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The 5-step guide for building an online business that runs without you

A business that runs without you -- whether you’re asleep, on vacation, or pursuing other passion projects -- is the dream. Here’s how to make it happen in 5 steps.

December 12, 2019 by Cyn Meyer

You’re sitting at your desk dreaming of better days.

Trying to turn your side-hustle into a main revenue source is hard work -- and overwhelming. 

What if you could launch a business that runs without you?

Good news: You can. (No, really. You can.)

Even better news: We have the exact formula for you today.

Read on if you want to learn everything you need to know about building a business that runs without you, including five straightforward steps on how to make it happen.

Ready to get started? Great, let’s first define a business that runs itself -- it may not be what you’re picturing.

What’s a business that runs itself?

While a business that runs itself -- in its purest form -- is too good to be true, for our purposes, we’ll define it as a scalable online business that requires very minimal attention from you, the business owner.

Basically, it’s a business where you frontload the work of setting up, marketing, and growing your business to a point where you comfortably pull yourself out of the equation. You replace yourself with automated systems, team members, and/or a successor.

When you reach that point, the real benefits of being an entrepreneur kick in -- you get to enjoy incoming revenue without having to put in additional work.

In other words, after you've done the beast of the work at the beginning, you get to stop being busy and focus on your other projects or businesses while the profits keep rolling in.

If you’re looking for scalable online business ideas, two proven formats to consider are:

#1. Selling digital downloads 

Productize your business and solve your audience’s problems by offering a downloadable product in the vein of House of Royalties’ Sell Sheet Pro Templates, a bundle that includes editable and customizable templates.

Successful entrepreneur Joy Cho’s How to Pitch a Book Idea is another great example of a digital download for sale, which is a 40-page workbook that teaches authors how to pitch their books. 

If you’re in need of some inspiration for your own digital download so you can follow in Joy’s footsteps, check out our free, exclusive 10-day product bootcamp.

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But digital downloads aren’t the only option and are just a smaller slice of the much larger opportunity of selling info products.

#2. Selling info products 

Transform your expertise into an educational product like an online course or ebook, similar to Amy Mitchell’s Harness Your Hustle online course that teaches small business owners how to streamline their work.

Or, take a page from Robin Harford’s book with a product like his Pine Notebook, which is a 55-page ebook that shares his in-depth knowledge of plant-based food foraging.

The reason why these digital products are solid options is they, again, require you to do most of the work upfront. Once you create your product and set up the logistics of your business, you have only marketing tasks to maintain. 

Plus, you can sell an uncapped number of digital products without having to manage any of your inventory. 

This means you can grow your customer base exponentially, even if you never add another product to your storefront. 

But, the key to making these products work for a business that runs itself is that your business has to be system-based instead of talent-based. 

The reason? A talent-based business relies too heavily on key people to run it. A system-based business is just as it sounds -- a business that operates smoothly by relying on key systems and processes rather than people.

If you’re ready to dive into your action steps, let’s get straight to it, starting with our first step of standardizing your processes.

5 steps to building a business that runs without you

#1. Automate processes wherever possible

Your first step for building a business that runs without you is to automate and systematize parts of your business, which will make sure it’s operating efficiently. 

When you’re deciding which tasks to automate and systematize, a good rule of thumb to follow is to differentiate between growth tasks and repetitive tasks. 

If it’s a repetitive task, find a way to automate it. If it can’t be automated, create a system for it (more on systematizing in a bit). 

Automation shouldn’t be an issue with the majority of your tasks. Typically, repetitive tasks consume 80% of your tasks, while growth tasks take up the remaining 20%.

It’s worth noting that marketing is one of the most popular roles to automate, and more businesses are expected to use marketing automation tools in the upcoming years. 

In fact, spending on marketing automation tools is rapidly expanding and expected to reach $25.1 billion annually by 2023, which is a drastic bump from the $11.4 billion in 2017.

If you’re interested in exploring marketing automation tools, look into HubSpot, Marketo, and Pardot.

There are plenty of other tools within this sector that are a little more niche, too, like email marketing tools. A few good options to trial are ActiveCampaign, GetResponse, and Mailchimp

Speaking of trials and streamlining processes, if you need a fully supportive all-in-one storefront management system, access your 14-day trial. It’s free -- without a credit card -- so you have nothing to lose. 

