If you’ve never heard the motto “Work on your business, not in it”, then you probably haven’t spent much time hanging around business coaches, or fans of the various iterations of Michael Gerber’s E Myth.
I haven’t read Gerber myself, but from what I can gather, “Work on your business, not in it” means roughly this:
If you own a business, you shouldn’t be spending your time doing the day-to-day things that keep the business ticking over (“working in your business”). Instead, you should hire, outsource or automate these tasks, and concentrate instead on the “big picture” strategic tasks that will make your business bigger, more scalable, more efficient, more saleable down the track, and so on (“working on your business”).
Now, obviously there’s something to this idea, otherwise half the business people I know wouldn’t devote their lives to realising it. The problem is, these same people are often so enamoured of the phrase itself that they want to use it in their marketing copy. I think this is a mistake, for two reasons:
- Some people prefer working in their business to working on it.
- If you haven’t read the book, it’s not that easy to see the difference.
The first of these is a problem with the underlying idea of the phrase, the second a problem with the wording. But both of them lead to what I’d describe as “huh?” reactions. Something that seems totally self-evident to the person saying it seems either wrong or confusing to the person hearing it. And that’s never good marketing.
Problem 1: Some people prefer working in their business to working on it
I’m a writer, not an entrepreneur. Saying that might go against the wisdom of the moment, but it’s how I feel. I want to work on my clients’ stuff, not my own. I’m happy to do enough marketing and Big Strategic Thinking to get the clients and the work I want, but no more.
In other words, my idea of heaven is spending time working in my business! (Well, business heaven anyway.) Sure, there are a lot of mundane tasks that get in the way of doing that – bookkeeping, invoicing, CRM, etc. – and anyone who has a good, affordable way of reducing the time I spend on them* has a good chance of getting my business.
But they’re not going to get it by promising me that I’ll have more time to spend on marketing, business coaching, “blue sky thinking”, joint venture proposals, franchising, or any of those entrepreneurial “big picture” things that come under the category of “working on my business”. I just don’t care about that stuff, still less enjoy it.
Now, if you think I’m the only business person in the world who thinks that way, or if you’re confident that your target market doesn’t include people like me, then this doesn’t apply to you. But if your market includes freelancers, especially writers and designers, there’s a fair bet that anything you say that assumes your customers are setting out to create an empire will fall on deaf ears at least half the time.
Problem 2: If you haven’t read the book, it’s not that easy to tell the difference.
Let’s say you’re satisfied that your target market is full of would-be entrepreneurs. If you’re part of the “Make Money Online!!!” crowd, that’s probably a safe bet. That means Problem 1 doesn’t apply to you. As for me, if I’m not in your target market, then I’m very happy being excluded from your thoughts. Indeed I prefer it.
But there’s still a problem with “Work on your business, not in it”. This time it’s to do with the wording of the phrase itself. (I’m about to go into egghead mode, which is why I’m tackling this problem second.)
Here’s one symptom of what I’m talking about: Whenever I think of the phrase “Work on your business, not in it”, I’m always momentarily unsure which way around it’s supposed to go. Assuming this is not a personal idiosyncrasy, I don’t think this can be a good sign for your customers. As I’ve said before in one of my first posts here, phrases that force readers to think too hard about what they mean are bad copywriting. (That doesn’t mean they’re bad writing!)
Why is this one hard to nut out, though? At first I thought it might be that “in” and “on” are both prepositions and prepositions can be kind of vague. But a phrase like “Sit in the car, not on it” is instantly comprehensible and not at all ambiguous. So it’s not “in” and “on” themselves that are the problem.
But the thing is, “work in your business” and “work on your business” use “in” and “on” in metaphorical rather than literal senses – and not only that, they’re metaphorical senses with fairly vague meanings. Indeed the meanings actually overlap: is taking a client out to lunch “working in” or “working on”? It could be either, or both.
This is simply a fact about the English language: the verb “work” attaches itself to prepositions in vague, overlapping ways. Think about not just “work in” and “work on” but also”work at”, “work for”, “work with” and “work under” – they all mean different things, but there are plenty of situations where you could choose more than one of them.
Moral of the story? When you’re marketing something, don’t use phrases that ask the reader to make fine-grained distinctions between expressions like “work on” and “work in”. And don’t assume that they’ll share your convictions about which is better.
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