Working IN vs Working ON Your Business

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In his iconic work, The E-Myth, Michael Gerber talks about working in your business vs on your business.  If you haven’t read this business classic, I would encourage you to do so.  And if you have, I suggest you give it a re-read (though for some reason my copy seems to be missing, I probably loaned it out and never got it back).

I want to talk about this concept and break it down a bit.  As a small business owner, I know that it’s hard to keep all the balls in the air and to know what the most important thing is to be doing at any given time.  I talk constantly about priorities, efficiency, time management and other things that help you figure out what’s going on in your business.  One of the most basic ways of looking at what needs to be done in a business is to divide everything into two categories.

Working IN the business

This means producing the product or service that you sell.  Whether that’s providing massages, fixing plumbing, or any number of services, or, if it’s making donuts or cowboy boots.  Whatever your service or product is, it needs to be produced and someone needs to produce it.  Depending on the size of your business, this may fall solely on you, or you may have a team who handles it all.  Either way, it’s probably the original reason you got into the business in the first place.  You thought, “I make great ___________ (fill in the blank), and I want to share my talent with the world.”  Fantastic! That’s so important and I’m so glad you decided to do your thing, whatever it is.  The world needs you to share your brilliance.

Working ON the business

This entails everything else that must be done in order to run a successful business.  If you make the most amazing jewelry on the planet, but no one knows about it, there is no way for them to buy it.  If you don’t do all those other pesky tasks like marketing, selling, creating new designs, keeping track of your money, paying your taxes, etc., etc., etc.  you won’t have a business.  I know that these are NOT things that most entrepreneurs love to do, but sometimes, we must take care of them too.

What I’ve found is that striving for a healthy balance is key to overall success.  If you spend all your time working IN the business, then your business will suffer because it won’t have the infrastructure it needs.  And if you spend all your time working ON your business, you won’t have happy customers. 

People often talk about how hard business owners work and that they seem to always be working. 

Well, that’s not far from the truth for a lot of us.  But it doesn’t have to be that way, at least not always. 

When you are first starting out, your focus will need to be on marketing and selling so you bring in enough clients to have work to do.  Then you must do the work!  Sometimes, it’s a constant struggle to get your schedule to work.  Running from networking events to client meetings and back again is tough.  But it may be what is required to get your business off the ground.  I know I did it for many years and I’ve watched other new business owners do it too.

Once things start churning along, then you need to add in the other essential tasks like keeping up with you accounting.  Ugh, right?  Who wants to do that?  Well, I hate to say it, but someone needs to.  So, add that to the time you need to work ON your business and rebalance your schedule so that you are still working IN your business as needed.

As your business grows, you will likely find that you will need to add help in order to get everything done.  Here’s where it gets interesting.  You can either add help to work IN the business, or you can add help to work ON your business.  Hmm, think about that for a minute.  Do you WANT to be the one producing your product or service?  Or, would you rather teach someone else how to do that and spend your time bringing in new business?  You as the business owner get to choose.  Some entrepreneurs I’ve met go one way, and some go the other.  Sometimes it depends on the business. 

For example, in my business, I’ve been able to bring on team members who help provide our services, and even expanded what we offer based on their special skills.  This has worked out great for me.  I still handle the more complex work but have been able to transfer the more basic services to them.  This has freed me up to focus on the harder cases which keeps me challenged and interested but still allows the company to offer all the services our customers need.  It has also freed me up to spend more time working ON the business, doing things like sales and marketing, fine tuning our procedures, and handling special one-time projects.

It’s a constant balancing act figuring out where you will get the most value spending your time.  Personally, I shoot for one day a week (usually Monday’s) to oversee my team, hold meetings if necessary (but keep these to a minimum), review their work or answer their questions.  I also take some time to plan out my week and get my priorities straight. Then I spend the middle three days of the week working IN the business on client work.  And I leave Friday’s to work ON the business doing marketing, special projects, etc.  When I can, I take off early and spend some time enjoying my life and sharpening the saw, as they say.  This is a general plan and I know I must be flexible in order to keep all the balls in the air. But it helps me to keep things in balance and make sure that I have satisfied clients, happy employees and that the business keeps moving forward in the direction I want it to.

Figuring out when to do what is a constant challenge for business owners.  Breaking it down into the two categories, IN vs ON, and then deciding how much time you need for each part can help.  If you bill hourly, you can easily figure out how many hours you need to bill per week in order to meet your goals.  Then you can figure out how many hours you need to get everything else done, and schedule accordingly.  If you don’t bill hourly, then you’ll have to figure out how much time to spend on each part using some other method.  And, of course, as soon as you figure it out, it’s likely to change.

Learning to plan, delegate, schedule and then revise everything as needed is critical to keeping your head above water as you strive for success in your business.  Hopefully you can find a healthy balance between working IN and working ON the business and you’ll be able to walk away at the end of each day knowing you’ve done what you set out to do.

Sherry Lutz Herrington is the owner of Sherrington Financial Fitness, a business consulting and accounting firm specializing in strategic business planning and solid financial accounting for businesses. She is also the author of Strong Women Thriving (, a blog which focuses on empowering women to be financially savvy, particularly after experiencing financial abuse. Sherry is currently writing a new book that both shares her personal story and addresses financial abuse. She can be reached at

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