Build Systems for Your Business with Jen McFarland

In our twentieth episode, Sofie is joined by guest Jen McFarland, a passionate entrepreneur, to delve into the art of building robust business systems. Drawing from Jen’s wealth of personal expertise as a seasoned business owner, this episode unveils the indispensable importance of goal-oriented system updates. Discover the transformative power of precision and purpose, as Jen shares invaluable keys to driving monumental change within your organization. Packed with practical advice and insights, this episode is an indispensable resource for individuals aspiring to start or expand their small business.

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About the Guest

Jen McFarland

Jen McFarland is the founder of Women Conquer Business. She is a passionate and compassionate champion of entrepreneurs, founders, and business owners. She built her business to encourage people with great ideas to reach their full potential, particularly women, nonbinary folks, and people of color. A natural teacher and gifted speaker, Jen’s committed to providing your audience with fun stories and great value.

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Sofie: Hello everyone and welcome back to Claim Your Potential, the empowerment podcast. I am your host Sofie and for this episode, we are joined by Jen McFarland to discuss how to build systems for your business.

Jen McFarland is the founder of Women Conquer Business. She is a passionate and compassionate champion of entrepreneurs, founders and business owners. She built her business to encourage people with great ideas to reach their full potential, particularly women, non-binary folks and people of color. A natural teacher and gifted speaker, Jen is committed to providing your audience with fun stories and great value.

Please welcome Jen McFarland. Thank you so much for being with us today, Jen.

Jen: Thanks so much for having me.

Sofie: Thank you for coming on and you are just doing everything. So in addition to running your own business, you’re also a mentor and coach for other entrepreneurs. So I’m curious as to what are some challenges or road blocks that entrepreneurs, small business owners, may encounter when trying to implement systems.

Jen: Yeah. So there are so many things that people would like to do. I would say that one of the biggest challenges that people face is setting clear priorities based on their goals and then executing on that. So because we all want to do so many things, maybe all of the things, we can sometimes get bogged down and then we aren’t sure where to start, which things to do and then most importantly at least for the work that I do, how to streamline it so that you can do it and it’s repeatable and it can really support you.

Sofie: How can we as entrepreneurs, small business owners work to overcome these challenges?

Jen: It’s interesting. I think it’s a little bit different for everybody but I think that it’s really important to be super clear about what it is that’s most important for you, especially as a business owner, because that’s what is going to keep you going. Why did you start this business? Not just to make money.

There has to probably be something else that you’re in it for and then on top of that, you need to set again some clear goals. What is it that you want to achieve? And those things need to be small enough that you feel like you can achieve them because sometimes we can get really discouraged if we set too big of a goal. But they also can’t be too easy because you need something to be working toward and I think that once you start to build on that clarity, then it becomes really clear what it is that you need to accomplish and furthermore the systems and the types of processes that you need to have in place, so that you can help the people you want to help and do the things that you want to do.

Sofie: Absolutely. Thank you for sharing that and before we go further with questions, I just want to make sure that all of our listeners understand what we’re talking about when we mean systems. So Jen, how do you define a system when it comes to business operations and what are some common misconceptions about building systems?

Jen: Oh, well, let me start with a common misconception because I think it lends itself to kind of what we’re talking about. A common misconception is that a system has to be technical. It really doesn’t. The best systems in the beginning are just understanding how do I help my customers. How do I take payments? What are the things that are essential to my business and then how can I make them as easy as possible?

But usually that second part is where people start. They’re like, “I just want to make all the things easy,” and sometimes you have to start with an in-person system or you have to take payments by check or you have to do things just to figure out how it works and then the system comes later.

Sometimes people put technical – all kinds of shiny object, technical things, sales funnels, all kinds of things in place, before they really know how things work. So a good system always starts with, “How do I want to do this? Let me write down how it works the best and then if I want to make it into like some sort of technical system, then we add the techy parts first after that.”

So the first thing is always, “What am I trying to accomplish? What’s the easiest way to get that done and how is it working now?” You only want to add technical automation and things like that if it’s working really well. So then you know something is broken.

