“In December, I want to look back at the year and answer two questions: 1. how did we do? and 2. what do we want to do better next year?”
That’s a quote from Chase in our podcast episode on conducting a yearly review for your business. He continues:
“I actually have this dream of taking December off completely and making a book of all the best things we made that year – blog posts, photos, new courses, features added, even code commits… something like an archive of what we did in our business that year.”
This year, we tried the idea out. We set aside a week on the calendar to talk and run reports. It ended up taking two weeks. We met daily, talking for a couple hours each time, covering accomplishments of the past year and what we hope to do in the upcoming year. In the process, we discovered key insights about our customers, grew as a team and made huge decisions.
This process directly contrasts what most entrepreneurs do for their yearly review: nothing. Many of us are solopreneurs, already too busy to set time aside for reviewing what we did this year. Others simply don’t see the point.
Most entrepreneurs like you and me simply don’t review our past work and we’re leaving money on the table. There’s a simple process every small business and founder should follow to review the past year and plan the next year. There’s simply so much to glean from this process, and I’m asking you to start today if you’ve never done it before.
In the rest of this post I share this foundational review and plan process. It’ll be productive, informative and exciting. Most importantly, you’ll discover a clear picture for how to kick off the new year with a bang.
We talk about this process at length in this episode of the podcast. If you’re the listening type, you might like this. (Subscribe in iTunes on your phone to listen while you run, work, drive, etc.)
We’ll start with the review, looking back on the past year. The work you’ve done, the people you’ve served, the money you’ve made. The review informs the plan and tells us what to celebrate.
Start your review with a simple inventory of your body of work in the year past. Your body of work is made up of the things you made and the projects you completed.
If you’re a blogger, your body of work is every blog post you wrote this year. If you’re a craftswoman, it’s every product you crafted. If you’re a consultant, it’s every deliverable you delivered to a client. If you’re a web designer, it’s every website you designed for a client (or your own side projects).
Take some time to write every piece of your body of work in a notebook or in an Evernote note or in a simple word doc. Sit with that for a minute. Have a glass of wine and celebrate all that you made or delivered this year.
It is something to be celebrated, after all.
It’s important to start with and celebrate everything you’ve created. We know from the equal odds rule that every piece of work we put into the world has about an equal chance of making a big impact. Now it’s time to see which pieces had the biggest impact.
This is where metrics come in.
Take some time to pull some data on each of the things you created. You can look at different types of data:
The list of potential metrics is endless. Here’s the point: decide on the most important metrics to evaluate the impact of your body of work. Then rank your work based on those metrics. You can see how we did this for our body of work at Fizzle.
A simple trick I use to keep the data actionable (instead of getting lost in vanity metrics) is to use questions. Ask yourself questions like these and try to find the answers in the data:
Here’s what you’re likely to learn from this exercise: some of your favorite pieces of work may not be the pieces of work with the biggest impact. This only reinforces the equal odds rule.
So why do this at all? For insights that will help you make better decisions in the future. You may see a trend in the data. For example, if every high-impact blog post you wrote was a 5,000 word, long-form, how-to article, while your low impact posts were short, pithy opinion posts, you should take note. This can influence your planning for next year.
In project management terms this is called a “postmortem.” Reviewing how things went, discovering what performed well and identifying trends throws light on the traction of your work. These insights don’t just inform you about last year, they become your compass and fuel for the future.
Aside from metrics on specific pieces of work, you also want to look at the health and growth of your business overall. Take some time to look at a few high level metrics:
Again, the list of possible metrics is endless. More than anything, you want to know about the financial health of your business and you want to know about your growth trends. Over time, these allow you to make predictions for your business growth, as well as plan projects to positively impact these trends.
Just like before, you may find it easier to get into these answers by asking the right questions:
Your body of work reflects the outputs of your work this year. What it doesn’t tell us is the process you followed to produce that work.
Make a list of all of the ongoing work in your business. This is the work you do consistently on a daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly schedule. Some of the things on our list included:
Your list will reflect your business activities. It will also inform your planning process for next year.
“I can’t believe how much came to light when we made this list. We have so much ongoing work! By the end of the planning process we actually cut out a few ongoing tasks so we could better focus on next year’s goal” ~ Chase
Chris Guillebeau has a very simple annual review process, consisting of just two questions:
As you look back at your body of work from this year, how that work performed, your overall business metrics and the ongoing work, ask yourself these same questions.
These are perhaps two of the most important questions of the entire process. If, at the beginning of the year, you set goals you wanted to aim at, this is the time where you evaluate what you did vs what you intended to do. Perhaps you fell short or perhaps you overshot your goals.
The other half of the equation is you. Are you enjoying the work? Are you having fun running your business? Are you finding personal fulfillment in serving your customers? Are you earning the money you need to sustain you and your family? Are you working with a team who makes you and your business better?
Take some time right now to write down what went well and what didn’t go so well.
We’ve taken a thorough look at the past year. You have a ton of information about the state of your business and you’ve evaluated how you’re feeling about everything. Now it’s time to shift our focus to the future. The year ahead is full of possibility. Let’s make a plan you’ll be proud to have completed at this time next year.
If you’ll allow me to go into Jim Collins mode for a minute, we’ll start with the most important part of any business plan. Your plan only matters so much as it reflects your mission, vision, and values as a person or company.
