Anna Wolf (00:00):
In the past, I wouldn't even think about capacity until we'd basically reached our limit, maxed out, we're over capacity, essentially. And at that point I would tackle the problem right in front of me. And it really felt like we were patching holes on a sinking ship with like saran wrap, when what I think what we really needed was a bigger ship.
Susan Boles (00:25):
How's your capacity feeling these days? Getting a lot done or have you been hitting that pandemic wall hard like me? I'm Susan Boles, and you're listening to Break The Ceiling, the show where we break down unconventional strategies you can use to save time, boost your profit and increase your operational capacity.
Susan Boles (00:45):
I've been exploring the idea of maintenance mode in business over the last few weeks. What does it mean? What does it look like in different businesses? How does your role as the business owner and your mindset around maintenance and systems impact your ability to move your business into maintenance mode? So if you've missed the last few episodes, I encourage you to go back and check those out. They really set up the rest of this discussion. I want to shift from exploring the idea of maintenance mode into more tactical applications. So if you wanted to move your business into maintenance mode, or you wanted to focus on scaling, or you wanted to work as a founder to develop more of a maintenance mindset, how would you do that?
Susan Boles (01:28):
How would you prepare for maintenance mode? And in my conversations with other business owners who have done this, there was one thing that repeatedly bubbled up as the first step. Every single business owner had a reckoning with capacity, either their business's capacity or their own capacity as the business owner. The move towards more of a maintenance mindset came from a place of time scarcity, burnout, overwhelm. It came from hitting a growth ceiling and trying to figure out how to get past that capacity limit. Each business owner ran up against a wall, sometimes repeatedly, and came to the realization that the way they had been working, wasn't the way they wanted to continue working, and then they took steps to increase their capacity. Sometimes that meant changing a business model to a more sustainable one. Sometimes it meant creating a capacity limit to protect their energy, or just stepping back from the work for months at a time. Sometimes it just meant examining the work they did and figuring out how to make it more efficient. That's the path Anna Wolf took.
Susan Boles (02:33):
She's the CEO and owner of SuperScript Marketing, a content marketing agency for financial brands. Anna runs a team of marketers scattered throughout the world who create content for financial companies and who provide customized services for each client. This isn't a content factory that churns out the same blog post for everyone. And when Anna ran up against her capacity ceiling, she decided that she loved the work she was doing and the way that she worked. And she really didn't want to change that, but something still had to change. So Anna turned to systems. When you are thinking about assessing your business's capacity, how do you think about capacity and how do you approach figuring out what the real capacity for your business is?
Anna Wolf (03:20):
I have historically thought about this in a more of a short term way, maybe like a bottom up way, versus over time, it's shifted to more of a long-term view of capacity or a top-down view. So for example, in the past, I wouldn't even think about capacity until we basically reached our limit, maxed out, we're over capacity, essentially. And at that point I would tackle the problem right in front of me. It's like, okay, we have a new project or a new client. We need a writer to handle this. We're a content marketing agency. So a lot of the services we deliver is writing, or we need a new tool to do this new service that we're all of a sudden providing to this client. And it really felt like we were patching holes on a sinking ship with like saran wrap, when what I think what we really needed was a bigger ship. And I know that's an analogy that exists. I didn't make that up.
Anna Wolf (04:17):
So my shift over time has been to think about, what could the future of this business look like? How many clients would we want to service ideally? How much volume of our content and services would we want to be providing at any given time? And then what would our teams and systems need to look like in order to comfortably deliver services on that level? And I'll also add that I shied away from answering that question for a really long time, because my answer was always, I don't know. This is advice people give you, and I've seen it a lot actually lately from people saying, look at the long-term view and then build your systems and your team for that long-term view. And for me, for many years, it was like, I don't know how big I want this to be. I'm an accidental business owner. I'm a creative turned agency owner. And I am just learning what it's like to own a business at this very small level in revenue or with this very small team of people.
