Work On Your Business, Not In Your Business
You may even have uttered it yourself. But what does it actually mean, and how the hell are we supposed to work “on, not in”? In this article, I’ll show you exactly how to work on your business, not in your business – with ONE simple routine.
In this article:
What does Work On Your Business Not In Your Business Mean?
How Do I Work On My Business Instead Of In My Business?
Introducing 1% Time.
On The Business vs In The Business
Examples Of Working On The Business
Read More About The “On Not In” Principle
What Does Work on Your Business Not In Your Business Mean?
“Once you recognize that the purpose of your life is not to serve your business, but that the primary purpose of your business is to serve your life, you can then go to work on your business, rather than in it, with a full understanding of why it is absolutely necessary for you to do so.”
– Michael E. Gerber, The E-Myth Revisited.
It’s often repeated as the successful business owner’s catchphrase – “work in, not on your business.” But what does it actually MEAN? What’s the difference between working in your business, and on it?
Working “in” your business = Doing the day-to-day operations.
– Focused on doing the work that pays the bills.
– Profit mindset – Builds the P/L.
– Being efficient with your time.
– Doing a good job.
Working “on” your business = Investing in your business’s future.
– Focused on doing work that reaps the rewards in the future.
– Value mindset – Builds the balance sheet (and P/L)
– Being effective with your time.
– Ensuring a good job is done (and not just by you!)
Achieving inbox zero is working “in” your business. Hiring a VA to manage your inbox is “on” the business work.
“In” could mean fulfilling orders, while “on” involves outsourcing to a fulfilment house.
Doing things the way you’ve always done? In the business. Learning a better way? On the business.
How Do I Work On My Business, Instead of In My Business?
Let’s bring the rubber to the road, and look at how to work on your business, not in your business.
Step 1 – Identify the “on, not in” tasks.
Perform a time audit, and note down all the tasks you currently do for your business. Don’t worry if most of them are “in the business” tasks. This is quite common, and to be expected.
Next, brainstorm some ideas to improve the business. This is an exercise I like to call the Could Do List. Imagine you’re going to franchise the business – taking it from a single store/unit/venue/etc to several hundred.
How different would your marketing materials need to be? What processes and systems just wouldn’t work any more? What ideas have you had in the past to scale the business, but lacked the time to implement?
Step 2 – Be realistic about the need for “in the business” tasks.
If you’re like most small business owners that I meet, you probably spend the majority of your working day doing “in the business” tasks.
Please don’t beat yourself up for this – it’s quite normal.
It’s also completely irrational to think that the day-to-day operations of your business will meekly step aside, freeing you up to work “on, not in” just because you read this article.
I’ve been consciously focusing on “on, not in” tasks for several years – yet I still spend 60% of my working week doing “in the business” responsibilities.
Step 3 – Let go of everything “in” the business that someone else could do.
This is the hardest part. Letting go of your roles and responsibilities in your small business is scary. It feels like an unmanned car about to swerve into a ditch until you grab the steering wheel at the last minute.
If you don’t let go, however, the danger is that, like the “too busy working in the business to work on the business” dilemma, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You don’t trust your team, so you snatch that steering wheel back, guiding the business back to safety.
But if you never let go, you’ll remain a busy fool for the rest of your days, complaining that “no one cares as much as I do” or “why am I the hardest working (yet lowest paid!) person in the company?”.
Step 4 – Triage the “on, not in” tasks – and block out time to work on them.
First, some brutal truths – There are more tasks (both “in the business” tasks and “on the business” ones) than you have time for.
Something’s got to give. I suggest you cull the “in” tasks ruthlessly – creating the space to work on the business instead. Otherwise, you create the “busy fool” self-fulfilling prophecy of being “too busy working in the business to work on the business” – and nothing will ever change.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
– Henry Ford
Then, triage the “on” tasks, so that you’re maximising the potential ROI from your investment in them – and block out time to work on the most impactful first.
Introducing “1% Time”
My group coaching platform is called The One Percent Club. It’s called that because every single member who joins the club makes one, unbreakable promise (to themselves, as much as to each other): to leave their business 1% better each and every week.
Now 1% might not sound like a lot. But small hinges swing tiny doors – especially when you carve time out for those 1% improvements – which are almost always “on” the business tasks. If you find and implement one, 1% improvement in your business each week, and simply leave your business 1% better than you found it every 7 days, the amazing power of compounding and the aggregation of marginal gains will go to work for you – stacking up those tiny, seemingly insignificant improvements in the short term, and delivering stellar results in the long run.
Success comes from a commitment – to constant, never-ending improvement. Each week better than the last. Each month an improvement. Each quarter a rising tide. And each year, seemingly unbelievable results.
Yep, make one simple 1% improvement every week, and after a year your business will be unrecognisable. Stack up fifty-two 1% wins, and you won’t merely be 52% better off. Oh no, thanks to compounding, you’ll actually improve your business by 67.77%.
Improve your bottom line by 19% per quarter, and in a year, you’ve doubled your profits. This is where success comes from – constant, never-ending improvement. It rarely comes from step changes, silver bullets, super-secret-marketing hacks, or out-working everyone else (especially doing “in the business” tasks!).
So what’s the secret to 1% Time? It’s simple. Block out the time. I block out Tuesdays and Thursdays completely. That’s 40% of my working week, devoted to finding and implementing a 1% improvement in my business – ploughing through my Could Do List of “on, not in” tasks.
