Running your own business is like parenting. Not only can it be rewarding, a source of pride, a constant learning experience, etc., etc.—it can also be a total pain in the rear, a near-constant source of stress, and a bottomless black hole that can swallow every other aspect of your life if you let it. But while most parents have an idea of how much they want to grow their family and then stop having kids, many small-business owners feel compelled to keep expanding indefinitely—at risk to their own sanity. One Co.Design reader feels like the entrepreneurial version of Octo-Mom:
"I own and manage three companies. I'm drowning in work and motherhood to my two young boys, because I work from home while the kids are around. Business is wonderful, but I'm having to consider turning down new clients because I just don't have the bandwidth. I've considered hiring an assistant, but I'm the only person who can answer my clients' questions and make decisions on project time and cost. I need to solve this issue in order to remain effective and grow my business, but am at a loss for how to get there."
A decade ago, Jim Coudal—founder of Coudal Partners, a design agency that also produces the popular Field Notes line of notebooks—was in the same situation as our beleaguered advice-seeker. "I wanted to bill $20 million and win some Addy Awards," he told 37signals. "So we just kept pushing. And then adding people and growing and working for clients and we never evaluated whether this is really what we wanted to do. We were just trying to get to this arbitrary goal for no reason at all."
I asked Coudal for some advice on how to help our reader redesign her own work-life balance the same way he did. One big tip: in order to balance two things, they have to be clearly separated in the first place. "The intersection of home and work is a dangerous one," he says. "Technology makes it very easy to be everywhere all the time. If I'm at home and I need to get some work done, even just an hour's worth in the middle of a Sunday morning, I go to the studio and do it there. The commute helps me focus on the task at hand and by keeping work at work and home at home, I'm much better at both."
Renting office space may sound like overhead that a busy freelancer doesn't need—or can't afford. But if keeping your work and your family separate is important to you, then Coudal says you must invest in designing that separation into your life. It may add operating expense to your business, but at least it's paying for something tangible and valuable to you—not just growth for growth's sake.
The other precious resource to consider, advises Coudal, isn't your revenue—it's your own time. No matter how much profit you generate, your waking hours and your attention are finite and nonrenewable. All entrepreneurs need to control their businesses, "but no job is all answering questions and making strategic decisions," he says. "Identify the administrative stuff that supports all that and offload to someone else. Do it immediately." As a self-employed control freak myself, I can understand our reader's allergy to delegating. In some ways, it seems simpler to do everything yourself. But deep down, we both know that this approach has tangible costs.
"It takes courage to delegate and to admit that someone else could do things as well, or better, than we do," Coudal says. "It also takes practice." But don't hire yourself a staff and expect yourself to become an expert manager overnight. "Start with the small things and you'll find it easier to grow your business by delegating some of the the big things, too." As a small-business owner, you probably don't do your own taxes—neither do I. And I don't miss it one bit. What other "small stuff" are we overlooking? Start your redesign there.
If Coudal's example is any indication, the payoff could be significant. Once Coudal Partners stopped chasing growth for its own sake and loosened up on the control issues, the company had the time and energy to redefine what "growth" meant on its own terms. Instead of billing huge accounts and winning awards, Coudal Partners developed two products of its own—Field Notes and an online ad network called The Deck—that grew into self-sustaining revenue streams rather than one-off client projects. That created space for the company to experiment with other endeavors that satisfied the founders' values, like the ongoing design contest Layer Tennis and a series of short films.
But don't worry about that just yet. Like Coudal says, start small. Try renting a desk at a co-working space; make a list of all the administrative bullcrap you wish you didn't have to do yourself. See what happens. Like your family, maybe your business just needs to find its right size, grow into it, and thrive.