Sofie: Absolutely, and I think another part of that is giving room for trial and error and for refinement where what you think is going to work, what you think is that great system that you really want to use, maybe you do it 100 times and you realize, you know what, this actually isn’t how I like to do this because as I’m growing as a business, as I’m scaling, this just doesn’t work for me anymore.

So to speak to your point, when we’re building these systems out is it’s OK to not use that standard operating procedure, that system that you’ve built into the organization for the entirety of the time because it’s supposed to grow with your organization.

Jen: I think that that’s totally true and I will say that in my own business, I’ve started to reach some of those growing pains and where things are – I’m like, “Wow, I really thought that I would use this forever,” and like you have to be willing to acknowledge. “You know, this isn’t working for me anymore,” and be willing to change. You have to always be out there. It doesn’t mean you want to jump on every trend. It just means you have to pay attention to when things that were working are no longer working and be agile enough to say, “OK, what’s it going to take for me to change?” and then you change with intentionality.

Like you don’t just wait until the day before you have to make another payment and say, “Oh, I’m just going to change everything.” You have to give yourself a little bit of lead time to really think things through and do some research because changing systems or changing how you do things, it does take trial and error and it does take some time and that’s what’s really most important for the people that you’re serving is they don’t want things to be bumpy all the time. They want to know what they’re supposed to do because they’re just excited to work with you or buy from you, whatever it is.

Sofie: Absolutely and we’re touching on it a little bit here. But what are some other key steps or considerations that entrepreneurs, small business owners who want to start building systems, what are those key steps, considerations that they should be making when they’re starting out on that journey?

Jen: Yeah. So there’s usually a few things that are really important. Like we kind of talked about goals but then it’s really about discerning the business needs. So when I worked in the corporate environment, we were working on large-scale, multimillion dollar projects and we would need to really think about all of these different considerations and what did we really need and then what did our customers need.

When it’s smaller, you tend to skip over a lot of steps just to be a little quicker. But really when you’re going to build out a system, it is about like, “OK, to the best of my knowledge right now, where would I like to be in two to three years? Where am I at now? Are there any differences in the industry I want to be in, people I want to serve, the products I want to sell? How can I forecast out my needs as much as possible? What do I need now? What’s working? What isn’t working? What do I think I’m going to need in the future?”

Then you set up a budget and this can be both a time budget and a financial budget. So the time is, how long am I going to give myself to change a system, update a system. Then the money is how much is it going to cost both in terms of do I need to hire someone to help me and like those monthly or annual costs if you’re paying for software or something like that.

So you look at your needs. You look at your budget and then you start investigating and it can’t just be like asking your buddies what it is that they use. Certainly that’s part of it but a larger part of it too is being a little curious and going out and testing some things. Like use some programs that people are telling you. Don’t just go and buy it. Test it out before you move everybody into some system. Make sure that it’s going to work for you and then begin to slowly add folks to it and make some standard operating procedures around it.

This kind of taking your time and doing some intentionality around it, in the end can make sure that you’re finding and doing things in a way that makes sense both to you and to the folks who are buying from you and then it also is helping you get into systems for hopefully years because it’s so hard to change course. No one, including me who does a lot of operations work, no one wants to spend all their time doing operations.

We want to be in a place where we are serving people, we’re helping people, we’re doing the thing that we do best. That most of the time isn’t researching software and connecting it to everything.

For most people who aren’t me who loves doing that kind of thing, they just want a thing that works and the best way to figure out what works for you is to go out, test it, see if it makes sense to you and then take steps to implement it in a big way.

Sofie: Absolutely and I think that’s where that component of strategic planning comes into play is when you were talking about how you have to – don’t just shut everything down a day before a bill is due because well, our bill is due now. I want to test a bunch of new stuff out. But when you’re doing your strategic planning, you’re thinking about your two to three-year, even up to five-year growth. It’s OK. Let me think about what new systems I might need with that growth.