Quick note: different people refer to mission and vision in different ways. It doesn’t matter what you call each component, it just matters that you have each component clearly defined for your business.
Your vision is the core purpose of your business, the heart of it. It’s a driving belief about how you want to change the world through your work. This is why you do what you do.
It’s always tough to get this into words, but it’s worthwhile. At it’s worst a vision statement is bland bullshit. At it’s best, it helps you make tough and scary decisions.
Heres our vision statement for this year:
Every person should be able to build a business they believe in.
“I once heard a founder describe his company’s vision and it was so big it struck me. Could we really aim at something so impossible? I’ve never forgotten it. The company was Alt School. The vision was: ‘Every child should reach his/her full potential.’ I’ve searched for a similar vision for Fizzle, one that feels as important and as impossible, ever since.” ~ Chase
Your mission is how you will pursue your vision over a set time period. It is a more concrete statement, driving your strategy and goals. The classic vision usually has a time period of 15-20 years, but you might find it more practical to establish a 1, 3 or 5 year vision.
Your values are a set of statements about how you and your company see the world. They should help you make key decisions in your business. They should help you find the right people to hire. Every bit of work you put into the world should reflect your values.
Take some time to either a) review or b) create your mission, vision and values now. As I said, these can be ambiguous bullshit or they can be concrete decision making engines. If you head more towards the latter you’ll be surprised how much clarity these will bring to your planning process for the year ahead.
A major part of our initial planning focused on agreeing to one specific person who most embodies our values as a company.
This is a tip we picked up from Tara Gentile when we interviewed her in our roundup of target market research.
The person we picked represents our ideal customer. She will be the person we bring up every time we think about what to make next in the year ahead. “Will this help her? Is this something she’d understand as it is right now?” These are the questions we’ll ask about what we make. Her story will guide us to real, specific problems, not the made up ones that live in our heads. She’ll keep us grounded in what is important at Fizzle… and what isn’t.
You might question this approach, but we’ve found it works very well for us. Take some time to decide on one (real) person who represents your company values and the person you’re going to solve problems for in the year ahead. How are you going to help them become a badass this year?
Chase mentioned on the yearly review podcast episode that he hasn’t been able to get something I said out of his head:
“Build today for the body of work you want in five years.”
As you look back at your body of work from this year, imagine multiplying that by five. Would you be happy with that? Is that what you want to have built over the course of the next five years?
We all have dreams about what we want to make, the kinds of work we want to produce, the kinds of results we want to see. Take some time to write down a list of things you hope to have published and done five years from now. Projects, partnerships, mediums to explore (e.g., video, podcasting, speaking), etc. What could this look like?
Flesh it out. Spend some time. Clarity about this can be difficult, so be gentle with yourself and just do your best. Maybe think of the people you admire and what their body of work looks like. Could you put this list in order of importance?
Now, take a good look in the mirror and try to get the truth across to yourself: none of this stuff comes to pass unless you make it happen. Which items on the list are you going to make happen?
At this point, there are three key questions we need to answer about the year ahead:
First of all, decide on three high level strategic priorities for the year ahead. For example, our three themes at Fizzle for 2015 are:
These are our three goals. These provide the direction of our work at Fizzle. Come up with a great idea for growth, realize it’s a one-off growth opportunity, sacrifice it for something that helps us build a growth engine (goal #1). These goals aren’t dreams and blue-sky BS. These are real-deal decision making munitions. By setting these goals you’re able to more effectively plan and evaluate your projects and ongoing work.
You’re also able to set specific targets for each strategic priority. Under each of your strategic goals, write down the metrics you can track to measure success. Then add a stretch goal and a baseline goal for each.
Here’s an example. For Build a Consistent and Sustainable Growth Engine we might measure website visitors, email list growth, Facebook ad performance, email conversions, customer conversions, and hours per week required to manage the system. We might set a stretch goal of 6% month-over-month customer growth and a baseline goal of 4%.
Finally, it’s time to focus on the work itself. The “what” in Simon Sinek’s Start with Why model. Make a list of the ongoing work and the projects you’ll need to do to accomplish your strategic priorities and hit your targets.
On your ongoing work list, be sure to consider what you want to change about the ongoing work you did in the past year. What should you stop doing? What should you keep doing? What should you start doing?
On your project list, bring things in from your five year body of work. Which projects make most sense for the year ahead? Which projects are you capable of executing on, given your current constraints? Which projects could you execute if you complete other projects first?
When you finish these two lists, ask yourself a couple of questions to evaluate them:
You have a plan. It’s on paper. It reflects your mission, vision, and values. Your projects will help you build the body of work you want in five years. Your ongoing work reflects what you learned this past year. It’s daring, but doable.
Now your job is to decide what comes first. Given your current constraints, and taking your ongoing work into consideration, which projects will you complete in the first three months of the year?
Keep in mind two things. First, small wins create big momentum. Be sure to start with a project you know you can knock out to start the year off strong. Second, some projects might require more time, money, or energy than you can currently commit. Leave those projects for later in the year once you’ve had a chance to free up time, earn money, or create more balance in your life by completing earlier projects.
You should have in front of you a list of the daily, weekly and monthly tasks you’ll do in January, February, and March. And you should have a list of projects, in the order they’ll be completed, for the first quarter.
So there it is. An end to end review and planning process every small business and online entrepreneur should follow.
Now comes the hard part: execution.
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