I plan to make myself unnecessary to my business by the end of 2017. This is different than making myself useless or irrelevant. Allow me to explain.

I started my agency in 1999 in Provo, Utah. That is, I started freelancing as a web designer and called myself an “agency.” Things went well working on my own, until several months later, in 2000, I brought on two partners and we rented some office space. That was a different experience from working as a lone wolf. Over the next several years I worked hard. We had some successes, and some failures, and while nobody got rich, we did ok.

In 2003 we went through a buyout which left me working on my own without a partner. “Good riddance to partners,” I thought. I didn’t want to be tied down. I thought I knew what I was doing, and I was going to show everyone. I secured debt financing to grow my dream company, and dove in.

It turned out that I didn’t know what I was doing. I worked hard, but the company was constantly on the edge of going out of business. So I worked harder. I worked 100+ hour weeks and regularly slept on the floor of my office. I made financial sacrifices as well. I went four straight years without taking a dime out of the business. No paycheck, no nothing.

By 2007 I burnt out. I knew my business had the potential to be successful, but I didn’t know what I was doing wrong or what I needed to change. All I knew was that what I was doing wasn’t working and if I didn’t work less I was going to die young. Something had to give, so I started making changes–not because I thought they would help the business, but because I had no other options. I was out of money and in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt–enough to buy a really nice house in Utah.

The only options I had were painful ones. I got rid of our nice office space. Now I couldn’t tell people “Yeah, that’s our office you see with our logo on it right off the freeway.” I put my 10 full time employees on contract. Now I couldn’t tell people, “Yeah, we’ve got a team of 10 full time people in our office.” I retreated to the basement of our townhouse. MWI was back down to a team of one, and a few contractors. I felt like a failure.

I ran the business by myself, closing deals here and there, doing light project management and account management, and outsourcing work to a network of contractors. I ran the business this way for five years. By 2012 I understood what I had done wrong, and what needed to change. In 2013 I rebooted MWI and we started to grow again. Although we had never done more then $500K in a year, we shot past $1M within the first 12 months and now…well, this blog post can’t keep up but MWI is firmly a multi-million dollar agency. I haven’t worked a single 80-hour week since our reboot, and I get paid.

What Changed?

With MWI 1.0 when I got busy I worked more. But this graph illustrates the problem with doing things that way.

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Doubling my time at the office wasn’t enough back then, and it’s not enough today. Time management and investing in productivity also isn’t the answer. Working more may temporarily boost results, until you burn out, and being more productive is important, but an entrepreneur doesn’t scale his business from $1M to $100M by being more efficient with his time. By itself that’s a recipe for being too busy and ultimately for failure.

Four Reasons You’re Too Busy

Are you swamped? Always busy? Do you feel like you never have enough time to get everything done? Congratulations! You’re normal. But don’t bask in the glory of normalness, let’s talk about what can be done to get unbusy. If you’re too busy, there are four possible reasons why, and for virtually all of us it’s going to be a mix of all four things. Actually, there are five reasons, but I’m going to assume if you’re reading this you aren’t plain ol’ lazy. Here are the four remaining causes of busyness:

1. You’re doing good things that aren’t essential. Reading the news is a good thing. It’s good to be informed about what’s going on in the world, right? But if your goal is to grow your business to $100M in revenue during the next two years then reading the news may not be essential unless it’s relevant to your business.

2. You’re doing better things, but they still aren’t essential. Spending time on Twitter may be relevant to your business. Perhaps there are opportunities to network with peers, form partnerships, and find clients. This may be a better use of your time than reading Drudge Report, but is this the best use of your time? Is it truly essential?

3. You’re inefficient in how you do the best things. Even when you’re doing things that are 100% essential to your business and only expending effort on what is the best use of your time, you may be doing your work in a way that wastes time. This is where productivity hacks come into play, like David Allen’s two-minute rule, or the practice of batching email so that you’re not constantly being interrupted throughout the day.

4. You’re doing things somebody else should be doing. You may be doing things that are 100% essential to your business, but it’s not 100% essential that you do them.

In a startup even if you eliminate good and better things that aren’t essential and maximize your efficiency you’ll still find yourself at #4 realizing there is still too much you should be doing compared to what you have time to do. That doesn’t mean you should ignore time management and productivity improvements, but that you should recognize that improvements in these areas are not enough. How much can you improve your ability? Perhaps by eliminating the unessential and gaining efficiency you can effectively grow your ability by 10%, maybe 20%, maybe even 200%. It’s still not enough. No matter how much you improve, there will still be more opportunities for your time than you have time to take advantage of. If you want to grow your business then making yourself efficient is important, but making yourself unnecessary is critical.

Giving Up is Good

At MWI 1.0 I tried to do everything. Even when I had 10 people working for me I tried to do way too much. I should have given up, but I was stubborn.