So I think it’s, as you were saying, being very intentional about it. So when you’re doing those strategic plans, putting somewhere in there. All right, this is the system updates that I might need if we want to roll out this new program or this new product or this new service.

So I think that’s one thing there and then another is – I mean this is just advice to listeners but take advantage of those free demos that a lot of the larger software have. So at least in the nonprofit industry, I’m researching for donor cultivation software and like donor perfect and software like that. They all have free demos so that you don’t run into that issue of, “Oh my goodness, we bought this entire system. We onboarded everyone and none of us like it.”

So absolutely. Test it out. Read reviews. Watch walkthroughs. Do your research there because it’s such a time commitment.

Jen: It absolutely is and I am a huge, huge advocate for taking advantage of the free trial and during that free trial, even if everything is going great, reach out to customer service. Ask a few questions and see how they respond because that’s a big tell too. Is this a good company or these people be helpful to me? Is the company responsive? Ask some questions about what kinds of changes are you making. What’s your roadmap? What changes are you making to your system? Because that also informs on where they’re headed and if that’s aligned with what you’re trying to do, there are so many questions that you can be asking and a lot of times, it’s easier.

We all want to just ask our friends and colleagues for recommendations but one of the things that I say – and it’s not really a joke. I’m laughing but misery loves company. I mean there are pieces of software out there in the small business world, in the nonprofit world that people really dislike and for some reason, everybody is using them even though there are a lot of other options.

Sofie: Yeah.

Jen: So just bear in mind. Sometimes people want you to have the same misery that they do so they can commiserate about it. That’s not necessarily the right fit for you. So be curious. Get in there. Test some things out. Test some of the weird things that don’t happen very often and just see how it handles it. That will really help you out in the long run.

Sofie: I think that’s some great advice there and I’m thinking when you were talking about that software that everyone just uses but no one really knows why. But we still just suck it up. I was thinking about Salesforce at least in like the nonprofit sector and where I’ve worked previously is everyone hated our Salesforce and everyone complained about it. But yet we kept renewing our membership with them and we kept buying all these different like extensions and plugins and whatever to make it work better.

I was just like, “Why don’t you all just pick a system that works with all the other apps and software we have rather than using a system we all hate and then spending more money in buying integrations?” It’s like it doesn’t make any sense to me.

Jen: Yeah, I agree with you. That’s an interesting thing. I feel like I’ve kind of matured in my business enough that I was like, OK, these are the standard pieces of software that I’m going to use. So I invested in having a developer create like a custom integration for something and then two months later, one of those core pieces of software said, “Oh, year, we’re going to charge you triple what you’ve always been paying,” and I was like, “Oh, yeah, it’s not worth that to me.”

So I sucked it up. I paid for the year because it was the only way I could lock in the price and now I’m actively looking for something else. But I bought myself enough time now that I cannot – it’s a big difference to go from $50 a month to $150 a month and they gave us like less than a month to make a decision. I’m like, “You’re blowing my budget.”

So I went and I paid a year out so that I could – at $50 a month so I could give myself time to find a new platform that’s also going to integrate with all the other pieces that I have because that’s really what you said about Salesforce is really the key, right? You don’t want to then make an impulse decision on something and then find out it doesn’t work with any of the other tools that you have.

Like everything needs to work together and that’s why sometimes these decisions take a little bit of time.

Sofie: Exactly. I mean it’s a well-oiled machine. It’s all a bunch of different gears and if something is not connecting to the others, I feel like it really throws everything off.

Jen: Well, it just leaves you open to things that never get done because if it’s a manual task and it doesn’t have to be, then people fall behind on it. It’s just human nature. So when it makes sense to use as few systems, as few pieces of software as possible and making sure they all talk to each other, it just keeps things from falling through the cracks.

Now that said, if you’re going to have a bunch of tools that you’re using, it’s really important then to also have documentation that says, OK, we’re using this piece of software for this task and it connects to this, this and this because if nobody knows and things go wrong, then it gets a lot more tricky to solve it.

