Ep 218: How I Build Flexibility Into My Business With Tara McMullin

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As you’re listening to this, I’m somewhere between the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Acadia National Park in Maine. Sean and I are celebrating our 1st wedding anniversary in the only way we how: in a National Park!

That’s right, I’m on vacation—but that doesn’t mean the business comes to a standstill.

We’ve worked hard to improve the operational efficiency and predictability of our business over the last few years and that means that I get to enjoy both my time off and the flexibility of my schedule on a daily basis.

Plus, it means that my team gets to do the same.

You’re listening to What Works, the show that gets candid about what’s really working to run and grow a small business today as told by small business owners themselves. I’m your host, Tara McMullin.

We’re spending the month of July exploring the theme “On The Road.” Our goal is to look at how small business owners plan for time off, work from anywhere, and manage teams that are remote, too. I’ll tell you more about what you’ll hear this month soon.

But first, I wanted to share what’s worked for me as I’ve endeavored to build a more flexible business that allows me and my team the time off we need, as well as the ability to work on our own terms.

First, I’ll mention that most of the team works a pretty typical schedule. I start work by 9am most days and wind it down by 4:30pm. That gives me time for my workout in the morning and my interests in the evening.

I work in my home office Monday through Thursday. On Friday, we have a team meeting with our local employee, Shannon. You can find us at a picnic table inside Whole Foods in Lancaster most Friday mornings! The rest of that day is a buffer. If I don’t need the work time or I’m craving some “me time,” I’ll be done for the week.

If I’m inspired to start something new or I’m on a deadline, I’ll do that. Regardless, I’m done by about 3pm so that I can either pick up my daughter or head to the climbing gym.

What I’ve found is that consistency, routine, and structure actually allow me the flexibility I crave from my business.

I don’t just do what I feel like when I feel like it. That’s not real flexibility because it means something is always getting left behind and I’m not mastering my own workload.

And that really is the string that ties the 4 ways I’ve built flexibility into my business together.

First up…

Embracing predictable cycles

Within the first few years I was designing websites and consulting on business strategy, I started to notice that clients would disappear during the summers. Their projects would stall out. Deadlines would come and go.

I can remember thinking that there was just no point in working during the summer.

And then it hit me: I didn’t have to.

Summer often feels like a time when we’re just punching the clock. Sure, we’ve got some passion project underway or maybe we’ve got a client or two who really wants to get moving during the summer. But lots of people want to travel, take it easy, and enjoy the weather.

So that’s what I did.

I decided I would wrap up any projects I could, put my calendar on hold, and just enjoy the flexibility of summer.

It worked beautifully.

From there, I started to notice all kinds of predictable cycles in my business. I noticed how the energy of different seasons made it easier or harder to get certain things done. Instead of fighting against the current, I went with it.

This works for planning time off for me and my team. In addition to my own annual vacation, the company takes time off each summer at the end of August into Labor Day and again between Christmas and New Year. This summer, we’ve declared a 4-day 32-hour max workweek for July and August.

But predictable cycles haven’t just helped us plan for time off.

They help us plan for the natural ebb and flow of the business, too. They ensure we’re never going hard for too long at one time—and that means more flexibility in our workloads and schedules.

For example, The What Works Network operates on both monthly and quarterly cycles.

Each month, we tackle a new theme—the theme we tackle here on the podcast, too. With that theme comes a monthly calendar of content and events. While the specifics are different each month, the structure of it is exactly the same.

Each quarter, we tackle a virtual conference—an all-day online event that brings the whole community together. We have a predictable process for inviting speakers, organizing the schedule, and announcing the event to the community. We also tie our membership campaigns to these events, which means there are cycles to our community management and member on-boarding as well.

Accepting, planning for, and embracing predictable cycles has helped us build more flexibility into our lives and into the business as we grow the company.

The second thing I’ve done to build flexibility into my business…

Working ahead

Producing this podcast has both required me and encouraged me to finally start working ahead when it comes to planning content.

