Running an Online Business – Getting Things Done On Time

Picture of Bee on a Flower

If you are like me, most of your career has been spent working in the traditional business model: nine to five, Monday to Friday.  While that model has been the norm in many sectors for a hundred years or more, it has never been universal.  Think about farmers who need to work every day taking care of their animals, or the emergency workers who need to be able to respond whenever there is a need, or the retail workers who are on the job when yo are not making your shopping at convenient times possible. (Yes, I know there are lots of others.)

I have good news and bad news, running an online business frees you from the nine to five schedule!  The benefits are clear.  If it’s a particularly nice day and you want to go for a run, smell the flowers or whatever else, you can.  You won’t have customers standing outside your door at “opening” time, since your online store is always open.  The down side is that because your customers can always get to your store, it is always open.  This means that you need to be in a position to respond to emails on an almost 24/7 schedule.  You also have a much greater need to track and manage your inventory.  If you have outsourced fulfillment, tracking inventory is a bit simpler because you just need to be able to forecast how much you need and when.  If you do your own fulfillment and have options like expedited shipping, you must be able to meet that commitment or suffer the online consequences.

In the aggregate, the pros outweigh the cons.  Again assuming that you don’t have to physically make or ship the product, you can do most of your work anywhere you have an internet connection.  So with a little discipline, working vacations are a snap.  What tends to work best for most people is having a realistic albeit flexible schedule following an ABC approach.  Using this guideline, “A” tasks are those that must be done and done by a specific date/time (e.g. replenishing inventory, shipping merchandise or paying bills).  Yes paying bills.

The “B” activities are those that need to get done, but which have some flexibility.  Items in this category might include updating your website, finalizing changes to your product mix or upgrading non essential equipment.  All of these tasks need to be done.  The difference is pretty simple.  If it is just past Memorial Day (which is in late May for those outside the U.S.), there is no big penalty in getting your 4th of July special offers onto your website today, tomorrow or in five days.  You need to do it in enough time that you can tell your customers about it and get them to shop.  The same goes for you inventory.  While your suppliers may have deadlines for getting your order in, you know about that well in advance.

And finally, you get the “C” activities.  These are the “nice to do” activities.  The list here is huge, your particular business will determine what tasks fall into this category.  Because you have an online business, the need to paint or redecorate your office is a big example of a “C” activity.  While ultimately, you may think it is necessary to complete these tasks, when you get them done will not help your business to succeed.

Tasks can move up the scale, typically from “B” to “A”, based on deadlines.  They seldom move up from “C”.

If you want to take advantage of the flexibility your online business provides, you need to assure that you get your “A”s and “B”s under control.  I’ll talk more about long term planning in a future installment.  Planning out for more than a moth at this level is useless.  Start out with a calendar.  You decide if you want paper or digital, etc.  Block out your “A” tasks and when they need to be done (remember to add in snail mail times if needed).  If you have similar activities that fall due within a few days of each other, schedule them for the same time.  While you might earn an extra three or four cents interest delaying a payment a couple of days, the time it takes to go from one type of activity to another will kill that savings.  Once you have the “A”s scheduled, add in the “B”s and as there is time available, the “C”s.  Remember to leave time for the unexpected.  Now you’ve done the easy part.

This schedule is not an academic exercise that you hand in and you’re done.  The schedule is your work plan.  Keep it where you can easily reference it.  When you start your first work day, go over the activities you have scheduled for that day and be sure that you can get your “A”s done and your “B”s started.  Remember, if you have two weeks to get an order in it’s a “B”, with two days it becomes an “A”.  Starting with your second work day, your first task is to add any missed completions from the previous day. (Remember, just because it didn’t get done doesn’t mean it goes away!)  Helpful hint, try to get the most important items done first.  You never know what the day may bring, so if you need to get that tax remittance in today, do it first!

After a week or so, go over the past week’s schedule results (this is an “A” task).  See what went well and what kept getting carried forward.  Some things end up taking longer than we expect.  Some times we don’t budget enough time for unexpected things.  Based on this knowledge, revise your schedule,  A couple of things to keep in mind: your schedule is dynamic and you must be able to manage it to meet the key requirements of your business; on days when you have unused time, you can start on tasks you have scheduled for the next day!

With a little practice and diligence, you’ll become the master of your schedule which translates into more efficient use of your time ultimately freeing up more time for the things you want to do.