Customer Service

To Do Lists and Expanding Your Business from Service to Products

Mike Kelly and Elizabeth Larkin

What’s the best way to organize your to do list as a busy small business owner? How can you expand your service-based business into a service-and-product based business? Join hosts Elizabeth Lakrin and Gene Marks as they tackle these questions and more on this episode of the Small Biz Ahead Podcast.

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Do you have a question you’d like Elizabeth and Gene to answer? Submit your question to the Small Biz Ahead Podcast.


Gene: We’re talking about TV, so what is your favorite TV show on right now, Elizabeth? Give me one. Give us a recommendation.

Elizabeth: Okay, so I just- I can’t say one. I am a real TV person. I don’t watch it every night, but I have shows that I’m so loyal to, most of them aren’t on the air anymore. Right now I’m finishing up House of Cards, which is insane, that show is crazy. The Americans, I’m kind of behind, I’m watching it on Amazon, and I just finished The People v. O.J. Simpson, which was so good. You’re a big Walking Dead fan?

Gene: Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Better Call Saul.

Elizabeth: Better Call Saul! Me too! Yes.

Gene: Excellent. Excellent show, been really enjoying it. Different vibe from Breaking Bad, but still very Breaking Bad-ish. I really, highly recommend watching- if you’re a Breaking Bad fan, you’ll love it.

Elizabeth: I just read something- maybe I didn’t read the article, but I saw it on Twitter, someone said that they like it better than Breaking Bad.

Gene: Yes, I can understand that because, again, it’s a different vibe. It’s a little bit funnier, it’s a little bit, you know what I mean? It’s not as crazy and violent as Breaking Bad was. What I like the most is, on Better Call Saul, because it’s a prequel you’ve got a lot of the Breaking Bad characters show up on that show.

Elizabeth: Yes, I love that.

Gene: They’re sort of their younger selves, and I think that’s really cool. Plus, I hate surprises, so I know how they all turn out. I never have to worry. You know, somebody’s getting into trouble, I’m like, “this guy, he doesn’t die because he’s in Breaking Bad, so he’ll be fine.”

Elizabeth: Don’t ever throw you a surprise party.

Gene: No, I do not like surprises.

Elizabeth: No? Okay.

Gene: Do not like surprises.

Elizabeth: We actually have an article that we just published on Small Biz Ahead this week, and it’s called “Leadership Lessons from Game of Thrones.”

Gene: Yes.

Elizabeth: Which is really a lot of fun. That show is crazy.

Gene: It is. It is a wonderful, wonderful show. I will tell anybody who’s never watched it before if you plan on watching it you’ve got to give it 6 or 7 episodes before it really starts clicking.

Elizabeth: Although, the pilot episode is great.

Gene: Shocking! That first episode is like, “whoa,” but you need 6 or 7 episodes to really get into it. It’s absolutely a wonderful show. There are a lot of leadership lessons to be taken from that show.

Elizabeth: There are, and I’m just finishing up the books right now, so I’m at the end of book 5, and he hasn’t written anymore, so … The books, I would say if you’re going to watch the show, read the books. The books are so good, I mean, except book 4 is not that great, but the rest of them are really good! All right, so we’re going to be back with our first question, which is not about TV, but about freelancing after our first ad.

QUESTION #1: What to do list system do you use?

Okay, Armand from Vermont asks:

“I’ve started a freelance business and I like to keep a good schedule, but my to-do list is always way off. Do you make to-do lists, and if so, how do you set them up? If not, how do you set a schedule?”

Gene and I have actually talked about to-do lists before, and we’ll link back to that, but I think, I don’t know, it’s always good to talk about to-do lists because I always do different things. I follow a schedule, because I find that if I create a to-do list I rebel against it.

Gene: Right.

Elizabeth: If I have a schedule, like when I come in in the morning, I’m really smart in the morning, Gene and I have talked about this before, so that’s when I do my editing work. Then in the afternoon, I reserve that for meetings, or I’ll make phone calls or something. The to-do list I do keep are things that I’ve delegated to other people, because I have to do that. A lot of times I’ll delegate something to someone and then I’ll just go do it myself. Which is not good for them or for me. I keep and excel spreadsheet that’s really really simple, I know that sounds complicated, but it’s just what the project is, who I delegated it to, and when I need it from them by. I have that open on my desktop all day long.

