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Standard Operating Procedures: 3 Tips from an Inc. 500 Pro
By Quiet Light
Documentation isn’t a sexy topic, but when you get it right, you can boost your business’s value out the wazoo. Best of all, proper documentation saves you hours of time. How? With SOPs, or standard operating procedures. Newly-minted Inc. 500 honoree Trent Dyrsmid shares his 3 hacks to write SOPS that won’t flop, as well as 3 tips to overcome barriers to implementing your SOPs. You’ll have your employees and competitors drinking from the SOP Kool-Aid in no time. Follow this process to create SOPs so good they’ll make you say “OH YEAH!” And maybe bust through a wall, who knows.
IN THIS POST
Ask a group of entrepreneurs how they document their processes and you’ll get answers ranging from, “Huh?” to “I write all my stuff in a Google Doc when I have time.” Entrepreneurs like to create big ideas, but we often fall flat when it comes to documenting, tracking, and passing these ideas on to our subordinates.
Why? Because we’re freakin’ busy! The world is so chaotic that we get bogged down in being reactive instead of proactive. Life happens, business happens, and before you know it, yesterday’s brilliant money-making idea is already a pipe dream. Even the best ideas need documentation. But because of human habits, busy schedules, and forgetful employees, your big ideas are rotting in a den of despair. It’s a stress-bomb ready to blow.
You’re on a mission to change the world, but without documentation and follow-through on your ideas, you’re no better off than a misguided doomsday cult—excited about a whole bunch of nothing.
Don’t you want to have all your scrappy ideas stored in one, easy place? In a way that not only gets your employees on the same page, but builds a cult of enthusiasm around your business?
You need processes so damn good they’ll make everyone want to drink the Kool-Aid. That’s why entrepreneurs have to get everyone in their business on board with SOPs, or standard operating procedures. This is the key to kicking entrepreneurial stress to the curb. But not just any SOPs—SOPs so sexy and easy to use that they’re irresistible.
Drink the Kool-Aid and join the Cult Of Documentation. Better business documentation will help you:
- Boost revenue
- Improve the customer experience
- Give employees more direction
- Save money!!
Quiet Light chatted with Flowster’s Trent Dyrsmid, a seasoned pro in all things documentation, to share his 3 tips on why every entrepreneur (including you) needs an SOP, how to write the darn things, and 3 ways to overcome SOP implementation headaches. Read on to get the deets, but don’t forget to download your free SOP templates from Trent before that!
Trent’s pretty jazzed about making the Inc 500 list. “Our company was ranked #254, which was a very pleasant surprise,” he laughs. But he credits his success not to a crazy-high IQ or a gift of the gab. Nope.
Trent’s success came from documenting and systematizing his business. Boring ol’ checklists are the reason Trent grew his biz so quickly. Through documentation with badass SOPs, Trent was able to delegate the grunt work to employees, while he focused on high-value tasks that skyrocketed growth. “The net result is an accelerated growth rate,” he says. Nice, huh?
Trent’s been an entrepreneur for almost 20 years. He started his first company back in 2001 and admits he had no idea what he was doing at the time. Like most entrepreneurs, he majored in Sucking It Up at the University of Hard Knocks. “It was pretty painful,” he says. But his hard work paid off: Trent got a seven-figure exit out of his first business. After that, he decided to go online.
Trent’s been making a living online for 9 years, first with a service-based digital agency, but now through a product-based eCommerce model. He realized there was a ceiling to his earnings in a service-based biz and knew eCommerce was the future.
The Secret Sauce?
Trent’s current business started 3 years ago. The company partners with US manufacturers and sells their products on Amazon. That might not sound extraordinary at first, but Trent’s plan was to become an exclusive seller for these manufacturers, eliminating competition and boosting his margins in the process.
Thanks to exclusive relationships and a low-risk reseller model, Trent’s biz grew quickly. I mean, that’s every entrepreneur’s dream, right? Well, the problem with growth is that you now have to juggle a hell of a lot more balls to keep your operations in ship-shape. “I realized that I can’t be the one doing all this labor,” Trent says.
When he read Michael Gerber’s The e-Myth, Trent realized how critical it was to have a written procedure in place for literally everything. He started with his engineering department and then moved on to sales and marketing. Before he knew it, there was an SOP for everything.
