A few days ago I posted my 2014 in review post that detailed revenue and expenses for 2014. In short, it detailed some pretty darn good numbers and showed a greater than 2x growth from 2013. One could easily look at those numbers and think, "damn, he's got it good", and to be frank, yes, things are going very well for me, but they didn't happen overnight. Getting to $780,000 in annual revenue has been a long journey with more failures than successes. To count all of the contributing factors that helped me reach this point would be impossible, but I would like to talk about one: relinquishing control.
My 2014 in review post, and some from other WordPress business owners, were quickly linked to from several blogs. Two of those blogs made very similar points. To put them in my own words, they said:
You can look at a business's success and be jealous or envious of their numbers, but what you often don't see is everything that happened in the background to achieve those results.
One particular aspect of my backstory that I feel has been largely responsible for achieving numbers like $780,000 in annual revenue is how I have continually given up more and more control of various aspects of the business.
I began building my business while I was a sophomore in college at the University of Kansas. Since that time more than six years ago, I have personally handled every aspect of the business. And yes I mean everything. Development, planning, marketing, design, book keeping, taxes, etc. Everything. For a long time I was truly a one-man-team.
At first I loved doing everything myself. I was in total control. It felt great to rarely, if ever, have to rely on someone else to move a project forward. If the announcement post wasn't done, I only had to kick myself in the rear and say "get a move on" instead of reaching out to someone else to see what the hold up was. When it came to filing taxes, I never had to worry about how long it would take an accountant to finish them. When I wanted to get a plugin update pushed out, I only had to push the big red button myself.
It was awesome because I was 100% accountable for everything. That meant I could move at 100 MPH and get things done with great speed.
That younger version of myself was delusional. What I had failed to understand was the tremendous value that working with other people can provide, both to your mental health and your business numbers.
Two and a half years ago, when I first launched Easy Digital Downloads, I started to get interested in actively working with other people within the WordPress community to build better and better products. The first step I took towards working with others was to ask for development help with EDD. I had no idea at the time how much of an impact that little blog post would have on my future working relationships.
When I first asked for help, I was still a one man team. There were a few contractors that I worked with occasionally, but no one that would have been considered a team mate. Little did I know that blog post would be the start of one of many great working relationships.
Learning to manage a team of people when you have worked as a one man show for so long is difficult. Exceptionally difficult. With a team, it's crucially important that each person's opinions and skills are valued, and that they feel valued. To have a strong team, the team members must feel empowered in their position on the team. Building an empowered team is hard because it means relinquishing control. If you have ever led a one person team, you will likely know exactly what I mean.
Giving up control of aspects of your business is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding things a business owner can do.
One of the first pieces of total control I gave up was customer support. Since day one I had always done all of the customer support. Even to this day I do a significant amount of customer support, but early on I did all of it. Learning to give up that control and allow someone else to help manage the support queues was mentally exhausting. I kept saying things like "what if they screw up?", "What if they don't know the answer? That will reflect back on me!". Giving up complete control on support, however, was one of the most freeing moves I've ever made. It allowed me to work on growing the business, instead of focusing on keeping our heads barely above water.
The second major piece of control I relinquished was book keeping and taxes. Unless you are an accountant or just love numbers, it's unlikely that you are too attached to running the books and filing taxes for your business. I didn't ever love it, but I knew it was a part of running the business, so I did it. I always did it myself because it just made sense. I already did everything else, why not books and taxes?
Hiring an accountant and a CPA are two of the best moves I've made in the last two years. The mountainous weight that was lifted from my shoulders simply by no longer needing to worry myself with filing taxes was amazing. Early on I thought "it's cheaper to do it myself". If only I knew how wrong I was. After I got the first bill from my accountant, I literally laughed out loud. Why? Not because she was cheap, oh no. On the contrary, her bill was actually pretty high because she had to work through the mess I had made. I laughed because it occurred to me suddenly just how much money she was saving the business. By shifting the book keeping to someone else (someone who was far, far more knowledgeable about it than I), I found myself with a lot more time to focus on building and growing the business. That allowed me to more than double the business since she came on as the book keeper.
There is one more aspect of control I'd like to talk about briefly, and that's development. I am a developer. I love code. If I could spend all day writing code, I'd be thrilled. Over the last two years, I have, however, gradually given up more and more of the development responsibility of my projects. With Easy Digital Downloads, I gave up significant control when I chose to allow 3rd party developers to sell their extensions on my site and I gave up even more control when I gave Sean Davis the role of support manager. With AffiliateWP, I gave up the site development and design to Andrew. I won't deny it: giving him creative ownership of the site is 90% or more the reason AffiliateWP has done so well this year.
Yesterday I gave up my position as the sole lead developer for Easy Digital Downloads. I hired Chris Klosowski as a co-lead developer for the plugin and as co-lead developer, he has the power to make development decisions without me.
Andrew did amazing things with AffiliateWP by being empowered to do so.
Chris is already doing amazing things with EDD by being empowered to do so.
Sean has done amazing things with EDD support and themes by being empowered to do so.
Over the last two years, my team has grown from me, myself, and I to a team of four full time employees and three very active part-time staff. By growing and empowering the team, the business has more than doubled two years in a row. From 2012 to 2014, the business grew more than 480%. That only happened by relinquishing control and empowering others.
I'll end with a superb quote from Cory Miller of iThemes that comes from an African proverb:
If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.