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Navigating the transition from employee to entrepreneur

Leadership

1 min read

This year, I’m celebrating my 40th Anniversary at EMyth. I joined the company as an entry-level salesperson in 1982 at the age of 29. I’d just moved to northern California from the East Coast in search of a new direction after leaving a PhD program at MIT in public policy. As a graduate student, it dawned on me that I wasn’t an academic at heart. I didn’t want to spend my life studying the real world—I wanted to contribute being in it.

As scary as sales felt at the beginning, my work at EMyth was exhilarating. I loved talking to small business owners about their dreams and frustrations, what they did and didn’t know how to do in their business, and helping them bridge the gap between their current reality and the future they hoped to build.

In those days, as an employee selling coaching, I was what we call a Technician: someone who makes, sells or delivers a company’s products and services. If you’ve read Michael E. Gerber’s groundbreaking book, The E-Myth Revisited, you know that most small businesses are started by Technicians, people who’ve developed a technical craft working for someone else before going into business for themselves: plumbers become plumbing contractors, hair stylists open salons, chiropractors open chiropractic practices and so on.

Unfortunately, the mindset that Technicians bring to owning and operating a small business can turn out to be their biggest liability. It’s arguably the reason why 50% of businesses don’t make it past their five-year anniversary, and many of those that do survive continue to struggle. 

Technicians who start a business to do the work they’re good at most often suffer from a fatal assumption: If I understand the technical work of a business, I understand a business that does that technical work. It doesn’t take Technicians-turned-business owners long before the promise of success turns into relentless stress and overwhelm from all the unexpected demands the business is making on them. 

I didn’t realize in 1982 that I was beginning a life journey that would take me from sales Technician to the ownership of EMyth. Admittedly, my path there was atypical: I met Michael Gerber when I joined the company and we became business partners and partners in life. And today, two decades after our marriage ended, we’re still co-owners of the business.

My journey into leadership has been an evolution—not unlike the one I see happening for many of our small business clients. For me, being a skilled Technician and employee at EMyth hardly prepared me for the leadership, management, marketing, finance, people and customer fulfillment skills I needed to lead the company. It wasn’t easy at first because it required me to change the way I think. That’s not an easy thing for any of us to do. And now, the shifts in perspective I’ve made, continually validated by my experience, have become part of who I am. 

I had to give up my attachment to my identity as a super Technician, able to generate my own exceptional results. I had to develop two aspects of myself that I didn’t know very well: my inner Manager who produces results through other people and builds systems to support them, and my inner Entrepreneur who thinks strategically so that my business can not only operate in a consistent, predictable way but can function apart from me rather than as a part of me.

And, I had to learn the disciplines of coaching, finance, marketing and leadership—integral to our business—which I knew nothing or next to nothing about. 

Navigating the transition from Technician to Manager and Entrepreneur is challenging and enormously rewarding. It makes it possible to create a life and a business you love leading. If you recognize that you and your business are inseparable—in other words, if you were to take yourself out of your business, your business would cease to exist—here are some next steps to take:

Become aware of which mindset you're leading from

Technicians tend to build their business around their own ability to produce results, an approach that ensures that the business will be forever dependent on you. Thinking like a Manager and an Entrepreneur makes it possible to create a business that can operate without you so that you have the choice to be there or not, in whatever role you choose to play. 

As a young leader at EMyth, I loved what I was doing. I wasn’t looking to be free of it. When I took vacations with my family, though, it was a gift to have the confidence that the company was in good hands because of the systems in place and the way we hired and trained our team. What I wanted most in those early years was the freedom and sense of relief, frankly, that comes from leading a team with shared values, objectives and operating standards. I’m grateful that EMyth has given me an opportunity to see first-hand the price that business owners pay for unknowingly dragging their Technician mindset with them. It made it easier for me to let go of my own Technician thinking and shift my perspective to one that was more strategic and systemic … and more productive for the business and my life.

