Recently Susan chatted with Steve Eschbach, host of Building Better Businesses. Steve works for Transworld Business Advisors, the largest and fasted growing business brokerage in the world. Steve is a deal maker. Deal-making is absolutely a skill required by small business owners. So take a listen as they discuss:
- Why overwhelmed business owners must learn to delegate tasks so they can focus on growing the business.
- How to stop being the bottleneck that impedes the flow of your business.
- And why exactly does Susan keep a jar of buttons on her desk?
Please find the full video transcript below:
Steve: The Building Better Business Podcast is the best place to learn how to take your business to the next level. It’s no longer enough to earn good profits, you need to develop a network of connections, as well as use all types of marketing to your advantage that will put you over the edge.
Hosted by me, Steve Eschbach, a financial executive with decades of experience in dealing with businesses and business people, we’ll learn how this all comes together. Join me and my expert guest, as we delve into the many facets of owning the business and how to become a good, caring business owner. Listen to how making a difference in your community can attract all sorts of clientele, which in turn will build you a better business.
Greetings of the day, everyone, and welcome to another edition of Building Better Business. My name is Steve Eschbach, I am your host. I own a franchise in Naperville, Illinois, called Transworld Business Advisors. I am one of 220 of these throughout the world. We are the largest business brokerage in the world, and we are the fastest growing in the world. And I’m delighted to have you be a part of another edition of Building Better Businesses.
Here we’re going to focus on how you can improve the performance of your business, get ready for a subsequent transaction, whether you’re going to buy or whether you’re going to sell. It doesn’t matter. You want to improve the value of your business. And I am so delighted to have with me, Susan Fennema, and she is a CEO. Now I got to applause you right there. You might think CEO is the chief executive officer, but she goes by Chaos Eradicating Officer. Now, if you think she’s going to make you disappear, that’s not true. So first of all, Susan, thank you very much. I’m glad to have you with us.
Susan: Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here, looking forward to it.
Steve: So the first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to talk about your business, which is Beyond the Chaos. Did I get that right? And I know a lot of us probably have this issue, but we tend to ignore it. And you’re the one that’s going to help them with that. So first of all, tell me about your business. Tell me whether it’s you, or you and a team, and how you go about helping businesses with their so-called chaos?
Susan: Sure. So Beyond the Chaos helps overwhelmed small business owners simplify their processes and manage their projects. The goal surrounding that is that the business owner is able to then focus on growing their business in what we’re talking about, perhaps towards selling it. And then the other part of that is we want that business owner to get their lives back to actually feel like they’re living a whole life, instead of just work.
I have a team of people that help support me. They are all subcontractors. They work on a part-time basis. And because of the way that we’ve chosen our team, we are able to get very experienced people who just want a little extra on the side or something to keep them going perhaps after they retired or as they’re raising children. And they’re able to bring an experience that you don’t normally get from a part-time operations consultant or project manager.
Steve: Yeah, that sounds so good. I’m going to imagine you’re nationwide. Is that correct? You’ve got satellites throughout the nation? Are we going global [inaudible], or what?
Susan: We don’t really have satellites. We serve the whole country. We are virtual. My team is virtually spread out all over the place. I’m in Texas, but I only have one other team member in Texas. And I don’t, I think we only maybe have one client in Texas, so we serve the whole country.
Steve: Sounds good. We are going to get more into the details of that in a moment, but I was reading on your website, and I’m going to go back in time. We’re going to rewind the videotape to your childhood. There’s a story on your website on how you got interested in what you’re doing today and it has to do with sewing and buttons. So, was that early in your childhood I would imagine?
Susan: That was very early in my childhood. I actually still have the jar of buttons on my desk to remind me of the story.
Steve: It’s such an early age. How old were you at the time?
Susan: I was three years old, three, maybe four, but my mom sewed everything. She was a great seamstress and she made us clothes and all sorts of things. Here she is, trying to do this with a young child. And what do you do? Put her down in the sewing room with you and let her play with your tools that aren’t sharp and pointy. So she would dump the buttons out on the floor for me and I would start organizing them.
I didn’t play like a normal person, right? I was already sorting them by size, by color. And I would build a little graph with them of, oh, there’s 10 red ones and eight blue ones, so that starts to go down. It was quite telling, I guess that it’s a God-given talent I have.
Steve: So was that in Houston? Did you say you were born and raised in Houston?
Susan: I was born and raised in Houston. That was in Houston.
Steve: Yeah, so you and I were talking about this before I started the broadcast. If you live in Houston and you’re a child and it’s summer, you tend to spend more time indoors than you do outside because of the heat. Maybe that was the reason why you got that. Now, at that time, did your mom know that she had a helper on her side or she was doing that to entertain you? Or was she actually looking for help in what she was doing?