For others, it could be as little as 15 minutes a day, or a 90-minute block once a week.
But make no mistake, the most successful business owners I work with ALL do the same thing – they BLOCK the 1% time into their diary BEFORE all those “in the business” tasks start screaming at them from their overflowing to-do list!
On The Business vs. In The Business
You could be forgiven for thinking that there’s only one “right” answer to the dilemma of “on the business vs. in the business”.
On the business = good. In the business = bad. Right?
Well, not necessarily. There are some situations and sectors where working “in” the business can be advantageous or even necessary, such as:
– Startup Phase: In the early stages of a small business, especially if it’s a one-person operation or a very small team, owners often need to work extensively “in” the business to establish core processes, deliver services, and generate initial revenue.
– Creative Industries: Businesses in creative fields like art, design, writing, or music often require the owner’s direct creative input.
– Consulting and Coaching: Professionals providing consulting or coaching services are the primary product. Their expertise and personal touch are what clients seek, so they need to work “in” the business to deliver these services effectively (although they could still “productise” their knowledge – see my book Evergreen Assets for examples.
– Specialized Skills: If the business relies on specialized skills or knowledge that only the owner possesses, working “in” the business might be essential. This is common in niche industries.
– Passion Projects: If the business is a passion project for the owner, they may prefer to work “in” the business because it allows them to stay close to what they love doing. this would mean remaining deliberately small (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that whatsoever – I’d actively encourage it!)
– Temporary Crisis: During times of crisis, such as a sudden surge in demand or a significant setback, owners may need to step in and work “in” the business to stabilize operations.
– Micro-Businesses: Very small businesses, such as sole traders or freelancers, often blur the line between working “on” and “in” the business because they are the business.
In these situations, the key is balance. While it may be necessary to work “in” the business at times, carving out some 1% time to work “on” the business will ensure long-term sustainability, growth, and scalability.
Examples of Working “On” Your Business
So what could you work on?
– Systems and Processes: The more you can carve out time to work “on, not in” your business, using 1% time to create efficient systems and processes within your business, the more the need for constant, hands-on involvement in the day-to-day reduces.
– Strategic Planning: When you’re no longer fighting fires in the day-to-day operations, you can suddenly see the wood for the trees, and get a clearer insight into the strategic vision for your company. Long-term goal setting suddenly becomes not only attractive but also within your grasp.
– Scaling / Exiting The Business: Now that your business no longer relies on you as the godlike genius through which everything flows (and without whom nothing works!), why stop there? If you’ve replaced yourself, why not replicate yourself, and study other businesses like yours that have grown and scaled (and perhaps exited?)
– Continuous Learning: To grow the business, you must grow the business owner. What better way to work “on” your business than to improve it’s CEO – you! Learn a new strategy. Discover new resources or methods – study other successful people. Never stop learning.
To help our One Percenters work “on” improving their business by 1% each week, I’ve created this “100 ways to improve your business” poster:
Feel free to print it off and stick it on your own office wall!
Read more about the “On, Not In” Principle
– The E-Myth Revisited, by Michael E. Gerber. To build a successful business, you must not only excel in your trade but also learn how to manage and strategize. Michael Gerber tells the story of Sarah, a bakery owner, to show how many business owners get stuck doing all the work themselves. Gerber’s solution is clear: create systems and processes that allow your business to run smoothly, even without you. It’s a must-read for anyone seeking to build a business that thrives independently.
– The False EXIT, by John Lamerton. Yes, this one’s written by me. In 2016, I found myself unintentionally stepping away from my business after a £2 million sale attempt failed. Driven to break free from the business I’d created, I explored strategies, such as giving away 49% and hiring a manager, but none aligned with working ‘on, not in’ my business. Then, almost by chance, I discovered the False EXIT process—a method that allowed me to step away from day-to-day operations while retaining ownership.
– Work The System, by Sam Carpenter. Sam Carpenter’s ‘Work the System’ is a transformative guide for business owners. It emphasizes shifting from working ‘in’ the business to working ‘on’ the system, a crucial step for lasting success. Carpenter introduces the ‘Systems Mindset’ and provides practical steps to streamline operations, boost efficiency, and achieve long-term success. His book offers actionable advice for creating a scalable and profitable business through effective system management.
SOME MORE WAYS YOU COULD WORK “ON, NOT IN” YOUR BUSINESS:
THE TOP 100 BOOKS THAT EVERY SMALL BUSINESS OWNER MUST READ:
COMPILE YOUR COULD DO LIST…
EXIT YOUR BUSINESS (WITHOUT SELLING IT!)
FANCY A FREE CHAPTER?
DO YOU NEED A SMALL BUSINESS COACH?
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DON’T YOU WISH GROWING YOUR BUSINESS COULD BE LESS STRESSFUL?
Could you improve your business by just 1% this week? Note: I said “improve”, NOT "grow" your business - growth might not be what you need.
More customers, more leads, more staff, more stress might be the last thing you need.
You might actually need more profit. more margin. more leverage.
More time, less stress, and a business that relies less on you as the "font of all knowledge and the godlike genius through which everything must flow".
For you, the answer could be a smaller team, less customers, and fewer products.
The One Percent Club won't help you grow your business. It'll help you IMPROVE it - 1% at a time. Baby steps. Steady, predictable improvement - towards the kind of business you wanted when you first started - one that delivers a fantastic lifestyle, and serves you rather than you serving it.
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