Sofie: Absolutely. It’s about that documentation too and that actually leads me into my next question on, “Do you have other best practices or tips that you can share on the documentation process and how we should be documenting effective systems that are easy to use and maintain?”

Jen: It’s interesting. This is something that a lot of people don’t like to make documentation or you get too far down the road in your business. You’re like, “Oh, I never wrote any of that down. That was a mistake.” A lot of people do it and I’ve been guilty of it too.

But it really helps again like if things go wrong. One of the things that you can do is when you hire somebody, you can make sure that that’s in the contract. Whatever you make, you need to document what it is, what tools you’re using, the licensing, all of that kind of stuff, so that I know if things go sideways. This is what I’m looking at and these are the possibilities for how it could be fixed because that person may not be doing that thing anymore or they might go out of business when something goes wrong or maybe you don’t want to hire them again.

So you need documentation from them and then the second thing is for the internal processes, to the extent that you can – you either write it down or you ask somebody to write it down or in my own business, my executive assistant and I are like, “We need to write this down,” and then we figure out who’s going to do it. Usually there’s like a system owner, like a person who’s in there doing it most of the time and that’s the person who documents it and then we have a centralized place where we can find all of that documentation.

That’s the other thing is like it’s good to write it down but only if everybody can get to it because you never know when people have to pitch in and cover for each other and that’s really the beauty of good standard operating procedures is that anybody can come in and it’s like a roadmap for like how do I subscribe and unsubscribe people from my email list. How do I add a new lead? Whatever it is, you need to have it written down and have all the steps done so that anybody can step in and take over because that’s the way business has to happen now. Everything is so fast-paced.

Sofie: Absolutely. I could not agree more. I’ve been in different environments where there really weren’t SOPs and then you have to rely on someone who has done it once or twice to explain it to you and then they kind of really don’t know what’s going on. Yeah, it’s quite the hassle when there aren’t SOPs in place but I mean they’re kind of a pain in the moment but they absolutely serve you in the long run because even if you’re in that position for X amount of years, there are still going to be those moments where you go, “Oh gosh, I totally forgot how to do this,” or “Oh, I don’t really remember. Do I write that in the customer profile or do I use this dropdown? I forgot how I was supposed to mark if we had a meeting with this person,” or whatever it may be.

So sometimes even the most experienced of us forget how we did something and so we have to write it down, absolutely.

Jen: Yeah. I mean when you think about how much time you waste, if you don’t have something written down and it’s a thing that you do once or twice a year, just imagine like how much time you could save. I do training sometimes for people about time management and they say that we lose like almost an entire work week a year just looking for stuff. Like where’s that file? How do I get there?

Sofie: Oh my god.

Jen: We’re going to write that down and when you start putting this stuff into context, you start realizing that – and then you look at your day, you’re like, “Yeah, I could totally see that. I could totally see all the time I’ve wasted.”

So when you think about it in those terms, then maybe that’s a way to encourage yourself to write some of these things down, make sure that they make sense. Have another set of eyes on it because then when you go to do that thing, like I have customers who get in their WordPress website not nearly enough and then they’re like, “Yeah, I try to like post something and I couldn’t remember how.”

So it’s like stuff like that. You got to get in there. You got to have it written down, so that when you get in, you can get in, you can get out and it may actually encourage you to take care of things more frequently if it’s as easy as possible to do it.

Sofie: Absolutely. As we’re talking about identifying how we should be documenting the types of systems that we should be thinking about, how do we approach identifying which areas of a business would benefit from systemization and how do we prioritize what should be built first? Because I know it’s always just – it’s a lot when you maybe have 20 different things you want to build out. But how do we do that prioritization?

Jen: So the best things to systematize are the mundane, repetitive things because those can usually be handled through automation and that’s one of the things. So you want to look at things again that are working well, that are boring, mundane and repetitive and those are the things to start with because if it’s working well, then you know exactly how it’s supposed to work and if it’s mundane and repetitive, that’s where things like apps and machines and automation really thrive.