Anna Wolf (05:18):
I don't know what it would feel like to have a business at one, two, five, 10 million in revenue or 10, 15, 20 people on my team. I shied away from answering that question and we kept doing the saran wrap model. And it just... as we grew very organically, it just was uncomfortable. It was just very much uncomfortable all the time. And so I finally got to this point where I thought, I'm going to answer that question right, wrong, whatever, I'm just going to pick a number and say, this is what we're aiming for. This is what we would need the capacity to be able to. Now, make the decisions based on that. And if we need to adjust over time, we can., If we want to change our mind when we get there or we get halfway there, we can, we have that ability.
Anna Wolf (06:10):
But I think just answering that question and picking a number or picking a... sort of like a what a future state could look like, and then again, organizing our abilities around that has been a very, I think, a freeing step for us to take.
Susan Boles (06:29):
Yeah, I love the idea of going into it with knowing that it's okay to change your mind. Because I think for a lot of people, especially if you are the first time business owner, or you're kind of getting used to being a business owner, it's really hard, like you said, to pick a target and say, this is what I'm building. Because especially in the first, at least three years, probably more than that, your vision ends up changing as you experience what running that kind of business looks like. So I love that you went into it with it's okay to change our mind, it's okay to get halfway there and decide that's not the direction that we want to go, but picking a target and heading in that direction.
Anna Wolf (07:15):
Absolutely. I mean, you don't know until you experience things yourself and I'm definitely somebody who's prone to paralysis by analysis and just being in my head about things and then never taking action. And actually this idea of you can always change your mind was advice that was given to me when I quit my job by my manager at the time, and it's just really resonated with me. It was like, you have many chapters in your life and this one is quitting your job and becoming a freelancer and you can always go get a job again. It's freed me up in so many ways throughout my journey to not feel like I have to know all the answers before I take a step because taking the step is the most... that's what's going to give you the answers basically.
Susan Boles (08:05):
Yeah. I love that. So give me an example of a time where you realized there was something capping the growth of your business, something that was limiting you, what was it that was holding you back?
Anna Wolf (08:18):
That's a really good question. I mean, basically I think what's happened over time is that I realized that I was stretching myself too thin, or I was, I guess maybe a better way of saying this is I was very unfocused. And I'm a person who's very prone to overwhelm every personality assessment test I take tells me that I'm a person who sees the possibilities, I'm very future oriented. And that makes me somebody, I think, that could be a great visionary or leader of a business, but it also means that I stretch... I am too stretched across many different ideas at once, I guess. I'm never quite focusing on one thing.
Anna Wolf (09:02):
And I think what I realized is that I needed to figure out a way to narrow down the scope of what I was doing, or I needed to figure out a way to create that focus, which came very unnaturally to me. And so instead of trying every single new tool that came out or going down the path of... one thing that I think about a lot are different services we could offer to our clients. Instead of going down every single one of those roads, I've really tried to distill what we do down to just the very... the nugget of what we do. That is the reason that the clients that we love so much have long-term relationships with us and refer us to their colleagues and friends and want to keep working with us year over year. And that is because we provide this remarkable client experience. And underneath that, we do three things really well. We turn everything in on time within budget, and it is up to the very high quality standards that our clients have come to expect from us.
Anna Wolf (10:07):
And so that umbrella of exceptional client service and then those three things. It's like, as long as those three things are always happening, I feel super confident that we'll always have a business. And I couldn't say I felt that way in the early years. I think in the early years I felt like I had to keep innovating and coming up with new ideas, and I chased every... I was in multiple coaching groups and reading all these books about entrepreneurship. And I enjoyed it. I was like a kid in the candy store. I really liked... Again, I like ideas. I like learning about new things, but that wasn't doing our business any favors. And so it's a little boring for me, but it's also very grounding. It's almost like I needed this discipline of looking at the fundamental thing that our business does that is the reason that we can make money and I can pay my employees and I can hire a new people.
Anna Wolf (11:04):
And if we focus on those things, I can feel very confident about number one, growing over time, whether that's slow or fast. And number two, the things that used to keep me up at night, like can I pay my employees? I feel more confident about that as long as we're really focusing on those foundational things.
Susan Boles (11:25):
So you decided to focus on really just delivering really quality work on time. It seems basic, but so few providers actually deliver on that. Talk to me a little bit about how do you deliver on that internally? What have you created? What have you built to make sure if that's your focus that you can repeatedly deliver on time quality work?