Susan: I don’t know. I should ask her that question, but I think parents back in those times weren’t necessarily looking for the talents of their children at an early age like we do now. We do that more so now. So I don’t know that she knew that, but she did know I was always neat, organized, I liked structure.
Steve: There you go. So did anyone else have any influence in your early years, your mom, obviously with her sewing activities, and you kind of tagged along? Anyone else in your formative years have an influence on your early childhood development that got you to where you are today?
Susan: Absolutely my father did. He was a small business owner. He started at 25-years-old. He’s almost 80 now and looking to sell his business, finally. We keep encouraging him to do it. And learning so much from him throughout the years, and watching him succeed and then fail, and then re-succeed. He always pointed out, “It’s a lot easier to succeed the second time, you know how to do it.”
So, as the ebbs and flows came and went over time and through the economy, it was a good lesson of never giving up and how you always had a job, and make sure that you are taking care of yourself and your family first and those types of things.
Steve: So I see an entrepreneurial spirit in your family that probably was a huge impact on you. You probably never had a corporate job, is that right?
Susan: That is absolutely not true. One of the things that I came away with it, and I don’t know how I learned this lesson, because it’s certainly not something he ever imparted. I took away, oh, I want to be even killed. Maybe it’s part of that wanting that structure, knowing every other Friday you get X dollars.
There’s a consistency and it feels like security. And it took me until I was much older to realize, that’s not security at all. You’re in no way in control of your own destiny that way. I didn’t start my business until five years ago. And I was almost 50 at the time. So it was late in life.
Steve: We’re going to talk a little bit more about that shortly. So, now you’re in your early childhood, you love to arrange buttons and I’m sure that extended to other things. So what about your grammar school years, high school years, college? How did your interests either continue in the same manner or where did they go to and how did they kind of? So let’s talk about grammar school, high school and college. Where did you kind of fix your efforts on in there?
Susan: I was always the rule follower. I was always the one who did what she was supposed to do. Probably a great kid if you are the parent, always just run off and do what you’re told. Same with teachers. I excelled in school and I learned very early that I was able to write. So I was on the school newspaper in high school, continue. My room was always perfectly neat, right? Everything had to be in its place.
Never forgot anything, homework always done on time. You know, it’s totally that. And then went off to college, had to come up with a major. Well, I certainly didn’t know that something like what I do now exists. And there wasn’t even a major. Now I think there is a project management major, but there was not then. And so I said, “Well, I can write. I don’t want to be an English major because I want a job. So how about journalism?”
So I majored in journalism with the intention to use, and I minored in marketing with the intention of becoming a copywriter at an ad agency. But it turns out that that’s a really hard job to get. And I might have outkicked my coverage on the amount of talent I had in that area. But I did eventually find my way to the advertising world in an operations capacity.
Steve: So what exactly did you do in that capacity for operations? You like to write, but were you doing writing, or were you doing other project organization? What exactly were you doing?
Susan: So operations and project management require a lot of very straightforward, clear, and concise writing. So it brought it together very nicely. I started out working for a desktop publisher. Now we would just call it a production artist in normal times, but back then brand new computers, brand new fancy Macs.
And I worked on those for a few years, and that gave me that structure. And even there I was process-oriented. So someone might come in, I had one client who would come in with a CAD drawing on a five and a quarter, was it five and a quarter or five and a half, floppy, the actual floppies that you could … I would put it in a PC and I would convert it to a different tool. I would export it to a different tool and then Mac and PC had a cord that you could connect them with to transfer it over.
And then once I got it there, I would transfer it into all these different programs, clean it up so that he had a piece of artwork that he could then put into a page maker layout. I mean, now that would take two seconds, but then it was this big ordeal of a process. So even then I was process-oriented, I went on to work in mail order catalog companies where I was the production artist, put together the catalogs, but also involved in the whole process. The creative that we were selling was property management, signs and forms, and all that.
So we started from creating them, doing the photoshoot with them, laying out the publication with them, and then from the marketing standpoint. So once again, process right through it. And in all of these cases, I’m working in a small business, almost directly for the owner. So we’re improving the process of their business as we’re working through all these things.
Eventually, I ended up in the ad agency in Chicago, was there for 10 years. I was supporting there. I trained project managers out of school to come in and help support that agency. And I was the director of operations there. I actually simplified their whole process. They were working in silos and all this kind of stuff. And we created a cohesive process that made the agency flow a lot better.
Steve: So Susan, even though you’re talking about your affinity toward writing, but you are a process engineer so to speak as well. So I have to imagine that project timelines, dashboards, key performance indicators play a strong impact on what it is that you do as well. Am I right about that?
Susan: KPIs not as much, because in very small businesses, which is who I work with, you more have a sense than a real solid tool to measure. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one. Just that we don’t use them as much. But absolutely, process writing, making sure you know the steps and being clear.
