Build an Engine, Not a Job

Burnout.

That’s the reason why so many startups fail.  The ongoing workload becomes too overwhelming before the results from that work have a chance to materialize.

For bootstrapped startups, this is especially true—even more so when it’s your first venture, the one you hope will break you free of consulting or your day job. Your biggest hurdle isn’t competition, or finding the right idea, or building your product. It’s burnout.

It’s not like you have investors who’ve given you money to keep going—even before the results arrive. You’re not working for clients who’ve contracted you to complete a job. You’re only accountable to yourself. You and only you decides when it’s time to throw in the towel or keep going.

Plan for burnout

The key to overcoming burnout—or avoiding burnout in the first place—is to plan for it.

In the beginning, you’re the one doing most, if not all of the work in your startup. Building the product, doing customer support, writing blog posts, billing, all of it. If these things don’t keep operating, the startup… stops.

So as you begin working on each of these things, you have to plan for the day that you will lose steam and not want to continue spending your hours working on them. This day will come, probably sooner than think. In fact, you should want this day to come sooner rather than later.

Anticipate it. Be ready with a plan in place for how this thing you’re working on today will continue running long after you’ve stopped doing the work. When your building a business that can scale beyond just you, you have to think in terms of assets, not checklists.

In other words, working on your startup is not like working on a project for a client. In a client project, you’re checking tasks off the list of things you’ve agreed to deliver. But in your startup, you’re building an engine. Actually, you’re building lots of little engines. First you build the gears, then you connect them together, then you give them the juice to keep running. Then you can walk away and start working on the next little engine. Eventually, all these little engines form the ship that can move faster and go farther.

Examples

This past week, I started working on launching our new blog for Audience Ops. Unlike the blogs and newsletters we write for our clients, which my team completely handles thanks to our finely tuned production process, I want to be personally hands on with our own blog for Audience Ops, at least in the beginning.

But I’m not making my own involvement a requirement for the blog to keep publishing. So I’m taking a 2-pronged approach: I’m hands on in crafting our core themes and topics for this new blog. And I’m choosing which of those articles I want to write myself, and which will be better handled by other writers on our team.

My goal here is to put my personal stamp on the direction of the blog early on, help craft some of our “pillar” content, and let that form the basis of the editorial calendar going forward.

Within two months of me focusing heavily on our blog, I can let the team take over much of the weekly writing, as well as editorial control (based on the core topics I helped to establish early on). Then I’ll be able to dip in and write for the blog when I want, or focus on other things while the blog keeps producing.


Here’s another examples of building engines that out pace burnout:

On my personal blog and newsletter, it’s easy for me to get busy and go several weeks without publishing something new. So I took the advice shared by Nathan Barry, and I built out a welcome sequence for my newsletter.

New subscribers to my newsletter receive about 3-months of weekly newsletters that share my best articles from the past year or so. I hand selected these and carefully placed them in an order that I think gives new subscribers a good introduction to my writing and the ideas I aim to teach here.

Having this automated welcome sequence in place enables me to take a couple weeks off from blogging without losing momentum with my newest subscribers. Of course, I still make an effort to publish new stuff “live” to my long time subscribers at least every month or so (or more when I have a lot to share). But thanks to this little engine I’ve built, I don’t constantly feel under the gun to keep this blog “alive”.


One more example:

At Audience Ops, one of the things we do for clients is create an email course designed to educate their target audience about best practices, then convert those new subscribers into leads and customers for their product.

Up until recently, this was an area of our service that still largely required my direct input. My team writes most of the content, but I’ve been closely involved in the up-front research and topic selection, and I often wrote the final few emails, where the pitch is made for to sell readers on the client’s product.

We’ve reached a point now where we’ve made our creative process for email courses highly standardized and predictable. That’s not to say we write the same content and topics for each client. We still do a ton of research to make sure the sequence resonates with each clients unique target customer and does the job of selling their product.

But the overall production process is largely the same each time. So I clarified our procedures, made some standard sequencing templates and created a few key creative guidelines. Now my team follows these to produce highly effective email courses with little or no direct involvement from me.

This doesn’t happen overnight. And there is still plenty of talent (my team are much better writers than I am) and creativity baked into our process. But it happens in a highly predictable way, which I’ve been able to build systems around.

And now I’m able to move on to working on the next little engine in this business (our marketing engine).

Build engines

There’s a ground level tactic as well as a high level mindset I hope you’ll take away from this.

The tactical advice follows the same things I teach in depth in my Productize course, which is to constantly be building out your documentation and systems while you define the process for what it is your business does (notice I said your business does, not you do).

The high level takeaway is this:

Your mindset needs to shift from just checking off boxes to designing and building engines. That means constantly re-evaluating what you’re working on, and how that thing will become an asset that will continue producing results for your business long after you stop working on it.

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