Workflow for Product-Based Businesses by Stephanie of exit343design

Workflow! This word sounds like a corporate buzzword to me, akin to something like, “synergy.” And perhaps it is one? But “workflow” to me, as a product-based business, is simply just an operations guide. You probably already have a general idea of yours in your head- I know I thought I did. Read on to learn about why you may want to dedicate time to documenting your own workflow for your product-based business!

What is a business workflow?

Here’s my journey to understanding workflow: I am part of a local meetup group for small business owners. The majority of said business owners are service-based and in the wedding industry. Even though their experiences aren’t fully relatable, I’m still able to glean interesting nuggets of information for myself.

On the day we had Laura Lee Creative speak to the group, I began the meeting as a skeptic. SO MUCH of what she said was for and about wedding professionals. But then, halfway through her presentation, this nugget emerged for me and something clicked:

Think of your workflow as a recipe for how you operate your business. What are the ingredients needed for the recipe?

Is it surprising that the food-centric analogy was the one that sunk in? Not really. From there, I started writing down a list of the steps it takes to make a new design. Then I realized that the list I wrote was missing SO MUCH about exit343design, my business, as whole. As a small business owner, we wear a million hats and keep so much random info locked up in our heads. Which leads me to . . .

Why is recognizing your product-based business’ workflow important?

GET THAT SH*T OUT OF YOUR HEAD! Both for your sanity and to make your business better. When Laura Lee spoke to my group, she said that recognizing your workflow can help you understand where your time is spent. It can also help you identify where you can streamline or automate activities to free up more time for your life! Who wouldn’t want more free time in their life? I agree with her sentiments and so much more! Here’s just some of the things you can do when you write down your workflow:

  • Figure out what processes could/should be automated

  • Identify efficiency opportunities

  • Document time estimates for projects for better time management

  • Recognize what can be outsourced to a VA or employee

  • Help to understand and quantify the value of your time

  • Have a handbook or project framework for employees at the ready

For me, I latched on to the last idea- having a handbook ready for future growth. As someone who both produces products AND sells them, there are a lot of quirky details in my brain that I take for granted. For example, greeting cards: I use about 10 different color envelopes for all of my cards and I buy them from 3 different vendors. This is both an opportunity for me to streamline (do I need all 3 envelope vendors?) and to have that information available for a future employee tasked with reordering supplies.

Another example popped up during the COVID-19 crisis: I hired a furloughed friend to help me with back-of-house stuff. I already had my system built out for the project I gave her in my workflow! All it required was a Google Hangout explanation and a “copy + paste” of the workflow information before she was off to the races. Money and time well spent!

How do I get started on this “workflow” business?

If you’ve made it this far in the post, you’re probably ready to get rolling. To me, the key part is to get the info out of your head and into the written word. You could write it down, create a shareable Google doc, or use a task management tool like Asana. Personally, after some Google searching, I came to love a SAS called Click Up. The “Kan Ban” boards of tools like Asana don’t do it for me; I live by lists. Click Up visually appeals to the list-writer in me. I also like it because I can attach documents, how-to videos, assign due dates, and much more to make it dynamic. Tbh, I’ve barely even scratched the service on all I can do with it! Anyhow, find a home for your business’ workflow that works for you.

Once your workflow’s home is established, let’s start building it out! Again, there a ton of resources out there for service-based businesses, this information is geared specifically for creatives who produce products and sell them.

The graphic below shows my top-level categories that I believe are applicable to any product-based business:

Now, these categories encompass many more sub-categories. And that’s a good thing! The more detailed and in-the-weeds you get, the more you can review, analyze, and make positive change. You might be good from here- awesome! If not, I’ll dig in to some of the information I have personally included under each of these larger umbrellas.

  1. Design:

    This is a fairly simple category seeing as I’m the only designer for exit343design. Under this category, I listed out the steps I take to create a new product category. It includes brand criteria, tasks to complete market research, how and where to research manufacturers, and a final round of questions to make sure an item would be a good fit in my product line.

    For a category so simple, it is still something I wish I fleshed out earlier in my business! I wrote down a list of questions to ask myself before committing to a new product; if I had crafted that criteria earlier, it may have saved me from some previous product line failures. Live and learn at its finest!

  2. Production:

    Where do you order supplies from? If you make your product in-house, what is the sequence of events to make said product? If you outsource, where and how do you order? How long should all of these things take? For me, this category is only about the product- not the packaging, not the storage, nothing else- just the components of making the physical good.

  3. Post-Production:

    This is where things start to get meaty for me. I’m talking about packaging (how, where to order from, etc), storage (I have different ways to store different items in different locations-yikes! I hope to change this one day), and inventory: how to add it to my web-based system.

    Also under this category is something I’ve dubbed, “New Item Workflow.” This list details everything that goes into unveiling a NEW item: photography, how to add it to my online shops, how to reconcile with inventory, and everything in-between. This was a process that I never took time to stop and think about; once I wrote it out, it became clear how complicated it was!

  4. Marketing:

    Admittedly, I am still figuring out the best way to organize this category. As of writing this blog post, I’ve broken it into categories based on all the different marketing arms I use. This includes my chosen social media channels, my email campaigns, general PR tools, etc. These categories will detail HOW to use them, as well as who (as in, what customer profile) each marketing arm is speaking to. This would also be a good place to house your ideal customer profiles.

    Another thing you should know about my business: I sell retail to individual customers (B2C), but I also sell my products via wholesale to stores across the US (B2B). Don’t forget to consider those differences in your workflows!

  5. Selling:

    This is where the B2C process versus the B2B process is completely divided for me. For B2C, I sell online on Etsy, on my own website, and in person at events. For B2B, I sell on my own website and hope to vend at a trade show eventually. This category would also include a site like Faire.

    Within the “selling” category, I am talking about the process of selling and what happens after the sale I.E. the shipping and all that goes in to that! How do you print a shipping label? What gets packaged in the box? Where do those supplies come from? It could also include customer service email templates, common sales pitches for in-person events, and any other resource needed to close the sale.

For me, creating this written-down workflow has been a massive undertaking. I do not recommend trying to knock this whole thing out in a day, your head might pop off! After I decided on my top-level categories, I gave myself a week or two to complete each one. It’s still a work-in-progress for sure!

Do you have any tips or resources for creating a workflow for a product-based business? I’d love to know about them in the comments! My own workflow is still under-construction and I’m definitely open to ideas on how to make it more robust.

Are you also a product-based business owner?

Check out my blog for a variety of other posts and resources!