Streamlining your creative business with systems

Managing_Systems_B
Do you have a bunch of things that you know that you have to accomplish but you’re at a loss as to where to start? Is your to-do list full, but you’re still not getting the important things done? Have you ever “finished” a task only to find that you left out a step? Are you finally getting help with your creative business, but you’re struggling to explain certain tasks to your new assistant? If so, then systems are the answer for you.

I don’t need a system…I’m a creative

Routines. Workflows. Systems. The very words seem to be the opposite of creative, don’t they? Lots of creative people naturally balk at the idea of systemizing their work. On the contrary, creating repeatable and predictable systems and workflows for many aspects of your business actually frees you up to be more creative in your work.

As a creative business owner, you do more than simply create. You also have to ship and package orders, follow up with current and potential customers, write and publish blog posts, market your business on social media, update your website or Etsy store, apply for art fairs and craft shows. If you can make any one of those tasks easier, more accurate, and more efficient, then you can reserve your time, energy and brainpower for your creative work. Creating systems can help you do that.

The beauty of systems is that they free up time and energy for your most creative work Click To Tweet

It’s all in your head…it’s time to get it out

If you’ve been in business for any length of time, you probably know all the basic steps for say, packing and shipping an order. So is this task as efficient and effective as it could be?

This is one thing that I personally found to be a problem area…especially during a holiday rush. Shipping an order a day isn’t difficult. Shipping two…a bit more work, but not all that difficult either. But during the holidays I could get a up to a half a dozen orders or more over the course of a day. On top of managing my other tasks I found it way too easy to overlook an order, ship the wrong thing, or mix up an order. It also felt like it was taking way longer than it should have.

On occasion I would go to ship and order only to find that I didn’t have enough labels or packing tape or shipping inserts to finish the task. So a job that should only take 15 minutes max would turn into an unplanned errand to the store or the post office to get items that should already be there. And then I would have to go back out again to actually ship the item.

Talk about a time sink.

I was also having trouble with something that just as important as getting that order out the door…customer followup. Letting the customer know that, yes I’ve received the order, that the order will ship out in two days, letting them know when the order has shipped, and a friendly check back in a couple days to make sure that they’ve received it…which is also a great time to thank them and to invite them to visit my Etsy shop again. Because people can be a bit squirrely about such things when they’re ordering online and it’s for a birthday or a holiday gift.

Shipping_Process

The problem was that while I knew what it took…it was all in my brain, but my brain was also full of the other things I needed to do that day. Which mean that I didn’t always do the task in a predictable, consistent way from start to finish. Some people would get a follow up message, some wouldn’t. Some orders went out with all of the nice goodies and information…some didn’t because..d’oh! I had run out of the shipping goodies. I was essentially reinventing the wheel every time.

Do you have regular tasks that should be done in a consistent way but they’re not getting done on a regular basis? Are there things that could be less time consuming if you had a more efficient way to do them? Things like:

  • Writing a blog post
  • Shipping orders
  • Customer follow up
  • Writing and sending newsletters
  • Updating your mailing lists
  • Approaching prospective galleries
  • Making followup calls
  • Managing show applications
  • Setting up and breaking down your show booth
  • Managing invoices
  • Updating your Etsy store
  • Updating your blog or website
  • Backing up your website and other computer files
  • Recording and storing business receipts
  • Logging travel mileage
  • Overall marketing and promotion
  • New client/customer acquisition

There’s tons more that I haven’t included. You probably have tasks to include that’s uniquely related to what you do and how you work. The point is, that if you have to do any of these tasks on this list creating a system can help you work better.

Start building your system by getting the steps out of your head and onto paper Click To Tweet

7 easy steps to creating your first system

Developing system for your creative business doesn’t have to be hard. In fact you can have a bit of fun with it because you will also be imagining on how smooth your business life can be and then taking steps to move it in that direction.

