How to climb out of the owner's trap

Stop treating your business like it’s just another job

Nice work, you’ve turned passion into profit—you’re running your own business and you’ve found success in it. At some point, you took what was possibly a hobby and made it your main mission. But in the sea of stakeholders, sales, and skyrocketing success, something snapped and your passion now feels more like another 9-to-5 than the dream company you originally had in mind. Sound familiar?

Before you run the risk of losing steam (along with what you’ve worked so hard to build), take a few steps back to reassess and regain control

The owner’s trap

If you’ve found that you now spend more time working in your business than you do working on it, you’re officially in “the owner’s trap.” This is when you get stuck inside a business that you built, which pretty much only you can run. The best way to get out of the owner’s trap is to empower a team, form strategic partnerships, and digitally transform areas of your business that are still operating on outdated technology and processes.  

According to a 2020 Cisco report, the majority of small businesses have already started their digitalization journeys, but only 24 percent are considered digitally mature, with just four percent in the digital native stage. These numbers prove that many SMBs are still maintaining the status quo, choosing to react to market changes rather than planning, innovating, and getting a leg up on the competition. 

Choosing not to transform is a trap in itself. By taking this path, you’re essentially setting up little landmines all over the place including sales, operations, and administration, to name a few. If you keep carrying on like this, you risk burning out, and possibly taking the business down with you. According to the US Small Business Administration, only about half of SMBs survive past the five-year mark, ranging from 45.4 percent to 51 percent.

Why it happens

Many owners go about their days thinking about the laundry list of things they need to get done. It’s like operating on autopilot, leaving little time to innovate or solve problems, because you’re still burning up fuel on tasks that could’ve been delegated to a trustworthy team or partner. It’s hard to break the adage, if you want it done right, do it yourself…and it’s probably what got you here in the first place. And, let’s be honest, transforming your business can be a terrifying thought when you’re not even sure how or where to start. Thankfully, it’s not something that needs to be rushed, but it does require immediate attention and action. 

How to climb out of the trap

A good first step is to write down the various areas of your business that require your attention on a daily/weekly basis. Essentially, this list of responsibilities is your job description. Next, you’ll need to find key individuals within the organization who are able to take on some of the many hats you’ve been wearing. At this stage, you should begin transitioning to the role of developer and mentor to the team members who will be stepping into your shoes.

As you do this, you may find that you need to bring on additional hires. If you’re beginning to see dollar signs disappear in your mind, trust me when I tell you that this part of the process is the smartest move you’ll make, as it will change your life and your outlook on the way you operate your business. It’s true, skilled and trustworthy people aren’t easy to find, nor are they cheap. But in exchange, you are gifting yourself the freedom to work on your business instead of being caught in the day-to-day repetition. 

Why you should temper your expectations 

As you’re onboarding new hires, it’s vital to be realistic about the process. Nobody is going to walk through your door and turn your world around on Day One. You’ll need to make sure that you’ve built a bulletproof roadmap for onboarding. Documenting your processes and using data to drive behavior and support decisions is crucial. According to findings from a recent executive survey from NewVantage Partners, 99 percent of Fortune 1000 firms have already invested in data and AI, but not all of them are leveraging it in ways that benefit their business. Per the same survey, a mere 29.2 percent of respondents reported achieving transformational business outcomes, and just 30 percent reported having developed a well-articulated data strategy. 

Understanding how to use your data investment in meaningful ways ensures that every player is armed with the most relevant and useful information, and it also has a positive impact on your bottom line.  The culture should shift as well, from a business in which the owner is considered controlling, to a culture of accountability. This is how you will empower and develop a team to perform at defined levels within your organization. 

Know your goals and constantly measure them 

Every business leader has different goals. Some plan to stay small because it suits their lifestyle, others want to completely take over their industry. Do you know what you want? Will you need to raise capital? Do you have plans to go public at some point? Knowing your end goal is half the battle, as it allows you to determine the best path forward for your business’s specific needs. Your biggest goals should be the driving force behind every decision you make.  You’ll also need to determine your measurement for success and ensure that you and your team are being held accountable. Unpack and measure what counts and hold people to these standards. Again, having real data and understanding how to use it will allow you to get dispassionate and impartial. 

Can your business function without you?

If the answer is not a resounding yes, it’s time to get real about where your business is versus where you want it to be. The value of your company should never be directly linked to you or what you’re doing at any given moment. It’s OK if you’re not sure where to start — many business owners don’t. What’s not OK is to continue going it alone when there are unlimited resources at your disposal.