Your Biggest Small Business Opportunity Is Doing Less

Tara McMullin: writer, podcaster, producer

What if your biggest opportunity didn’t involve doing more but doing less?

What if scaling back and simplifying wasn’t only a way to make your life better but a way to build a more successful business, too?

This month on What Works, we’re exploring opportunity—how we discover it, how we decide to pursue it, and what we do to take advantage of it.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how we are prone to waiting until “opportunity” comes to us nicely packaged and easy to use.

We wonder if the latest social media platform will be the key to growing an audience or if the new trend in products or services will unlock a new revenue level.

But I find that the best opportunities don’t come nicely packaged.

Instead, opportunities often present themselves in messy ways—a series of “What if?” questions, a loose synthesis of seemingly unrelated information, or a jarring new perspective on an old problem.

And I have found, over and over again, that the best way to notice these messy, half-formed opportunities is to put myself in the thick of other people’s “What if?” questions and the din of their seemingly unrelated stories.

I’ve discovered my best opportunities at conferences and meet-ups, as well as in masterminds, direct message threads, and even when I’m doing podcast interviews!

We have a whole world of information at our fingertips.

But what’s really useful are the ideas that are filtered through our conversations and connections—curated, social ideas that help us turn questions into opportunities.

These settings hold one of the keys to new opportunities because they help us see things in a new way. They change our perception of what’s possible by presenting options we might not have ever considered on our own.

And this is key.

Because no matter how creative we might be, it’s hard to come up with a completely unfamiliar idea. Instead, we use what’s familiar or known to make smaller leaps.

This contributes to the phenomenon that I’ve been calling “The Squeeze.”

“The Squeeze” occurs when you’ve run out of capacity in your business.

You simply don’t have the time, energy, or mental bandwidth to do more, and so you can’t really see a way for the business to grow. Still, The Squeeze convinces you that if you just rearranged the pieces or tried a little harder, you could force some fresh growth.

But alas, you just end up squeezed into a different arrangement of the same pieces.

In other words, you use what’s familiar to try to work your way out of the Squeeze… and so you can’t quite escape because “what’s familiar” is what got you into the Squeeze in the first place.

To actually alleviate the Squeeze, you have to take a completely different perspective and see things in a new way. And that’s how talking things out with others and learning how they see things differently really helps inspire opportunity.

Now, I know it’s challenging to have those conversations or connect with people who see things in different ways. That’s one of the reasons I started this podcast 5 years ago; I desperately wanted to bring wildly different perspectives to small business owners like you who were feeling The Squeeze. It’s also why I bring business owners together through community and events, as well.

I don’t have a new conversation for you today, though. Instead, I want to share my own observations—sort of a grand total of what I’ve added up over the years of my own business-building, my interviews, my personal conversations, and my coaching & community-building.

This is a look at what I see when I look at a business and what I hear when I talk to a business owner.

It’s the overlap of opportunity and sustainability that drives the work I do with small business owners.

And the crux of it can be summed up by questions I asked to start out with:

  • What if your biggest opportunity didn’t involve doing more but doing less?
  • What if scaling back and simplifying wasn’t only a way to make your life better but a way to build a more successful business, too?

It is no coincidence that as I’ve become a savvier, more mature business owner, my business has gotten simpler. Like, a lot simpler.

And it’s also not a coincidence that when I started a second company, I made that business even simpler.

But that’s pretty much the opposite of what people expect nowadays, right? They hope that opportunity and growth come from layering on more and more complexity.

Another sales funnel. Another social media platform. Another offer. Another team member. Another whatever.

That’s what is being taught—if not in individual online courses, it’s being taught in aggregate. When you take 3 online courses, you learn 3 different ways of doing things… and you naturally think that adding them all up will be 3 times as good!

Or when you hire a business coach, a marketing consultant, and an online business manager, you end up getting strategy and tactics from competing points of view… and try to execute on all of them.

I have yet to read a sales page for a business course or coach that says: don’t buy this or hire me if you’re already doing X, Y, or Z.

But that would probably be a great idea.

All this to say, what we THINK building a successful business looks like is actually pretty different from what ACTUALLY building a successful business looks like.

And what it actually looks like is much, much—say it with me now—simpler.

The biggest challenge in building a business isn’t perfecting some complicated system of tricks & gimmicks. The biggest challenge is training your brain to let it be simple.

If your business doesn’t work in its simplest form, adding elaborate tactics won’t help.

Instead, stronger, more sustainable businesses are simple businesses with impeccable follow-through.

So the opportunity is in peeling back the layers, envisioning your business in its simplest form, and finding the best way for you to execute that with precision.

But you won’t see it that way if you don’t know what to look for.

I want to help you see the stronger, more sustainable business you could be building. I want to help you detangle the mess of complications that are likely at work in your business right now.

If you’d like a downloadable version of these ideas plus a self-assessment you can use to spot your biggest—simple—opportunities, click here!

A stronger business checks 3 key boxes.

It’s operationally sustainable. It’s financially sustainable. And it’s personally & socially sustainable.

Your next opportunity is in increasing the sustainability of any of those components. And while that could mean trying something new, it most often means simplifying & doubling down on what’s already working.

Simplicity and sustainability go hand in hand because complexity is energy-intensive!

It takes a lot of resources to manage and maintain a complex system. So while some complexity might be unavoidable, it pays to avoid any complication that’s not completely necessary.

By simplifying your business’s operational, financial, and relational components, you can dramatically cut down on the energy required to make it all work.

Complexity also creates friction. And friction is both a drain on energy and a limitation on output. If you want your business to produce at its best, removing friction is critical.

