biz ladiesLife & Business

Biz Ladies: Creating Systems for Your Business

by Stephanie

Today’s Biz Ladies post comes to us from  Michelle Nickolaisen, a business systems and organization expert.  Michelle works alongside established creatives who tend to get stuck going from innovation to action and are overwhelmed with all the details of running their own business. Today Michelle gives us some insight into what systems works best for you and how to fully implement these organizational systems into your business. Thanks for this wonderful advice! —Stephanie

Real the full post after the jump…

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If you’ve been in business for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard about systems and how awesome they are. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, often in contexts that don’t really appeal to creatives, and often without explaining in concrete terms what exactly systems are and what exactly they can do for your business. This is a freakin’ tragedy because they can do a lot of good for creative businesses, all without ever stifling you or making you feel suffocated!

What are systems?

A quick & dirty definition of a “system”: it’s a repeatable plan or a process (anything from a simple 3 step process to a complex multi-person procedure). This could be a customer follow up system or a system for tying your shoes.

Creative types tend to really chafe at the word “system” and all of the associated baggage. I get it – I do! A lot of the information out there about business systems is written for huge corporations and/or is written from a “automate everything so you don’t have to do anything” point of view, neither of which being a perspective I’m particularly fond of. These sorts of resources usually paint systems as something incredibly complex, confusing, and often confining to creativity, which is how systems can be but not how they have to be (or even how they should be in most cases!). Systems can be simple and elegant, and you can create systems that are the right size and complexity for you and your business.

Why you need systems in your business:

The really short version is that they save you time & effort. Two things we could all use more of, amirite?

The longer version:

A system makes things easier to automate, whether fully or partially. I’m not one of those “automate everything about your business!” people (as you may have guessed from my earlier comment), but it can be handy for certain things, and having a well-defined system will make automation approximately 1.5 billion times easier.

A system saves you time and mental effort, and gives you something that you can easily repeat. If you have a set of steps that you know you’re going to have to go through, whether it’s for marketing or for product creation, then you don’t have to spend extra time and brainpower thinking “Crap. What was it I was supposed to do next? What did I do last time? I think I did this…”

A system makes it easier to fix things in the aftermath of someone messing up or someone going missing. Let’s say you start working with a new client or wholesale customer, and during the process, something goes a bit sideways. If you have systems in place, it’s far easier to see at which step things went wonky (“Okay, so the problem appears to have started during the intake process when we didn’t get enough information…”) – and figure out how to prevent that wonkiness next time.

Last but not least, systems are crucial in creating a scalable, sustainable business (for all of the above reasons).


Three must have business systems

When you’re starting to build systems into your business, it can be really overwhelming if you don’t know where to start. Every business is different, but here’s a few places that generally have a good return on investment for creating systems:

Marketing and promotion

We can forget to do this if we don’t systematize it and clearly, that’s a terrible, terrible idea, because y’all, without marketing & promotion, you’ve got nobody paying you, and without anyone paying you, you don’t have a business. I say “marketing and promotion” instead of just “marketing”, because I like to split this area up into two categories:

  • Marketing: I categorize marketing activities as things that can get you clients now or in the immediate future – emailing someone and asking to work together, submitting a pitch on a gig, etc.
  • Promotion: I categorize promotion as activities that are building authority/credibility so that you’ll have clients & customers coming to you further on down the line (instead of you having to seek them out). Think: blogging, guest posting, webinars and teleclasses, getting interviewed or getting media features, etc. (There’s an excellent Biz Ladies post on building credibility here, if you want to read more.)

It’s a pretty arbitrary distinction because the words are so similar in meaning, but however you decide to categorize it (outbound vs. inbound could be another way to think of it), it’s a good idea to make a distinction in your efforts between the two areas. When you’re just starting out in business, you want to do more “promotion” related activities, but you also can’t neglect “marketing”. It’s a good idea to start out with a 75/25 blend, and then as you get more regular customers/clients and referrals coming your way, you can switch to 50/50, and eventually more like 25/75.

Action steps: Make a list of what you’re regularly doing for marketing and promotion, making sure to consider what’s actually got results for you. A lot of activities are touted as one size fits all when they (shock) actually aren’t. When you have a list of things that have actually worked in generating more customers/clients/profit, decide which ones you enjoy enough to do regularly, and how often you’ll do them. Then make it a point to schedule them into your calendar on a regular basis.

Client or customer follow up

People who have already paid you money and are happy with the results, service, & experience they got are like, a kajillion times more likely to work with you again in the future. (I’m not a statistics expert, don’t give me that look.) It’s a much better use of your time to make sure that your current clients are happy and that your past clients know they can work with you again, than to spend time on getting new people to work with you. So many service providers let this slip through the cracks because it’s easy to assign a lot of emotional baggage to it – “I don’t want to bother people!” (I say service providers, but really this works for selling products too, though your systems for it will look a little different.)