Anna Wolf (11:51):
Yeah, I mean, oh man, I... The thing I will talk about all day long is our content calendar. It is a thing of beauty. And I've worked in content marketing for a decade, and I just always felt like content calendars were lacking, coming up short for me, for me, in some way. After seeing other content agencies or providers, I got the idea from them, they were using Airtable. And so we started to use Airtable, we hired a consultant to help us build one out that was very customized to what we needed. And then we took it even further, I would say, I mean, it's something that we're constantly improving and optimizing, but we [inaudible 00:12:35], a Google sheet or just an Excel spreadsheet, because some of our clients can't access Google Drive or Google Docs.
Anna Wolf (12:43):
So every single client had had their own Excel spreadsheet for their content calendar. And now we have this one content calendar that provides one view of the version of the truth for every single client. We can see all of our clients content and other services, graphic design and SEO, et cetera. We can see it all in one place, but then the calendar also provides views for the clients, it provides use for different internal team members that need to see certain things, it provides use for our writers and our other service providers, so they can be briefed and know what they need to be delivering and when they need to be delivering it.
Anna Wolf (13:24):
So I would say that's one really big lever we pulled to create more efficiency and all the things I just said, turning things in on time, ensuring they're within budget. We also do, we have a budget tracker in there, as well as up to our high quality standards where we have processes in place to ensure that either a copy editor and/or our managing editor and/or myself are reviewing all the content before it goes out the door. And our content calendar is the thing that keeps track of those things, or lines up those elements, so that those three foundational things can be true.
Susan Boles (14:00):
Yeah, and I love that it is a one-stop shop and enhances the experience for not just your team, but your clients as well.
Anna Wolf (14:10):
Exactly. Yeah, and I think that's been another shift over the years. I think I used to think about things in terms of how easy it was for our team to do it. I'd want to automate, automate, automate, or delegate or get... I was constantly thinking, how do we make our jobs easier? I still think that's important. I'm a person who, I built this business on having flexibility in my own life. I'm a mom and I want to be able to put my family first and I employ other people who have similar needs in terms of flexibility in their lives. So I love the idea of taking work off our plates or allowing technology or tools to make things more efficient for us.
Anna Wolf (14:54):
But I will say that over time I started to shift more toward a, well, what is the client experiencing here? Is this the right...? Is this, again, going to keep hitting that umbrella of exceptional client service? Because if it's not, then again, if that box is not being checked, then we start to lose business, we start to lose referrals, it all sort of goes downhill. And so I think there've been things that maybe I've thought about automating over the years and then pulled back on that, because I realized that that's actually not adding to the client experience, or it's not creating an exceptional client experience, and therefore it's actually not worth automating.
Susan Boles (15:34):
I think automation and the approach to how it impacts your clients is really nuanced, because I think there's a lot of ways that you can use the automation to enhance the client relationship, like making sure the communications happen on time and automation often allows that to happen. Where if the ball might get dropped, you might forget to communicate or forget to communicate details. And so I think it's always interesting to think through the systems and processes that you're building internally. And I love the idea of thinking about how that impacts the client, because I think it can actually enhance the client relationship, but you have to be very aware of the expectations of your clients and how they're going to react to it, whether it's easier for them to use and whether it needs to be making both sides better.
Anna Wolf (16:29):
Yeah, and it's a balance, as you just said, and I think also you can test things and then you can be honest with your clients when they give you bad feedback about it. And they're like, I don't like doing it this way. And you say, okay, well, thanks for helping us figure that out. Once again, it's like, there's no such thing as a permanent decision. You just have to try stuff. Something we have switched to over the past maybe year or so is we now have one project brief for our clients that... We have some clients that we meet with regularly and have these editorial meetings, and that's how the new content ideas get put into the calendar and briefed to the writer. But then we have some clients who just come to us ad hoc and want to place an order for content.
Anna Wolf (17:16):
And so they have a URL, very simple URL, that takes them to a project brief, which is embedded in Airtable, and the whole process is... It gives them control. It allows them to submit this order for new content. It gathers all the information that we need from them in one place. That whole process used to take place via email and maybe a phone call or two. I mean, it was actually quite onerous in comparison to what it is now. Now it's just a couple of clicks to do that project brief into the writer view so they have what they need, into the client's calendar so that they can see that we've taken the order and we're working on it. And so it's saved massive amounts of time.