Over time, documentation became Trent’s new normal. So when he jumped off from his first business to Amazon, business documentation was a no-brainer. “This was a huge advantage over everyone else in the space who was trying to do it all themselves,” Trent says. Thanks to his prior experience as a CEO, Trent knew he had to delegate for this Amazon business, and fast. That’s why Trent started documenting all of his processes for this eCommerce biz from Day 0.
And boy, did Trent’s dogged love of SOPs paid off. His eCommerce biz went from $0 to earning $100,000 a month in just five months. It earned $1.1 million in its first year of business, growing 20% per quarter for eight consecutive quarters. And it was possible thanks to SOPs.
If those numbers don’t make you want to drink the Kool-Aid and become a member of the Cult Of Documentation, I don’t know what will.
Trent’s “secret sauce” is documentation. Here’s how it works:
- Trent tries something new. This usually takes the form of an online video training.
- He writes an SOP for that training while he takes the course. It takes some elbow grease, but hey, he’s got a freakin’ SOP at the end of it.
- Trent then trains someone else on how to do the process with that SOP.
“I would do a training and then document as I was doing it.,” he says. After the training, Trent had an SOP in process for whatever the training was about. That meant he could delegate tasks more quickly to his employees without the guesswork.
It’s a lather, rinse, repeat process that ensures compliance, gets nagging tasks off his plate, and gives his business a huge advantage in the market. With Trent’s process, instead of trying to master every aspect of your business, you’re hiring people and using documentation (SOPs in this case) to run your business without the kinks.
Hopefully by now you’re thinking, “Hot damn, I want crazy growth every quarter, too!” And that’s awesome. But if you’re on the fence about SOPs, let’s have a nice fireside chat.
SOPs sound unsexy and boring. And that’s because they … kind of are. But what’s tantalizing here are the results you’ll see from drinking the SOP Kool-Aid and documenting your business. With an SOP in place, you’ll:
- Stop wasting time on repetitive, brain-draining activities.
- Focus on big-picture ideas instead of stupid minutiae. Do you really need to be involved in ordering staplers for the office? Delegate that shiz.
- Get better results from your employees. It’s hard to eff up when you’re following the boss’s written instructions!
Keep in mind that SOPs are best reserved for tasks that you do on a daily or weekly basis. After all, you don’t want to spend hours writing an SOP only to use it once in a blue moon. Save your time and energy by focusing on frequent, repetitive tasks that lend themselves well to documentation.
A good example of this is SEO keyword research. Trent needed to learn Ahrefs to optimize his website. He knew nothing about SEO, so he looked at training videos on how to use the tool. But instead of passively watching the video, Trent would mash the pause button, take notes for his SOP, and keep watching. He even incorporated screenshots.
So Trent now had an SOP on how to use Ahrefs. But what about the next shiny, new tool that came along? Did Trent have to create an SOP for every new tool and process? Plus, one ten-minute training video took Trent over an hour to document in an SOP. There had to be a way to avoid the BS.
Then Trent did something genius: he made an SOP on how to make SOPs. Guidelines in hand, Trent passed the SOP documentation grunt work to his employees, delegating to save time while making documentation a reality. “This frees me up from being the ‘SOP guy’ that writes everything,” Trent says.
Instead of trying to become an expert in everything, Trent created an SOP for the actual process of writing SOPs and passed it down to his reports. And if a current report wasn’t able to do a particular task, he either brought on a part-time VA to help or he hired a new employee. And then he asked the new person to write the SOP.
And aside from saving time and getting a better work product, SOPs will boost your business’s value—by a lot. One of the four key indicators of a valuable business is transferability. If you want to skyrocket your business value, buyers want to see that everything is written down, with steps and due dates, and ready to go. If you’re even remotely interested in selling your online business someday, documentation is a must.
Ready to join the Cult Of Documentation? No white robes are required; just a love of better business processes and boosting revenue. Follow these 3 tips to write SOPs so epic you won’t fall asleep writing them.
1. Get A Mentor
Trent credits his eCommerce success to having the right mentors. Years ago, Trent interviewed a guy named Dan Meadors on his podcast. He was chatting about Dan’s wholesale model and really liked it; so much so that Trent actually took Dan’s Wholesale Formula course.
Dan essentially opened the door to eCommerce for Trent, who previously had zilch experience in the space. By latching onto a mentor, Trent was able to get up to speed on complex topics in less time. Plus, he had a trusted advisor he could consult any time needed direction.