There’s one final category here worth mentioning. Using project management tools will also help increase your efficiency and systematize your processes. 

If you’re looking for project management tools, it’s worth checking out Basecamp, which lets you create to-do lists, message boards, and schedules. Their business plan sells for $99 per month and provides unlimited projects and users, with 500 GB of available storage space.

A more robust option is Asana, which gives any team a workflow to follow. Their features are suited for a variety of roles, including marketing, product, design, managers, finance, sales, engineering, event planners, IT departments, human resources, and company-wide.

Depending on your needs, pricing ranges from $10.99 to $24.99 per month per user. 

For a free option, check out Trello. Their free plan allows for unlimited personal boards, cards, and lists. If you need team boards, they provide you with 10 of them, plus one power-up per board. Larger plans run $9.99 to $20.83 per user per month.

Now that you have your automations in place, it’s time to systematize the other (non-automated) parts of your business.

#2. Systematize processes and create SOPs

Your next step in building a business that runs itself is to outline standard operating procedures (SOPs) wherever possible. 

SOPs are basically step-by-step instructions on how to complete a task or procedure in your business. They ensure that tasks get done the same way -- and the right way -- each time.

You know those processes and tasks that you couldn’t automate? That’s a great place to start.

The key to writing your SOPs is to be as clear as possible. After all, the purpose is to have someone else take over tasks in your absence, right?

So write them out as if you’re unavailable to answer any questions. You can even include instructions on how to manage your automated processes in your SOPs, so your bases are fully covered.

If you want to follow a formal route, there’s an international standard for formatting SOPs, called ISO-9000, which includes five sections: introduction, purpose, responsibilities, scope, and procedures.

Of course, this isn’t the only format your SOPs can take on. You can get creative and incorporate visuals, like this flowchart format that Process Street uses.

Or you can go the audio-visual route and create a screencast video. ActiveCampaign’s video guide is a great example of a video SOP that captures the task of creating a welcome email automation on a computer screen.

A screencast is super easy to follow along, right?

The gist of it is: 

Create systems and SOPs for as many tasks as possible in your business. Whether you use written, visual, audio, or video as the format, be explicit in your explanation.

With your SOPs in hand, you’re now ready to hand them off to your team members. 

#3. Delegate as much as possible to a trustworthy team

Whether it’s a full-time employee, virtual assistant, or a few freelancers, your next step is to delegate all the standard tasks to your trusted team. 

To hire the right team members, it’s important to not only be selective in who you bring on, but it’s also vital to set them up for success. Your goal is to keep your team over the long term as your business grows.

Which not a lot of businesses do. Unfortunately, turnover is on the rise -- the number of small businesses that have an annual employee turnover rate of over 20% tripled between 2015 and 2017.

These days, it’s not the norm to spend an entire career at one employer. Millennials, for example, spend between 1-3 years at a job, whereas boomers spend an average of 10 years at a job before switching.

Two ways to avoid the growing turnover and frequent-job-switching stats are:

  • Treat your team with respect - value their opinions, ask for feedback, and pay them competitively
  • Invest in your team’s growth - nurture their growth by investing in their continuing education

Both of these actions will contribute to earning your team’s trust -- an essential ingredient for keeping team members on board for the long haul.

Once you have the right team members in place, it’s time to delegate all of your standard tasks. The key here is to delegate the right tasks to the right people. 

Make sure your automated systems are managed by the right people, too.

For example, your email marketing deployment may be automated using a third-party email service; however, you may need to delegate the management and writing of your email marketing content.

Bottom line: 

Hire trustworthy team members who can take over your standard tasks and processes over the long-run. 

OK, that covers internal business matters. Let’s jump into the outward-facing -- and most important -- part of your business: your customers.  

#4. Prioritize customer service

Another key step to creating a business that runs without you is to make sure your customer service level is top-notch (and stays that way without you).

Why? The alternative -- a poor customer experience -- isn’t pretty.

More than half of Americans have scrapped a planned purchase or transaction because of bad service, and 33% of consumers switch companies after just a single poor service instance.

