How to create a business operations manual

Woman business owner looking at operations

Why entrepreneurs hate operating manuals

It’s pretty common to show up at a new job and be greeted with binders full of operating procedures for you to “become familiar with.” I’ve been in this position many times and it’s a quick way to become overwhelmed and unexcited about a new opportunity. There is no way I wanted to recreate that experience in my own business — especially as a solo entrepreneur — and I’m guessing that few entrepreneurs chose to run businesses for the joy of writing their own operating manuals!

In addition, entrepreneurs tend to be creative, passionate people. We are focused on getting things done. The idea of documenting policies and procedures feels like we’re creating a level of complexity that isn’t needed in a company of one. Plus creating a business operations manual requires some level of writing — a skill that many entrepreneurs loathe.

As a self-employed writer for more than 20 years. I’ve written my share of operating manuals in many industries. It wasn’t until I started my membership group at that I realized I needed my own operating manual.

5 reasons why small businesses need an operations manual

Your operations manual should not be a literary masterpiece. It should be more like a recipe book — simple to read and, as much as possible, in a checklist or step-by-step format.

Here are 5 reasons why small businesses, including solo entrepreneurs, should have an operations manual.

  1. Saves time. Every week I write a blog post, select an image, upload it to WordPress, publish my blog, and then add the blog to Facebook and LinkedIn. There are a lot of moving parts that I need to think about. Following a defined sequence of steps means that I am completing these tasks more quickly and efficiently, because I’m not stopping to think about the next step.
  2. Minimizes errors and omissions. In my blog post example, it’s easy to forget to resize and image or add an alt-tag or where to post. Having a checklist helps make sure that I don’t miss anything.
  3. Creates consistency. I like having a procedure that tells me how and when to do tasks. For my blog, for instance, I have a final draft by Monday afternoon so that it can be published on Tuesday. In addition to timing, operating procedures makes sure that my images, branding and content are also presented in a consistent manner.
  4. Allows someone else to run your business. It’s unfortunate that an entrepreneur’s life does not always go as planned. Illness, injury, natural disasters, family problems and other issues can take us away from our business. Having an operating manual allows someone else to step into your business and help you out.
  5. Identifies problems and improvements. When I created documentation about my website, I noticed that I was still using “Admin” as my Admin password. I’d been meaning to fix this for a long time, since it is really terrible from a security standpoint. The fact that I was documenting the procedure motivated me to change the Admin password to something more secure.

What is in an Operations Manual?

Your operations manual contains everything needed to run your business. Conduct a Google search for “operating manual examples” and you can see operating manuals for many different industries. Your operating manual may include:

  • Design information related to branding, logos and advertising.
  • Procedures for sending proposals, contracts and invoices.
  • Directions for uploading photos and videos.
  • Instructions for backing up files.
  • Contact information for your lawyer, CPA, bookkeeper, and web host
  • Procedures for paying bills and bookkeeping.
  • A schedule for creating content, order fulfillment, attending live events, and more.
  • Organizational charts and job descriptions.
  • The location of bank accounts, important documents and passwords.
  • And much more, depending on the size and details of your business.

The Easy Way to Create a Business Operations Manual

  1. Choose a platform. Keep it simple. You can start with a Word or Google document (or even the Notes app on your phone).
  2. Start today. Make a decision that you are going to create an operating manual over the following year.
  3. Keep it simple. Your goal is to capture the steps, procedures and documents that you use in your business. It will be a process. You are not aiming to win a Nobel prize for literature.
  4. Create as you go. This is the time of year when many of us are finalizing our accounting numbers so that we can file taxes. Let’s say you are trying to calculate your business mileage. Record each step of the process in a document using bullet points or numbers. Then follow your directions and see you’ve missed anything. Also, is there anything you can do to make the instructions more clear?
  5. Explore other ways than writing. There is no rule that you need to create your documentation by writing. You can record the steps using your phone. Or you can create a video and have it transcribed. You can also create a PowerPoint presentation using screen shots.
  6. Ask yourself questions. This is a great way to jump start the operating manual process. Frame each job as a question. For instance, “How do I upload a video to YouTube?” Or “What do I need to take with me on a business trip?”
  7. Review and revise. Your operating manual should be a living document. Let’s say you were packing for a business trip using your newly created packing checklist. When you reach your destination, you realize that you forgot to pack ear plugs and an extra projector lamp. Both of these would get added to your checklist for the next trip.

Operations manuals can simplify your personal life too

Do you forget to pack water and snacks when you’re running errands? Are you constantly running out of dog food? Is your phone running out of power? You can set up procedures and checklists — essentially a mini version of an operations manual — to make your home life run more smoothly.

I know a successful female business owner who spent a lot of time training nannies. One day she realized that she needed an operations manual for the nanny. She created it as she trained newest nanny and included her children’s schedules, a list of duties, and other important information. Her nanny training time plummeted from one week to one hour.

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How to create a business operations manual
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