Anna Wolf (18:01):
And I think I was nervous about it for a long time. I thought that clients would not want to lose that interaction piece with us. And in some ways I was right. I found that, well, they've adopted this project brief process pretty well. I mean, most of them do it and seem to like it, they'll still reach out with an email almost immediately afterwards. And I kind of love that part because then it's like I'm not having to use that communication piece with them to ask them what SEO keywords they want to target in the post. I can use that email at that point to say, yep, we got your project brief, or we're working on it right now. We're going to have it to you by this date. And it's like from my perspective, I'm trying to provide this... or my editor, who's often answering these emails, we're able to provide this very supportive email back versus an email that's full of all these questions, because we couldn't gather all the... they didn't know to put all the information in their initial email. So it feels like it's been a success so far.
Susan Boles (19:09):
Hey, there it's Susan. If you've been listening to this interview and it's making you think about some of these issues and ideas and you wish you could talk to some other real live business owners about it, I wanted to invite you to my free monthly round table Dollars and Decisions. Once a month, I get together live with a group of amazing business owners, just like you, to geek out on money and operations and workflow and software, all that stuff that you hear me talk about here. The round table is kind of like a live interactive version of the podcast. So I would love to have you join me. To join the next round table, head to scalespark.co/dollarsanddecisions. No spaces, no hyphens, or you can just click the link in the show notes. Hope to see you there.
Susan Boles (20:01):
Talk to me a little bit about what kind of impact these systems and processes that you've been gradually putting in place, talk to me about what kind of impact they've had on your capacity as the owner, or your business's capacity. What kind of impact have you seen?
Anna Wolf (20:18):
I'm thrilled with all the little shortcuts we've discovered that free up more of our time. I will also admit that I feel like the amount of work always seems to sort of magically expand to our available capacity. So it's not like I'm taking Fridays off because we have this form now that took five hours of work off my plate every week. There's always something new. And I think that's the nature of growing. We're constantly having to address new problems or challenges that we've never encountered before, and just by nature of being new, it's going to take us longer to figure it out. There's going to be more research or conversations with other people that need to happen to solve these new problems. But I guess that is the impact, is that it is freeing up my time to keep tackling the bigger problems that come with growth, which is really where I need to be spending more of my time.
Anna Wolf (21:21):
I think that it's also created a bit of a common language among my team, which is... And we're not all the way there yet. I mean, no system or process is perfect. And I would say we're still learning a lot and adapting as we go. But I think just, number one, having that very clear focus on the umbrella of exceptional client service and then those three things always needing to be true, I think that has been like a rallying cry for our team or just an internal organizing principle that's been really useful. So I guess maybe the short answer is that it's definitely allowed me to be more strategic, which I think is, as the leader of the firm and as sort of a visionary type of personality, that's what I should be doing and what I want to be doing.
Susan Boles (22:13):
So was there anything you wish you'd figured out earlier when it comes to either looking at your capacity or envisioning the growth of your firm?
Anna Wolf (22:23):
It's a great question, because I mentioned earlier that I'm a very possibilities-oriented person. And I think I spent the early years of this business chasing every shiny penny when it came to new tools or ideas about services we could offer, et cetera. And I think, also, I had a lot of, and still do, some insecurities about being an accidental business owner and I don't know what I'm doing and I've never done this before and I'm doing this wrong. And I guess imposter syndrome is probably in there as well.
Anna Wolf (23:00):
And so I just feel like I spent a lot of time looking for answers outside of myself, whether that was in a new tool or a coaching group or a forum or a book, many, many, many books that I've read. And I'll say all of those things brought me value, but I think what I learned over time is that I need for there to be a balance between seeking answers externally and listening to myself and being okay with just using my gut for awhile and letting myself make some mistakes. You can always come back and look for answers later, but not feeling this FOMO of like, if I don't read this brand new book about entrepreneurs, I'm going to miss this business-changing tip that could have made all the difference. I think at this point, eight years in, I am aware that yes, there is always going to be more value in soliciting that type of information. But there's a point where it becomes overwhelming and it drowns out your own voice.
