Home Articles Work ON and not IN your business… Thanks heaps for the advice.

Work ON and not IN your business… Thanks heaps for the advice.


sahil_merchant_iconIt is very easy to dole out advice, especially when you have never had to walk the walk. Everyone is an expert because they have read the latest entrepreneurial “it” book or have “seen” things turn out a certain way on countless occasions. Yeah, but have they “felt” them?

I’ve heard it a hundred times. Entrepreneurs need to work on their business as opposed to in their business. Gee thanks. Until you told me that, I genuinely believed that most entrepreneurs start a business because they are desperate to get stuck in minutiae.

Sarcasm aside, why is it so damn hard to heed an apparent truism? Why the hell have I been sitting here all weekend at a trade exhibition manning a damn counter while my three kids spend another weekend without that random bloke who comes in and out of their lives from time to time? Did I acquire my law degree, commerce degree, MBA and years of top management consulting experience so that I could subtract $15 from $20 to allow me to hand out $5 in change?

Let me quickly clarify that this is not a whinge. Before you all start to slag me off, I openly admit that all the decisions I have made in my life have been my decisions. As my four year old son says, “I am the boss of me” – all the rewards are mine to reap and all frustrations mine to bear.

The point of this post is not to emphasise how hard most entrepreneurs have to work for success, but to share the irony that I perceive and the occasional impatience I feel when I get reminded to do what I know I must – take the helicopter view.

There is no denying that it is good for the boss to get his or her hands dirty every now and then. Great for team morale, and it also keeps you in touch with what is going on down in the trenches. Doing this from time to time is not inconsistent with maintaining a strategic overview. This is not my issue.

However, getting stuck in the day-to-day happens to most of us entrepreneurs, and the obvious question is ‘why?’ – especially when we know it is not in the best interests of our company. Are we just inherently forgetful, or is something else in play?

A constant balancing act

I would love nothing more than to spend all my time driving the growth of my company. There are so many exciting opportunities for us to conquer, and doing this would lead to great prosperity. The problem is: who is going to keep the engine humming if I spend all my time on growth?

‘Invest in resources’ say the experts. Build a great team and la di da di da… you know the spiel. But hiring more people means that my short-term cashflow goes into the toilet. And, in my case, unlocking new funds to enable growth depends on hitting real world performance targets.

I am faced with the perennial entrepreneurial conflict – short versus long term. Nothing new in that. However, what many of the “experts” don’t realise is that we all have an in-built survival mechanism. The long term is future gain, the short term avoidance of pain. Where do you think our bias lies?

So here I am working another weekend, saving the company weekend hourly rates, albeit for a one-off exhibition. Our July numbers will benefit from my efforts. And no one can represent the company to new customers better than I can. But is this the best use of my time? No. Is this me working on the business or in it? In it. And is the company better or worse off as a result? Better. Why? Because working in the business today allows me to get closer to being able to work on the business tomorrow.

Easy tiger… advice is cheap

Some may call this a life cycle thing; when you are really young, this is what you do, and as you mature, you manage to get some head space. This may be true for some businesses (I am highly conscious that all enterprises are different and that financing structures play a major part), but for my business, this becomes an issue whenever a funding milestone beckons. Just as I really need to ramp up on the vision and direction, the temptation is to bury myself and jump on in to ensure we meet those targets.

Others call it sweat equity. I can’t speak for funders in general, but I sort of think that they expect me to take the helicopter view while at the same time be down in the trenches… and this is what I do.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t leave much time for family, friends or health. Again, not a whinge, but the real price I pay. Family, friends and health don’t deliver short-term ROI. The folly of ignoring this in the long term is self-evident, but hey – we can push him a little harder. He’s a tough guy, right?

So all you people who feel free to dole out advice about working on my business, I know you are right. But it isn’t always easy. There are lots of real life complications involved with running a business. If you haven’t actually done it, and felt the pressure of being squeezed on short term targets, please understand that I am trying to balance a delicate business ecosystem.

And for all of you who expect me to be on top, underneath and all around my business at the same time… I am ok with this. But again, it is not always easy. And I know that you know that it is not easy (are you following me?), and that you will say that I haven’t been funded to achieve something pedestrian. All very true, but please think twice before metering out your advice.

There are real sacrifices involved in working on and in the business at the same time, and until you have missed another kid’s birthday party to cover for a staff member, and left in the middle of Christmas lunch to meet the police and check why your office alarm is going off… Well, let’s just say that I will be more receptive to your sound but at the same time contradictory advice of helicopter view, hands dirty, strategic vision and short-term cash conservation when I’ve seen you do the same.

Sahil Merchant is founder of mag nation. Follow him on twitter: @sahilmerchant. His launch post can be found here.