Can you get a mentor for your business? Think of a mentor as your much-needed, responsible friend at a party who prevents Drunk You from making terrible decisions. Ideally, this person can lend an objective, outside view to see how you’re documenting your business processes, if they make sense, and what easy improvements you can make. If you don’t have a mentor now, dig through your email, LinkedIn, or old stack of conference business cards (I know you have one somewhere) to start your hunt.
2. Embrace Feedback
You might spend a lot of time writing an SOP. But then life happens, processes change, and you never have a chance to edit that SOP. As a result, all your hard work goes down the drain, and you might as well not have bothered with SOPs at all. That’s why it’s so, so important to embrace feedback.
SOPs aren’t set in stone; they change. If your employee says, “Hey man, this process is really clunky. I could improve it by doing X, Y, and Z instead,” then for the love of Pete, make those changes.
You don’t have to become a tyrant cult leader to make SOPs work. This is a collaborative process where you should incorporate employee feedback to optimize your procedures even more. You’re drinking the Kool-Aid here too, pal, so get in the groove and accept that SOPs need to change to fit your biz.
3. Copy Other People!
Normally we would look down on copycat behavior, especially in the entrepreneurial space. But SOPs are one of those things where it’s (generally) okay to look at someone else’s paper. I mean, SOPs aren’t the easiest things to write. If you can start with someone else’s and tweak it to your liking, you’ll get all the perks of writing an SOP without the hangover.
You can find SOPs in a lot of places, like:
- Your friends: Ask your connections if they have an SOP they’d be willing to share. Asking is free!
- Download Trent’s free SOP template: It’s also free and it’s literally right at your fingertips.
- Buy an SOP: “Nobody wants to build an SOP from scratch,” Trent says. If you don’t want a template and you need the “real thing,” you can buy an SOP from SOP marketplaces. Yes, that’s a real thing.
By the way, if you prefer to write your own SOPs, don’t hoard them for yourself. Share them with the world on these same marketplaces to earn passive income for your business. At a 100% margin, it could be a juicy way to spread the influence of the Cult Of Documentation for very little work.
Okay, so now you know how to write a better SOP without the snooze fest. But you’ve already realized the problem, right? “I spent hours writing this SOP. I’m going to show it to my employees, they’ll nod, and then never look at it again,” you might think.
And you’re right. “Human habit is really hard to change,” Trent says. You might have drank the SOP Kool-Aid, but if your employees aren’t into radical documentation, your expectations and their behavior are already at odds. If your employees aren’t raving fanatics who follow your SOPs:
- New ideas will never see the light of implementation.
- Employees will continue to make the same mistakes, all the freakin’ time, even after you’ve told them to stop.
- You’ll piss off customers and lose your foothold in the online world.
So no, an SOP alone isn’t going to help you conquer the world. SOP implementation is your key to the kingdom. Entrepreneurs have to overcome bad habits, but that’s so hard. Seriously. Just look at all the New Year’s resolutions that people fail every year. Habits are like kale: we say we like it, but there it is, rotting away in our fridge.
Follow these 3 tips to overcome your team’s bad habits so your kickass ideas will actually see the light of day.
1. Start With Your Culture
“Culture” is a loaded term for entrepreneurs. We all like to think our corporate cultures are sunshine and roses full of profitability. I’m sorry, but if your numbers don’t match up with that, you’re living in a dream world. Culture is the source of so, so many problems in businesses. Heck, drinking the wrong Kool-Aid can lead to a dysfunctional, toxic culture that hurts your revenue.
If you’re a new convert to the Cult Of Documentation, you’ll need to bring your employees into the fold, too. And that takes a culture shift. But how do you get people to start using SOPs when they aren’t used to them at all?
You can do a few things:
- Retrain everyone: Absolutely everyone, from the top down. Retrain people to operate in a specific way, based on the SOPs. Make SOPs mandatory for employees to perform their job duties. “You’re not supposed to do anything by memory,” Trent says. Employees need to be completely dependent on the SOP for this to work.
- Hold them accountable: Set deadlines and hold your team accountable to those deadlines. If they miss something, review the incident and give guidance. The first 30 days will be the toughest, but after that, they should get up to speed.