Susan Boles (24:13):
So if I were to use the phrase maintenance mode, what does that look like or feel like? How do you envision maintenance mode for your business?
Anna Wolf (24:25):
Yeah. Great question. That is such a tough one, right? Because I think if you're growing, you're just never in maintenance mode. And the whole growth question is... I said this at the beginning, it's a tough one. You don't know. So when do you stop growing? I mean, it feels like as a tiny business, you're always growing, even if you don't want to be Amazon one day. There's this assumption that there's always more growth on the table. And only recently, or in the past... for me, I only recently in the past few years started to see people say, oh, I think this is enough. I'm there. I'm at my limit, or this is how far I want to go. And so now I'm focused on maintenance mode.
Anna Wolf (25:15):
Yes, we're in a level of maintenance mode. There are certain things that this is how we do them and they work really well, and we feel really good about them and our clients are happy with them. As I said, we are still growing and we're still... We're sort of designing for maintenance mode at five times the revenue that we are making right now, or three times the number of team members that we have right now. And so whether we're doing that correctly or not remains to be seen. We'll get there and we'll see.
Susan Boles (25:48):
You won't know 'til you get there.
Anna Wolf (25:49):
Exactly. Yeah. So I think there is a maintenance mode going on and then there's a growth mode, and they're both happening simultaneously. And some of it, this past year, I think, has been a lesson to so many people, myself included, that you just don't know. Things can just change. The rug can be pulled out from underneath you at any moment and anything you thought you planned for so perfectly could be totally the wrong move. What thrives is resilience. It's basically this ability to be flexible and to let go of stuff that you thought was going to work and then it turned out it didn't. So I think that that is maybe the muscle that we're trying to build versus this idea of getting to the top of the mountain, and okay, now we're in maintenance mode, like that's some sort of destination. I think it's just always going to be a journey and it's ongoing and leaving it open-ended like that can be scary, but I think it's just also more realistic.
Susan Boles (27:00):
So where can our listeners find you if they want to connect or learn more about you or what you do?
Anna Wolf (27:06):
I would check out either our website, www.superscriptmarketing.com. Learn more about what our business is and what we do. And then you can find me on LinkedIn, Anna Wolf. That's probably the one social media platform that I am very rarely active on and would love to connect with people there.
Susan Boles (27:26):
For Anna, when she examined the capacity in her business and realized that there was a ceiling, she had a choice. She could have changed her business model to something more scalable, like a course, or she could have decided to create a giant agency and build out a really big team. But Anna liked the business she had built. So she started looking at ways to increase her capacity without fundamentally changing what she was doing. And she realized something that lots of business owners do, that she had some inefficient processes, admin stuff that was taking up a lot of her time. So she created systems using technology like Airtable and ClickUp to help make that administrative stuff take way less time, and paying attention to her process and building systems around them increased the capacity of her team enough that she could keep doing exactly what she was doing, but still be able to take on more clients.
Susan Boles (28:25):
She just eliminated a bunch of time they spent on their behind the scenes operations, assigning articles to the writers, going back and forth with status updates, onboarding new team members. By creating systems around those processes, it takes less time for them to complete the tasks. So there's more time left for the more important stuff, like client work. One of the things I've noticed in my work with clients being behind the scenes of their businesses is that there is almost always stuff that you're doing in the backend that could be done more easily or more efficiently with a system. And creating those systems also builds resilience because then anyone can step in and make that work happen. And to me, that is the essence of maintenance mode, resilient systems that can get the work done and make sure the minimum things that have to happen do.
Susan Boles (29:18):
Anna examined the capacity in her business, but there's another aspect to capacity that's just as important when you're preparing your business for maintenance mode, and that's your capacity as the business owner or the founder. Your energy and your excitement matter a lot. And that individual capacity can be a major driver in creating a priority for maintenance mode in your business. That's what we'll be talking about next week on the show. So make sure you hit subscribe in your favorite podcast player so you don't miss it. Break The Ceiling is produced by Yellow House Media. Our executive producer is Sean McMullin. Our production coordinator is Lou Blazer. This episode was edited by Marty Seifeld with production assistance by Kristin Ronnebeck.