So as we look at operational sustainability, financial sustainability, and personal & social sustainability, remember to keep your eye out for complexity. Now, we’ll dig into each piece.

Operational Sustainability

Having an operationally sustainable business means having a business that runs smoothly, causes very few headaches, and can effectively follow through on its plans & promises.

So… ding ding ding for simplicity right off the bat! A complex system makes it more challenging to run your business smoothly, more likely to cause headaches, and less likely to follow through on its plans & promises.

Your business operations include everything from the major systems that your business runs on to the logistical procedures you follow daily. It also includes admin, customer support, and management.

Sustainable operations help ensure that your customers are happy and well-taken care of and that your team (and you) have the resources they need to do their jobs.

Common challenges when it comes to operational sustainability:

  • Systems are poorly documented (if documented at all)
  • There’s been an attempt at optimization or automation before a system has really been tested
  • Team members don’t have a clear role and don’t have ownership over their responsibilities
  • Operations are handled across a whole host of apps and software
  • The business is over capacity, and it feels like a mad scramble to keep it all together
  • The business owner is the bottleneck on getting things done
  • There’s little transparency or contingency planning so, if someone leaves, it’s a crisis

Think about your business’s own procedures and processes. Think about your admin, customer support, and management. Think about the very foundation of how it runs on a day-to-day basis.

Where is there unnecessary complexity? What would work better if it was simplified?

Now, I get it. It might feel like if it was simpler, it just WOULDN’T work. But what if it did? What would have to be true about that more straightforward system to allow it to produce as good or better results as what you’re getting now? What would have to be true about it to deliver 3x the results you’re getting now?

Financial Sustainability

Having a financially sustainable business means that the revenue model supports the business’s operational evolution and the financial needs of the people involved.

We include marketing, sales, and offers (products or services) in this category.

Often businesses are financially unsustainable because they only ever account for today’s needs and don’t consider how needs are evolving in the short-term or mid-term. This is fertile ground for complexity because, when you’re not thinking about long-term effects, it’s easy to reach for more tricks to create results today.

Aim to build a business that’s financially sustainable as it evolves —not just sustainable for today.

Common challenges when it comes to financial sustainability:

  • Revenue (and effort) are divided up over a complex set of offers
  • How offers are priced doesn’t match the operational needs of the business
  • The business is operating with a revenue model that doesn’t match its marketing strategy
  • The value proposition and positioning of the business/offers aren’t clearly defined, so sales are difficult & slow
  • The business owner hasn’t fully separated personal money (mindset) from business money (mindset)

Think about the products or services that your business offers and how they work together (that’s your business model). Think about your marketing system. Your sales system. Consider how money flows through your business.

Where is there unnecessary complexity? What would work better if it was simplified?

Again, your first thought might be that simplifying your products or services, your marketing, or your sales system would mean you couldn’t possibly get it all to add up to the revenue it’s generating right now—no matter what that number is.

But what would happen if you poured your resources into a single offer? A single marketing channel? A single type of sales conversation? Can you envision it then? Can you see how approaching the financial sustainability of your business with simplicity could lead to considerable growth?

Personal & Social Sustainability

Having a personally & socially sustainable business means that your business is designed to care for everyone involved as well as the community it operates in.

In a personally & socially sustainable business, the vision, mission, policies, community contribution, and climate-consciousness make all stakeholders feel supported as they execute the revenue model and operational systems.

All stakeholders—the owner, team members, partners, customers, etc…—have agency and understand their relationship to others in the business. All work is compensated for fairly. Boundaries are observed. Communication is clear. There are opportunities for personal growth and a plan for dealing with conflict when it occurs. The business holds a community perspective—seeking to do its part in social and environmental justice.

Common challenges when it comes to personal & social sustainability:

  • Policies and boundaries are routinely overlooked
  • Labor isn’t compensated fairly (including the business owner’s)
  • The business takes an “us against the world” perspective without considering community impact
  • Passive-aggressive communication, lack of ownership over responsibilities, lack of accountability
  • Policies & procedures don’t support “whole self” needs like psychological safety, family, or exercise
  • Lack of legal or liability protection create a sense of anxiety

Now we’re really getting to the heart of the matter—think about your workday. Your workweek. Your work year. Consider your job and all its many roles & responsibilities.

Consider the people you work with and how their days, weeks, and year unfold. Consider their jobs and their many roles & responsibilities.

And think about how your business is living its values. Consider its impact on your community, your customers, and your family. Consider the part it plays in forwarding racial, economic, social, and environmental justice.

Your business can’t be everything to everyone—including you—nor will it do everything you’d ideally like it to do for your community. But lord do we try! And that brings with it either complexity or paralysis.

What does a simpler, more sustainable approach to taking care of yourself in your own role look like? What does a simpler, more sustainable approach to caring for your team or customers look like? What does a simpler, more sustainable approach to making a positive impact in your community look like?

Hopefully, you’re starting to see your business the way I see your business.

It’s overflowing with opportunity, even if you can’t see the exact shape or form it’s taking yet. You can use sustainability as a framework for bringing your opportunity into focus.

Before I let you go, one more thing: once you start to see things from this perspective, you might be tempted to try to make all the changes at once so you can maximize your opportunities.

But this is just another form of complexity—and it’s unsustainable. Even if you’re working with real opportunities in your business, you can burn out if you try to do it all at once.

Remember that a stronger business is a simple business with impeccable follow-through.

Trying to do everything at once is never a way to build sustainability, resilience, or strength in your business.

So my recommendation is to go slow, choose 1 opportunity to work on at a time, and make simpler plans that you’re more likely to execute with precision.

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Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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