Letting Go to Grow Your Business

Updated: Mar 28, 2021

Today, I want to cover a topic that is so common to small business owners, it comes up as a coaching topic with over 90% of my small business owner clients. The topic is “stop working “in” your business and start working “on” your business.

I graduated in 1987 from Colorado State University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I worked as a field engineer for four years until I got hired as a sales engineer with Honeywell in 1991. I had worked in dual capacities selling and engineering with Honeywell until in 1997, I started out on my own. I grew a company called Ennovate Corporation to 30-employees and annual revenues over $10M; and then sold it in 2013.

Today I coach small business owners… so my official title is Business Coach.

It doesn’t matter what the conversation is, at some point, I’ll say, “I’m an Engineer”. This is the heart of who I am… and probably always will be.

Sadly, this rigid identity seemed to cloud my ability to grow my business. You see, I took pride and joy in doing engineering. Like it or not, when you have 30-employees, this is the last role you should be doing in your company. Even if your company is an engineering firm.

This same challenge exists for most of my business owner clients. They were great at whatever skill they had. In some cases, they were great salespeople. In other cases, they were skilled carpenters. Still in other cases, they were great engineers. To transition from being great at your profession to be a great business owner, you ultimately must let go of your identity as an expert and allow your people to be experts.

As I type these words, I know how distasteful this may sound to most of you who love what you do. You say, but Jeff, “I love engineering… or I love being a trial lawyer… or I love being an electrician.” All I can say is that if you truly love these roles, don’t start a business.

There is the one exception. If you want to run a practice where you are the expert professional and surround yourself with assistants to handle your administrative work, sales and marketing, then you will only be limited in growth by how many partners you want to take on. Most dentists, lawyers and some engineering and architecture firms do this quite successfully. That’s how they get business names like Simpson, Lawson & Sons. In their defense, many states have required that some licensed professional firms are owned by a licensed professional.

Back to the topic at hand.

When I realized that my business wouldn’t grow, if I didn’t empower my employees to run it, I created a goal. The goal was that we would have a key client who didn’t know my name.

Let me explain. When I started my engineering firm, I did everything. I sold projects, I designed the projects, I supervised the construction of the projects, I would even provide warranty and service support after the projects were completed.

Early on, I knew I needed to outsource portions of my work to grow. The first outsourced position was construction management. I hired construction managers to manage the work after it was sold and engineered. I then outsourced engineering as I hired engineers to design the work. I then outsourced marketing. The last part of my business to outsource was sales. I had hired salespeople, but always felt compelled to be present on important sales meetings and presentations. In many cases, customers would refer to me be name instead of my company’s name.

My employees laughed at me at first when I said that my goal was that new clients would never know who I was. After sixteen years, it finally happened. We acquired a $3M customer who didn’t know who I was, and I was super excited.

Why? Because I felt like my company was a genuine business. I felt I had grown something independent of myself. I could take a long vacation and know that my business would survive. In fact, I was now training my managers to grow in the same way that I had.

One more thing. This sense of accomplishment was so much greater than creating an innovative engineering design. So, even though I still consider myself an engineer, I had graduated to something that I felt was even greater… an entrepreneur. But it couldn’t happen until I fully let go.

Enough about me. Let’s talk about how you can create success that is much greater than you in your business.

Lesson #1 – You must want it. As I’ve already said, “You have to want it.” If you love your profession and have no desire to create a business with your profession, then get a job. There is no benefit you will receive in starting your own business; and you will limit anyone that you hire as an employee to be your assistant. Who wants that?

Lesson #2 – Create a Compelling Vision. The vision I created for myself was that customers would not have to know me to do business with my company. To do that, I had to create an organization chart. I had to consider what my office space would look like to house all my employees. I then created a financial plan, marketing plan and sales plan that supported that vision.

Lesson #3 – Backfill Your Skill. Your first step of growth is to replace your expertise. This means you need skilled professionals to execute each facet of your business. In my case, there was an administrative facet, an engineering facet, a sales facet, a marketing facet, a construction management facet, and an ongoing service facet. I hired individuals to take on each one of these roles. In some cases, I made bad hires and had to back-track, but ultimately, I had people who I felt could confidently execute each facet of my business without me.

Lesson #4 – Grow Your People. Having skilled people to do the work is a great start. However, to continue your growth, those people must now let go of their expertise to some extent and lead other experts. It’s not natural to be a leader. In fact, it’s not even natural to want to be a leader. Most people