It’s when every time we do something that’s a little different, that’s really hard to build a system around. If something is not really working right, that’s really hard to build the system around because in both of those cases, you have a uniqueness problem that’s hard for standardization. So it’s hard to systematize that and in the other case, it’s like, well, it’s not really working right. So what is it that I’m supposed to systematize here?

So again it’s just things that work well, things that have worked well for a long time that involve a lot of repetitive tasks. Those are the first things to work on first. So for example, I have clients who go and they do a lot of popup events, so like in-person events. They ask for people to subscribe to their email lists and they have a clipboard with a piece of paper. It’s like, you know, we need to build a little system here to make this easier.

Do you have a tablet laying around your house? Let’s just put the app on it and people can sign up and type in their own name and email address and then it just goes straight into your email marketing software and you don’t have to decipher somebody’s handwriting later. You don’t have to type it all in because we all know that nobody does that and it just sits around and then people’s email lists aren’t up-to-date. So it’s like looking at things like that, that are kind of a pain that you can be taking care of and it just makes your life a lot easier.

Sofie: Absolutely and I mean yeah, I’m going through some of my own email list experiences. I think I’ve had actually that exact thing where we were collecting emails from people that wanted to be added and none of us could figure out, “Is that an M? Is that an N? I don’t really know.” So let’s try to just use the context clues here and so yeah, absolutely is if it can be digitized, I feel like that’s probably the best way to go because I mean it’s less likely for you to run into error. It happens but the chances of trying to decipher handwriting or maybe someone forgets to manually type in the list you’ve collected versus just it auto populating, I feel like there is – it’s just better to have it auto populate because it’s probably not going to break.

Jen: Yeah. I think that that’s the part that gets overlooked is a lot of times things don’t break. There’s some hesitancy among people that’s just around like the technologies with just no breaks. So why should I even do that? But it can be a real time saver and it can help with things like email lists. I mean it’s so stressful. People want to hear from you and you can’t add them because you can’t read what they’ve written. That’s a common mistake that happens to a lot of people.

So it is about like taking the tools, taking the things that we know are working well and automating it and the other thing that I want to kind of – I don’t know if it’s like to close this topic or whatever but I think it’s really important. You don’t systematize everything. You don’t automate everything. You automate the things that are mundane and that take away from helping people.

I always say you automate so you could be more human in your business. So you automate the stuff that is boring so that you can then provide better service to the people that you have in front of you, the people who are paying you, all of that, and that’s really the purpose of building a good system is always supposed to make things better for the people that you’re working with.

Sofie: I think that’s actually a wonderful closeout because I was going to ask what is something that our listeners should take away and I feel like that is really the overarching theme of so much of this episode and just when you think about businesses in general is it’s so easy to get sucked into the business robot of, “Oh, I have to do this, I have to do that, I have to do this. I don’t have time to talk to my customers and hear about their day and to hear about their experience. I don’t have time to do that. I’m too busy doing all these other operational components that I just can’t do that.”

So I love that you said that because even in the nonprofit sector, I see way too often where people lose touch with, hey, we’re here to help people. Why aren’t we talking to people? Why are we sitting at our desks working remotely in our home alone, going through the Salesforce list, trying to manually update everything when I could be doing outreach calls, when I could be speaking to alumni of our programs, when I could be doing all of these other direct service or even just connection, building connection with the people that the organization serves?

So I love that you said that and I think that’s something that really rings true is we automate so that we can become more human.

Jen: Yeah, yeah. I mean that’s why you got into it. You don’t work at nonprofits to be a robot.

Sofie: Exactly.

Jen: You know people and I think that that’s true definitely in small businesses and definitely in most nonprofits and it’s so easy to lose sight of things when you get bogged down in the systems that don’t work. But at the end of the day, it is just that you can be more human.

Sofie: Absolutely and thank you so much for sharing that and for sharing your wisdom and thank you again for coming on to the podcast, Jen.

Jen: Thank you so much for having me.

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