Step 1: Pick one thing– I found the best way to introduce systems into my business was to concentrate on one thing that I wanted to improve. For me it was my shipping process. For you it may be something else. Remember to only pick on thing at time…if you try tackle everything at once it will became this huge, time-consuming mess and you’ll be tempted to quit before you make any headway. If you have a bunch of stuff you want to improve, make a list and then pick the one that’s most important to your business.

improvement_list

You should also start with something that you’ve already do on a somewhat regular basis. If you don’t have a system for acquiring new customers, you may find it harder to build a system from scratch than one you already have a process for, like improving how you add items to your Etsy store. For your first time out, it’s easier to create a system on an existing process. Once you get the hang of your first one try creating the next one from scratch.

Step 2: Write it down– The next thing you need to do is to write down each step in your current process. The process is in your head…you need to get it out. Although you may be able to do this from memory, the most accurate way to do this is to actually document each step as you’re going through the task. And when I say “steps” I mean all of them. If your process requires you to go from one room to another and open this or that box, write it down.

If your process takes place on your computer, document each screen you have to view, how many folders you have to open, whether you need to use a password and where that password is located if you have to look it up. You may even want to take screenshots of each step. Why do this in such detail? It will become apparent in Step 3.

Step 3: Notice where your current process breaks down– As you start documenting your process, it won’t take you long to notice where the break downs and the bottlenecks in your process are. Writing down each step in your current process will show you where you’re repeating actions unnecessarily, where your task is likely to get stalled, if you’re missing things you need to quickly complete the task, or if a task is needlessly complex.

For me, the fact that I didn’t have a dedicated, organized space set up specifically for shipping orders was a big bottleneck. I also noticed that I didn’t have a consistent system of follow up messages to send to my customers that guided them through the entire order process…I was essentially coming up with communications as I went along. Which meant that I would sometimes forget what to say when, or would be missing key information in some of the messages.

Step 4: Think about what your ideal process would be– Once you see how your current process runs and where the breakdowns are, think about how you would like your system to flow. Write it down…all of the steps, including the key locations of places and items you need to complete the task. Think about what you need to change to your current process to make it more like your ideal one. Think about the sequence of steps you’re taking in your current process. Does it make more sense to rearrange them? Are there steps that you’re forgetting that you need to add to your process? Does it make more sense to combine or batch certain steps instead of doing separate single steps over and over again? Are there steps that you’re taking that are unnecessary to getting the job done?

Think about your environment. Is your workspace or studio set up in a way that makes your task easier or harder? Can you set it up in a certain way so that you minimize time and energy?

If your task is computer based see if files, passwords, and applications are located in a way that makes you take unnecessary steps. Think about what tools and documents you can add that would make your task more efficient, like equipment, apps, pre-designed templates, and pre-written scripts.

The first thing I knew that I needed to change was the fact that I needed a dedicated shipping space, with all supplies and equipment I needed to get an order out quickly, like tape, envelopes, shipping inserts, scales, pre-cut bubble wrap, etc. I also made a rule with myself that nothing other than orders…no works in progress, inventory, files, or junk goes into that space.

The next thing I added to my shipping system was a series of pre-written messages I would send during each stage of fulfilling the order, starting from when an order popped into my inbox to several weeks after I shipped it. I wrote standard scripts for each message and put them in an easily accessible Evernote document so that when I got to customer follow up step in my shipping system, I had a message already written with all the necessary information they needed to know for that stage.

I also added a step to my process that required me to check over my supplies after I completed shipping all of my orders for the day. If I was running low on another (and I also defined what running low meant in my system), I would immediately add a task to my to-do list to replenish that item. I’m happy to say that I hadn’t run out of shipping supplies since.

Step 5: Document your new system and put it in a prominent place– Writing out your new system helps to solidify it. It also gets it out of your brain so you don’t have to use brain power to remember all of the steps…it’s there in writing. All you have to do is follow it. You may be great at remembering things, but why put your energy into doing that when you could be putting it towards more productive and creative things?

Plus if you ever need additional help, perhaps you’re bringing in a friend or a family member to help during rush periods, or you’re hiring an assistant to do these tasks, you already have step by step instructions for the task ready for them.

Don’t put your energy into remembering simple tasks…save that for your creative work Click To Tweet

Step 6: Test it out– Once you’ve got your new system documented, it’s time to test it out. The next time you have to do the task you systemized…go through the entire sequence exactly as you documented it. As you go through it, you may find that some parts don’t work as well as you’ve envisioned. Or you may find that you’ve still missed a step or two. That’s okay…go back and tweak your system and update your document. Keep doing this until your system is running smoothly.

