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Work ON it, not just IN it

If you’re one of the many millions of fans of Michael Gerber’s The EMyth Revisited, you know that there’s no message that’s had a more universal impact on business owners than work on it, not just in it. Over the last 35 years, since The EMyth was first published in 1986, this phrase has become part of the business vernacular.

Google it, and you’ll find it frequently quoted in publications like Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc, Huffington Post, and The New York Times. It’s so well known, it’s become one of those widely-held truisms that people remember more than where it came from.

At EMyth, work on it, not just in it is the symbol for the shift in thinking you need to make to be able to create a business that really works. A business that really works for you. It’s a shift in perspective that has everything to do with recognizing that the purpose of your life is not to serve your business. The purpose of your business is to serve your life.

This month, we’re dedicating a series of blogs to this idea to help you understand this powerful paradigm shift for transforming your business and your life. Today’s blog is an introduction, or a re-introduction, to the idea itself.

So, why is it so important for you to shift your thinking in order to build a business that works? Let’s go back to the EMyth, the Entrepreneurial Myth.

The EMyth says that, regardless of how much you may identify with being an entrepreneur, it’s a myth that most businesses are started by them. By our definition, entrepreneurs are people who go into business with a vision of a company they want to create that doesn’t rely on their own ability to produce results.

Most businesses, in fact, are started by what we call “technicians”, people who create a place to go to work for themselves, and make the fatal assumption that understanding the technical work of their business means they’ll be able to successfully build a business that does that technical work.

It’s an assumption that’s just not true. It’s not only the primary cause of the failure rate of businesses—half of all businesses never make it to their fifth anniversary—but it leaves the survivors in survival-mode. Many just hanging on. Others having lost their passion, just not having fun anymore.

Here are some examples of what we mean:

If you’re a graphic designer, you may have the technical skill to produce superb visual communication through type, photography, and illustration, but it doesn’t mean that you understand what it takes to build a graphic design business that can make a promise to its customers and keep it every time, consistently and predictably.

If you’re an electrician, you may be technically competent to wire a building the size of the Sears Tower in Chicago, but it doesn’t mean that you know anything about building the marketing, finance, management, lead generation, lead conversion, customer fulfillment or leadership processes that every successful electrical contracting business needs.

If you’re a real estate agent, you may be outstanding at representing clients who are looking to buy a new home or sell the one they have, but it doesn’t mean that you’re prepared to create a real estate firm that can thrive whether you’re there or not and free you to live the life you really want.

If you’re a technician at heart, you’re not just passionate about the product or service you deliver, you’re really good at what you do. Since the day you went into business for yourself, you’ve been relying on your personal ability to get things done. No one does it better than you. It’s almost heroic what you’ve been able to accomplish.

And, it’s just not enough. It can only get you so far. At a certain point, you can’t help but feel the impact of all the demands of owning and operating a business that you just weren’t prepared for. Trying to stay on top of it all can be pretty overwhelming. You can spend a lot of time working without feeling you’re getting anywhere. It’s a tragic expenditure of time and effort.

And, it just doesn’t have to be that way.

Working on it, not just in it can change everything.

The call to work on it is a call to think the way a true entrepreneur thinks. To the entrepreneur, the business operates without them. To the technician, the business operates because of them.

To the entrepreneur, the business is the product. To the technician, the business is a place to go to work every day.

To think entrepreneurially, imagine your business as a prototype for 5,000 more just like it. What would it mean for your business if you had to face the fact that you couldn’t be in 5,000 places at once? How would your business have to operate if it couldn’t depend on you to personally produce results?

To answer these questions, you’d have to start thinking differently. You’d have to start imagining your business as something wholly separate from you. You’d have to think about your business strategy, not just the tactics of your business. You’d have to envision how your business would work, not just do the work of your business. You’d have to figure out how every business process would look and function to give your customer the experience you’re dedicated to providing. You’d have to think about the kind of people you would need and the culture you’d have to create to rally everyone around your vision. You’d have to imagine every system your team would need to effectively create an exceptional customer experience without you.

You’d have to become as passionate about the company you were creating—the way your product or service is delivered—as you are about your product or service itself. You’d have to think of your business as the product.

That’s what working on your business, not just in it is all about: building a business that operates consistently, profitably, and self-sufficiently. It’s hard work and it’s richly rewarding work. It’s the kind of work that will test you and show you what you’re really capable of. It’s work that can make it possible for you, over time, to replace yourself with the right people, a team that can deliver an exceptional customer experience with the support of your own proprietary systems.

Once your business doesn’t depend on you to do things like generate leads, convert them into sales, deliver your product or service, manage your money, drive growth, keep track of your metrics, develop your people, treat your customers the way you would treat them, innovate to keep up with changing customer preferences and competition, or even lead it if you choose, you’re well on your way to freedom. Freedom to contribute to your business in just the ways that are personally satisfying. Freedom to generate an income that supports the life you’ve worked so hard to earn. Freedom to leave it when you’re ready, trusting it’s in great hands. Freedom to sell it for a premium price.

Isn’t that what you were really wishing for when you decided to go into business for yourself?

Check out the other blog posts in this series:

Ilene Frahm

Written by Ilene Frahm

Ilene joined EMyth in 1982. During her 17 year marriage to Michael Gerber, she collaborated with Michael on "The EMyth Revisited" and served as his editor and publishing agent on it, 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. Except for one short stint, she hasn’t held a position in the day-to-day operations of EMyth since she retired as its President in 1999. Ilene and her husband, Gerrit, spend two months a year at their cottage on the north coast of Spain. The rest of the time, she does what she loves: mentoring staff, training salespeople, and supporting everyone in the company, at every level, in their leadership.