Getting a small business off the ground is no small feat. Throw COVID into the mix right now and it’s even more challenging. It means navigating a complex terrain of accounting, legal, marketing, sales, and service/product delivery – all while trying to stay afloat and wear multiple hats. It’s more important than ever to maximize productivity this year.

As a small business owner, I’ve had to wear these hats. My partner and I co-founded the Toronto-based digital marketing agency, Sparked Digital, about 18 months ago (at the time of writing) and as we’ve grown our team and client base, I’ve come to realize that having a solid productivity system in place is the key foundation for success.

I say productivity system because productivity encompasses so much more than just personal optimizations. Although much of today’s productivity conversation is around which “system” to choose (like the Pomodoro technique or MIT approach), productivity, at its core, is about the efficiency of production.

Though running a small business is a journey of continual learning (and I’m still learning), here are some ideas to maximize productivity and get back to business:

1. Assemble the right team sooner (rather than later)

During our first 6 months of business, my partner and I tried to do everything ourselves with just a few hours a week of support from our VA. We took this approach partly because we needed to build up cash flow and partly because we wanted to test our model before bringing on employees. Truthfully, I think we were also nervous about taking the plunge to hire. However, once we brought on our first full-time employee, we started seeing big shifts in our growth.

Soon after, we hired our second employee and now after 18 months, we’re a team of seven. Growing our team has meant a certain level of financial risk, however, if I were to do it over again, we would’ve taken the leap sooner. Having the right group of people immensely improved our capacity to scale and grow. Two people can’t do everything alone – or at least not well.

When you surround yourself with incredible people who have the right skill sets and mindsets for their roles, you free up time to focus on the tasks that you do best, like best and that will move the momentum forward. This makes everyone’s work more joyful, effective, efficient, and productive.

2. Try to stay big picture

When you’re small, you have a lot of tasks to manage yourself. You don’t have an accounting team, legal team, marketing team, delivery team, and so on.

You have to find the time (and know-how) to keep all the balls in the air, and that can take your attention away from the big picture. Yet, if you’re always in the weeds, managing the day-to-day operations, it’s easy to lose sight of big goals and macro-trends affecting your business and industry. You can end up spinning your wheels on a small problem or that one time-consuming client that isn’t moving your business forward, but rather sucking overall productivity.

By relying on your team, letting go of some of the day-to-day work, and taking time to plan and think, you’ll reap more rewards in the long run. That takes us to our next point.

3. Carve out planning time

Something we’ve tried to do from day one is carve out time for planning and goal setting. We protect one day each quarter where we sit down together as a team to take a step back and share new ideas. This has helped with our productivity big time because we’re all on the same page when it comes to our vision, values, 3-year goals and quarterly goals.

We know what matters and we know where to put our focus. We come up with metrics for each goal (because what you measure gets done) and we review where we’re at on a quarterly basis. We don’t always get it right, but it allows us to test new approaches and optimize for growth.

4. Say “no” first

When we first started, it was so tempting to say yes to every client, project, and opportunity that came our way. We soon learned (the hard way) that “yes” as the default was burning us out and killing our productivity. We ended up doing work that drained our energy, didn’t advance our business, and wasn’t profitable.

That’s when we decided to develop the criteria we now use to screen projects. If an opportunity isn’t a good fit, or we’re not confident we have the resourcing to get it done to high standards, we say no. In fact, now we say “no” more often than “yes” and our productivity and growth has grown as a result.

5. Review continually how things are working

Each member of our team has a job title and job description – that’s table stakes. However, we try to stay flexible and open to roles and processes evolving. If we’re seeing a process isn’t working, we switch it up. If we notice a team member has a really great “soft skill”, we find ways that we can collectively benefit from it.

Each quarter we review our structure and rethink who is best suited to take on what roles. The magic happens, productivity-wise, when each team member has ownership over the right blend of tasks that they’re good at, that they love doing and that needs doing.

6. Equip yourself with the right productivity tools

Even with the right support, there is still so much to do. We’re constantly evaluating our capacity to make sure we don’t tip the scales to burn out. We’ve invested in a few tools that help us optimize our time, however, we’ve been picky about which tools we go with because oftentimes productivity tools can end up taking more time to manage than they’re worth. Getting back to basics and choosing the most powerful and efficient tools for the job means we can simplify, streamline, automate, and free up extra time.

In the end, we’ve boiled it down to three key productivity tools that we use to maximize productivity (this is honest advice, not affiliate marketing):

  1. G-Suite – For email, calendar, chat, video and collaborative document creation and storage we like Google’s business products.
  2. Asana – For project management, we went with Asana because we like that it lets you flip easily between a list view, timeline view, Kanban view, and others. It also allows us to invite our clients to collaborate on our projects, which we find more powerful than using a traditional spreadsheet.
  3. Charli – Charli is our AI-powered assistant that’s helping us scale without adding another team member. We rely on Charli to store, organize, and retrieve critical documents like contracts and expense receipts on our Google Drive. Because Charli takes care of our document management, our (human) assistant can do higher-value tasks that move the needle, rather than the boring administrative stuff.

Final thoughts…

By paying attention to your productivity systems and strategies, you can smooth out some of the bumps in the road, steer clear of burnout, and scale at a pace that suits your goals. Maximizing productivity is an art and a science, but it doesn’t have to be complicated with the right mindset.

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