5 steps to developing business systems that work for start-ups

shehive lagos she leads africa business systems
@jeanette_nk summarises the lessons she learned building business systems for her start-up Click To Tweet

So, you finally have a concept and business plan finalised. You’re ready to begin operating but don’t know where to start? This is usually where consulting firms sweep in and offer help for a fee.

Although outsourcing usually benefits most small start-ups, it’s also true that not every small business has enough money to exploit such services. If you ‘don’t know anything about business’, but don’t have the money to consult those that do, then you’d better whip out your notebook and concentrate.

When I started my business I had no idea how complicated running a PR company was so I dived in, head first. Luckily for me, I snapped out of my illusion quick enough to save the company from myself. I took a step back and educated myself on the business systems that exist within a typical PR company.

Below, I’ve summarised the lessons I learned in 5 very doable steps that can be applied to businesses in various industries.

1. Identify all existing/potential divisions

Business systems are a strategic response to a chain of events that occur within different divisions. Let me make it simpler, using a chocolate cake for instance. Business systems would, in this case, be the oven for the cake and the different divisions involved would be the ingredients needed to make this cake.

I know, I’m salivating too! Okay, let’s focus. These systems include payment policies, contractual agreements, marketing management, customer care etc. For example, if I got a call to handle a campaign for a company, between that call, the conclusion of the campaign and payment being transferred to me, I need to ask myself what divisions would be involved. There would administration for the signing of the contract and releasing of press releases and accounts to record the payment for example.

When you develop your business systems, you need to consider how it will help make those divisions function well together, taking into account all other factors involved like employees within those divisions. You might want to pick up a business book or two to learn more about general business management if you are not too sure about the operational divisions.

Play office, just like you played house when you were a cute little kid Click To Tweet

2. Play office

Yes, play office. Just like you played house when you were a cute little kid before life put the world on your shoulders and no, I’m not mad to suggest this! Putting yourself in a real-life scenario will help you identify what works and what doesn’t work, it helps bring you down to earth.

When I started out, I pitched for a partnership with a very big musician. I was excited for a little while because I could taste the big-time in my mouth. However, once I sat down with my notebook and laptop, I realised that I had no idea where I was going to start and what I was going to do.

I sent out a few mock press releases to see how easy it would be to get word out there and after weeks of waiting, not one publication got back to me. Devastated doesn’t begin to describe how I felt when I sent the “I’m going to start small” email to that client. Yet, I understood that I needed to go through other processes before I got the handle of things. I realised things were a lot more complicated than I thought.

In theory, your vision always seems a lot easier, that’s why it’s important to try and see how well it would work out physically.

Believe me when I say, I literally played office. I set up a nice corner for myself in my tiny typical student room and every morning when I had nothing to do, I would go in, pretend to consult a client, hold staff meetings and so on. This helped me see how things would be if I were sitting across from an actual client.

3. Shadow other existing businesses

Enquire with a similar business and take notes on how they respond to you.


I promise you it’s not as shady as you might think. This step will allow you to, if you haven’t yet, come up with a niche/speciality for your own business. Once they respond to you, or if they don’t at all, you can spot what you can incorporate in your business systems to better serve potential clients. Think of it as industry research, because it pretty much is just that.

For a month or two, I analytically and critically followed one particular PR firm. It was during that time that I started spotting trends on their Twitter timeline. I started learning about things like status meetings and press release drafting sessions, things I had never thought about.

The whole shadowing journey guided me in the right direction, I began seeing exactly how you handle your clients as a publicist and how you navigate the different divisions around such an account or campaign.

Shadowing existing businesses in your niche is not as shady as you'd think Click To Tweet

4. Develop an operating system

This step isn’t as easy as you’d think, but it is completely manageable if you give it enough push. When developing your systems, think long-term, you want these systems to become a tradition and lifestyle for your business.

Although it is referred to as one big system, the truth is, a business system is made up of many small systems that are tailored according to the different interrelated divisions you identified in step 1.


No think about it, it’s really not as confusing. Let’s take a step back to the cake example, these small systems would be how you prepare your ingredients before you mix them in. Before you mix cake batter, you would have had to mix the liquids and dry ingredients separately. You also can’t mix the icing and add it to the batter before it’s been baked into a cake. All of those small, yet differentiated processes are what makes a business system.

How to develop systems that become a tradition and lifestyle for your business Click To Tweet

Taking into account all the information you gathered from the previous 3 steps, start developing your systems. Remember, sometimes it helps to keep things easy and simple. Before you decide your system is complete, make sure it answers the following questions:

  1. How will your client/customer find you? For e.g. do they have to make a booking?
  2. What needs to be done internally to ready the product/service?
  3. How will you deliver your service/product?
  4. How do you document the progress of the delivery?
  5. What events take place after the fact and how do you document these?

5. Evaluate your system

Test the practicality of your business system. If you must, play office again and see if it runs smoothly. If it does, then you’re okay and if it doesn’t, start the process over again with a different approach.

And remember, even though some practically walk into greatness from the word go, don’t rush past being small. Everyone and everything has to start somewhere.

About Jeanette Nkwana

A rad Content Creator and Marketing Communications exec who switched out her Accounting gloves for Communications... And lived happily ever after! She blogs from 367woman.weebly.com - for all the women in her who spun gold in places that were meant to break them.

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