pushed and pulled in many directions and is constantly being hounded by members of his team to make a myriad of decisions. He worries about whether things are beginning to spin out of control, and the go-go nature of his organization is beginning to take its toll.
What Nathan is experiencing is very common for entrepreneurs with companies at this stage of growth. Often, Nathan finds himself enmeshed in the tiniest of details. While it may be satisfying for him to have such a thorough understanding of every aspect of his business, something in the back of his mind tells him that this practice is not sustainable. In the final diagnosis Nathan is spending too much time working IN his business and not enough working ON it.
I know many entrepreneurs who suffer this condition. I’ve certainly been there myself. We reach a degree of early success in our business by paying close attention to detail. Our focus is laser-like. All of this becomes one of our primary points of differentiation. But maintaining this level of focus on tactics and granularity does not allow us to scale if we continue to be in the center of it all. By the time we are starting to scale on a regular and significant basis, our energies need to shift toward becoming more strategic – that is, working ON our business. Many entrepreneurs want to lead by example. They are proud of the fact that they can go onto the plant floor and operate a machine that produces a thingamajig. In Nathan’s case, he considers it a badge of honor that he has the uncanny ability to design a state-of-the-art medical device from start-to-finish.
Here’s the problem with Nathan’s approach. He may be sending a signal to his team that they are inadequate as product designers even though this may not be true. The team may also develop a tendency to sit back and wait for Nathan to “make his move.” They are thinking, “Why bother, Nathan is going to jump in any way!” Further, there are other pressing issues that Nathan may be leaving unattended – or he may be intentionally avoiding them altogether. Eventually the lack of strategic direction will trap the company in a perpetual state of go-go where everyone feels as though they are on an endless hamster wheel and not getting anywhere.
So what exactly does working ON the business mean? For Nathan, he needs to create a clear vision for his enterprise and communicate it in an understandable fashion to all 47 of his team members. He needs to work with his senior leaders to establish Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that he monitors collaboratively with them. Nathan needs to have a deep understanding of his industry, its trends and how he should tweak and refine his operation to take advantage of this knowledge. He will also work with his senior team to develop specific strategies that are designed to deliver on his multi-year vision. Perhaps he’ll call on different customers periodically to learn more about what they think of his company and the products it provides. Nathan should “fly” between 50,000 and 100,000 feet most of the time. But there may be special situations where he swoops down to 500 feet to verify something he’s been told or to share domain expertise for training purposes.
I’ve known (and mentored) entrepreneurs who simply don’t want to move to a model of spending 75% or more of their time working ON their business. Working IN their business is where their heart is and where they are most comfortable. Not only that, they are really, really good at what they do. My advice has been to “fire” themselves from their CEO roles and hire someone to handle this function. When they finally get past their ego, they realize that they still own the business and make the final decisions. In Nathan’s case, if he’s truly a superstar medical device designer – and if this is where his passion lies – he’ll be happier (and richer) by hiring someone to work ON his business while he works IN it.
Spending the majority of our time working ON our business will yield positive results. But if doing so isn’t appealing, we should look in the mirror and say, “You’re fired!” Then we can hire a professional to handle this important function and devote our time and energy to that which we do best.
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This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.