Your Business’s First Employee Is You

Whether or not you’re looking to build a team, you’ve already made your first hire: you.

As the business owner and likely the go-to person for just about everything, you are employee #1.

Unfortunately, for all of our talk about making our own schedules, choosing the work we do, and playing to our own strengths, I see many business owners put up with treatment from “the boss” that they’d never accept as an employee of someone else’s business.

Sure, some of that can be attributed to the idea that you’ve got to “put in the time” or “take one for the team” (though, that thinking can be really harmful).

But I believe that most of us could find ourselves in much more rewarding and satisfying jobs if we took the time to address the structural and operational challenges that make the work of business ownership so challenging.

And, in doing so, we would have a much easier time hiring help or asking for support from peers.

When you treat yourself the way you’d treat an employee and build the business to support that relationship, you make better decisions, operate more sustainability, and build your confidence.

Plus, if or when you do decide to hire, you’ll have created a supportive environment to welcome the right people into.

We make things harder than they have to be…

When I asked our small business owner community members what their biggest fears were around hiring help, they told me they were scared of committing the money, having to manage employees that weren’t cutting it, or finding the person for the job.

My theory? These are the biggest fears because these are exactly the issues we don’t figure out for ourselves when it comes to our own businesses.

Many — if not most — people begin down the small business path because they’re looking for meaningful work. They’re piecing together the best parts of the best jobs they’ve had in the past and doing the work they love.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that — until there is.

We end up mismanaging the business’s money (and our pay). We don’t manage ourselves well—simultaneously pushing ourselves too hard and letting ourselves off the hook. And we continually find ourselves doing work that we’re not skilled at (and have no real desire to be).

Our fears about hiring are just recast as ways we’re mistreating employee #1.

We end up burnt out or in desperate need of help. And so finally, we start thinking about hiring to get some relief.

We are so quick to externalize our needs (and so slow to repair the harm we’ve done to ourselves).

When you hire someone at the end of your rope, you don’t have the capacity or resources to support them. When you ask for help in a state of deep confusion or burnout, you don’t have the capacity or resources to accept it.

But it still seems easier to rely on a new employee, a new tactic, or a new piece of software than it does to repair what got us into the pickle in the first place.

We ignore the structure, expectations, and mindset that make it harder to do our jobs well. And that means that anyone we bring into the organization is also going to have a hard time doing their job.

It’s at this point that I start to hear the horror stories.

The virtual assistant leaves without notice. The web designer ghosts. The copywriter, social media manager, or customer support person regularly does subpar work.

There’s no doubt that there are truly some frustrating situations that come from working with others. But these conflicts often aren’t as one-sided as we’d like to believe they are.

The business owners I know who have really great relationships with their team members also have a really great relationship with themselves and their businesses. They trust their people and they trust themselves. They pay their people well and they pay themselves well. They respect others’ boundaries and they respect their own boundaries.

These business owners are hyper-focused on building a great work environment (even virtually) but not in a bend-over-backward kind of way.

They don’t give, give, give until they’re empty. And they don’t rely on being always available or always accommodating.

Instead, these business owners build solid structures and communicate clear expectations. They know that, when everyone is on the same page, the whole team is taking care of each other.

But as I mentioned, this isn’t work that starts once you’ve hired your first non-you team member.

This is the task of creating a great working environment for you first.

It’s making sure your needs are met so you can help others meet their needs.

This is work that’s worth doing whether you’re hiring next month, next year, or never.

To do that, there are 3 key tasks to master: pay yourself, manage yourself, believe you’re the right person for the job.

1) Start paying yourself.

I’ve noticed that small business owners tend to fall somewhere near one of the two ends of the Pay Yourself Spectrum. On one end, the owner pays themselves almost everything leftover after meager business expenses each month (that was how I started!). On the other end, they’ve paid themselves nothing in an effort to reinvest in the business for growth.

When you’re paying yourself everything, you make bad decisions when it comes to spending on growth (marketing, training, networking) and ease (software, contracted help). When you pay yourself nothing, you have a terrible idea of how much money it actually takes to run the business because of all your free labor.

Now, if you find yourself near the middle, good for you! Pass Go. Collect $200. Move on to the next section of this article.

So what I mean when I say “start paying yourself” is not to pay yourself something, it’s to pay yourself something very specific: a monthly base salary or draw that you can commit to whether you’re in a lean month or a windfall month.

You build your plans and other expenses around this number.

Treat yourself like an employee with a salary.

Treat yourself as if you’re a team you’ve committed to paying for work received and value created — because you are. Once you start to pay yourself, you’ll see that it’s not as scary as you think it might be. You recognize the value of your work and you pay accordingly.

I started paying myself a regular salary in 2017–eight full years after starting my business. It completely shifted my relationship to my business.