What’s more, is positive customer service experience can make or break your brand’s marketing. Consumers will tell an average of 15 people about a poor service experience and, on the upside, 11 people about a good one.

Marketers are well aware of what’s riding on a positive customer experience. So much so that they’re increasing their accountability for it. 43% of marketers claim this responsibility, which a big boost from 27% the year before. 

Not only does a good customer service experience impact your new customers, but it also affects your current customers, so don’t forget about them, too. 

In terms of a specific action, focus your efforts on post-sale marketing, which is becoming a trend. In fact, last year, marketers set aside approximately 30% of their resources to focus on post-sale marketing.

It’s little wonder, too, because existing loyal customers bring in more revenue and cost you less to keep than new customers. Doesn’t get more ideal than that, right?

To quantify it, loyal customers are five times as likely to repurchase, four times as likely to refer, and seven times as likely to try another one of your products. On top of that, it costs five times more to attract a new customer than it does to keep an existing one.

All of this is to say that you should review your business operations with a fine-tooth comb to make sure your systems and delegated tasks continue providing excellent customer service.

OK. Now that you have the right systems, people, and priorities in place, you’re ready for our final step.

#5. Hire a successor

The last -- and possibly most difficult -- step to building a business that runs in your absence is to hire a successor to take over your leadership role. 

Letting go of the reigns can be a serious challenge for entrepreneurs because you’ve invested blood, sweat, and tears into getting your business to a profitable point, and it’d be a shame to watch it all crumble.

Struggling to cope with perfectionism makes (perfect) sense here. After all, there’s no guarantee that your successor will run your business the way you do. 

In fact, chances are they won’t. 40% of new CEOs fail to meet performance expectations in their first 18 months.

But not to worry. The key here is to embrace missteps and treat them as an opportunity for learning experiences. The last thing you want to do is coddle your successor by jumping in to save the day at every near-failure. 

Instead, act more like the “guide on the side” who urges your successor to find solutions on their own. This will encourage persistence, a highly rewarding quality that reduces the chances of failure. 

People who view themselves as persistent are 14.5% less likely to have experienced severe setbacks in their lives, so aim to find a successor who owns this quality.

To find the right successor, take your time. Not only do you need ample time to evaluate and select the new leader very carefully, but you also want to allow for a probationary period where you train your successor and test the waters.

93% of managers say they need more coaching to lead their teams, so leadership development is vital here.

Another tip is to find someone who possesses these characteristics:

  • Decisive - Bring someone on board who’s excellent at making sound decisions. Without you being involved in your business, your successor will need to make the executive calls on their own.
  • Client-centric - Hunt for a candidate who’s a great match for your clients. They should understand your ideal client on a deep level and truly want to solve their problems.
  • Can gain buy-in - Look for a successor who can motivate and lead your other team members, and get their buy-in on the decisions and direction of your business. 

All in all, finding the right successor won’t happen overnight. Chances are that it’ll take twice as long as you want, too, but the rewards for that extra time and patience will pay off in dividends -- both for your bottom line and your customers. 

Build a business that runs itself (so you don’t have to run from it) 

While growing and managing a business can be overwhelming, you can avoid burnout and profit by setting up a business that runs without you. 

The beauty of it is -- if you set it up right -- you can earn an income from your business with minimal, if any, involvement once the gears are turning.  

Here’s the short and skinny:

  • An online business that runs itself is a scalable one that you’ve grown to a point where you can replace yourself with automated systems and team members. Successful types include selling digital downloads and selling info products.
  • To build a business that runs without you, first automate your repeatable processes, which streamlines your business, so it’s working at full efficiency.
  • Next, create systems and SOPs that can be referenced in your absence. They ensure every task is done correctly.
  • Once you have your processes automated and systematized, your next step is to delegate as much as possible to your team. 
  • Keeping your customers at the center of your business will expand your customer loyalty and repeat business, both of which contribute to your future revenue stream.
  • Your final step in building an online business that runs itself is to hire a successor to take your place. 

Ready to take on the reigns of setting up your well-oiled, self-sufficient business so you can let go of the reigns? Great, we’re cheering you on.