The practical guide to creating bulletproof processes to scale your business

Processes are something nearly every entrepreneur struggles with, especially in the early stages of their business. But nearly every successful entrepreneur has found a way to do them well. The only way to build something that has potential to grow bigger than yourself is with automation and delegation.

Wouldn’t it be great to have your business run itself so you can spend more time on more strategic work to help grow the business? This can also allow for more freedom and flexibility in your lifestyle, you can spend more time pursuing a passion or working on a project outside of your business. It’s what all of us entrepreneurs want, but it’s not something that comes naturally to most.

Most of us have read Michael Gerber’s E-Myth, which shows how processes are the key to working on your business, instead of in your business. It’s one of the most popular business books of all time, yet still we struggle to apply these lessons to what we do.

With a team of about 40, it is important for us to have processes that are efficient so we can quickly grow and scale our operations. The processes we have in place has freed up time and energy for the founders so they can focus on moving the business forward instead of getting bogged down in the day-to-day operations.

This is a guide to help you create and improve your processes.

Automation and delegation

The key to building a scalable business is automation and delegation. Automation is using software to guarantee that a job gets done. Delegation is getting someone else to do the job for you.

For example: if you need a task executed each month, the first job is to remember that the task needs to get done The first thing that should be automated is setting a repeating reminder for the task. If you can keep the level of quality the same, then you should always automate ahead of delegation. Software is more affordable and predicable than manpower.

Tools for creating great processes

Most of the tools to get you started with creating great processes for small business are free and easy to use. Here are the 5 main tools we use to create ours.

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Zapier – Perfect for process automation, you can set recurring times or triggers to notify a team member to execute a process. You shouldn’t rely on your memory or your team’s memory to get things done when there is software that can do it and won’t fail.

Trello – We use this software to organize our individual processes into repeating tasks and larger projects.

Google Docs – Free online word processing that makes easy to collaborate and share processes.

Skitch – Excellent for annotating screenshots. It has several different arrows and shapes that help convey your ideas. The shapes and text have borders and drop shadows which help them stand out and look good over the image. All of the markup in the images in this post is done with Skitch.

Jing – Makes it easy to create screenshot and videos. You can quickly upload the videos and images to their servers for free and share them as links within your processes.

How we create our processes

We’ll use our content promotion procedure as an example to show you how we create our processes. In each step we’ll refer to a 456section in this process You can download this process  and 5 other processes and tools that we use for content marketing for free.

Step 1 – Do the task yourself and take detailed notes

In order to create a good process you need to understand what it takes to execute the process. Start by actually doing the task yourself and documenting each step with as much detail as possible. Like our content, we want our processes to be engaging and readable. We use lots of white space, lists and consistent formatting to break up the text. Write down every action and decision, even ones that seem small. This is especially important if this process is meant for a team member that does not have the best grasp on English. Related: Our exact hands off process for hiring developers offshore For example: What we would do which is to take a blog post, go through every step to promote it and take detailed notes and leave some examples. In the “Create Click to Tweet,” section we have a step that involves a pop-up that appears each time you log into the app. To save time and questions, we have a screenshot linked that shows how to bypass this popup.

      • Once in the app it will ask you in a pop up to enter an email. Skip this.

 

    CTT_pop-up

Step 2 – Have a team member complete the process

Once you have your process with the basic steps outlined, you can hand it off to a team member to execute. Try and schedule a specific time for the team member to go through it and make sure you are available to help them. Each time the team member has a question, they ask us on Slack. We encourage as many questions as possible, because each one is an opportunity to improve the clarity of the process. However, and this is super important, don’t directly answer the questions. Instead go back into the process and update it and have them re-read it. With each question add more detail to the related steps. Related: How to revolutionize your team communication with Slack

Step 3 – Add screenshots and videos for more clarity

Often screenshots and Jing videos are the best option for key steps or complicated ideas. With Jing you can quickly create and upload screenshots and videos that you can link to in your process. For example: In the “Main Social Media Accounts (Hootsuite),“ we have a short video demonstrating how to use the Hootlet browser extension. This is easier than writing out each step, and it is usually easier to understand.