When we started YellowHouse.Media in 2019, we set up Sean to earn a regular salary from Day 1. Thanks to that strategy (and some other hard lessons learned over the years), we’ve been able to comfortably build a team knowing that we can continue to cover both Sean’s salary and generous compensation for our team members.

When you are as committed to your own salary as any other expense in your business, it shifts the way you plan. You don’t have to worry about having enough left over at the end of every month because you’re budgeting for each necessary team member—including yourself. You know what needs to happen to keep yourself (and anyone else) paid and you build your strategy around that.

2) Manage yourself.

I have such a strange relationship with managing myself. I have no idea whether it’s “normal” or the product of my neurology—or both.

I love to create systems but hate to follow them. I am extremely productive but often channel that into productive avoidance. I thrive with a plan but often fail to make one.

I can forgive myself all of that (and I do).

But I can also work on it (and I am).

When I first started hiring, I expected people to work within my habits and methods of operating.

This didn’t go well. My habits and methods of operating quite idiosyncratic.

Of course, it’s my prerogative to set the tone, systems, and methods within my company. But it’s also my job to figure out whether my prerogative is actually serving the business or serving me—so that I can serve others, too.

The truth was that, upon further inspection, some of my habits and methods of operating didn’t serve me or the business.

I figured out that it wasn’t so much that I needed to compromise my own needs in order to work with others. It was that I needed to retrain myself to work better to meet my own needs—which then created a better environment for those I was hiring.

Again, whether hiring is one of your goals or not, learning to manage yourself will create a better working environment for employee #1. And it might change the way you look at hiring for the future.

When you manage yourself, you build the systems that make managing others a piece of cake. 

You document systems and stick to them. You develop proven methods and employ them. You create routines, values, and capabilities that are core to the way your business operates — and are truly meaningful to you.

When you bring new people on board, it’s easy to communicate these things because you’re living them. What you don’t know how to say in words, you model through your behavior.

We all have different needs and preferences when it comes to managing ourselves. Depending on your unique blend of executive functioning and mental processing, your methods for managing yourself may look completely different than mine. The goal isn’t to fit yourself into some predetermined system.

The goal is to discover how you want to manage yourself and what works best for you.

Which in turn, makes it easier for you to figure out what works best depending on others’ unique makeup if you decide to hire.

3) Believe you are the right person for the job.

There’s a very, very good chance that you were told—explicitly or implicitly—that you were not the right person for the job at some point in your life.

Someone told you that “people like you” don’t do well in the role you were in or wanted. Or they told you that you were too opinionated, spacey, quiet, loud, literal, or emotional to fit in.

Maybe they tried to squeeze you into a narrow definition of professionalism or productivity.

Whether these were subtle cues or outright discrimination, those messages stick with you.

They can impact your own perception of whether you’re the right person for the job—even a job you’ve created for yourself!

We’ve often talk about this phenomenon as Imposter Complex. But there’s a growing movement to name the fact that the groups most likely to suffer from “Imposter Complex” (women, people of color, LGBTQIA+, immigrants, among others) are the people most likely to have actually been told that they’re not good enough.

Being told—often repeatedly—that you don’t belong in or aren’t good enough for a job that you’ve trained and prepared for is trauma.

And if we don’t process that trauma, we end up acting through it. As we continue to wrestle with questions about our own fitness for the job, we start to wonder if anyone else has what it takes to make it on our team. We’ve internalized others’ expectations so much that we start to turn those same expectations into fears about the lack of people who can “hack it.”

If you’ve been taught to believe you’re not good enough, it’s easy to start looking for all the ways that others aren’t good enough, too.

That’s not the only way this trauma manifests, of course. But it’s common enough for me to see it over and over again in the way business owners attempt to hire.

The way I’ve worked through this myself is by getting honest about my strengths and weaknesses in my company. It’s absolutely okay for me to acknowledge that there are parts of how I’ve built this business that I’m not the right person for the job. And then there are parts of the job that suit me to a T.

By being honest about what I’m really good at and what I’m not so good at, I can more easily see how others are really good at the skills I’m lacking. And I can also acknowledge that they’re not so good at the skills that are my strengths.

Make your business a great place to work

Part of readying your business for the future is making sure that you’ve created a top-notch work environment—for yourself and maybe even for others.

And while compromises are always a part of getting a business off the ground, there are certain things that just aren’t worth compromising on.

  • Are you paying yourself enough on a regular basis?
  • Are you managing yourself well and creating sustainable systems and routines?
  • Are you being honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses?

Of course, there’s so much more you can do to create a great place to work for yourself. But those are 3 key areas that are so often the source of much frustration as a business grows.

Make your business a great place to work for yourself—and anyone else who comes along—so you can make better decisions, operate more sustainability, and build your confidence.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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