That’s really where my expertise lies in, and pulling that information out of the small business owner’s head, getting through all the steps, and then making sure that they’re repeatable for somebody else to perform. That often takes quite a few revisions. But being able to have that clarity in the writing is how it kind of ties together.
Steve: That makes a lot of sense. So we’re going to find out how your corporate career ended and how you started your business because that was only five years ago. So did you work at one ad agency, multiple ad agencies, you went from ad agency to ad agency, is that right?
Susan: I worked at General Growth Properties. They owned malls all over the country. They were actually publicly traded, huge company. The only huge company I ever worked for, for one year. And I was in their corporate advertising department there. That taught me that I did not want to work or be a big business. Going from there, I was an ad agency for 10 years.
There is a reason that people leave advertising after they’re 40. It is an exhausting, hard, very challenging personality type environment. And so usually by the time you’re 40, you’re ready to do something else and move on. I was able to find a job with a software developer who needed a project manager who wanted somebody virtually. And so that was about 11 years ago. I began that career path and working from home probably before it was the norm like it is now.
Steve: Well good for you. So how did you go from your last corporate job to creating your current business, which is Beyond the Chaos? How did that happen? How did you develop that business?
Susan: So Beyond the Chaos had existed for a while as a side hustle for me doing personal organizing on the side for personal contacts and that kind of thing. I’d go help them sort out their closet or whatever they needed. Well, it came time, I was ready to look for a job. I was ready to move on. And I started looking at the jobs they had online and I’m like, “Well, these are horrible. I don’t want any of this.” And I certainly didn’t want to go back to a corporate environment.
I didn’t want to go back to an office, I wanted to continue working from home. And I had batted this idea around in my head, “Why don’t we take Beyond the Chaos and do what we’re doing for personal individual people and move it to business owners? I have so much experience working with small business owners. Why don’t we stop helping one at a time? Let’s help a bunch at once.” So that’s how it was born.
Steve: Absolutely. So now you’re running your business and tell me, well, let’s first talk about your ideal client. You’re talking about small businesses. So is it like one or two-man people businesses? Is it under 10? What do you look for in terms of marketing for your clients? What’s the ideal client for you?
Susan: One to 10 is really our sweet spot. We work up to 25, and we’ll even work with larger corporations if it’s a smaller department that just needs perhaps training on software, or something like that, or a process set up. But our goal is to help the business owner more so. So we want to work with those people that are overwhelmed and are doing everything in their business and feel like, “I can’t ask somebody else to do it. It’ll be easier for me to do it. They’ll mess it up. Nobody can do it as well as me,” and yet at the same time, they’re saying, “But how do I grow? How do I get bigger?”
Or it could also be that family, friends, kids end up being very mad at them because they’re not participating in friendly outings, or family dinners, or the recital that came up last week. Sometimes it takes something that is almost like hitting rock bottom so to speak, to make the business owner realize, “I can’t do this alone. I need a little help.”
Steve: Sounds good. So now you’re in business for five years. I would imagine you had to do a lot of outreach to get your clients or did you based on your personal endeavor before it became the corporate endeavor or the small business endeavor, where people come to you and say, “Hey, you did this for me at my house. Can you do this for me at my business?” How did you get your clients initially when you started doing it?
Susan: Initially I was blessed by my last position. The owner was great about talking me up at our conference, annual conference, for all the software developers would go. And so they all knew me. I had an instant audience who knew, liked, and trusted me, which is all you can really hope for when you’re starting out. And so I was able to pull in a lot of people. We still have clients from that area that we continue to serve today, but that gave me a good leg up on not just saying, “Okay, I have a business now, what do I do?”
Steve: Well, that sounds good. So let’s say that you and I are going to do business. I’m hiring you to help me eradicate my chaos. And this is twofold. So this is, what does Susan do when you or one of your team members goes in and meets with a business owner, or on the flip side, what do you want to hear from business owners to enable you to do your job effectively? So two things, you’re going into someone, they just said, “I’ve got chaos.” What are the first two or three questions you ask? Four questions to get that process started?
Susan: We’re going to usually start with what hurts the most. What do you feel like, if you just never had to do it again, it would make your life so much better? And we’ll start picking away those things. It turns out that business owners that are kind of addicted to that busyness will keep filling those holes with something else.
And so you also need some accountability to continue to let things go and delegate, don’t take them back, and continue to figure out how to delegate more and more. Now, the first few things you can take off. I mean, a lot of the times when we talk to a small business owner, they’re like, “Oh, I just never want to invoice somebody again.” Okay, well that’s an easy one that we can help, build a quick process of what you’re doing, help you find a bookkeeper, and get that off your plate.
