4 Ways for Entrepreneurs to Manage Their Backlog: When the Cup Overflows

An Entrepreneur Working the Backlog
An Entrepreneur Working the Backlog

We just made another deal last weekend to make some baseball bat themed footstools and bar stools, which was terrific.  Then I did the math on our total backlog and it’s over 100 hours!  Remember, this is a part time gig until I retire (Mrs Woodworker won’t let me retire) and I can only comfortably do about 6 hours per week in the wood shop, especially given work travel.  That means my backlog works out to about 17 weeks or 4 months, which is too long for my taste.  Why?  Because there are a few other commissions I’ve been discussing with potential clients that I’d really like to build.  They look like really fun projects.  Doing these new deals is not about bringing in new business, but about making things that are interesting.  How does an entrepreneur manage their backlog when it gets too big?  Read on!

#1:  Throttle Back on Marketing, But Not Completely

An entrepreneur needs to maintain the flow of business, because the backlog could be gone at some point.  We always want new business walking in that door, but not too much or quality will suffer, or we’ll have to turn away too many clients.  To give you a specific example, you may have noticed  I’ve started to tweet here and there with some updates on what is going on in the shop (follow us at Twitter handle @TraughberDesign).  I could be tweeting a lot more, but decided to just tweet occasionally until we’ve worked off more of that backlog.  We also have a Pinterest account and could be doing a lot more other on the social media front with apps like Instagram.  At this point, though, we need that time in the shop.

Something else to start thinking about is what is your ideal backlog number?  That number could be in hours or number of projects to ship, or some other metric.  Then work towards that metric you’ve set.  Over 100 hours is too much right now for Traughber Design, but once I’m doing this full time, that number may be too low if I work a 40 hour week in the wood shop.  What’s the right number for your business?  Have you thought about that?  You want enough of a backlog to keep yourself gainfully employed for a while, but how long?  How frequently does new work typically come in the door?  As I mentioned earlier, this backlog will take me 4 months and I can estimate pretty well how much new work we’ll get in that time period.  That will determine how much effort (or not) we spend on marketing.  We’ve already had 4 commissions this year and it’s only February so we need to manage the incoming and outgoing flow.

We just talked about investing less (time) in marketing, where should the entrepreneur invest?

#2:  Invest in Capital Expenditures that Make You Faster

Maybe buying tools should always be the default answer!  One can never have enough tools, I suppose, unless you’re traveling a minimalist journey as Mrs Woodworker and I are.  But what do I mean by “buy more tools”?  I mean to look for opportunities where a tool or jig will make you faster or more efficient in whatever your creating enterprise is.  To give you an example, I anticipate we may be making a lot of the baseball bat themed foot stools and bar stools.  Is there a tool I can buy that will speed up production while maintaining or improving the quality?  Is there a jig (a specially made apparatus to hold pieces in place to make cutting/sawing/drilling/etc. easier) I can make that makes positioning the bats easier to speed things up? Yes, of course there are.  I’ve made one prototype foot stool from three bats and can see the value in making a jig for the bar stool to precisely align the bats and drill holes for the cross pieces that will hold the bats in place in the stool.  If I make the jigs now, we’ll reap the benefits in the long run with time savings on every piece.

For more on tools read these posts:

Choosing Woodworking Tools, or Why I Love Festool

Woodworking and Minimalism:  If I Buy All These Tools Am I A Minimalist?

3 Reasons You MUST Invest in the Best Tools You Can Afford! 

So we can speed things up with capital expenditures, but how about allocating our time wisely?

#3:  Reallocate Your Time

As I wrote about earlier in the post Get Out of the Rat Race:  How to Manage the Transition from Career to Maker, entrepreneurs have tremendous freedom to decide where to focus their efforts.  That’s one of the reasons we start these journeys:  freedom and creativity.  Not only is it about allocating time after the day job is over, but occasionally an entrepreneur will run across some “bonus time.”  There was a bit of serendipity with this holiday weekend.  We had planned to go cross country skiing in West Virginia, but the snow forecast was abominable.  We cancelled and went out with friends at least one night, but that freed up the entire weekend for some making every morning.  I’m the lark, or early riser, in the family so I naturally get up to write a little then hit the wood shop before every one is up.  Then we spent the rest of the day together.  I try not to work in the shop late in the day because fatigue and power tools don’t go together.  I’d like to keep my fingers.  If you are an entrepreneur, look for opportunities like that to do a little extra making.  For you, would that be early in the morning?  Stealing some time during the day?  Late in the day?  Using a portion of a holiday weekend?

As we’ve written about earlier, if you don’t have enough time you can always pull out that time creation machine we wrote about in the post Time is not Finite and make some time.

#4:  Enjoy the Ride

When you run across a “problem” with a backlog like this, it’s important to step back for a minute and do a couple things.

One thing is to pat yourself on the back for having a backlog in the first place.  Remember when you started as an entrepreneur?  You had zero backlog and were just hustling for revenue.  Now that you have one, congratulate yourself.  Mo Johnson, the owner of Better Display Cases, discusses that more in our entrepreneur interview series.

The second thing is to enjoy that ride every day. Remember in our Ode to Ralph the Woodworking Cat where we wrote about Ralph’s joy for life?  He embraced life to the fullest.  Entrepreneurs need to stop and smell the roses as they are working that backlog.  We also wrote about this in the post on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, specifically in the portions on flow and contentment.  Why did you start this enterprise in the first place?  Wasn’t to spend more time on your craft?  Enjoy it!  Tim Ferris also talks about this in his recent interview with Entrepreneur Magazine in the article Tim Ferriss: If You’re Not Happy With What You Have, You Might Never Be Happy.  Check it out.

Rejoice, Mr/Mrs Entrepreneur!  You’ve got a backlog to manage!  Don’t forget to:

#1:  Throttle Back on Marketing, But Not Completely

#2:  Invest in Capital Expenditures that Make You Faster

#3:  Reallocate Your Time

#4:  Enjoy the Ride

2 thoughts on “4 Ways for Entrepreneurs to Manage Their Backlog: When the Cup Overflows”

  1. Congratulations on having backlog! Do you have any guidelines on when it might be appropriate for an entrepreneur to hire an apprentice to help with backlog?

    1. Excellent question, Lisa! I’ve thought a lot about that. An entrepreneur should hire an apprentice if the backlog has a healthy number of hours in it and the rate the entrepreneur charges is high enough to cover the hourly rate of the apprentice. An apprentice will likely not be up to speed immediately and the entrepreneur needs to consider the learning curve for the apprentice as well as the possibility of apprentice turnover. In our case with Traughber Design, almost every piece is custom made right now, so it would take a very long time to get an apprentice up to speed. Once we start making things that will be produced in volume, like our baseball bat footstools and baseball bat barstools, that would be an ideal time to have an apprentice’s help.

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