Here let me read it to you. Best to listen straight off Spotify though, the browser version is buggy.
Henry the puppy’s death wish
Here’s how my friend Hayden doubled the size of his business, and saved his son’s adorable new puppy, Henry, from certain death. All he had to do was sustain a savage arm fracture that left him in blinding pain for a couple of months.
Please don’t try this at home, but there’s a valuable lesson here for any business owner who thinks they’re one of a kind.
Hayden had been out riding bicycles with his young son. They were returning down their steep driveway, riding through the gap between two cars. At just the wrong moment, Henry* bounded out from under one of the cars. There was no swerve space.
Hayden is a Viking-sized unit, and bike brakes can only do so much. He couldn’t have his son eyewitness to a puppy pulping, so he chose to sacrifice himself. He went over the handlebars. He got up, as he put it, “with my arm flapping in the breeze”.
His humerus was split into shrapnel. The hospital nurses told him it was one of the nastiest they’d seen. To quote one of his morphine-infused texts the next day, “my arm feels like a bloody pencil case”. Immobilised for a couple of months and tripping hard on sedatives, he had some decisions to make. What would become of his new-ish business and his twelve staff while he lay idle?
His firm operates in a roughnut industry, asphalt paving. They’re in a regional area. They fix roads, a task in hot demand as nonstop La Niña rain conditions munch huge, axle-cracking holes out of every street.
Mister Indispensable gets dispensed with
Hayden is one of the sharpest business brains I’ve ever met, as well as the funniest person I know. We catch up regularly to chat about biz owner stuff, and it always reminds me why I love business so much. He’s always thinking a dozen moves down the board, possibly informed by his deep studies of the Roman Empire. His staff would die for him. One of the reasons for that is he’s super hands-on.
He loves smashing into a round-the-clock hard labour marathon. He’s there at dawn when his road crews kick off, buying them coffees and getting a sense of their mood. When other employers would just send out a start-time text and stay in bed a bit longer.
He has invented new road-building machines to do the job quicker and better. He manages all the clients and he’s out on site a lot. Like so many of us in business-owner land, he’s indispensable.
Now he was under house arrest, and things had to change.
Changing the product to suit scaling
We had a long phone chat about a week after the incident. He was suffering from the nasty combo of 24/7 pain plus the frustration of a driven entrepreneur who can’t do any work. He was working on a massive spreadsheet that broke down every task he did in the business.
Step one was reconsidering the type of work the company did. When you’re starting out, you do everything. Because when a customer calls, it’s an adrenaline-pumping validation of you and your grand plans, and you want to be super-helpful.
In Hayden’s case, the work ranged from simple pothole repair up to building two-kilometre access roads to rural properties. The more complex work needed Hayden’s engineering skills, analysing slopes and cambers, getting the details right like the Romans did.
He realised that his time was limiting their volume of work. The higher-end work was more labour, more thought and more decisions for all his people. Fixing potholed sections of street was much more predictable. That would be their sole focus from now on.
The team lifts because they wanted to
The spreadsheet had a bunch of tasks Hayden had held onto for all the usual reasons. Pride in his own skills. Nervousness about how others would handle it. The risk of declining profits because things would take more time.
He didn’t have to ask his team to step up. They were already doing it while he was flat on his back. Almost all had ideas on how to take on more responsibility to keep the place running. Before any of them had seen the spreadsheet plans.
Because they wanted to. That’s the difference between leadership and management. Hayden had a lot of emotional credit in the bank with them, from the way he led since the business started.
There’s this idea that all you need to scale your business is strong, documented process. That’s a formula to build a large, terrible business that your staff and customers will hate. An old job of mine had a weekly meeting in which a horrid process goblin would run through a to-do list, ask you if it had been done yet, and if not, why not?
It was a job to leave as soon as possible.
Hayden’s team were all-in to create new ways to do a better, quicker job. As the work got more streamlined, they created time targets that got smashed as the teamwork improved. There were celebratory dinners and bonuses as the record times tumbled.
Before long they were able to run two separate crews on any given day, without Hayden having to be there.
One of the biggest costs in that business is going back to fix mistakes. It’s a whole extra trip for crew and equipment that can eat a large part of a day. Hayden’s operations manager suggested they create a no-mistake bonus fund. Each day without a mistake put a modest amount into the fund, which gets split between the team quarterly.
The ops manager didn’t want any bonuses himself, it was just for the road crew. Mistakes are down, profit is up, staff get more money, everyone’s happy.
Just as importantly, there’s pride in being part of a team that’s doing great work. It’s so much harder to have a profitable business without that pride.
Two months off: revenue doubled
With recovery and rehab, Hayden was physically off the job for two months.
Six months later, his monthly revenues have more than doubled. He has invested in more machinery to get the work done faster. Minimising labour as a percentage of your revenue has always been an essential business skill, but never more than now in the skill shortage times.
There’s so much more scope for future growth than before Hayden got taken down. Now he can exercise his leadership skills on bigger things, knowing his people have his back.
“People kinda want me to say it’s the best thing that could have happened to me, and I’m not saying that because it was a really horrible experience,” he said.
But the performance of his business tells the story.
It’s a question to ask yourself. If you got taken out for a couple of months by a puppy-related injury, how would you redesign your business?
And would your staff rally around to save the day, or just shrug and get a job somewhere else?
None of us are that good that we can’t be replaced. And that’s a wonderful thing. Otherwise you’d have to spend the rest of your working life in your comfortable artisan cottage. Why not take a chance and go bigger?
* That isn’t Henry in the photo it’s a stock shot dog.
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