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Complexity Changes During A Business's Growth
As businesses move through different stages in their lifecycle, they gain and shed levels of complexity. While it’s true that more mature businesses generally carry greater levels of complexity, the kind of complexity changes.
For instance, a business that’s pretty simple on the tech infrastructure at one stage may get pretty complex at the next stage and then simplify the tech infrastructure at a later stage by making the human infrastructure more complex. You might see that this is the opposite of a trend we see in Big Business, where “expensive” people are displaced by “cheap” technology.
That’s all really abstract, so I’ll give a tangible context from our business.
Here recently we moved from a hodgepodge of independent infrastructure solutions to InfusionSoft. Many people have asked me about the experience and I’ve been very reserved about it, both because it’s hard to explain and also because I'm careful about my counsel. A snap judgment one way or the other has secondary and tertiary ripples that I’m quite mindful of - I’ve been doing this long enough to see what happens when I make hasty recommendations.
So, I don’t want to talk much about my experience with InfusionSoft besides saying that there are some things I love about it and a few that I don’t. The interesting thing is that the underlying framework for those feelings all boil down to a general question…
Do I Want A Swiss Army Knife or A Benchmade?
You might not know about Benchmade knives, so here’s the short version: they’re very, very good at one thing - cutting. You don’t buy them for the screwdriver, tweezers, and toothpick, but when you want a knife that's well-made, super-sharp, and ready-to-cut-through-cardboard or save you from attacking dogs, you want a Benchmade.
On the same token, you are probably interested in a Swiss Army Knife if you want something to put in your pocket that has a lot of different tools. Boy Scouts, in particular, love the Swiss Army Knife because it instantiates the “Be Prepared!” motto. If you’re packing for a backpacking trip, you don’t want to carry 32 different tools, and, in that context, the 32 tools that come with the Swiss Army Knife are good enough to get the job done.
The choice, then, is between a tool that does one thing really well versus a tool that does a lot of things okay. When we buy those tools, we’re making a conscious choice between excellent, specific functionality and general, adequate convenience.
Teammates and Tools
When I started this business, I was the only person actively working in the business. Angela was on the board of directors whether she liked it or not since it’s hard to live with an entrepreneur and not be on the board. Luckily for me, she’s a wonderful partner in life and business.
When it was just me, I could have a whole bunch of specific awesome tools in the tool chest, and I knew why, when, and how to use each one. I knew all the passwords, had learned all the bumps, and knew the shortcuts and workarounds.
Later on, we brought Marissa on to augment us with her CanDo Fu. Marissa was already native with much of what I was using, so there were few training or cross-leveling issues. There were a few solutions I was using that she wasn’t, so we had to work out how we were going to share the workflow in a way that didn’t create more work for me and also didn’t cost us a lot of optime that we were paying for.
Let’s pause here. A topic of discussion for almost every client is getting some help in their business. I’ve learned to ask a lot of questions about this particular issue because so many creative entrepreneurs are unaware of the costs of training and coordination and instead expect that someone coming in to help will fix their busyness overnight.
It doesn’t work that way. If you have a legitimate High Value Activity that you’re trying to get some help on, you’ll have some training and coordination time in the short-term that’s offset by the long-term gain of hiring them. But, in the short-term, you’ll spend more time training and coordinating than by doing it yourself.
This is why I say most entrepreneurs and small businesses hire too late and have expectations that are too high. If you wait until crunch time to hire someone, you’ve set yourself and them up for failure. You hire and train during an off-peak time so that crunch time is less crunchy.
Okay, picking up the thread from above…
I already knew about the trainup and coordination costs going into the relationship with Marissa. Even still - and despite her being loads smarter, savvier, and faster with the tools than I was - each solution that I used that she didn’t required some retraining or workflow redesign.
Enter Angela Taking Over Operations
When Angela came on board full time in Q3 of last year, we had a completely different challenge. Knowing and advising about a business is one thing - being in the trenches of the business is quite another. Given that we still have an intentionally small business, by necessity, we float between executive-level perspectives and operator-level actions. This was the first time Angela had to be an operator and start using the tools.
All of a sudden, I had to train and coordinate with someone who wasn’t familiar with all of those tools. There were a lot of tools and solutions that I was using on my side that I had never trained Marissa to use because it didn’t fall into her lane. However, Angela was taking over a lot of my lanes, which means she had to work with the tools.
