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Help! I’m Being Held Prisoner in My Business: How to Know When It’s Time to Grow

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“There just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done–I’ll get caught up by working all weekend” (and the next weekend, and the next weekend…).

“I can’t believe I missed that deadline again–I swore last time I would give myself plenty of time, but _______[fill in the blank] came up and I was so busy working on it that I forgot.”

“Sorry, I can’t go to the [game, theater, a movie, etc.], I have to get this mailing out and there’s no one else to do it.”

“I have to increase sales and get more revenue coming in, but I don’t have enough money to hire help, but if I don’t get help I can’t get more sales.”

Does this sound like you? Not just some of the time, but most or all of the time? Are you tired of always taking “vacations” with your laptop (or never taking vacations at all) and of licking stamps for 1,000-piece mailings instead of working on long-term marketing initiatives? The best thing about a one-person business is that you don’t have to answer to anyone and can make all the decisions by yourself. The worst thing about a one-person business is that you are so swamped in the minutiae of operations that you rarely even ask questions of yourself, which means that crucial decisions don’t get made at all.

So how do you know when it’s time to grow? Your responses to the six key questions below will help you find the answer.

1. Do I want to grow?

Consider long-term life and business goals. Not all of us aspire to be Random House. Perhaps you’re perfectly happy being a one-person shop, never leaving home without your laptop, and having to deal with being swamped in exchange for retaining absolute control. But if you do have ambitions to growing beyond one, be sure that those ambitions are compatible with the way you want to handle your personal life before you take another step (yes, you can have a personal life and run a publishing company!).

Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. At the top of the left-hand column write “Life Goals” and at the top of the right-hand column write “Business Goals.” Create a list of three to five objectives on each side; then compare column entries. Obviously, “Publish 10 titles per season” is not going to mesh well with “Take a month off each year to backpack through Europe.”

If, after completing this exercise, you determine that two or more goals are incompatible across the line, make adjustments accordingly.

2. Am I building a business, or buying a job?

The choice is yours, but it is critical that you recognize the difference. If you decide you want to grow, then you’d better make sure growth potential is there. I began my company with the mission to bring selected titles back into print in a children’s historical fiction book series that had been unavailable for 40 years. I had approximately 150 titles to choose from, with the option to create new books if I either ran out of previously published titles or needed to fill holes in the list with subjects not covered.

If you are a one- or two-book publisher interested in hiring staff, take a long, hard look at your content sources and make sure you haven’t backed yourself into a corner with subject matter that has nowhere to grow.

3. How much time do I spend working in my business vs. on my business?

Ninety-nine percent vs. 1 percent. That would be how I personally would answer that question, and I bet I have a lot of company. Instead of translating my long-term vision for the company into a strategic written plan for marketing, editorial, sales, and promotion, I found myself addressing envelopes, packing orders, creating mailing lists manually because they were “too expensive” to buy, and doing 1,000 other tasks that of course needed to be done–but not by the owner of the business.

You can get away with the seat-of-the-pants mentality with books 1, 2, 3, and sometimes even 4, but I have learned that with soon-to-be-11 books in print, working on the business is no longer an option but critical for survival. If you don’t envision and plan for the future of your company, then how hard you work today to get those shipments out doesn’t really matter very much.

Take a good look at the tasks you perform on a daily basis–you may be surprised at (a) how many of them could be delegated and (b) how little time you spend on any task that is longer-term than next week. If you’re ready to grow, you have to start thinking in years.

4. Do I constantly miss deadlines because I’m “too busy”?

Sometimes it takes a crisis to precipitate the realization that the status quo no longer works. My defining moment came when I missed a critical deadline–so critical that I was unable to include my new titles in my distributor’s twice-yearly catalog. In publishing, miss a season, miss a lot. Building credibility and reputation as a publishing company and meeting or exceeding your customers’ expectations means delivering those titles fall and spring, year after year. Failure to do so leads to lost revenue, lost publicity, and lost trust.

That neglected deadline, while by far the worst, was one more in a long line of overlooked revenue-generating opportunities that I had been able, up to then, to recover from. This one was unrecoverable. At that moment, it became crystal clear that my company had gone beyond me–either I had to take immediate steps to grow, or I had to shut it down.

5. Is my bottom line bottoming out?

Most of us would not be in this business if we didn’t love it. But most of us in this business do not have an endless source of funding. Do your sales show low or no growth from month to month or year to year because you don’t have time to market? Be careful here–there may be other reasons that sales are flat besides lack of marketing. But if your market research has shown that your current and future marketplaces want what you have to offer, then your main problem may be that your lack of staff is keeping you from getting to them.

6. Is my business consuming my house?

Has your office spilled out of the spare bedroom into the dining room into the living room, etc.? Is your garage full of books instead of cars? Many of us work from home, and we like the commute. But there comes a time in the life of any business when the physical space required to do business exceeds the capacity of a home office. For example, I now have books stored in three separate locations–storage closet, garage, and distributor. Many times I run out of garage books in the middle of shipping an order (which you now know I should not be doing!) and have to run to storage (three miles away) to replenish. Files are stored in my bedroom and my office; mailing assembly takes place on my living room floor…well, you get the picture.

If you want to take your business to the next level, you need physical space in which you can function effectively and employees can work efficiently. Since I have now made the decision to grow, I will be moving to office space this spring. For the health of the business and my own mental health, I need to keep my work and living space separate. An offsite office will allow me to hire the help I need without having to open my personal living space to employees.

We entrepreneurs often find it excruciatingly painful to admit that we can’t do it all ourselves. Before we know it, our companies become prisons, our myopia creates the cell that confines our view, and our belief that we are superwoman/man holds us hostage. Take a giant step back today, and focus on your business with the wide-angle lens instead of the zoom. Your company’s long-term survival depends on it.

Florrie Binford Kichler is the founder of Patria Press, Inc., publisher of the Young Patriots series of historical fiction for young readers. She serves on the board of PMA. To learn more, visit the Patria Press Web site at www.patriapress.com or email fkichler@patriapress.com.

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