At MWI 2.0 I started out by giving up. The first thing I gave up on was sales in the U.S. I looked at sales and told myself “Josh, you’re not very good at this. Find someone who is better.” I found someone better. His name is Corey Blake. He’s now my partner at MWI. Turns out he’s good at a lot more than sales.

But I was still doing sales in Hong Kong, where I had moved and where we were opening a new office for MWI. I tried to give up sales, but it took me a while to find the right person to give it up to. I found that person. As soon as I gave up sales, it freed up a large chunk of my time. I then gave up account management. I took “everything I should be doing” and gave it to other people who were better at it than I ever could be. 90% of what I was doing six months ago I no longer do at all, and the business is better for it. I gave up on my business, and it was the best thing I ever did.

Of course a funny thing happens when you make yourself unnecessary and give someone else your work–you find something else to do. And that’s the point.

What I Do Now

Millions of books have been written to answer the question “What should I do right now?” It’s the root of classics like The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen R. Covey and Goals! by Brian Tracy as well as new best sellers like The One Thing by Gary Keller and Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Every book on parenting, business, education, and self-improvement seeks to cure our confusion and tell us how to allocate our time and other resources. Despite all these books as well as millions of articles, videos, and seminars, most of us ignore the advice we receive do whatever seems most urgent at the moment.

Instead of letting events manage me, I manage events. I start out by setting big goals.

Goals are dreams with deadlines. — Diana Scharf

One of my goals is to turn MWI into a global, 500 person agency. That means MWI needs a lot more leads. In the old days I would have asked myself “What can I do to generate more leads?” but with a goal this big I can quickly see that I can’t do it by myself. I’ll need a marketing team. So one of my sub-goals is to create a self sufficient, internal marketing team at MWI by January, 2017. Then I start mapping out what that looks like and create sub-tasks to help us get there. I block out time on my weekly calendar to work on this goal. When I’m tempted to do it all myself I remind myself that it won’t work. I may have to pitch in temporarily, here and there, but if I start doing the marketing work and stop working on creating a marketing department, I’m hurting MWI, and I’m going back to “work harder” as a strategy.

Challenges to Becoming Unnecessary

It’s easier said than done. I may want to hire an administrative assistant to take care of admin tasks I currently do myself, but do I have that money laying around? If not, I can’t make that hire, and I have to continue doing admin work. As frustrating as it may be to do work almost anyone can do while work only you can do goes undone, that’s often the reality of entrepreneurship.

The larger challenge is giving up, letting go, or delegating. There are many founders who, after they have plenty of money, cannot resist the temptation to be involved in the details of their businesses in ways they shouldn’t be. Imagine you take care of marketing at your company, but then you decide it’s something you should outsource. You hire a marketing agency, but then you micromanage every move they make. You now pay out valuable cash to make yourself unnecessary so you can focus on other things that need your attention, but you’re not enjoying any increase in your available time because you’re spending just as much time managing the marketing agency as you were spending before doing the marketing yourself. As I explained in Why You Should Never Micromanage Your SEO Firm, if you’re micromanaging an agency you should either fire the agency or you need to trust them and step back and let them do the job you’ve hired them to do.

Founders, managers, and others also have trouble letting go because they think “If I get other people to do this work, what will I do? Maybe I won’t be valued at this company.” This ends up being counter-productive thinking, because it’s precisely those leaders and managers who let go and delegate whose departments and companies have the chance to be more successful. There are cases where a boss doesn’t understand this and fires a great manager because he thinks “I can just have these cheaper people do the work now that he’s made himself unnecessary…” but is that the kind of boss you want to be working for anyway?

It’s hard to let go, but I now have a simple process. I look at everything I do and ask myself “Can someone else do this?” If the answer is yes, I create a plan for how to pass it off. That plan involves hiring someone I can trust. Then I give that person my trust, and if they don’t get the job done and don’t respond to feedback and training, we part ways. I don’t worry that anyone will think I’m useless just because I’ve made myself unnecessary. I know I’m going to have plenty to do, and as I focus on my highest competency I will be more valuable to the company than ever before.

An Unnecessary Trick

In addition to goals I use thought experiments to help me see how I can make myself unnecessary. One thought experiment, which I plan to turn into a reality, is to take a one-month, disconnected vacation.

Since I started my business in 1999 the longest I’ve disconnected from the internet is 3 days. The idea of disconnecting for a month terrifies me because it makes me think about everything that could go wrong with my business if I were out of touch. That list of problems is a roadmap to make myself unnecessary. Those problems are exactly the areas I need to focus on in order to give my business the ability to grow. Some of the issues that come up or questions I ask myself are:

  • Who would do marketing and generate leads?
  • Who would take care of an emergency with clients A, B, and C since I have the strongest relationship with them?
  • What if something went wrong with essential software we use that only I have the usernames and passwords to?

In each case there is a solution, and implementing the solution will allow my business to grow.

What about you? What steps have you taken to make yourself unnecessary in your business? What frightens you about becoming unnecessary? Tell me in the comments below.