I’ve always been fairly spontaneous and I enjoy writing about what’s on my mind, what’s inspiring me in the moment.

When I started the podcast with CreativeLive back in 2015, we were batch recording interviews in their studio in Seattle. I would record 8-12 interviews back-to-back-to-back over 2 days so that I’d only have to make the transcontinental flight every other month or so.

Through this process, I realized that working ahead was… amazing.

Eventually, we switched to me recording interviews in my home studio. And while I didn’t continue to batch 8-12 interviews over 2 days, I did continue to stay at least 1-2 months ahead of schedule.

Last summer, when Sean and I got married and took 3 weeks off from work to road trip to Montana, I really put working ahead to the test. My goal was to be able to get everything recorded and ready to go through that vacation and for a couple of weeks after we got back so I wasn’t rushing to record new interviews.

It worked. Right now, we’re recording interviews for up to 4 months ahead—which is allowing me to take the entire summer off from recording new interviews so that we can road trip to Montana again, this time with my daughter in tow.

When we get back, I’ll start recording episodes that will air through the end of the year.

In my experience, predictable cycles and working ahead go hand in hand. I can’t work ahead if I don’t know what’s going to be happening from month to month or quarter to quarter.

So as a team, every few months, we look at our cycles and we look at the content we need to create. Then we can plan out our themes and start getting into the nitty-gritty of the schedule. Everyone knows what’s going on, which means everyone can contribute.

And that leads me to the 3rd way we’ve built flexibility into our company:

Giving ownership instead of delegating

It didn’t take me long to realize that, when I’m delegating the work I do to other people, that work stands still as soon as I stop delegating and managing.

Of course, it did take me awhile to realize that there was another way.

When I brought Shannon Paris, our community advocate and director of operations, onto the team full-time, my goal was to have her own our community and the way it ran.

That would leave me the responsibility of owning our marketing and brand-building.

Now, look. This has taken a lot of time.

Shannon didn’t have the experience, information, or perspective to own managing our community from the get-go. But now, she’s in the position of being able to make decisions and execute on plans without looking to me for guidance.

And that doesn’t just benefit me & my flexibility.

That benefits her & her flexibility, too. It means that she doesn’t have to wait on me or feel like I’m going to disapprove of how she handles something. She just handles it. I trust her to do her job.

It also benefits our community. Shannon can make sure The What Works Network is taken care of so that questions get answered faster and execution happens more predictably. It means our members always know who to go to for help—and not just as a go-between.

Ownership instead of delegation has made the whole business more flexible—and helped us operate more efficiently and effectively, too.

And finally, the 4th way I’ve built flexibility into my business…

Planning for time off before I need it (most of the time)

I used to make the mistake—like many, I think—of scrambling to take time off when I really, really needed it.

I’d try to fit in a long weekend here or there but I’d rarely be able to make time for an extended time away. I also tried to count work-related trips as fun time. They were fun… but not in the same way as a real vacation.

Now I plan my time off for the year in late December as I’m closing the books on the year that’s passed.

It doesn’t have to be set in stone. But I typically plot out a week for Sean and I to take a vacation and another week to go somewhere with my daughter. I also schedule in time off around some of my favorite days like Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving.

Sure, this is structure, not necessarily flexibility. But—as I’ve found—structure often allows for flexibility whereas flying by the seat of your pants just makes you feel like someone’s thrown you through the air belt-first!

So there are 4 ways that I’ve built flexibility into my own business.

Let me tell you what we have in store for you in July.

First up, Kelly Higdon and I talk about prioritizing time off. Kelly is a former psychotherapist turned business and lifestyle coach who takes over 3 months off from her business each year. Yep, 3 months. You’ll hear the hugely important why behind that decision as well as how she plans for that much non-working time during the year.