- Don’t be afraid to let them go: Trent has a more direct leadership style, so he recommends letting people go if they aren’t jibing with your Cult of Documentation. You can try retraining or even moving onto PIPs if that sounds too harsh for your culture.
You can kill two birds with one stone with Trent’s top-down approach to SOPs and culture. Like any good cult, you’ll need to get your leaders on board first. “I’m looking to hire people in senior roles who have more expertise than I do,” Trent says. Go to your direct reports and show ‘em how it’s done. Coach them on how to write SOPs and let them loose.
Once they’ve got the hang of it, task your direct reports to go to their subordinates and repeat the process. Set deadlines and tell them to create a set number of SOPs by that deadline. Something along the lines of, “Jeff, your people need to create 10 SOPs in the next 30 days,” works great. And at the end of that 30 days, review the SOPs, make adjustments, and keep moving. Over time, you’ll have a recipe for all processes in your business, thanks to a rich library of SOPs.
Sure, this might be a “control freak” approach, but it should still give your employees the freedom to write SOPs as they see fit. I mean, these folks are experts, right? Have experts write your SOPs so you don’t have to. And you have more important crap to do than become the SOP bottleneck, anyway.
Over time, your team will write the SOPs that they use on a daily basis for their jobs. Plus, your team will get in the habit of using these SOPs and reviewing them on a regular basis.
2. Automate The Workflow
But wait! How in the world do you get employees to check those SOPs before they work? Can’t Karen in accounting just glance at the SOP, get the gist, and get on with her work?
Humans are great, but we’re imperfect, impatient little creatures. When you’re managing dozens of humans who are set in their ways, they’re going to mess up. And that means your SOPs just aren’t going to happen.
That’s why Trent recommends every entrepreneur use software to make SOP implementation actually happen. Trent has software called Flowster that not only allows you to write an SOP, but also:
- Create automated workflows
- Assign SOP steps and tasks to team members
- Set deadlines
- Make real-time changes that automatically update workflows
Since they can’t do their job without the SOP software, employees are much more likely to stick with the Cult Of Documentation. Plus, any time you need to iterate your processes, an SOP tool pushes those changes out automatically, so employees don’t drop the ball when stuff changes.
And no, for the record, don’t put your SOPs in a Google Doc and call it a “tool.” Trent did this when he was first starting out, but let’s be real: your employees are not going to check a Google Doc every time they want to create a YouTube video. They’re not going to remember. And you’re probably not going to remember to update that SOP every time there’s a change, anyway.
You need a solution that’s more advanced and designed to handle workflow issues. Save Google Docs for your blog drafts, not your critical business processes.
3. Pass The Mom Test
Now, the key to the Cult Of Documentation isn’t just getting new members; it’s keeping people in the fold. To keep your employees on board with SOPs, you have to watch how you’re updating them.
Let’s say you’ve already got employees on board with SOPs. Everything’s going smoothly, but you make a few updates to the SOPs. Instead of helping your employees with this process, chaos ensues. Your inbox is full of panicked emails. You have dozens of IMs with “????” everywhere. Oh heavens above, what have you done?!
If employees are battering you with questions about an SOP update, it means you weren’t clear enough in the SOP. Now, some questions are to be expected with change. But if employees are banging on your door in a haze of confusion, you need to be clearer.
When in doubt, run your SOP through the Mom Test. I know you love your dear mom and that she’s a nice lady. But she’s probably not the most tech-savvy person on earth. She might know how to use “The Facebook” and that’s it.
Your SOP should be SO detailed and clear that even your dear mom could go through the process without getting turned around. If your mom would have a hard time with the SOP, adjust it. Add more screenshots or make your instructions clearer. Don’t be afraid to get feedback from your higher-ups before pushing out an update. It helps to get an outside opinion!
Business documentation is the key to a profitable biz that makes all of your crazy ideas come true. SOPs are the way to go for documenting your processes. You can write more badass SOPs by getting yourself a mentor, embracing feedback, and by occasionally copying other people’s SOPs.
When it’s high time to make your employees use these SOPs, make documentation a part of your culture, institute a tool to make implementation a no-brainer, and run your SOP updates through the Mom Test.
Want to boost your revenue, improve the customer experience, give employees a clear path forward, and save loads of time? Drink the Kool-Aid and join the Cult Of Documentation. You can get started by downloading your free SOP templates here.