Key Learning Outcomes

  • Understand the difference between working on versus working in the business.
  • Recognise that when you work in your business you are dealing with customers, doing the accounts or producing the products to be sold.
  • Recognise that when you work on your business you are developing strategic and expansion plans, and identifying new opportunities.
  • Create a balance between spending time working on and working in the business to increase your chance of success.
  • Learn to avoid falling into the trap of not spending enough time working on your business.


We find that most small business owners and managers spend virtually all of their time working in their business. These are day-to-day activities such as dealing with clients, making sales or making the actual products that are going to market. This makes sense as most businesses start because the owner has a particular skill, talent or idea and with limited resources they work hard to build their own business – to be their own boss.

The difficulties start when they want the business to grow, taking on employees and expanding the business, or when they want to be able to take some time off. By spending all of their time working in the business, owners often neglect essential activities such as strategic planning, marketing, identifying new opportunities and dealing with the financial aspects of the business. We are not suggesting that it will be appropriate for every business owner or manager to only work on the business, in fact we advise that there should be a balance. Working in the business is just as essential as working on the business – the key is to find the right balance.

Here we outline the most common reasons clients give us for why they are not spending any or enough time working on their business and suggest solutions for each.

“But I love working with the clients!”

This is great news! If the time ever comes when you stop loving what you are doing, then you know that it is time for a change. We often find that such clients are not trying to grow to be a Fortune 500 company, but they are often in need of some balance and flexibility. Working on the business will give them that, along with the security of knowing the business will be able to survive if they have to be away from it for a period of time.

The solution is not to stop working with clients, but structuring the working week so that there is also dedicated time for working on the business. Look at our article on designing an ideal week and structure some time to work on the business each week. Often for these clients we find reducing their client contact days is better than trying to fit in a few hours here and there.

“But no-one can do it quite like I do.”

This is a common issue and often our clients are right. If you think about it, if everyone working for you thought like you and was as skilled as you, then they would be running their own business too. The solution in this instance can be broken down into a few different areas:

Hiring – You have to hire the right people for the right jobs. Read our section on hiring to help ensure that you are making the best decisions possible.

Training – You cannot expect that someone else automatically will know what you know about your business – how could they? Spend the time and effort properly training your team and the benefits will come back to you one hundred fold.

Expectations – Ensure that you have clear standards of service and that you communicate them to your team. If your team is not clear on what you expect from them how can they be expected to deliver it?

Rewards and recognition – If you are not rewarding your team equitably or recognising them for a job well done, then it is unlikely that they will be striving to give you their best possible performance.

“But it is just quicker and easier if I do it myself.”

Again with this one, the client is often right. Delegation can be difficult for many of us for that reason alone. Of course, the first time someone does something for you it will take him or her longer, and if you have to show them just once or twice there will still be additional time involved. But the good news is that no matter what we do, in the majority of cases we become quicker and more efficient the more that we do it. So the solution here is simple – you need to spend time training your staff so that you feel confident when delegating tasks and responsibilities.

“But I have to be here just in case.”

Often when we probe further, the client means “just in case I have to make a decision”. The solution here is to have clear guidelines as to what decisions you are comfortable with the team making on your behalf and what decisions they cannot make. In most cases, an employee would make the same decision you would, but they don’t because you have not empowered them to do so. This does take a bit of letting go and some business owners find this hard, but again, if you do it in the right way you will find the benefits far outweigh the risk.

The important thing is to be clear on the guidelines, have them agreed in writing and be consistent. If you find that someone makes a different decision to the one you would have made, deal with it calmly and professionally. Explain that you still want them to make decisions in that circumstance, but next time to do it a different way and explain why. If you berate them for making a mistake, it is unlikely that they will make any decisions the next time.

“Whenever I am away there is always an issue!”

Once again, this one comes down to having the right people in the right job and having clear systems and procedures. The likely scenario is that the issues would still happen even if the owner was in the business. The solution is to monitor and identify the issues and resolve them long term rather than on a day-to-day basis while you are working in the business. Remember the Pareto principle, that 80% of issues will come from 20% of causes. Fix these and 80% of the issues will be resolved.

“I may as well be here; when I am at home I do not get anything done.”

Working on the business does not mean that you have to work off the premises, although in some instances it might have to be the case due to space or layout. The solution here is discipline and planning. If you are taking a day out of the business to work on the business, then you need to set an action plan for the day. What are you going to achieve and how are you going to achieve it? If you do not have a space to work from, then you need to plan this also. Public libraries offer quiet spaces and minimal distractions, or you could hire a serviced office or even use a cafe – the key is to be proactive and find a space that works for you.

“I don’t know where to start.”

This is a common factor for a lot of business owners. The mere fact that you are reading this article shows that you want to and are motivated to start working on your business. If you do not have a recent business plan, our article on introduction to business planning would be a good place to start. Alternatively, start reading some articles that will help develop your skills in people management or personal development.

“I don’t know how.”

This one goes hand in hand with the above. Often we do not know where to start because we are not confident with what or how to do something. Often as businesses get larger, we see clients consider employing managers to run the business because the business owners do not feel confident about this skill set. This can be a good idea and we advocate outsourcing or hiring people with expertise in areas where you are not skilled.

However, you will never want to fully hand over your business; therefore, it is essential to improve your skills to ensure you are comfortable with the process. Utilise experts such as your accountant to assist in areas that you are unsure of. Once again, we suggest starting with the business planning articles, which give you a step-by-step guide and will provide you with some valuable insights into your business. If after this you decide to employ a general manager, you will at least have a clear direction and vision mapped out for the business, enhancing the chances of success for both the business and the new manager.

How much time should you spend?

We are often asked how much time a business owner should devote to ‘on-the-business’ activities. There is no right or wrong answer as it really depends on your business and the vision for your business. For example, a business owner who wants to expand so they have multiple locations needs to be spending time developing teams and systems that will ensure an effective operation in each separate location. For this owner, the danger is that if they do not master and spend adequate time working on the business and do not set their business plan from the beginning, they will be running from location to location, going from crisis to crisis and spreading themselves too thin. Alternatively, for a business owner who does not want to grow but wants to build a stable business for the long term, less time working on the business will be required. These owners will still spend the majority of the week working in the business dealing face to face with clients. The key is to find a balance that works for you and the business.

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