6 Principles for Small Business Automation

Automation can save a small business time and money.

Automation can save a small business time and money.

Entrepreneurs and small business managers are hands-on folks. They are often involved in nearly every aspect of the business — from marketing to fulfillment to accounting to website design. At some point, however, all of that special attention may actually inhibit growth, so that the business leaders need to step back and let some processes happen automatically.

The term business automation is broad. For some businesses, it might mean automating physical processes like product assembly. For others, it might mean setting up automated emails to occur when a customer takes some action.

For this article, I’ll use business automation to describe the act of using technology to transform manual business processes into things that happen all by themselves.

Examples of Processes to Automate

A mid-sized retailer in the northwest U.S. has initiated a new employee-training program. Employees earn points for watching online videos and taking online courses: Customer service representatives earn points for learning about specific products and customer-service scenarios; fulfillment folks earn points for learning about shipping procedures.

A training manager creates a weekly report showing when an employee logged in and how many points that employee has earned. This report is distributed to a handful of managers via email.

Initially, this was a manual process.

  • Log into learning management system.
  • Download CSV file with employee activity.
  • Open the CSV file in spreadsheet software.
  • Remove several unnecessary columns.
  • Sort the data by manager.
  • Save individual files for each manager.
  • Email each manager with the file attached.

As simple as the task might seem, the training manager was spending about two hours per week just emailing the report.

I simple JavaScript report running in a browser transforms a two-hour task into a five-minute job.

A simple JavaScript report running in a browser transforms a two-hour task into a five-minute job.

The process was automated, in part, with a relatively short JavaScript and a Google Gmail application programming interface (API). The new script, which a developer at the retailer wrote in less than two hours, allowed the training manager to upload the CSV for processing and send automatically via the company’s Gmail account. The new process takes about five minutes and looks like this:

  • Log into learning management system;
  • Download CSV file with employee activity;
  • Upload the CSV file to the automation tool;
  • Authorize the email with one click.

The most difficult tasks associated with parsing the information are done automatically. The learning management system the company uses will soon offer an API. When that API is active, the retailer will completely automate the process so that the training manager will not need to be involved at all.

Similarly, this same retailer likes to monitor product prices from a few of its competitors. Originally, an employee would visit several hundred web pages each week, collecting competitive pricing information and dutifully recording these prices, many of which had not changed, in a spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet would be reviewed and a decision would be made regarding the retailer’s own pricing.

In spite of having the competitors’ product pages bookmarked and being reasonably efficient at recording the prices, the task still took several hours a week of essentially mindless effort.

Using the Scrapy framework and Python, the retailer completely automated the process. Now, a Scrapy web crawler goes out every day and collects all of the competitive pricing information. The prices are stored in a database. If a price has changed, an email is sent automatically, showing the new price or prices and including links back to the products.

The new automated process requires no human interaction, unless there is a change. What’s more, it checks daily so that it will identify a price change more quickly.

These are just two examples of business processes that were begging for automation. And they fall squarely into principles of business automation.

6 Principles for Small Business Automation

  • Repetitive tasks. Business automation is best suited for repetitive tasks. Think of things that an entrepreneur or small business manager is doing over and over again without a significant amount of thought or human-added value.

Tasks like email marketing, report creation, certain accounting functions, auditing, and similar are typically repetitive tasks that you can use software or other technologies to automate.

  • Easy workflows first. As you begin to automate a business, start with easy workflows first. A good place for many small businesses to start is marketing. Typically, these workflows are rather direct. A shopper subscribes to the business’s emails and a welcome message is sent. It’s simple. There are many software tools and platforms to help automate this process.
  • Specific tasks. Aim to automate specific tasks rather than trying to automate broad or large ones. So, focus on creating a report that shows how often employees are accessing the learning management system. Automate the creation or monitoring of analytics data. Create a reminder that emails your daily sales information rather than having to go look for it.
  • Save time or money. Automation should save a small business time, money, or both.

Entrepreneurs and small business managers often work long hours. It can be a huge relief when automating a process frees up time. Similarly, small businesses often struggle with cash flow, so that saving money is a necessary goal too.

But if you automate processes that don’t offer a return on investment, you’re not helping the business. As part of this principle, measure how much automation is saving you. Doing so will often encourage you to keep automating, to keep growing your business.

  • Daily tasks first. As you begin to automate various business processes, start with daily tasks.

If you asked a time-management expert, she would tell you that one way to save time is to batch activities. As an example, you will save time if you check your email in batches, say once or twice a day, rather than every few minutes. Similarly, many small businesses save time by only reading physical mail once a week.

In a sense, activities that you do weekly may already be more efficient and effective than those done daily, since they are, in a sense, batched. Thus, automate daily tasks first, then things you do a few times per week, then once per week, and so on.

  • Tasks that won’t scale. If an entrepreneur or small business manager wants to call and thank every customer, there better not be too many customers. The activity simply will not scale as the business grows.

When you automate, look for activities that do not scale as your business grows.

Imagine, for example, an online retailer checking competitors’ prices. When this retailer’s store first opens it sells 100 products. It has about three competitors per product, so a complete review of competitive pricing means visiting 300 product detail pages. With an average load time of about two seconds and another 10 seconds to recognize and record the price, the task takes about an hour.

If this retailer grew to 1,000 products, the competitive price report would be about a 10-hour job. At 4,000 products, monitoring competitive prices has become someone’s full-time job, 40 hours per week. The process doesn’t scale. But with automation, the task might not take anyone’s time at all.

Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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