The Chocolate Life

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The majority of small businesses fail within five years.

It is sad to think that all of the hard work, effort, dreams and hopes of so many of us turn to dust in such a short time. My understanding of this phenomenon is that in many cases, the people driving a small business simply run out of steam around the five year mark. Too much hard work, too many late nights, not enough life balance, time for family and self.

Which leads me to the subject line of this discussion: "Make yourself dispensable".

Jim Colins' book "Good to Great" came to the conclusion that the best leaders made them selves dispensable in their organisations. What does that mean?

It means that you arrange things so that you (and by extension anyone else in the company) aren't the only person capable of keeping the wheels turning.

Easy to say, but hard to do when you are a small startup/business. As Annette said in the comments on this group about me, I am indispensable to my business.

Right now that is true and frankly it is a worry to me, no one else can do my job and that is a bad thing for the business. However I am trying to change that and I think it is something that we should all be aiming for even if we can't achieve it today.

Why bother? There are many good reasons. Some are:

- You can go away on holiday and take a well deserved break WILL continue without you
- Anyone else in the company can take a holiday and things continue smoothly
- You will find that your business runs more smoothly as more people know how to and can do the things that need doing


So how to do it?

1. Standardise and document processes
2. Train staff
3. Be prepared to let go

Standardise and document processes: this is probably the single most important thing to do. If key tasks (like how to clear a container load of cocoa through customs, or invoice a client) is properly documented, then anyone in the organisation should be able to make it happen even if they have never done it before.

Train staff: many people in small business come from a technical background (myself included). We are used to doing the job ourselves and probably believe that no-one can do it better than us. This may well be the case, but it doesn't mean that we don't have a responsibility to the business, our investors (if we have them) and to our staff to hand on those vital skills. If you get sick, injured, or just plain worn out, then there is someone able to step into your role and the business keeps ticking along. Perhaps not quite as well as if you were there, but probably well enough. It will certainly be better than having no-one there at all.

Be prepared to let go: this can be the hardest thing to some people to do. But if you want your business to survive (let alone grow) you need to be able to put your ego aside, step back and let your people get on with the job.


You may think that your business is too small to benefit from this process, but if you have more than one person (Tava has only two currently) then it can be a big help and possibly even more important. Here are some of the things that we have documented, or are planning to:

- Banking: how to access the online bank account and which accounts to pay money from for wages, bills etc
- Online shop administration: how to check an order taken by the shop and determine if it has been paid and is ready to ship, how to complete the order and notify the customer
- Cocoa roasting process (times, temperatures etc)
- Packing process for orders
- Operation and maintenance instructions for each piece of machinery in our factory

This covers the most important task that need to be dealt with in our business that would have a significant impact on operations if one or other of us where to be off sick, or away on holiday.


So, if you:

- Describe the key tasks in your business
- Put the time and effort into training staff to perform them
- Are willing to let go just a little bit

You will be in a good position to survive that five year hurdle.

Views: 74

Replies to This Discussion

Most excellent, and well said! Thank you!
Thank you Annette. Glad that you liked it.
Really well written. Thank you for your information. The best piece of information is "be prepared to let go" something we should utilize in all aspects of our lives!
Thanks Diane, I am glad that you found it useful. The issue of "letting go" is also probably the hardest for most people to do (myself included). If you are interested in the subject, then I would recommend finding a copy of "Good to Great". The amusing thing is that it is becoming rather dated now (but I believe that the lessons still hold up). Its references to Fannie Mae in particular at this time is truly ironic! Still, it just goes to show that businesses change and that good management and operation is something that you have to work on every day.
Langdon -

Believe it or not, TheChocolateLife came about because it got to the point where I had to let go of "owning" everything that got published on chocophile.com and then discoverchocolate.com.

As a blogger it got to the point that everyone was waiting for me to post my opinions. So, I was responsible for 1000 new words a week - at least. Then I'd post things and maybe one or two people would respond. Lots of times I felt I was publishing into a black hole.

As I got into the process of writing my book I developed a severe case of writer's block when it came to the web site. It got to the point where I couldn't even visit the site, let alone write something new for it. I was spent, out of ideas, and totally unmotivated. At one point I went four months without posting anything new.

Sometime in December 2007 I reached the point where I had to change something or stop. The change I envisioned was to stop seeing myself as an expert whose opinion mattered - to stop seeing myself as indispensable. Oh, I knew I had a lot to offer and that I knew my stuff, but as a blogger my whole world revolved around me. The change I decided to make was to step away and let go of controlling what was and was not published on my site.

To do that, however, required that I change the software I was using and start from scratch essentially. After about six weeks of research I realized that I needed to do was sort of like Facebook or MySpace only just for chocolate. I did try to start this up on Facebook but stopped when I realized that about 169,993,011 of the 170 million active Facebook members didn't care enough about chocolate to want to participate in a group.

So I created TheChocolateLife.com as the place on the Internet where I could let go. I have a huge indebtedness to Casey, one of the earliest members of TheChocolateLife even though she has her own chocolate blog. Casey posted a review of Rogue Chocolatier and I e-mailed her back saying that her rating system was not the same as mine and could she edit the article to remove the ratings.

Casey wrote back to say, essentially, "No." That even though this was my site, if I wanted to encourage a vibrant community I needed to let go of control over what people could and couldn't contribute otherwise no one would join.

I took Casey's advice as you can see, and now I can go away for a week to a place where there is no Internet connectivity and while I am gone people post new Forum threads and make friends and upload photos and videos - and they even make suggestions for groups they'd like to see. This group exists because Annette came to me with an idea. The Chocolate Swap group exists because of an idea from Casey. The "Special Offers" forum thread is as a result of input from Reonne (aka Choco Mama).

Nowadays I see my role not so much training people to administer TheChocolateLife (though I think there are members that could), but moderating and mentoring. A lot of my time is spent behind the scenes sending messages of encouragement or letting people know when they've posted something that does not meet the spirit of the Golden Rules for contributing to the site.

I haven't got to the point - yet - where I am completely dispensable, but I am no longer indispensable and I have every member of TheChocolateLife to thank for that.

Thanks All,
:: Clay
Nice illustration of the point Clay, thank you for the comment.

I think that your approach is also a very good example of flexibility. Something that every business is going to need in the coming years. The financial crisis that the world is in is far from over. If you're not prepared to adapt, then you may find your business just evaporates.

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