Step 7: Do it again! Once you’ve created one system, you’ll find it easier to create another system…and another…and another. Go back to that list you made in step one and tackle another task. You may even start building entirely new systems from scratch. You’ll soon start seeing ways systemize and streamline all sorts of tasks.

Once I created the system for shipping orders, I moved on to other areas I’ve been wanting to improve. For example, I’ve recently created a system for writing blog posts that included writing blog posts in batches of 2 to 3 posts at a time instead of one at a time. (Thanks to Ali Luke for this tip!)

How does this work? Tuesdays and Wednesdays are writing days. Thursdays and Fridays are for polishing and proofreading. Saturdays are for creating graphics that go in the blog post as well as the graphics that I’ll post on social media. All of posts and graphics are put into WordPress and are scheduled on Mondays. I also pre-schedule social media updates for those blog posts on Mondays as well. To help my new blogging system, I’ve also created a blog post template in Evernote that I use for starting all of my blog posts. I’ve that it’s much easier to start writing in a pre-designed template rather than opening up an empty document and facing that blank screen.

So far this new system is working quite well. I don’t feel like I’m scrabbling as much and I also don’t feel like I’m constantly switching from one type of task to another every day. Does this mean that I can’t just spontaneously write something if an idea strikes me? Of course not! But this system keeps the blog posts coming whether inspiration strikes me or not.

Remember…the point of a system is to reserve your time, energy and brainpower so you can be your most creative. You don’t have to think about what comes next, you already know. Instead of wondering when and how you should do your customer follow ups, having a good system will mean that you already know that it happens on Wednesday afternoons, that you have everything you need to complete the task right at your fingertips, and you already know each step you need to take to complete the job.

Maintaining and refining your systems

Your work isn’t done once you’ve created your system…it’s an evolving thing.

Over time you may find a tool, or a piece of equipment or an app that can make your system better. Last year, I discovered two apps, Todoist, a list management tool, and IFTTT, an automation tool, and I’ve quickly found ways to use both of these apps in my systems. The combination of them greatly improved how my shipping system works. Now thanks to these apps, every single one of my steps along with the information I need to fill an order automatically appears on my to do list as soon as the order hits my email inbox. I don’t even have to open my email to view the order notification…I simply open my to do list and all of the information is there. Always be on the look out for things that can make your system better.

Todoist_screen

This year I’ve also decided that it’s time to invest in a standalone label printer instead of taking the time to print, cut, and glue labels on my packages. After reviewing the steps I take to simply attach labels to a package, I decided that this new printer will be well worth the money. If there is a piece of equipment or a tool that can make your process even better, don’t be afraid to explore it. In many cases the time and energy you save will more than offset the cost.

Over time your business may evolve too. You may find that the type of blog posts you’re doing now no longer works with the system you created. Or you may add a new product or a new marketing method and you need to adjust an existing system to include it or create a new system for it entirely.

Make a point to review your systems on a regular basis to tweak, improve, and prune unnecessary steps. Or to add a new system or trash an obsolete one. If you have assistants that are helping you with tasks, get them in on the development and managing of your systems…they may have some ideas and insights that you hadn’t considered that will save you time.

Always be on the lookout for ways to to make your creative business run better Click To Tweet

Recommended reading

This of course isn’t a complete primer on how to create systems for your entire business. This post is just to get you started in the right direction. If you want more information you can check out Michelle Nickolaisen’s Kindle book, “Rock the System: Using Systems to Grow Your Business With Less Pain + More Fun” for more detailed instruction of systems building for your business.

If you’re a blogger, you’ll find Copyblogger’s article on workflows for bloggers rather useful as well.

So your mission now is to go forth and start systemizing your tasks. Using the steps above, make a list of tasks you want to improve in your business, pick one and start building your system. Let us know what it is in the comments below.

TLDR
We all do a lot of repetitive tasks in our creative systems. The beauty of building a system for these tasks is that we free up our time, energy and brainpower so we can use them in our creative work.

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