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Have you fallen into the business owner’s trap?

John Nelligan


For many people, the top reason for setting up their own business is freedom. Freedom from bosses, from routine and drudgery and the freedom to work with who they want, how they want.

Is that how it’s turned out for you?

For many business owners, the reality is somewhat different; particularly after the first two or three years. By now, things have fallen into a pattern, and you’re the first to unlock the business in the morning, the last to get paid, and you generally deal with all the complaints and problems. And you’re working longer hours than ever.

This Owner’s Trap looks like the diagram above.

1 .. Because you know the business and the market, you’re the company’s best (or only) salesperson.
2 .. Because you know so much about the your products and services, you offer custom solutions and minor ‘tweaks’ to your customers
3 .. Because you have promised a customised solution, you’re the only person in the business who can deliver it. (And training someone else would take too much time. After all, it’s a custom solution!)
4 .. Because the customer is aware that only you know about their custom solution, they want to talk only to you about it. No-one else even knows how it was produced.
5 .. Go to 1.

Other signs that you might have fallen into the Owners Trap might be a slowing down of sales whenever you are away. Typically you’ll be the main person that customers come to when they have a problem. These complaints will be waiting on your desk when you get back.

Even worse, the company seems to have stalled in its growth. You can’t do any more!

This is a stressful way of running a business – I call this syndrome “the genius with a thousand helpers”. No-one else is actually taking responsibility, all phone calls seem to be for you and staff are hanging around waiting for your instructions.

Unfortunately, there’s never a simple solution to complex business challenges like this one. The main factors for avoiding the Owner’s Trap for most businesses are:

Processes and procedures: Document everything.
Training: Staff need to know they have the skills and full authority to resolve problems.
Sales leeway: It’s so easy for sales staff to promise everything to get the deal, only for you to find out (possibly months later) that the customer has different expectations. Therefore clear guidelines for acceptable sales deals is a must.
Work on your business; not in it. Yes, I regularly mention this, because it’s vital. If you can remove yourself from the day-to-day stuff of the business, you can get into your helicopter and see how things look from above.

Many years ago, my wife and I were starting up our software business. After a few months, we were fully-fledged residents of the Owners Trap. I knew we had to break out somehow and we took on our first employee; a field engineer. Naturally, it took a few months to get him to become useful.

One memorable day the phone rang, and someone was asking to speak to someone else but me. In fact I’d never even met the customer! It was a great feeling, although a scary one. I wasn’t the hub of the business any more; I was out of the Owner’s Trap.

As much as anything, a business that’s totally reliant on its owner is likely to be unsellable, or of little value to a buyer. It’s only by separating yourself from the business can you hope to obtain the ultimate freedom.