Grow Your Business

7 secrets to building a six-figure team

We tend to think of business as this binary thing: either you’re a solo entrepreneur, grinding it out on your own — or you’re a “Job Creator,” with the weight of your team’s livelihood (and health care and retirement…) resting on your already overburdened shoulders.

Unlike that Bachelorette contestant who asks why you’re not ready to say “I love you” after four weeks of dating, I don’t blame you for not being ready for that level of commitment.

The good news: there’s a whole beautiful world in the middle of these two extremes. It’s a world occupied by insanely talented freelancers and contractors who are looking for clients who need their talents — but not on a full-time basis.

Some of our most successful students have witnessed firsthand the game-changing difference that growing their teams can make for their business — and their sanity:

  • Nicole Jardim boosted her launches by 39% (and saved herself from burnout) by bringing in backup
  • Jacqui Pretty was able to scale back to working on her business just 10-20 hours per week because her team has it handled
  • Shirag Shemmassian spent days of quality time with his wife and new son in the hospital while his team held down the fort at home

It’s one thing to hear about what putting a team in place can do for your business. It’s another thing to see in action.

So that’s what we want to do here: show you how one entrepreneur works with her team to create a business that is as great as the sum of its parts — and greater than what she could have built herself.

Meet Team Comme une Française

Géraldine Lepère is the founder of Comme une Française, a six-figure online business that helps non-native French speakers master the nuances of French language, conversation, and culture.

But she’s not in it alone. Working alongside her are:

  • Two part-time assistants (40 hours/month each)
  • Two part-time content writers (30 hours/month each)
  • A part-time video editor (15 hours/month)
  • A strategic coach (7 hours/month)
  • A developer (~20 hours/month)

Géraldine built her team gradually, starting with her first virtual assistant, who she brought on in 2015 when the business was bringing in $50,000. (We wrote about their dynamic in a previous post.)

Today, Géraldine’s team works across time zones. They work across languages. They balance their work for Comme une Française with commitments to other clients. But you wouldn’t know any of that looking at the finished product.

Screen Shot 2018 09 05 at 6.40.45 PM

We talked to Géraldine and a few members of her team, and a couple of themes emerged:

  1. Hire for the things that don’t need you
  2. Invest in long-term hires
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate
  4. Create systems that let you scale
  5. Let your team be the experts you’re paying them to be
  6. Give people opportunities to grow
  7. Know that your team has got this

1. Hire for the things that don’t need you

How do you know when a task is ready to be delegated? Géraldine boils it down to a simple equation.

If someone else can do it as well or better than I could, they do it.”

“It’s not about being overwhelmed as a weak person,” she says. “You can see that you’re not providing enough value for the company. So I just look at a task and I ask, ‘Am I providing enough value here?’ And if not, if I can provide more value another way, I ask someone else to do it.”

There are budgetary restrictions that apply here. For entrepreneurs earning less than $250,000 per year with their business, Profit First author Mike Michalowicz recommends allocating no more than 30% of your business’s revenue to “operating expenses.” So take 30% of your total revenue, subtract out fees for things like web hosting and other essential tech fees. Whatever you have left after that — that’s what you have to budget toward bringing in outside help. And if you don’t have enough: Your business isn’t healthy enough.

As far as the kinds of tasks you can expect to “hire out”? There are two kinds of camps that delegatable tasks tend to fall into:

  1. Subject matter expert tasks, like writing, designing, or programming, where you can bring in an expert, and let’s be honest, they’re probably going to do it better than you
  2. Trainable tasks, where there’s less of a specific professional skill set at play, and with enough guidance and explanation, you can get a smart, motivated team member up to speed

Trainable tasks — like tracking payments, handling scheduling and customer support — tend to be the first stop when it comes to clearing time on our calendar. That’s why we tend to recommend a kickass, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done virtual assistant as the first addition to your team. (That’s what Géraldine did.) Freeing your time up from tasks like those will give you more time to focus on more specialized tasks, like blog writing and course development.

Then, gradually, you can add those more specialized tasks to the mix — by bringing in people who are even better at them than you are.

2. Hire for the long haul

“I hire for the long term,” says Géraldine. “If you’re in, you’re in. I’ve been working with people for three, five years — and that’s how we work. We say ‘we.’ No one says ‘I.’ We work together, they’re part of the team, and they think about the brand and the company, not just this one project that’s in front of them.”

