Build a Business (Not a Job) Using Processes

As the first full-time employee of Zilker Ventures, April Coburn has seen the company grow from a handful of people to a now well-oiled machine. To what does she attribute Zilker’s rapid growth and success? Her answer is simple, but it’s one that many small business owners and entrepreneurs seem to take for granted: writing business processes. Read on for April’s tips on how to write processes and implement them successfully in your small business.

What is a Process?

A business process is simply a set of instructions or guidelines that orient you towards achieving a goal, whether it’s as broad as running a successful business or as specific as transferring a phone call. A business process can be decomposed into several sub-processes, which have their own attributes, but also contribute to achieving the goal of the super-process.

Businesspeople typically recognize three types of business processes: Management processes, Operational processes and Supporting processes (which support the operational processes). April Coburn identifies particular processes within these three main types that are especially important for small business owners to write and implement:

  1. Policies (“Management”). You should create a policy manual for current and future employees that lays out the rules, expectations, roles, responsibilities and benefits of being employed by your company.
  2. Repetitive and/or overly complicated tasks (“Operational”). Daily repetitive tasks include: answering the phone (including how to transfer and forward calls, etc.) or emails, sending a fax or an invoice, etc. Complicated tasks, like how to launch an email marketing campaign or how create a website, are usually broader and include several sub-processes.
  3. Specialized processes (“Supporting”). These types of processes draw on specialized knowledge that you or your employees possess. You may not be able to write these processes until you actually hire employees and/or define roles within your company.

Why Do Small Businesses Need Processes?

“I can’t think of a single successful business that doesn’t write and use processes,” says April. “If you aren’t implementing processes, there’s no way that your business can grow and evolve.” According to April, business processes form the backbone of how you operate and become a valuable source of knowledge that can be passed down to future employees or even sold to future buyers.

Here are some of the main benefits for small businesses of writing processes:

  • Processes keep knowledge de-centralized, so that if an employee leaves, you aren’t left with a sudden void that no one else can fill.
  • Processes give business owners a way to measure employee performance. Without processes, it is difficult for you, as a business owner, to estimate how long a task or project will take to complete. Processes will help you to make repeatable tasks more effective, cutting down the time it takes to complete a task or reach a goal.
  • Processes help eliminate mistakes and errors. Writing down a standardized way of doing something will give your team members a definitive reference and leave less room for guessing and errors on their part.
  • Processes let you focus on the bigger picture. “You might think that something as simple as answering the phone doesn’t need to be written down and outlined, but you’d be surprised at how many little details you have to remember on a daily basis,” April warrns. Instead of memorizing how to do something, write every little detail down. As your company grows, you’ll be able to hand off processes and repeatable tasks to employees while you concentrate on building your business.

How to Identify Areas Where You Could Use a Process

Use the following questions to help you identify whether you need to write a process for any given task:

  • Is there only one person in the office that knows how to do a task/tasks?
  • Is this common knowledge that every employee (and/or employer) should know?
  • Do you find yourself doing a task multiple times?
  • Is the task overly complicated or does it have lots of little details?
  • Do you need a task completed in a specific way?
  • Do you plan to hand off a task to another person in the near future?

Tips for Process Writing from ChooseWhat

Here is a list of things we’ve done at ChooseWhat to encourage process writing. Feel free to find the ones that are most applicable to your business and starting implementing them today.

  • Make trainees write processes for you. April says that when she first started writing processes, she would write every step and sub-step herself. However, she quickly realized that because she had a better understanding of the task or project she was writing about than anyone else, her processes frequently came off as esoteric. She advises trainers to sit with trainees and walk them through a task, as the trainee takes notes that will form the process. The person who will be using the process should contribute to the process just as much as the person imparting the knowledge.
  • Create a shared repository for processes. It’s important to make processes accessible to everyone in your business. Create a repository that shows a list of your current processes. You can simply create a new file folder on your shared server or you can use an online system, such as EditGrid or GoogleDocs to keep track of processes.
  • Audit your processes frequently. Processes will become outdated the minute you find a better way to do a task. It’s important to read over your current processes to make sure they are all up to date. Set aside some time to audit processes each week or each month.
  • Schedule time for writing processes. If you don’t create a schedule for writing processes, they probably won’t get written. Setting aside time for your employees to evaluate what they do and how they do it will help everyone become more effective in the long run.
  • Read The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It. April highly recommends this book that will help you become more process-oriented. She shares an inspiring quote from the book below:

“You must analyze your business as it is today, decide what it must be like when you’ve finally got it just like you want it, and then determine the gap between where you are and where you need to be in order to make your dream a reality. That gap will tell you exactly what needs to be done to create the business of your dreams. And what you’ll discover when you look at your business through your E-Myth eyes is that the gap is always created by the absence of systems, the absence of a proprietary way of doing  business that successfully differentiates your business from everyone else’s.”
— Michael Gerber

The Entrepreneurs' Resource

About ChooseWhat

3 of 4 Comments see all

  1. jen

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Emma! I liked that you called the perception about process writing ‘unsexy.’ It’s an important point, especially since a lot of companies tend to focus much of their efforts wholly on branding and marketing (the ‘sexy’ parts) while forgetting to stop and work on the operational side of things.

    I’m glad you liked the post and hope you’ll keep reading!

  2. Emma

    First off, fantastic article, Jen – processes are considered the boring and ‘unsexy’ part of running a business but it’s so fundamental that it deserves some real attention through articles like this.

    Two huge benefits of process-driven business in my opinion are the opportunity to automate regular processes when the software/hardware to do so becomes available, and also the ability to rest easy in chaotic times, knowing that essential output will still happen thanks to well-established processes. In our buying jobs, it would be impossible to function without operational and supporting processes… it simply couldn’t work consistently!

    To be honest, every business has processes, but often they are re-creating the wheel every day instead of investing a few days in really designing watertight systems.

    I look forward to reading much more from you!
    Emma

  3. jen

    Thanks for the comment, Koby!

4 Comments

  1. koby

    What an awesome blog post! Processes are so important yet often get overlooked for being a burden even though in the long run I’m sure they save the company lots of hours. People learn to do processes more efficiently if they have steps to follow and then training new employees is a lot more effective processes. Thanks for the great info April and Jen.

  2. jen

    Thanks for the comment, Koby!

  3. Emma

    First off, fantastic article, Jen – processes are considered the boring and ‘unsexy’ part of running a business but it’s so fundamental that it deserves some real attention through articles like this.

    Two huge benefits of process-driven business in my opinion are the opportunity to automate regular processes when the software/hardware to do so becomes available, and also the ability to rest easy in chaotic times, knowing that essential output will still happen thanks to well-established processes. In our buying jobs, it would be impossible to function without operational and supporting processes… it simply couldn’t work consistently!

    To be honest, every business has processes, but often they are re-creating the wheel every day instead of investing a few days in really designing watertight systems.

    I look forward to reading much more from you!
    Emma

  4. jen

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Emma! I liked that you called the perception about process writing ‘unsexy.’ It’s an important point, especially since a lot of companies tend to focus much of their efforts wholly on branding and marketing (the ‘sexy’ parts) while forgetting to stop and work on the operational side of things.

    I’m glad you liked the post and hope you’ll keep reading!