Step 4 – Try the process with a new team member

By this point, your process should be clear enough that anyone qualified for the role could carry out this task. You can test this by handing the process off to another team member and seeing how they use the process. Try to use a team member who does not typically work with the tools or tasks associated with the process. This is the best way to test the clarity and efficiency of the steps. Add detail and visuals as necessary, and repeat with new team members until they can complete the process flawlessly. Most team members will still have some clarifying questions and will touch base at various steps and it might take a few goes before they can run with it without asking a single question. But the goal is for all key information to be in the process and the orientation to the task to be minimal. How to divide up long processes If your process starts to get much longer than 10 steps, see if you can divide it into several smaller processes. Best practice for this is to create a document that will introduce the process and serve as the hub. It will describe the general task and then link to separate documents. Below is a good example of how this can be done. screen_shot_2015-07-14_at_11.00.56_am How to create bookmarks in Google Docs If your process starts to get long, you can use bookmarks to separate the details from the action steps. In Google docs, you can click ‘Insert’ in the top menu bar and see ‘Bookmark’ near the bottom of the list. Place bookmarks in your document to make it easy to jump between different parts of a doc with just 1 click. bookmark-1 You can add bookmarks in your document with the link tool. Bookmark links will jump to the bookmark on the document. If placed next to a header, the bookmark will automatically be named the same as the header. These are really useful for keeping the action steps of a process in 1 place, and using a bookmark to link to additional details further down if necessary.

Step 5 – Automate the process where possible

For us, a combination of Trello and Zapier have helped us manage our growing library of processes. Zapier has an automated Trello card creator that we use as a template for these processes. You can use exact same zap template here. web-zap If you don’t use Trello, Zapier has integrations with hundreds of other apps and project management systems as well. We use Zapier to automatically create Trello cards with processes for recurring tasks such as:  

      • Checking for spam

 

 

    • Accounting

 

 

    • Monthly report creation

 

 

    • Weekly email creation

 

 

    • Team performance updates and reporting

 

 

    • Payroll

 

    Related: How we effectively use Trello for project management

Step 6 – Delegate ownership of the process

Once your process is producing predictable results you can hand the process off completely to a team member. It’s usually best to have the person who is responsible for carrying out the process in charge of it. The team member will also be responsible for upkeep of the process.  This means updating it and modifying it as time goes on. This is important to keep processes relevant and make sure they don’t fall back on the entrepreneur. At this point you should be able to remove yourself from this process without any issues. Related: A simple process for team task automation with Trello and Zapier

Tips for writing good processes

Here are a few simple tips to keep in mind when writing and refining your processes. 1 – Understand the task before you create a process If you don’t understand the task or have never done the task before yourself, you are not in a good position to create the process. Make sure you have a good grasp of the task and have first hand experience with the task before you create a process or delegate it. The process creator also needs to be an excellent communicator. Generally that means the process creator would need to be a native English speaker even if the person who completes the process is not. 2 – Keep processes short A good process will be concise. A good rule of thumb is 10 steps. Longer processes can often be divided up into smaller documents. Shorter processes are easier to manage and execute. Long processes can cause problems like:

      • Longer lists are intimidating

 

 

    • People are more likely to rush through the steps

 

 

    • Make it easier to miss key steps or important information

 

 

    • It is difficult to keep a long process written clearly

 

    A good solution to this is having a short and long form version of a process. You can have a long form with details and guides for people who are new to the task and a short form process with brief steps that cover key information. Our guest writer process is a good example of how to mix a short and long form process. At the top of the documents, we have the general steps of the process outlined. Each step involves a great deal of detail that might not be applicable to each writer, so we have bookmark links next to each step, so it is easy to click and jump to the specifics for the steps. You can download the guest writer process along with 5 other processes and tools for content marketing here.

