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Margin

One of the questions business owners get asked all the time: 

What advice would you give your younger self, just starting in business, based on what you now know?

This question, or variations thereof, can be a helpful way to frame mentoring conversations for new entrepreneurs. I always answer this question the same way, with a single word: margin.

The very best things in life happen in the margins. Too often, in both our personal and professional lives, we have no margin. Or worse, we have negative margins. A life without margin looks a lot like this:

  • No Personal Financial Margin: Living paycheck to paycheck (or gig to gig). No savings. No retirement. Sometimes late on bills. Get paid enough, but never really know where the cash goes. In constant anxiety about the state of personal finances.
  • No Business Financial Margin: Over-scheduled, over-committed, and under-paid. Unclear on what value you actually bring to the table. Trying to do everything – but never getting ahead.  If you have payroll to pay; you’re always hoping it gets funded on time.  If you’re freelancing – you are constantly tempted to go get “a real job” so you can make some actual money without working 80+ hours/week. Lots of ideas, but never any time to implement them. Always head-down, nose to the grindstone – never any time to think strategically.
  • No Emotional Margin: Aware of impending burnout, but don’t have time to deal with it. Getting internally frustrated towards professional peers for their successes and your apparent lack of success. Frustration in intimate relationships due to lack of communication, lack of boundaries with work, lack of being “present” when you’re meant to be present.

Naturally, there are countless other areas – but does any of this sound familiar? I think we’ve all been there, in some degree or another. Having no margin in life can be suffocating. It’s detrimental to your mental health, to your relationships, to your financial health, to your potential success in life – it affects everything!

Margin is so important, in fact, that if you recognize an area where you have none – it’s an all-hands-on-deck moment for you.  Drop everything, take a hard look at your mindsets, your choices and priorities, and what you’ve done to eliminate that margin.  Creating that margin requires an objective look – often times, an outside look – at the areas of your life that are killing you.  If you don’t belong to a mastermind, have a mentor, a counselor – some sort of objective perspective on your life that you’ve given permission to call you out – get it, now. The right people speaking timely truth into your life is transformative.

Marriages fail because of a lack of margin. Businesses flounder. Physical and mental health degrade.  Want more margin in your life? Say no. By virtue of the way time and space work – to get more margin than you have now (be it financial, mental, relational, etc.) – you need to say “no” to many things you are currently saying “yes” to. Margin creates magic.  If you ask the most successful people you know about where their greatest successes came from – I promise you, most of the time, it was from unexpected opportunity. If you have no margin, you eliminate the opportunity for the unexpected.

Besides saying no, getting outside accountability, and taking a good hard look in the mirror – what does creating margin actually look like? Here’s a very, very simple example.  Imagine you run a business.  You’re getting by, but just barely.  You’ve been growing at a steady 10% every year for the past 5 years.  It’s not astronomical, but it’s getting better every year.  Somehow – even with the increase in revenue – you’re still lacking the retained earnings that would give you some financial breathing room*.

If this hypothetical scenario is where you’re at today; do yourself a favor: make a budget.  Now (November) is a great time to start thinking about next year’s budget (potential fiscal year discrepancies notwithstanding).  But don’t just make a budget. If you made $100,000 this year – and you imagine that you’ll make $110,000 next year – don’t use your budget to spend $110,000!

Instead – create margin.  Rather than spending all $110,000 you imagine you’ll make in 2017 – go the opposite direction.  Create a $90,000 budget – and then stick to it, religiously. This observation is worth what you’ve paid for it, but here’s a few things I think you’ll find:

  1. Because of your intentionality in creating margin in one area, you’ll train your brain to create margin in other areas.
  2. You’ve perhaps never had any retained earnings as a business – theoretically, you’ll end your first quarter with $5,000 in retained earnings. This will feel amazing.
  3. With your intensified focus and newly created margin – you’ll end up thinking more deliberately and more strategically. Having cash in the bank will reduce your professional and personal anxiety and you’ll make better choices, get better clients, and have better profit margins.  You won’t see your standard 10% increase over last year – my bet? It doubles to 20%.

That’s the power of margin – it has a compounding effect on every area of your life. In the hypothetical scenario above – the business owner goes from just getting by, to ending the following year with double their annual growth, and increasing their retained earnings from $0 to $30,000 in one year.  Imagine a similar effect on your personal finances, on your mental health, on your relationships, your marriage!

I’m on a personal mission to find every ounce of margin that I possibly can in my own life – for the sake of myself, my relationships, my business, my team members, and my family. I hope you’ll join me.

  • This sounds hypothetical, but I guarantee you, it describes a significant majority of very small businesses (< 10 employees).

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4 Comments

  1. Great post! It’s time I learnt to be better at “no”.
    My biz as a solo brand/web consultant has grown well but with stress to relationships and turbulent waters. I’m seeing so much of what you’re saying ring true as I’ve needed put the same microscope on my existence. This was VERY timely, with useful info and most of all encouraging :) Thank you very much for taking the time and putting it out there.

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