Commercial Currents: Business Systems–Part 1

Craig Olson
Posted 2019-09-12

Most small business owners are jugglers.

Once a small business owner learns to keep three metaphorical balls in the air, with some practice they can add a fourth ball…then a fifth. But what happens if someone throws an orange into the mix? A little bit of struggle, but once they have the size and heft figured out, they simply adjust and begin to get back into the rhythm. Soon, they can raise their gaze up a bit, and the process becomes automatic—until someone tosses them a bean bag and they have to start all over again!

How much can you keep in the air? How effective can you be if everything needs to come back to you? At some point and time, every business owner struggles with this mindset of “I need to do everything,” but this needs to change. Change is scary, but we hope that this next two-part series will help you think a bit beyond all the current priorities and emergencies you are facing.

You likely became a small business owner, because you saw something that needed to be done, you were good at that something, and you decided it was something you could be paid to do. Or, maybe you wanted to stay on the island or in your community no matter what and just needed to figure out how make a living. So, you decided to start a business. It was probably slow at first, with many sleepless nights, but then the revenue began to trickle in.

As a small business owner, you do it all: the work for the service you offer, sending bills, paying the bills, managing the workers or staff you may have hired, pricing, and creating bids—you also wash the windows, clean the bathrooms, and shovel the snow. You keep doing it, because why would you pay anyone to do those things when you can do them so quickly yourself? But what suffers? Time spent doing the things you love to do in the business, time with families and partners, and time in your community. You are the business—the business is you—and it becomes a badge of pride, a thing of importance:

“I must be successful, because I’m paying my bills and work all the time.”

Why do so many businesses fail? There are only 24 hours in a day, and something has to give. It’s usually the business owner who fails first.

Despite the American credo that we are a country in which anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make a success of themselves, no one does it alone. We all benefit from free public education, civic infrastructure, health and safety laws, etc. We also benefit from the advice and help of others, whether they be customers, colleagues in the same field, bankers, or other professionals. So, why not seek help in running your business in a way that frees you to do what you enjoy most about the business, while making some of those mundane regular tasks a bit more palatable? 

The solution isn’t always achieved by throwing money at a problem or hiring more people. A good first start is to sit down and figure out what you do. Quite a big question, isn’t it? 

In his classic books on managing your business, The E-Myth and The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber repeats the following mantra on a regular basis: “Work on your business, not in your business.”  What we all do as business owners, unless we learn otherwise, is work in the business. We started it. We’re good at the service or product we provide. We are the business. The problem is that in order to be successful you can’t be the business—it has to be separate from you as a person, and that’s hard. Most successful business owners have the ability to separate themselves from the business and look at it as it is: a legal entity that generates revenue, has expenses, and (hopefully) generates a net profit. That’s it.  

So, it‘s time to begin to separate yourself from your business and look at things from a higher altitude. Get out a notebook (a sheet of paper won’t be enough) and begin to write down everything you do in the course of a day. Keep that pad with you and do it for a week—write down everything.

Even better, as Peter Drucker mentions in the classic book, The Effective Executive, write down how much time you spend doing each thing. It may seem tedious at first, but once you begin to build a list and note the time you spend on certain tasks, life will begin to reveal itself. Things will start to stand out, and questions will start to arise like: Do I really spend that much time each week on the phone with clients or on the phone or computer ordering materials? How many times did I drive to the bank or post office, and did I really spend five hours this week figuring and writing payroll checks? How much time did I really work doing the things I get paid to do?

You may resist this process at the beginning, but then it will become something of a game. A revealing game. As Drucker says, know where your time goes. You will begin to see patterns. You will also begin to see things that you were subconsciously aware of, “I spend that much time going out to get coffee…scrolling through Facebook…checking

my phone?” 

As things pop up that you do on a regular basis—payroll, bank deposits, ordering supplies, cleaning the bathroom, etc.—start tagging those items and the frequency at which you do them (every day, every week, bi-weekly, monthly, seasonally, and annually). You’ll use these tags later as you begin to streamline the “back office” portion of your business.

If you’re a one-person operation, are you seeing tasks that you could sit down and do all at once. Let’s say you schedule 30 minutes each day when you do your ordering or one hour for phone calls, or ninety uninterrupted minutes for writing copy. Put your phone in another room, mute your computer so you don’t see notifications, and do a deep dive into what is in front of you. In order to do everything you need to in one day and still have a life, you need to begin to create physical systems. These systems will put your mind at ease, so that things don’t fall through the cracks if you don’t complete the task the minute you think of it.

So, stop juggling for a moment, put the balls away in a drawer, and pull out that notebook we mentioned earlier. Write today’s date at the top of the first page and write the first documented task on your list: “Business Planning: 1-1:30, 30 minutes.”

Good luck!

In November, we’ll be back with the second part of our Business Systems series which will look at hiring or contracting out some of the essential administrative functions that might make your business and personal life easier. In the meantime, if you would like some coaching on the process, feel to reach out to Craig Olson at or via phone at (207) 594-9209, ext. 148.


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Further questions?

Interested in sharing your favorite business inspiration or have questions about our small business support services? Contact Craig Olson or Claire Donnelly with the Island Institute’s Small Business team.

What We Do

The Island Institute’s Small Business Team provides business and financial planning to help entrepreneurs navigate the complexities of starting and growing a business. For more information on our small business support services, feel free to contact Craig Olson.

Commercial Currents is an email and blog newsletter that shares buoyant stories from Maine’s island and coastal communities about economic stability and resilience. To find archived editions, go to

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