3 – Use simple language

Simplicity makes processes easier to understand and execute. Formal language and jargon can be distracting.

Remember when creating processes that most people will start executing a process before they read through the whole document. Be sure to front-load information that someone should know in advance such as upcoming steps that require timing or precision.

4 – What happens in vagueness, stays in vagueness

The timelines and quality expectations should be 100% clear. This is why we test our processes with several different team members. Often something that is clear to one team member will be unclear to another.

5 – Explain both how and why to do a process

It is helpful to include some information on the purpose or goal of the process. As your library of processes starts to grow, some may become obsolete or redundant. When you include information on why a process is done, you can assess whether a process is still relevant or optimal for the task.

Giving context to how a process fits into the bigger mission also helps employees stay motivated and feel like they are contributing value to the business.

Dan Andrews provides an excellent example for organizing processes and fitting them into the bigger picture and mission for the business in this video. He starts discussing his document and how they are structured at about 2:45.

If you want to read further about his processes or download the process in the video, you can see the full article here.

If you don’t give the job to somebody else, it’ll be yours. (CLICK TO TWEET)

6 – Use visuals to support your processes

Like a good blog post, standard operating documents can benefit from visuals to break up blocks of text and explain ideas. A screenshot with a few good annotations can be more effective than a page of text. Wherever possible include screenshots and videos.

The screenshot below shows the difference between an image that is well-optimized vs. one that is poorly optimized for the web.

crisp-final

7 – Focus on positive actions

Focus on instructing people for what they should do. Give specifics on how and why you want something done a certain way instead of focusing on what they should not do.

8 – Shows what completion looks like

Give an example of what a successfully completed execution of the process or steps within the process would look like. This can be a screenshot of a completed task you have done earlier with actual details.

Another way to do this is to close the process with a recap.

“Having done this you should:

  1. Have posted the article link to growthhackers.com
  2. Scheduled the promotion tweets
  3. Added a click to tweet to the original post
  4. etc”

9 – Anticipate problems

Include notes for any common error messages that may occur.

Conclusion

Standard operating documents can dramatically improve the efficiency and profitability of your business. If you are interested in learning more about creating processes for you business, the best book available is Work the System. The author, Sam Carpenter is offering a PDF or audio version of the book for free on his website. Here’s the link.

If you are interested in using the same processes that we use for content marketing, you can download them all here.

About

Kyle is the founder of Conversion Cake . He is the author of "The College Entrepreneur" A book for students who want to break into entrepreneurship. Follow him @kylethegray

  • Wow! Kyle this is brilliant! We have been busy creating SOP’s for the past 2 years and now, with a team of 7 it’s become essential to stay on top of this. Here’s my favourite advice: “don’t directly answer the questions. Instead go back into the process and update it”

    • Thanks Hugh! I’m glad you find this useful after two years writing processes!

  • Great stuff Kyle. This is my favorite post of the year. I hope it goes well, it’s so crucial for entrepreneurs to grasp this stuff and I haven’t seen it demonstrated so clearly before.

    • Grant Merriel

      Couldn’t agree more with you Dan – drew me back to the WP Curve blog after I had a bit of a hiatus

      • Sweet. This is probably too basic for you mate haha. But it’s definitely something people ask me about all the time.

    • Thanks Dan, I have had a great time creating this one. I look forward to see how it helps people.

  • Great post Kyle! I like your suggestion about creating how-to videos using Jing. Planning to give it a go!

    • Hey Meryl, Of course! Keep in mind Jing videos and screenshots are also great for asking questions. Have your team members send screenshots if they have a question. It makes steps 2 and 4 go much faster.

  • This was the aha! “don’t directly answer the questions. Instead go back into the process and update it and have them re-read it. With each question add more detail to the related steps.”

    Thanks Kyle.

    Found a typo here “. The process create also needs to be an excellent communicator.” I think you meant the process creator.

    • I love it when people share their “Aha!” moments! thank you Illoh! Let me know if you see some results in your business after applying these strategies.

