I knew it all when I was 28 years old. What’s better, I could do it all as well. But before my 31st birthday, I was completely burned out.
Although I earned a master’s degree in accounting with an emphasis in taxation from Florida State University, and passed the CPA exam to become a CPA, I only practiced as an accountant for three months. Then I took a job as a bookkeeper for a company that consulted with associations. Within six years, I bought that company.
When I purchased what became Membership Services, Inc., we had 20 association clients. This was in 1999 when AskJeeves.com and Yahoo.com started to become popular, and Google was on the horizon. Up until these search engines came out, if you wanted to know something about your profession, or any industry, you contacted the association. These tools diverted all of those questions away from associations. Suddenly people didn’t need associations anymore, and I’d just bought a company that depended on associations thriving in order to grow.
About that time I discovered Dan Kennedy and direct response copywriting. To grow my clients, I wrote sales letters for membership campaigns. I’d write four-, eight-, and 16-page sales letters. And not just one letter, but a sequence of three to five steps to prospective members encouraging them to join membership programs for my clients. These became so successful that several clients had more than 90 percent of prospective membership as paid members in the association. One association included as paid members every single prospective member except for one. And I always joked that I’d burn them down to get to 100 percent.
My copywriting experience only began there. I also wrote sales letters and brochures to fill conferences and seminars. I’d write sales letters to sell exhibits and sponsorships. And I’d write sales letters for fundraising appeals for my clients’ political campaign involvement.
This was a ton of work to do along with running a company. To get it done and have a life with my family, I worked every Friday night. Monday through Thursday I’d get to the office by 6 a.m. and leave the office by 5:30 p.m. But on Friday I’d work all night until Saturday morning at dawn. This way I could crash on Saturday afternoon while my young kids were napping to catch up on my sleep as well.
This worked well for a long time. And these 60–70 hour weeks gave me a tremendous amount of experience. Each week I was working 50 percent more than anyone else. I was also learning 50 percent more at the same time.
Then I hit the wall.
Although my business was doing well and I was making more money than I ever had in my life, I couldn’t do anymore. I came to realize that I had to learn how to delegate.
“Oh, it’s impossible,” I thought. “There’s no one as good as me.” And it was so much easier for me to do it myself than try to train someone else to do it. After all, I’d end up having to redo what they messed up, anyway.
It was about 2003 when I figured out that I’d maxed out my income, unless I could learn how to get work done through other people with as high or a higher quality as I could do myself.
Over the last few weeks I’ve had the opportunity of working with financial publishers with revenue in excess of $100 million. I’ve worked with a publisher that has a team of more than 450 people. Each of these businesses have from two dozen subscription programs to more than a hundred. The CEO and upper management isn’t doing any of the copywriting. They aren’t creating the member welcome packages. And the CEO isn’t writing content each month for the publications.
Instead, their teams are doing it — successfully I may add — as these companies continue to grow. Sure, there are opportunities for improvement, and we are working through those. However, these companies are growing even though the owner isn’t doing all the writing and work involved in running the businesses.
I have a couple of clients who are stuck and overwhelmed with the volume of work to get done in each of his or her businesses. One told me, “Robert, if I had any idea how much work would be involved, I never would have launched my business.”
The trick isn’t to do more or work harder, but to become better at leading and working through others. In 2003 I was up against a wall. I decided I’d invest time each week documenting systems and training others on tasks I knew they could do. Next I started branching out into more complicated tasks, and eventually even the copywriting. Sure, they went through a learning curve, and I made many mistakes learning how to lead a team. But soon, while they learned copywriting, I was learning how to work with people to get more done than I could possibly do myself. And sometimes it was better.
Delegating is a skill. First it requires a commitment to learn the skill, then practice, and finally patience with your team and yourself as each of you learn to do something new. This is the skill that’ll unlock the real leverage and opportunity in your membership business.