I lost count of all the solutions when it hit 30. And the point wasn’t that she had to learn all 30, but, rather, that it was time to get serious about the size of the tool chest. One of the first things we tackled is what I call the people centers of our business, since that made the most sense given what she does.
Streamlining People Centers
First, a quick definition: a people center is a location where you keep information about people. Though there’s a lot of overlap, it’s a discrete type of analysis that just focuses on the people perspective of your business.
I haven’t yet written about it so you might not know it, but I’m a CRM zealot. Part of this is because I’ve learned that the people who are best at keeping up with the people aspect of their business are the ones who are the most successful. Keeping it all in email doesn’t cut it, and most contact or address books are rather insufficient, too.
When Angela came on board, we had five discrete people centers, none of which were synced or comprehensive. We had some contacts in Address Book. We had all of the names and emails in Aweber. We had some in Highrise. We had our customers and affiliates in 1ShoppingCart. Then there were all the people in my email correspondence that somehow didn’t make it into those other centers.
All of that only has to do with where the data was kept. Data doesn’t do much for you - it’s information that matters. And most of the information was stuck in my brain. Anytime Angela wanted to contact anyone, she’d have to hop around those different people centers and hope that the information in the center she was in was correct and had the supporting information she needed. Most of the time, she had to ask me.
InfusionSoft allowed us to merge the functionality of Aweber and 1ShoppingCart, and that was one of the first migrations we made. I wasn’t using the data in either center very well because it took too much work to tie the relationships together in the right way.
InfusionSoft could theoretically replace Highrise, but it’s harder to use. We have Highrise as our operating-level people center and InfusionSoft as our automation, archival, and customer-care people center. It works for us, and, yes, I could go into loads of details about exactly how it works, but we’ll save that for another time. (Perhaps.)
That still leaves Address Book out in the cold, but we have something in the works that may help with that. Given that Google Apps Gmail powers our business, it’s not as pressing to get it resolved as you’d think, and we’re in no hurry to mess up our operating-level people center.
The Challenge With Swiss Army Knives
The challenge, of course, is that we’ve gone from a bunch of tools that were best in class for what they are to a tool that’s dramatically different. For instance, Aweber was a lot easier to use. 1ShoppingCart’s point-of-sale technology was first class. Highrise carries 37Signal’s touted simplicity and ease of use.
And now we’re using InfusionSoft that has its own “way”. We’re learning the necessary shortcuts and work-arounds that we forgot we had to learn with the old stuff. It’s easy not to like it because it’s both different and not exactly awe-inspiring on the front-end. And then there are the horror stories that have at least been pervasive enough that we have a contingency plan in place. (Another reason why we have a separate operating-level people center.)
The upshot is that we have better information and one technology to train on. We could scale our business in a way that we couldn’t with the assorted hodgepodge. And InfusionSoft is the best solution I’ve seen that allows me to reflect the way our business works in software. In short, we’re poised for growth in a way that we haven’t been before.
But, in the meantime, we’re missing our Benchmades.
Returning To General Pattern
Remember how we started this conversation? I was mentioning how businesses tend to get more complex as they mature, but the type of complexity may change through phases.
In the beginning, our business was complex on the tech front, but it was alright because it was simple on the people front. As we’ve added more teammates and collaboration, we had to tame the complexity on the tech side so that we could actually harness the creative capital within the business effectively.
Given that I had a lot of experience with organizational dynamics, I’ve always at least had sympathy for the massive organizations that enforced certain types of structure because they simply couldn’t support and mobilize a workforce if they didn’t. You might not like that you don’t have tech support for your Mac at work or that you can’t install programs on your computer, but small demands like that gobble up the resources of larger organizations. I can’t keep up with Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Safari, and we have a small team. My sympathy has moved to understanding and empathy, even though we’re making intentional choices to avoid those problems.
And, of course, it’s not like keeping the business agile, lean, and small doesn’t present other problems. They just happen to be the problems we’d rather have for now. :)
Affiliate Disclaimer: The links to Highrise, Aweber, 1ShoppingCart, and InfusionSoft are all affiliate links. I've used and regularly recommend Highrise, Aweber, and 1ShoppingCart to clients and friends, and, while I'm reserved about InfusionSoft, it's serving its function well up to this point.