  • Eric Conley

    Great post, Kyle.

    It’s a coincidence that I ran across this site about a week ago: http://www.sweetprocess.com/

    I’m not a user myself, but I got the link from Bryan Harris’ Videofruit page. He seems keen to it. This may be beneficial to the Curve at some point.

    • Hey Eric I chatted with Owen for his podcast last week! I’m pretty deep in Google docs so it would take a lot for me to change but when I looked at it when they first launched it looked pretty nice.

    • I came across Sweet Process when I was researching for this post. It seems like that system really shines in its organization of processes. It looks interesting! Thanks for sharing Eric!

  • Great post! Thanks for sharing this, reminds me that we need to be much more diligent about this in my business.

    • Yeah, it’s something most entrepreneurs can improve on, and it’s so worth the effort! Let me know if you see any results from applying the tips in this post.

  • Kyle, thanks for a great post.

    My favorite book on that topic is “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande.

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Checklist-Manifesto-Things-Right-ebook/dp/B0037Z8SLI/ref=tmm_kin_title_0

    • Thanks for the suggestion SengHee, I saw it had a stellar review from one of my favorite writers, Malcom Gladwell. I’ll add it to my reading list!

  • VeloNomad

    Awesome. What would be necessary for say a 1 or 2 man show.

    • this is actually a great time to start creating processes. Keep track of what you are doing and how you do it. This can help you outsource tasks to contractors, or make it really easy to hire someone. If you can build this process culture into your business early it will help you grow quickly.

      Some easy places to start would be:
      Content promotion
      Accounting
      Social media
      Style guides for content
      Website maintenance

      Or just try and take not of what tasks you do repeatedly each week, the more often you do a task, the more important and valuable it is to have a process.

  • Another great article. It puts us luddites to shame (although I have been using Jing the past year) Hiring a VA next week so will try and implement some of these things as we get the processes written down.

    • Thanks Ronan, I think we all feel like luddites on processes, so I’m glad this was helpful. Let me know how things go with the new VA and if you use the tactics in this post with them.

  • This is really helpful. Thanks, Kyle.

    • Thanks Joe! Let me know if you use these strategies in your business and what the results are.

      • I’ve already started putting it into use and have high hopes.

  • Great post Kyle. I’m pleased to see I’m not the only one obsessing over processes for digital agencies 🙂

    I see this all too often. Agencies grow about around 15-20 people then flat line as their inefficiencies limit further growth and start to effect the quality of output.

    You may be interested in a post I published today about how standard operations fit in to the broader business model of knowledge-based businesses: https://www.tallprojects.co.uk/articles/a-new-framework-for-describing-knowledge-based-businesses/

  • Ben Grise

    Amazing article Kyle! Right on Time. I’m just about to hire a VA to start taking calls and doing other repetitive tasks in my real estate business. My weakness is communicating what I need and creating a system. This should help.

    Have you made any progress with your systems? By the way I opted in for the This set of 4 Google Docs and 2 Trello boards to help me scale, and automate, but they still haven’t arrived to my email.

    Do you have templates or Google docs you could send?

    • Hey Ben,

      I’m thrilled you enjoyed the article!

      Having an SOP for calls would be interesting. I imagine there are a bunch of very common questions that you could build some scripted responses for. I would love to see what you come up with and the results.

      Sorry that the templates did not arrive! Send me a message at kyle at WPCurve.com and I’ll send you the templates. If possible send it from the email you opted in with and I’ll check to make sure our system is working properly.

  • Nav Pasricha

    I’m loving the level of detail in your explanation , a real value add! Thank you

  • Kyle –great post. Just finished e-myth for the second time (went right over my head in college!), but this is precisely where my business is and it’s exciting! Your resources are great! Thanks for putting together a thoughtful and helpful post.

    • Of course Tristan! Did you read the E-Myth as required reading in college or just for fun?

      I started with “Work the System” right after college I liked the ideas, but at the time I didn’t have any way to apply them. But it has been such a life (time) saver.

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