In praise of documentation

The business I ran before Mycelium was Portland Underground Grad School, a place where lifelong learners could keep learning and growing into who they wanted to be, for their entire lives. I founded it in 2014 and in four years, it grew to 75 courses and 900 students a year. In December 2018, I sold it, remaining on as a teacher (and student!).

In the transition to its new owner, an old lesson from E-Myth Revisited returned. E-Myth Revisited is one of the five top-selling business books of all time. If you’re a small business owner, it’s probably the first book you should read (or at least understand it; it’s poorly written). The “Entrepreneurial Myth” is that most people who start small businesses are entrepreneurs.

The fatal assumption is that an individual who understands the technical work of a business can successfully run a business that does that technical work.

It’s main point is that in order to run a successful small business, you have to stop being a Technician (someone good at their job) and become a Entrepreneur (someone who runs a business). Sound familiar?

One of the key insights of E-Myth Revisited is the operations manual.

Document everything that happens in your business and make it a process that can be replicated without you.

Break your business into simple steps and write them out clearly so that you can train other people to perform those steps. That way, you can grow your business to operate outside of your individual labor. There are $20/hour jobs, $200/hour jobs, and $2000/hour jobs. You want to create processes for others to do all the lower paying jobs so you can concentrate on the higher paying ones.

Due to that book, I created a PUGS operations manual very early on. Each PUGS coordinator read the manual when they started, used it as the instructions for their job, and edited it when they left. It improved over time. When I sold PUGS the manual was the template for the new owner to run the business.

And here’s the thing: what we documented is going well. Anything that was missing has caused the new owner a headache. For example the LinkedIn and email domain login information were not recorded and now together we have had to jump through hoops to re-establish them: hours spent today that could have been avoided by a simple record taking just minutes in the past.

Save all your accounts and logins in one place. Update it constantly. It’ll save you a world of grief in the future.

Documenting is part of the housekeeping that is hard to do when you’re juggling all the balls. But an entrepreneur keeps in mind the long-term goal of an independently operating business.  

A stitch in time saves nine.

- Douglas