There are a couple of advantages to hiring freelancers for the long haul, as opposed to for the short term or on a project-by-project basis.

  • It saves you time. Take it from someone who’s done it — finding, vetting, hiring, and training freelancers is a giant black hole where productivity goes to die. It takes a long time to teach somebody your rules of the road — and if they walk away three months later, they take all of that time with them. If you can find people you like and trust and keep them around for the long haul, and then all of a sudden you’re only having to train new people a few times a year instead of a few times every month — it will make your head spin how much more productive work you will get done.
  • It boosts efficiency. The longer you work together, the better you get to learn each other’s work styles and rhythms, and the more effective you can be at setting goals and laying out a plan to get them done.
  • It increases the value each person can provide to your team. The better a freelancer gets to know your company — both the small individual sliver of it that they interact with, whether that’s copy or design or customer support, and the bigger picture that you’re trying to accomplish — the more they can contribute toward making that bigger vision a reality.

An important caveat to this farsighted approach to freelancer hiring: when you’re hiring for the long haul, it’s important to make sure you’re bringing on people who are a good fit for the long haul. And that can lead to some tough decisions — as Géraldine has learned firsthand.

“I know that one out of three hires is bad. I just know it’s going to happen,” she says.

When you’re testing the waters with a new freelance candidate, wade in slowly. Rather than immediately handing that new freelance writer the keys to your WordPress and your entire content calendar, have them write a test assignment or two (paid — don’t be that person who asks someone to do work for no money) and then see how it feels — not just for you, but for the person you’re potentially going to be working with.

And if it’s not a good fit, say so. The longer you wait, the more painful it’s going to be — for the freelancer, for you, and worst of all, for your business.

“What I learned is that I should say ‘stop’ sooner,” says Géraldine. “It’s not something I’m very good at, because I suck at giving bad reviews. Now, I recognize that sometimes we make bad hires and it’s important to say stop before it festers.”

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate

When your entire team is working asynchronously, spread out across multiple time zones and juggling work for numerous clients with competing priorities (as an increasing number of teams are), good communication is more than a “nice-to-have” — it’s an “if we don’t have this, nothing is getting done ever and we might as well go home.”

When I talked to Géraldine and her team, they had just completed a new course launch — and Géraldine had just gotten back from a vacation.

That might sound like insanity — taking two weeks off right as you have a brand new product launching? But for Géraldine and the Comme une Française team, it’s worked out well in the past.

“We did a launch last year when I was away. We prepared material before, and the team had responsibility for doing everything else. And when I came back they had made lots of money so I thought, ‘I’m going back on holiday. You can just do everything without me.’”

The reason Géraldine and her team are able to work effectively, even when one of them — the team captain, so to speak — is “out of office,” so to speak?

Diligent, intentional communication — and a tool that makes it possible.

“We use [the project management tool] Basecamp, so I know the tasks that they ping me to notify me, ‘I need you on that. I need you on that,’” says Géraldine. “When I got back, I just went through everything that was flagged for me on Basecamp. There were some very quick decisions that I could make to free everybody because I don’t want to slow anybody else because I’m away.”

“We can all see what needs to be done and by whom, and we can get feedback,” says content writer (and Géraldine’s brother) Arthur Lepère. “I can ask Megan, our native English proofreader, ‘Hey, is this the right way to phrase this?’ Or our video editor can ask me, ‘Hey, does this cut work? I don’t understand what she’s saying in French,’ and I’ll answer.”

“We’ve never met each other, yet it all flows smoothly,” Arthur adds. “And Géraldine can focus on the things she needs to expand Comme une Française.”

4. Create systems that let you scale

Basecamp is great when it comes to the day-to-day tasks of who’s handling what project and what’s due when. But as you grow your team, there are other, bigger-picture forms of communication that become equally important.

What’s our policy on refunds?
How do we write sales emails?
What should I do when a customer gets rude or aggressive with me?

When you’re working on your own, it’s okay that the answers to these questions and others like them live only in your head, because you’re the only person who needs to have access to them. But the more people you add to your team, the more important it becomes for that knowledge about the ins and outs of your company to live somewhere other than inside your head.

The Comme une Française team has experienced this firsthand, as virtual assistant (and second-in-command) Jen Rodgers can attest.

