Earlier this year, based on my work at Adobe and my career, I wrote Is Time Really the Problem? Break the Bottlenecks in Content Production to challenge readers to discover and address the real hurdle in their content production cycle.
One particular reader’s comment ended up challenging me. It came from Michael Aldea, a small-business owner: “Fantastic post … so, what happens when you look at your systems and find out YOU are the bottleneck. For smaller companies like mine, creating content is a matter of sheer workload spread over just a few. Any suggestions for this?”
Up until that point, my experience had been with large-enterprise content marketing, working with teams to optimize the publishing flow and break down constraints. Reflecting on Michael’s comment, I wondered: Would the same focusing and constraint-breaking steps that we have taken here at Adobe work on a small scale?
I had to know. So I contacted Michael and we explored the idea of breaking his content marketing constraints over four meetings in four months. Now, I share our work and answer that question for small businesses. If you still have questions after reading it, please feel free to contact me just as Michael did.
Introduction to our story’s hero
Michael Aldea has a small content marketing agency that he and his wife, Susan, run. Go Left Marketing primarily assists real estate agents in developing new websites, brand content, and more.
Michael was overwhelmed with the amount of stuff that had to get done in his business. Coincidently, content was one of those things that always seemed to ebb and flow between somewhat managed and completely under fire.
After connecting on LinkedIn, we set up a series of meetings to tackle the content constraints that continually stressed the team. Over the course of our work together, we would enjoy four productive meetings. But, it was what Michael did with the ideas produced from our meetings that was truly remarkable. Here’s our story.
First and Second Meetings
Steps 1-3: Explore and analyze production process
The first two meetings were exploratory. My goal was simply to document the Go Left Marketing content production process (Step 1). I was able to confirm with Michael that his content flow followed most standard content-creation cycles:
Michael’s company offers many types of content. To determine the agency’s capacity, I asked him to come up with a weekly “content-ask number.” For example, a content ask could be a new webpage, a refreshing of brand content, a blog post, or social media content. A content-ask number represents the total content items needed regardless of type for each client. The number helps determine the product flow, each content type is treated the same.
In an average week, his company completed about one piece of content for each of its five clients. I asked Michael if these five pieces of content consumed their total writing capacity each week or if he felt the team could do more if clients requested more content. Michael concluded the team’s capacity could stretch to about 15 pieces of content each week. To wrap up, I asked if any major blocks to publishing the content existed. Michael said as long as the content was approved it would be published.
We produced the weekly publishing capacities:
Once we identified the capacity of each stage (Step 2), the bottleneck was obvious – client approval. The funny thing (and this has happened to me many times) is that the hurdle isn’t obvious until you go through this charting process. All of a sudden, you shift from a “what the heck am I supposed to do to solve this problem” to “hmm, well that is obvious.” That is, it becomes crystal clear exactly where to focus improvements efforts.
Cautionary warning: Take time to observe and analyze the process so as not to waste time on needless or ineffective improvement efforts (Step 3). For instance, if Michael were to improve the volume of content at the ideation or drafting stages, the production flow still would be stuck at the client approval stage but the effects would be worsened. If Michael’s client approval capacity is five articles each week, any pending-approval content after that five would have to sit until the following week. And, if production continues like this week after week, the pending-approval content might be so delayed that the content is outdated before the client ever has the time (capacity) to review and approve it.
Step 4: Break the bottleneck
After identifying the approval stage as the constraint in the system, Michael and I brainstormed simple solutions to solve this bottleneck (Step 4). Why could Michael only secure client approval for five pieces of content each week? Why not 10? Or even 100? Through our discussion, Michael pointed out the fact that many of his clients were really busy, and even though he had delivered content that was ready to be approved, most of the time that content was sitting in an inbox awaiting the attention of his clients.
As we brainstormed some possible solutions, we talked about setting up email reminders for clients. Or, as the agency owners, Michael and Susan could be more persistent in collecting the approvals from clients. Knowing that Michael had sufficient intuition to create powerful solutions to this problem, I asked him to continue to ponder new and creative ideas around this bottleneck.
As we ended that meeting, Michael decided to:
- Set up an automated system to send approval reminders to clients
- Brainstorm different ways to enforce a speedier approval turnaround
A month later, I was eager to find out what improvements had been made. After hearing Michael’s updates, I was extremely impressed with the results.
Michael was able to implement the following changes to the editing/approval stage:
- Instituted some simple automated email reminders for him and his clients
- Expressed the importance of quick turnaround in initial meetings with new clients
- Included in agency’s master client agreement an auto-approve clause, specifying that if clients didn’t approve content after so many days, the content would be considered approved. (I thought this was a brilliant move, and uniquely aligned to his business knowledge and intuition.)
- Each client approval time was two times quicker on average. Thus, the total client approval stage weekly capacity doubled from five pieces to 10.
- All content was auto-approved after the specified time lapsed, serving as a safeguard to ensure content passed through this step in a timely manner.
The automation process made Michael feel more comfortable expanding his client base, and he was able to close seven more clients during the month. Now, I’m not saying that the changes made caused the six sales; Michael did that all by himself. But, the change did enable the business to better respond when those new clients were serviced by his company.
New content flow
After all of Michael’s hard work during this month, he increased his client approval rate from five pieces to 24 pieces of content approved per week – 10 as the direct result of doubling the approval flow and 14 more from the indirect result of gaining seven clients that could approve two pieces per week. That’s an almost 500% increase in approval capacity.
The new weekly capacity after a month was the following:
Admittedly, the progress was astounding. Even with the creation of a new capacity bottleneck at the ideas and drafting stages, the agency’s production capacity grew three times. (Remember, the team originally was completing the cycle for five content pieces weekly.) This certainly was not bad for a month’s work of improvement.