Identify the beliefs and assumptions keeping you in Technician mode

If you’re looking for a way to make your business less dependent on you, look no further than your beliefs about yourself, your people and your company. How you think about your business is how you end up doing business. These are some of the most common expressions of Technician thinking:

  • “No one can do it better than I can.” 
  • “No one cares as much as I do.”
  • “It’s impossible to find good people.”
  • “My business is unique. It can’t be systematized.”
  • “I can’t afford to hire anyone to replace me.”
  • “All my company needs is a good _________.” (Could be anyone in any position you think is going to save you.)
  • “It’ll take me too long to train someone to do what I do. I might as well do it myself.”

Do you recognize any of these beliefs in yourself? What if they’re not true? What would it mean for you and your business if you could allow yourself to consider that these beliefs are not only false but are actually getting in your way?

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Calculate the time you're spending doing each type of work

One of the clues that your Technician thinking may be running your business at your own expense is how much time you spend doing Technician work versus the work of a Manager and an Entrepreneur. Business owners mired in Technician thinking spend an inordinate amount of time making, selling or delivering their products and services rather than the work that’s most likely to grow, expand and improve their business.

So, conduct a bit of an experiment for a week or two. Create a spreadsheet (or just take a sheet of paper) with four columns. In the left column, list the times of your workday in 15-minute increments. Add these headers to the other three columns: T for Technician, M for Manager, E for Entrepreneur. As you move through each 15-minute period of your day, check off whether you’re doing the work of: 

  • A Technician: Making, selling or delivering your company’s products or services
  • A Manager: Helping your people produce results, including building systems that support them, whether you currently have employees or not
  • An Entrepreneur: Thinking strategically about the future or taking a strategic action to bring your business one step closer to your vision 

At the end of each day, tally up the results and calculate the percentage of time you spend on each of these three types of work.

What thoughts and feelings come up from performing this experiment? What do the results tell you about your priorities? What’s one action you can take to shift your orientation from Technician to Manager and Entrepreneur and experience different results?

Cultivate your ability to work on your business, not just in it

Working on your business is the skill that every business owner needs to build to create a thriving company that doesn’t depend on you to produce results. Turning what you know how to do really well into systems—step-by-step processes—that others can use effectively is something that anyone with the desire can learn how to do relatively easily. 

For example, If you’re a real estate broker who’s really good at sales, systematize your sales and training processes so the agents you hire can be as productive as you are. And then systematize your recruitment and hiring process so you attract the kind of agents who can both be inspired by your systems and help you make them better. 

If my own evolution over the past four decades, and those I’ve had the honor to witness, have shown me anything, it’s that every Technician-turned-business owner has an inner Manager and an inner Entrepreneur waiting to help them become the leader the business needs them to be. 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, leaders are not necessarily born with a leadership gene. I watch business owners build these skills every day. Just like I did. At the same time, not every small business owner will rise to the challenge of learning how to think and act like a Manager and an Entrepreneur, letting go of doing the technical work they’re good at in order to build a business that works.

While it takes some attention, like it does to learn anything new, working on your business, not just in it, isn’t rocket science—and it’ll change your life. Once you’re skilled at it, you’ll have the power to free yourself from the Technician work that’s keeping you from expanding your reach, growing your company and creating a business that serves your life rather than the other way around. If you’d like help in bridging the gap between where you find yourself and the business and life you’d like to create, please reach out to me at ifrahm@emyth.com. I’d love to help.

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Ilene Frahm

Written by Ilene Frahm

Ilene joined EMyth in 1982. During her 17 year marriage to Michael Gerber, she collaborated with him on The E-Myth Revisited as his editor and publishing agent, as well as on a number of his other books. Ilene spent more than a decade working on EMyth (not just IN it) to build a company that didn’t depend on her. In 1999, she retired as EMyth’s President, though she’s continued to serve as the company’s board chair. At the beginning of 2020, while the pandemic made it impossible for her and her husband, Gerrit, to spend time at their cottage on the north coast of Spain, Ilene returned as the company’s CEO to support the executive team and everyone in the company, at every level, in their leadership.

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