Then, what’s the next thing, we keep working up and as they get bigger, it gets harder to pull the information out of the owner’s head. That’s where we really start to show the skill of asking the right questions and pulling that out so that we can center the thoughts of the owner. A lot of times it’ll be very scattered and we have to keep bringing it back to what we’re focusing on and get those steps sorted out so that somebody else can execute them for you and you stop being the bottleneck in your business.
Steve: It sounds a little bit, and I think I’m hearing this, but I didn’t hear you specifically say it, but it sounds like let’s say some business owners got five things that are bothering them. I think you’re going to tackle one at a time, make that a success and then move on to the next thing because I don’t think you can handle solutions for five different things at the same time. So if I understand what I’m hearing, or maybe I’m interpreting this, that you want to conquer the biggest and the most painful thing first, and then move on. Once that’s in order, then you move on down the road and get the other things conquered. Is that kind of what you’re saying?
Susan: That’s exactly it. And it’s also, even if we came in with several consultants and try to do that, that would be way too overwhelming and time-consuming for the business owner. So we need to be able to allow them to continue to work while we help solve their problems.
Steve: It sounds that the best way to do it. We’re almost at the tail end of our 20 or so minutes. And I know I could ask you a lot more questions. What have I not covered? So again, this whole series is Building Better Businesses. You’re going in to help the small business owner eradicate chaos. What are some of the key things that you see, or what advice would you give a business owner to say, “Hey, even if you don’t work with me, focus on these things that might improve your performance.” What kind of advice would you give there?
Susan: So for that I would say, look at these three steps. First, start building your processes, systemizing what you’re doing. And that’s everything. Everything you touch, build a system, build a process. Even if you don’t give it away, build it so you can repeat it the same way. The second thing is, get your arms around your project management. You can not be doing it via email. You can not be doing it on the fly and keeping everything in your head. And, you need a good tool and you need to be using it correctly and shockingly with process.
And then the third and last step is learning how to manage your interruptions. So making sure that you are doing the highest priority at the right time. I’m a big proponent of using calendaring and planning out your day, your week, your month, your quarter, keep going, might have things planned, I probably have things planned in December. So that work is always going to fill in the holes. Put your priorities in there first.
Steve: Yeah, I would imagine a subset of that calendaring system would be a to-do list, and checklist, and things like that where there’s something physical. Even if it isn’t on paper, if it’s on a screen that you look at it, you can check it off. And I know I do this when I close a business. I mean, there are multiple steps. You got to go from the initial offer to the final signature on the purchase documents. And there are so many things in between, and a checklist is often the best way to monitor how you’re doing that with deadlines.
Steve: Deadlines are key, because if you’re going to get it done, but don’t have a timeframe, while yeah, you set an item on your checklist. You haven’t set a deadline. It may not be as effective I would think. Am I right about that?
Susan: That’s absolutely true. And that’s part of that project management function I mentioned there in the middle. Even internal things, you should be putting together like a project. If you just have a list that doesn’t have anyone assigned, doesn’t have the next step, and doesn’t have a completion date. You just have a list of dreams. You don’t have anything that is achievable.
Steve: That sounds so profound. So last question. It’s open-ended, what do you want our audience to want to build a better business? What do you want them to know?
Susan: Especially if you’re starting, keep it simple, but whether you are or not, start to create those processes so that everything you’re doing is repeatable. If you’re getting to the end and you’re ready to sell, you have to have a business that another CEO can look at and say, “Without that person there, this still works.” And if you don’t have those processes out of your head, all you have is a client list. You don’t have a business to sell.
Steve: No, it’s funny. You mentioned that too, that I was in a chamber of commerce team meeting many years ago. And every year we decide on what the educational component is going to be for the following year. So we did a poll, and believe it or not, the common theme was succession planning. And it wasn’t because they want to get ready to sell per se. It was because they were the face of the business.
And if they went away, the business went away. So to your point, when you’re saying a CEO coming in and looking in, can this business still operate without that person being there? The foundation, their systems are in place. Another one with management skills can do it, but all the essential processes that are defined for that visit are already there. I think that’s what I’m hearing you say?
Susan: That’s absolutely right. Dead on right.
Steve: All right, terrific. So we have the close right now, but the last question I have for you, how do we find Susan? Where do we go to find out more information about you?
Susan: Well, one of the ways, the best way to find us, go download the free e-book. That’s Three Ways to Remove Chaos from Your Small Business. If you don’t want the e-book, all the information is on the website of how to contact us and you can just reach out directly as well.
Steve: That would be great. Thanks so much for sharing your insights. I appreciate that. I’m sure our audience did as well, and have a good rest of the day. Thank you so much.
Susan: Thanks for having me. I loved it.
Originally published at Beyond the Chaos: Small Business Project Management and Operations Consulting.