On to the next constraint: Step 5
Now that the first constraint was broken, we focused on the next one (Step 5): Ideas and drafting. We realized that breaking the new constraint would take a lot of thought and some changes in how Michael approached the business.
As we began to look at the capacity flow of ideation and drafting, I asked Michael a basic question: “How are you servicing your clients? It looks like you don’t have enough capacity to write for the demand that you have.” Michael’s response alluded to a core conflict that was happening in his business (as is often the case when you are bottleneck-breaking)
Solve the bottleneck and create major conflict
The capacity for ideas/drafting stages was set by Susan (co-owner), whose principle responsibility was to brainstorm and create content for the clients, and she was at her maximum input of 15 per week. Because there was such a gain in clients and capacity of client approvals (now at 24 per week), and because there was no one else in the company capable of writing, Michael had to stop spending time selling to new clients and spend more of his time creating content for existing clients.
This decision frustrated Michael whose first passion was to grow the company’s client base to their dream capacity. Now, he had to stop growing the business just to be able to maintain it. To Michael, it felt like a side-step or even a step backward in business progress.
Let me try to visually portray the conflict that Michael found. (This thinking process – the evaporating cloud – was developed by Eli Goldratt):
Here is Michael’s conflict statement: To have a successful business, I must make more money and to make more money, I must sell more. But, to have a successful business, I also must provide excellent client care and to provide excellent client care, I must stop selling. I can’t both sell more and stop selling.
Resolve the conflict and production bottleneck
How do we break the conflict and the bottleneck in the content production flow?
Michael and I looked at the underlying assumptions in the evaporation-cloud statement one at a time and asked ourselves, “Really?” We first determined which assumption bothered us the most – “to provide excellent client care, I must stop selling” – and attacked it.
This statement didn’t make sense. Many companies offer superior service without ceasing their growth. At this point, we addressed the business impact of Michael’s time. As the sole salesperson for his company, each hour he spends in dedicated pipeline and sales development returns on average $1,000 in revenue. I asked what would the hourly cost be for a cream-of-the-crop copywriter? He estimated $100 to $200 an hour. My next question was: “Why did you stop doing a job for your company that creates $1,000 an hour just to do work that could be accomplished for $100 to $200 an hour?”
The answer was deeply rooted in how Michael and Susan had approached business for a long time. They believed if they needed it done right, they had to do it themselves – it’s a common belief that hinders a lot of small businesses from growing. This belief had brought the company’s growth to a standstill and threatened to endanger their ability to properly service the clients they had.
We began talking about the possible ramifications of hiring a full- or part-time writer or freelancer to assist the business. At first, Michael resisted the idea but as the discussion progressed, Michael saw that his hesitance to expand his company’s capacity damaged his growth. In addition, he began to see the possibilities if he scaled his business by hiring more people to increase its capacity.
As we ended that meeting, Michael planned to try the following:
- Meet with Susan (co-owner) to discuss the conflict and ensure they were on the same page to resolve it
- Research, hire, and train a copywriter
We resume our story about a month later. Over the last month, Michael was able to implement the following changes to the company’s ideation and drafting stages in their content production process.
- He hired a good copywriter for 20 hours a week at $20 an hour (much less than the estimated $100 to $200 an hour).
- Michal estimates that the company can create 52 pieces a week.
- Michael and Susan spend only one day each week reviewing topic ideas and planning the company editorial calendar. They can afford to spend a couple of hours each week to come up with a ton of ideas without jeopardizing the rest of the company to do so. It has increased the idea stage capacity to about 150.
- Relieved, Michael can focus his time on brainstorming ideas as well as the company’s growth.
- Michael will continue to watch the company’s capacity to service its clients. If, at any point, it seems capacity is running low, he committed to increasing that capacity by either extending the hours of his copywriter or by hiring more writers.
- Excess idea and drafting capacity is used to create a more consistent company brand. They are able to consistently post great branded content that will ultimately increase the overall demand for their services.
New content flow
Go Left Marketing’s new and improved weekly drafting rate at 52 per week is an increase of 240%. Here’s what the final capacity looked like:
Again, I was impressed with all Go Left Marketing accomplished over the month and the resulting success in the overall production process. Its capacity increased from a total production of 15 pieces of content last month up to 24 pieces this month.
But more than that, the sell-vs.-don’t-sell conflict has been resolved and Michael has started the prospecting and sales cycle again, fully aware that the agency has the capacity to fulfill its future clients’ needs.
This process of uncovering constraints or bottlenecks works, not only with large enterprises like Adobe but also with small business systems. I was amazed at Michael’s dedication to the process and his ability to amplify his capacity each month. Within a matter of four months the business went from producing five pieces of content each week for his clients to successfully delivering 24 pieces of content with enough capacity to double his client-base in the coming months. Not a bad progress chart, if you ask me.
In the end, I asked Michael if I answered his original question in the CMI comments section: Was this system able to resolve your bottlenecks? His reply, “Absolutely Brian … absolutely.”
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My new challenge to you
If you have read this article and are saying to yourself “Yes, it worked for him, but it would never work for me,” please reach out to me and explain your situation. I would love to come up with another case study for everyone here and help you while I’m at it. And, if you prove me wrong and it doesn’t end up helping, I would love nothing more than to share that story as well to help all of us know where this process doesn’t succeed.
Are you a small business looking to take a content-first approach? Read a free chapter and get a copy of Joe Pulizzi’s latest book, Content Inc., to learn how entrepreneurs have found the approach serves them well.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute