Time to Grow? It’s Time to SOP!

Aug 13, 2014 | Business Basics


Many creative businesses start as freelance adventures. One person, fired up by an imaginative bent and an independent spirit, starts making money from their craft. That’s sometimes the whole goal, but for many people who hang in there and keep creating, a one-man-band can turn into an orchestra.

It’s a common pitfall for all businesses, knowing when/how/who to hire as the business expands. For creative business, it can be especially scary, as many of us have been making it all up as we go along from the start, and can have some very peculiar ways of doing things.

A simple solution, and one championed by author and business guru Michael E. Gerber, is to create a manual for your business. This is a book or collection of notes in a folder, as complicated or as simple as you like, that documents how your business is run – and could be run by others. It’s sometimes called an SOP – Standard Operating Procedure manual.

Which is? An SOP manual documents your work, and the way you do it, in a written form that other people can read and hopefully understand. It provides instructions on tasks and duties, big and small, composed so that someone else could easily take over if you couldn’t (or didn’t want to) do that job anymore. In other words, an SOP manual answers this question – if someone were to replace you, what would they need to know in order to keep your business running smoothly?

As a freelancer, this might seem like a waste of time, but if your creative business is growing to be bigger than just you, it’s worthwhile documenting your process and figuring out the best ways of doing things. It can be whatever format you like—the only rule is that it exists in written form, as a reference book for someone else.
How do you begin? Start with the following:

  • Keep a notebook or similar handy and write down the steps you take when completing tasks during a typical day or week, as you think of them. Document each step, even if it’s small, in point form.
  • Then, imagine that you’re explaining that task to someone else. Think objectively and critically about the way you do things. Is there a more efficient or sensible way of completing the same task?
  • Create a separate file for each task, like “answering emails” or “paying for things”. How often do you do this? What are the steps? Where could someone find the necessary documents to complete the task?
  • Imagine that a teenage intern was to do your job for a day – how much detail would she need to do the task in a way that would make you happy?

If your SOP Manual isn’t useful and practical, it will be a waste of time. You don’t need to document every single tiny task, but there are certain items that are must-haves for an SOP Manual:

  • A contact list – every supplier, freelancer, client, insurer, landlord, bank manager, bookkeeper, accountant and advisor needs to be documented and searchable;
  • Checklists for the basics – is there a way to answer the phone, reply to emails, tidy the office, arrange the paperwork, restock the supplies, organise the regular events? Anything that has easy and repeatable steps to follow can be made into a checklist and/or run sheet;
  • How To Guides – write simple guides for more complicated tasks, such as how to get a complete client brief or how to write up an invoice, or how to send out email newsletters.

How is this document different from a business plan? In some ways, it isn’t. It still helps explain how the business is run, but a business plan is consumed with the big picture—goals, financial projections, and marketing plans. An SOP manual is consumed by the particulars. Also, a business plan, once completed, often sits on the shelf until it’s time to apply for more funding or go back to the bank. Once you have other people working with or for you, your SOP manual should become a useful and well-thumbed document.

The best part of the SOP manual is that it will help you grow. As your business gets bigger, more people get involved, perhaps you have more than one location or you want to spend more time developing your creativity or the business and less time doing the boring admin—your SOP manual means you can say “Here is the way we operate our business” instead of “This is how I do things”. You’ll have proof that there is an actual business going on here, something that can run without you. This means you can have more time to go back to doing the thing you fell in love with in the first place – creating.


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