“[Géraldine and I] realized, probably two years ago, ‘Hey, you know what? We know how to do this stuff, but we’re bringing other people in, and we really need to have it down on paper. So we have these constantly evolving documents.”

“We’re always trying to find a better way to do this, a more efficient way to do this in a way that makes it easier on all of us and gives our students what they need,” Jen adds. “And I think another thing that’s really important for our team is that, even if you’re not involved in a particular process, you’re still able to see the procedures for that. Everybody knows what’s going on even if they don’t have a hand in it.”

5. Let your team be the experts you’re paying them to be

A common problem that plagues first-time people-hirers: the tendency to be a helicopter entrepreneur.

We know where this impulse comes from: your business is your baby, and at first, sure — it’s scary to imagine someone else taking care of your baby.

But just like a new mom and dad going out for your first date night when Junior is one year old — at some point, you have to cut the cord.

If you take a step back and think about it from a purely financial perspective, it’s pretty easy to see how getting in your team’s way doesn’t make sense. You’re paying this person — hopefully you’re paying them well — to do this project for you. If you’re continually getting in their way — and spending more time (and thus, more money) by doing so — isn’t that a little bit counterproductive?

Géraldine is something of an anomaly in that that she’s never had that problem. “I’ve always said, ‘Do as much work behind my back as you can,’” she says. “I hired you because I trust you. You can do it better than I would do it.”

6. Create opportunities to grow

Trusting your team isn’t just about letting them rock the tasks they’re already great at. Sometimes, it’s just as much about letting them try something they could become great at if given the change.

“Even when it’s something you know you can do faster — they have to learn. Sometimes it takes three days when it could take you 10 minutes, just because of back and forth — but it’s an investment for the future [of the business].”

One recent example of this on the Comme une Française team? Writing sales emails. Géraldine had been the sole sales writer on her team for most of the history of the business. But as the business continues to grow, it makes less and less sense for that work to rest solely on Géraldine’s plate (keep that “can someone else do this as well or better?” metric in mind).

So now, content writer Megan Elliot has stepped up to the plate — even though sales emails were a totally new domain for her.

“I’ve written emails before, but I hadn’t done it in that very technical long-form sales email,” Megan says. “Géraldine worked with me and my existing skill set to try and push that and make me a bit of a sales writer. She and [our strategist] Ashley set me up with a document that was like, okay, ‘Here’s the messaging that we’ve kind of figured out. Here’s what we want to communicate. Here is our email schedule. Go crazy.’”

Even though sales emails were something that was totally new to her, Megan says Géraldine trusted her to make the right choices — and ask the right questions during feedback. “I felt like I was quite in control of the messaging. Even just going back and forth on subject lines, it was very much like, ‘Okay, what do you think of this?’ And ‘I like this, but why don’t we change this word and then what happens?’ It was a very interactive process, where I really, really felt like my insight was valued even though it was kind of something that I hadn’t done before.”

Géraldine notes that giving Megan a shot at writing sales emails is just a single instance of a bigger pattern that she’s trying to enact with her team.

“I’m trying to get them to act on a bigger scale,” says Géraldine. “For example, we’re going to completely rethink our [YouTube] channel. And I already told my editor, ‘If we were going to start the channel from scratch, teaching French to foreigners — what would you do? Take some time while I’m away on holiday to think about that and we can talk when I’m back.”

7. Know that your team has got this

A big part of being a leader, Géraldine says, is maintaining a sense of proportion — especially when the team is taking a swing at something they haven’t tried before.

“If something is 24 hours late or 48 hours late, it’s okay. Nobody died. We have to strive for excellence. [We] have to be the best we can and improve all the time. But we’re not heart surgeons. It’s okay.”

A big, big reason that Géraldine is able to be so relaxed about things like deadlines: she knows she can lean on her team, one way or another, to get things done.

“My team is really good,” she says. “We’ve never been that good, honestly. I’m very proud when I slow down the team. Sometimes I tell them, ‘Just do the work. Don’t ask me. I’m slowing everybody down. You’re better without me.’”

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Alison N Smith

Katie, you are a star. Your leadership is clear, and your writing is outstanding. I hope you keep on developing high-value ideas like this one.

Alison N Smith

You are destined to be successful. I wish I had your people skills and your winning personality.

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