Why the “Work in/Work on” Trap is holding back the growth of your firm

Has your firm’s growth stagnated? Perhaps you and your firm are stuck in Heather Townsend calls the “work in/work out” trap. In this article, I explore how you can avoid the trap and rapidly grow your firm.


The “Work in/Work On” Trap: What is it?

The “Work in/Work On” Trap is a major barrier to small firms’ growth. It acts as a brake on the growth of a small firm because the owner of the firm (normally) keeps getting pulled back into the business. As a result they don’t have the time or headspace to work on the business and grow it. They think  they have got out of the trap and then something happens and they are back working in the business again.


We often see this with our clients where they have got stuck. They know they need to free up capacity in the firm, so they come to talk to us about outsourcing. However, the owner of the firm never quite has enough time to press the button on outsourcing. As a result, the firm limps along never quite managing to grow.


Of course, outsourcing isn’t the whole answer to getting out of the “Work in/work on” trap. It’s more complicated than that. It’s also about much more than just bringing extra capacity in the firm.


The “Work in/Work On” trap tends to start when a practice gets to £150k turnover. The practice never really quite gets out of the trap until the firm gets to over £500k turnover.


Why does the “Work in/Work on” Trap last such a long time?

We see this all time, where many small firms are just being run too leanly. They don’t have any fat in order to minimise any impacts of bumps in the road. This could be a major client leaving or an important team member goes off sick for a few weeks. As a result the firm owner gets pulled back to work in the business… again.


How do firms avoid the “Work in/Work on” trap?

It’s not easy. I’ve seen the same problems in my own firm. This is a standard growing pain that most service businesses need to overcome if they are going to scale up.


Here are my top tips in order to avoid the “Work in/Work on” trap:


When a business is cash rich, everything is much easier. So, can you increase the cash reserves in your business? Perhaps by implementing a fee increase for clients or outsourcing work to us? It always amazes us the difference between what firms will charge their clients to basically do the same thing. This means that there are many firms which could increase their fees and not worry about too many clients leaving.


Given the nature of what we do, it’s not unusual that our account managers hear about lots of crises in firms. In fact, that’s partly why we are there, to deal with the unexpected! However, its these crises, e.g. team member going off sick for a few weeks, backlog of work building up that no-one has noticed, which are often the trigger for a practice owner to be sucked back into the business. Or perhaps everyone has been so busy doing the do, the long-range planning and forecasts just haven’t happened. Therefore, the more you can do to eliminate the worst of these, the easier it is to stay out of the “Work in/Work on” trap. You may find that you need to implement consistent systems or have an element of contingency plans in place to deal with the peaks and troughs of your firm’s workload. Working with an outsourcer such as ourselves which you can switch on and off at will, maybe a great contingency plan for your practice?


We know how hard it is for owners to switch to using an outsourcer. It’s difficult to trust another entity to work on your clients’ affairs. So, I really do understand the desire to keep stuff under control. However, the less you delegate the harder it becomes to get out the trap. So, what can you do to delegate to others to free up your time to work on the business.


To summarise:

The way to avoid the “Work on/Work in” trap is to stop yourself getting sucked back into the business. This means stepping up and leading your practice so that you can handle most things that come your way without needing to go back and be the business.

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