A few years ago, I spoke at Todd Herman’s 90 Day Year Live event in La Jolla on Breaking the 4 Bottlenecks That’ll Keep You From Scaling Your Business. This 4-part blog series is drawn from that talk.

Business owners usually call me pretty much when they reach a crunch point in their scaling. That’s the niche I serve.

They’ve figured out the really hard stuff (well, from my viewpoint it’s the hard stuff!) like creating a product that people love and getting it to market, and getting rave reviews.

To put in 90 Day Year-speak, their Marketing & Sales pillars are firing on all cylinders — and it’s actually that success that is creating breakpoints in other parts of their businesses, typically over the Operations pillar.

Are you facing a similar problem-set? If your small business has successful products, you’ve cracked your market, and things are selling — you’ll need to take a good hard look at your team, and your tech and your operations. This series will help you identify the bottlenecks in your business – and help you square things away so you have a solid foundation on which to scale your business.

One of the most common bottlenecks is in technology or software. This not unique to digital business. It can happen to any business. But for digital businesses like most of ours, the significance of a tech bottleneck just can’t be overstated. It’s like someone hooked a bowling ball to your leg, prisoner-style — it just follows you around and slows everything down.

Look for systems in your business that break or have a high error rate. Those breaks can be due to human error or actual software bugs — or just a really bad fit between what the software does and what you need it to do.

It’s this last point — the bad fit — that’s worth talking about.

Typically, I see two types of bad fits:

1. The first type is an over-reliance on free software and/or an over-reliance on Google Docs & Spreadsheets to do things that no doc or spreadsheet should ever be called upon to do.

If your business relies on Google Sheets or Google Docs to handle major processes, major launches, or anything else that’s “major” in your company, you are going to have a hard time scaling. (You’re probably already having a hard time meeting your current business volume.)

An example I see frequently is using a spreadsheet to manage launches – or any project with tasks & due-dates. The majority of the time, the sheet is abandoned mid-way through the project — I’m guessing because it’s not helpful whatsoever and too confusing for anyone except the person who set it up.

Please, go invest in a real piece of software that is more directly fitted to the task at hand. Spend some money to get the features that will be heavily used by your team and especially for features which remove the human burden of doing things manually.

Please, go invest in a real piece of software that is more directly fitted to the task at hand.

2. The second type is when the pendulum swings too far the other way: diving too deeply into custom coded systems — like tricked out membership sites or even super tricked-out order forms. I’m not against custom code, but there’s one thing for certain: it can complicate the scaling process.

One quick story (with some details changed to protect the innocent):

A team whose business model is selling content inside a membership site began its life investing heavily into an LMS plugin with lots of custom code on top. The site is beautiful, but two things create daily problems for the team:

  • Only the developer can make anything but the most superficial changes to any content
  • They cannot update to the latest version of the LMS plugin because it will break all the custom code. So they pile code on top of it, and hold off updating other plug-ins (and even WordPress itself), which opens them up to rather serious security vulnerabilities.

Those are daily problems, but they’re also having problems figuring out how to expand into selling other stand-alone courses — or setting up new membership tiers inside the existing site. These are standard features for membership plug-ins these days, but that door is closed to this team without a major overhaul.

Of course they didn’t know they were boxing themselves in like that. They made a series of decisions that focused on having a great-looking page design, and now they’re doing their best to live with the consequences.

Now not every story is that extreme, but remember that template & replicate is the rallying cry of scaling. Understand the tradeoff between what you’re gaining with custom code and what you might be losing out on — including having a simple, templated system upon which to scale. Solid, reliable functionality that underpins the scaling process is a noble investment.

Another way tech can be a bottleneck is having too many human-intensive processes that are key to your regular operations. Human-intensive processes do not scale well. Systems that are fed manually can get unsustainable pretty quickly when the volume increases. By unsustainable, I mean:

  • The team just can’t keep pace with the increased volume, and backlogs pile up
  • The error rate (whether it sustains or increases with volume) produces too many mistakes that take more human-intensive work to resolve
The culprit here is the spreadsheet jungle that many small businesses rely on for organizing and displaying data.

The culprit here, a lot of times, is the spreadsheet jungle that many small businesses rely on for organizing and displaying data. I’ve watched so much team-time go into Spreadsheet Farming when the data housed there is barely viewed or acted-upon. (What’s the use of taking the time to feed spreadsheets when the information isn’t used for anything?)

There’s almost always a more-direct way of viewing the data you want (especially if you view it only periodically) than porting it into a spreadsheet (and if there isn’t, try to automate the data movement with something like Zapier). Better yet, seek out systems & software with features that address the real nature of the work you’re trying to shoehorn into that spreadsheet.

Your specific solution is going to vary — based on what decisions you need to make and what data will support your decision-making, and the systems you use. Working with your operations team to remove these bottlenecks will help your prepare your business for scaling.