Next, you’ll hear from Kate Leese, who is the co-founder of Kinetics Consulting, a firm specializing in emergency-preparedness for energy companies. Kate and her husband run their company from the road or the lake, in either a vintage Airstream or, now, a fabulous boat. The kicker, though, is that their entire team works from the road, too. Kate and I talk about the ins & outs of managing an unpredictable team.

Then, you’ll hear from Amy Scott, a true digital nomad who is both a book editor and the founder of Nomadtopia, a community for digital nomads. Amy and I talk about the nitty-gritty details of literally running your business from the road: tech, tools, and technique.

Finally, you’ll hear from Brooke Roberts, the founder of Brazenist, a podcast and business & career coaching company. Brooke has a ton of experience running events around the world and we talk about how she plans for retreats and meet-ups in far away places.

Now, I’d love to hear from you.

What works for you when it comes to planning for time off? Running your business from the road? Or creating more flexible schedules?

Find me on Instagram—I’m @tara_mcmullin—and let me know in a DM or a post. I really do love hearing what’s working for you!

Or, just follow along over the next 6 weeks as I share a glimpse into my own life on the road. After we finish up this road trip through New England’s mountains and seashores, we’re heading back to Montana for a 4-week road trip.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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EP 299: How To Design Your Own Sales System

EP 299: How To Design Your Own Sales System

This week, I’ve got 4 more stories to share with you from small business owners who have intentionally done things their own way when it comes to sales and selling. They’ve found what truly works for them–even if it bucks the prevailing wisdom or would make a bro marketing expert role his or her eyes.

These stories come from business coach Ashley Gartland, marketing expert Amy Lippmann, designer Mel Richards, and work reinvention coach Lydia Lee.

Listen for how they incorporated these same considerations into finding their own unique sales systems. They designed their systems with personal values, strong relationships, reduced anxiety, and agency in mind.

EP 298: Creating A Less Harmful Sales System with Wanderwell Founder Kate Strathmann

EP 298: Creating A Less Harmful Sales System with Wanderwell Founder Kate Strathmann

This show is called What Works for a reason.

Sometimes it’s a declaration: this is what worked for this small business. And often, it’s a question, “What works?”

Today’s episode is very much a question, many questions, really:

What works when it comes to selling when you want to avoid manipulative or exploitative practices?

What works when your values conflict with many of the best practices of selling online but you still want people to buy your stuff?

What works when it comes to sales in a business that is actively anti-racist and anti-capitalist?

And even more bluntly: Can you even sell things without causing harm or perpetuating harmful systems?

My friend Kate Strathmann is the founder of Wanderwell, a bookkeeping and consulting firm that grows thriving businesses while investigating new models for being in business.

Recently, Kate took a bit of a detour from how she’s used to building her business, which is 90% referral based and fueled by deep relationship- and community-building. She decided to offer a small group program called the Equitable Business Incubator as a way of exploring anti-capitalist business practices and how they apply to the small businesses we’re building.

To fill the program, Kate need to sell differently.

Which led her to asking the question: Can you even sell things as a anti-capitalist?

While that might not be your specific question, I have a feeling that you too have wondering how you can effectively sell your offers without causing harm, perpetuating harmful systems, or damaging relationships. And that’s why I knew Kate and I needed to explore this topic on the show.

This is a conversation about what a kinder, less harmful sales process could look like—and it probably contains more questions than answers. But I’m confident those questions can help you find the answers that are right for you and the sales system that you want to build to make your business stronger.

We start out by defining what we’re really talking about when we talk about capitalism and anti-capitalism. Then, Kate shares how the Equitable Business Incubator came to be and how she ended up selling it. And then we dig into what makes many of the sales formulas and best practices being taught today problematic—and how to think differently to create your own alternative practices.

Now, let’s take a look at what works for creating less harmful sales systems!

What Works offers in-depth, well-researched content that strips away the hype of the 21st-century economy. Whether you love the podcast, the articles, or the Instagram content, we’d love your support