Not doing it all key to small business success

Radhika Sivadi

3 min read ·


NEW YORK (AP) — As Robin Wilson sits at home cuddling her 4-month-old daughter, she doesn't have to worry about the work getting done at her design and home furnishings company.

She has delegated much of the heavy lifting at Robin Wilson Home. She has an administrative assistant, someone on call to handle technology problems, a bookkeeper and a driver. She's delegating at home, too, with a housekeeper. These are all recent hires — made since last summer, when she realized that she not only couldn't, but shouldn't try to do it all.

"Now that I have a family, I have to have time for my husband and baby," says Wilson, who lives in West Orange, N.J., an hour's commute from her company's office in Manhattan.

This is Wilson's second, but in many ways her more important round of delegating. Her administrative assistant keeps track of things. She's not spending time troubleshooting PCs. Her financial records are up to date. She's spending her time building her company and the Robin Wilson Home brand that she's now licensing for products like cabinets, bedding, soaps and lotions. And she's spending precious time with her child.

But delegating to others is not just about time, she says.

"Each person is smarter than you or more capable, and you are allowing yourself to be the CEO of your entire life," Wilson says.

Delegating hasn't been easy, even though it was necessary. Wilson, like many entrepreneurs, felt it was the most natural thing in the world to do everything herself in first few years after she started her company in 2000.

"I was the chief bottle washer and did whatever needed to be done, I did it," she says. "I was making all the decisions from hinges to doorknobs to flooring to carpets to baseboards."

She was also visiting job sites and doing tasks like bookkeeping. It helped her become a big success — her clients have included former President Bill Clinton. But by year six, trying to do it all was taking its toll.

"My hair started falling out, I wasn't sleeping," she says. "I'd wake up with 'oh my God, I forgot to do that!' My personal life was suffering and my business was becoming my boyfriend."

So she put together a team of six staffers to help her work with clients. They took on tasks like showing paint and other product samples to clients, and visiting showrooms with them.

"The people who you delegate to are your partner and your ticket to freedom, so instead of being up 24/7, you're up maybe 16/7 — and they're doing the rest," she says.

But this wasn't a cinch.

"I had angst about every decision about delegating my business," Wilson says. "I knew my name was on the door, and if a mistake was made, ultimately, the buck stopped with me. … I was terrified."

And things did go wrong. One of her staffers revealed confidential information about a client.

"I was devastated that the client was betrayed. I was more devastated that I had devoted two years to grow a young person into a professional and they did not appreciate the opportunity and lied to me," she says.

The incident taught Wilson that she needs to check in with her staffers on a regular basis, make training an ongoing priority and to make sure her expectations are clear.

At the same time, she learned that she couldn't micromanage. That would defeat the whole purpose of delegating.

"At first I viewed it as giving up control and today, I use the language, 'getting control,'" she says.

Even when her delivery date was approaching, Wilson wasn't really thinking about the amount of delegating she needed to do. But she had hired a doula, a woman who gives advice and support to mothers before and after their babies are born. Wilson's doula had her focus on how she was going to run her life as a new mother — how she was going to get even simple chores like shopping and opening the mail done while trying to care for her family and her business.

"It brought delegation home again to me," Wilson says.

Delegating is allowing Wilson to keep moving her company in a new direction — licensing and product development is a growing part of her business.

"My job is to be the ambassador for the brand — the chief marketer and more importantly, client relationship builder," she says. "My job is also to be the visionary, the strategist for our next step, two-year plan and five-year objective."

"Delegation helps you strategize," she says.

Radhika Sivadi