Seriously. If you gave money to someone and you were ecstatically, pee-your-pants happy with the results, would you be cranky if they said to you “hey, I have this special thing for people who have already worked with me, you can learn more about it here…”? Obviously this only works if you’re doing your best to make sure that all of your past clients & customers are ecstatically, urinatingly happy with their purchase, but I’m going to assume you’re doing that anyways.

Here’s some ideas for how to get started with this:

  • having special “client only” packages at a reduced rate not available to the public
  • create a service package that’s a natural follow up for the work you’ve already done with a client that you can offer them 30/60/90 days downt he road
  • having free monthly or quarterly teleclasses/webinars/brainstorm chats with past clients (invite all of your past clients on one call)

Action steps: Set up an easy to use CRM like Contactually or Ming.ly and put all of your current & past clients in it so that you can follow up with them regularly. If your business is more product based, think about ways to add in some follow up – whether personalized (if your customer volume is lower and that’s doable for you) or automated. You can send people a discount for their next purchase a week or so after they buy something, for example, by integrating your shopping cart software with a mailing list service like Aweber or Mailchimp and then setting up an autoresponder.

Your work or services themselves

If you don’t have systems for your work, then you’re missing a lot of opportunities. You’re probably spending more time than necessary doing the work, and not having defined systems and processes also means that it’s harder to streamline things than it should be. Another unintended side-effect is that not having systems can mean that you’re spending a lot more time than you think you’re spending on all of the various pieces of your work, which means that your rates might be inaccurate, which can lead to you severely undercharging. Working 60 hour weeks and still feel like you’re not making a profit? This could be why.

Action steps: Start creating task lists for the work you do the most often – whether that’s making something by hand or a service you provide for clients. This can be as simple as a list in Google Docs or Evernote, or more complex like a project or task list template in your task management tool. Make sure you aren’t skipping any steps! When you’re doing your work, having this list will be useful because you won’t have to pause & think about where you’re at and what’s next – you’ll be able to just look at the list and know. The other great side effect of this is that it makes it easy for you to spot places that are ripe for streamlining – pieces in the process that are a little clunky.

Now that you’re aware of the awesomeness of systems for your business & have some actions to start on, I’d love to hear which specific action you’re going to take next! Let me know in the comments or on Twitter. And if you want to learn more about systems, check out my free Systems 101 course!

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  • Thank you for the reminder! As a former corporate office monkey I am constantly thinking of ways to make my creative work and service more consistent and efficient. The problem is that getting the “systems” set up takes time and, frankly, isn’t as much fun as dyeing fabric and sewing pieces together. But until they are in place I will be reluctant to go after wholesale accounts. I think it’s time I got to work on systems! :)

  • I’m with Natalie. Coming from a corporate background of 10+ years, I really like to have a process and a system in place for my design work but I really need to make it a point and to focus on putting these procedures in place for my own sanity.

  • I am a new blogger, and don’t quite have an actual “business” yet. Are there aspects of this I should implement for just a small website? I’m definitely bookmarking this as a fantastic resource for the future anyway!

  • Great post. For show-me-an-example people like me, it’s really helpful to have specific ‘actionable steps’ after the general ideas. Thanks!

  • Great info. I’ve somewhat stumbled into my business and don’t really have a business mind at all–I just love to paint! Trying to use systems is difficult for me but I know very worth the thought and effort early on. Thanks for getting my mind going in that direction.

  • You’re so right, systems are SO important, but I’m so bad at remembering to follow them! I’ve made a systems doc in the past and then promptly forgot about it and never looked at it again :/ Thanks for the reminder, I’ve now set up periodic reminders in Google Calendar for me to check my systems and make sure I’m following them :) Here’s to working smarter, not harder.

  • Thank you guys! I’m so glad you like the post! :)

    Tia – I’d start systematizing wherever you can, and just work on having a systems mindset for when you move into the future. Some places that you could start would be systematizing the process for writing posts (or collecting the inspiration for posts), moderating/replying to comments, marketing your site, etc.

    Fathima – Google Calendar is actually something I recommend to my clients & use myself in that same way! Smart move ;)

  • Excellent. I particularly like your promotion vs. marketing distinction. Great ideas and reminders of things I can systematize to save time. Thanks for sharing your valuable tips!

  • Love-love this post! I might add that having systems installed in your workflow will help you in the long run when you decide to expand and hire employees. :) It’s been a must on our end when we decided to hire a designer and a studio manager.

  • Thanks for this great article – we have struggled at times being a young business with getting systems in place when all your want to do is the “Fun Stuff” :) But these systems are important for growth and we will definitely be taking on some of Michelle great advice!

  • Thank you for this article, ladies! I have been having my own company for a year now and have constantly stressed to my business partner the importance of system and this is the perfect read. We have finally some middle ground to work around with and can begin to tread on! :)

  • I am doing some of these tips by nature, but i am going to study on it as it mentioned above … thanks a lot …