In my personal life, I use an app called Wunderlist, which I love. It’s really flexible, really elegant, and it actually allows you to cross things off, even online. I know Gene, you love the paper list so you can cross things off because it feels so good to cross things off. You know, I’ll use my grocery list in there, and then anything I’m working on, like projects that I’m working on that have nothing to do with my job. Gene.

Gene: The best to-do list for any business owner, freelancer, or independent person, is a good CRM system. A good Customer Relationship Management system.

Elizabeth: Not a pen and paper?

Gene: Well, we’ll get to that in a minute. Let me tell you something, all of your to-do’s that you have either have to do with, particularly if you’re a freelancer, Armand, right? Your to-do’s have to do with your clients, or perspective clients, or projects that you’re working on. It’s people and projects. A good CRM system, and they’re plenty of great ones that are out there, Insightly, Sugar, Zoho, Salesforce is probably too expensive for-

Elizabeth: Yes, some of these are free, Insightly is free.

Gene: Free, yes, for one or two years or so, Zoho, I mean really good ones. What happens is that anybody that you’re touching, prospect, partners, supplier, customer, whatever, they’re in that database. They all have mobile apps. If you’re going to think, “oh, I’ve got to call that guy. I’ve got to do something for that person. Oh, I’ve got to follow-up on this thing, I’ve got to do whatever.” You’re always associating it with a person in your CRM system and why that’s important is it’ll generate your to-do list for you, which you can look up from any device, but then you’re going to complete those actions. With notes, maybe, or not. Then it goes into that person’s history as well. Then when you start building up a database of what you’re doing with your days and what you’re doing with your clients, and what you’re doing-

Elizabeth: Where your time’s going.

Gene: Where your time’s going, and nothing falls through the cracks that way. That’s what CRM systems do. Everybody gets a follow-up.

Elizabeth: For a freelancer, what CRM would you recommend, or what couple different CRMs would you recommend?

Gene: We mentioned a couple already, like I really like Insightly, it’s very very good. I really like Zoho, my company sells Zoho, so I want to keep this balanced. We don’t sell Insightly, but they’re two very very good- for one or two years they’re free, and then you pay if you want more features. Opportunities, customizations, and all that. For Armand, a typical freelancer, that’s great. By the way, I’m scratching the surface. There’s a ton, ton of other CRM systems out there. You can Google that. In fact, I did an article on Forbes a year ago on the top 25 CRM systems you’ve never heard of. It was a bunch of them that are popular only within their own clique. There’s a lot that’s out there, but you asked, so Zoho and Insightly are two the immediately come to mind.

Elizabeth: What kind of features do they have? You’re saying, “okay, I have to write a proposal for this person.”

Gene: Right. Let me just say that, no matter what Armand’s looking for, he’s an individual freelancer. There’s not a single CRM system out there that won’t have the features that he needs. He doesn’t even have to get all wrapped up in feature comparison and all that kind of stuff. No offense, Armand, it’s just that you’re a single guy freelancing. Trust me, the CRM systems of today are very mature; not matter which one you pick you’ll be fine. What they have, is you have the ability of every single person that you meet goes into that system. You either scan their business card in, because they all have apps that do that, or they enter it in through the web, or you just key it in from your phone or whatever. Everybody you meet gets into your CRM system, and everybody has a to-do. Everybody. Elizabeth, you and I talk, we meet at a conference, “oh, she was cool,” whatever, I’m going to put a to-do in for 4 months later to send you an email just to say “hey, remember we met at that conference? How are things going?” Because that’s how you generate more business, and that’s how things don’t fall through the cracks. CRM systems are great for doing that. It’s really not CRM, it’s just contact management. That’s what it was always been called back in the day, but today we’re calling it CRM.

Elizabeth: What I love about that too is you said that you don’t have to worry about how you organize your to-do list, it just does it for you.

Gene: It does. Plus, within those to-do lists, if you want to get complicated you can sort them different ways, you can customize the lists, you can display them, they can alert you for priority to-dos, alarm you. There’s a whole bunch of different options, and again, just about every CRM system that’s out in the market today gives you the ability to do that.

Elizabeth: This is one area where a sole proprietor really has a leg up, because you don’t have to worry about someone else going in and messing up your data. You’re the only one in there.

Gene: Right.

Elizabeth: It’s just a great tool, I think, for a sole proprietor.

Gene: It is. By the way, I talk about CRMs, but a lot of us use Outlook, a lot of us use, I mean you use a spreadsheet that you do. My recommendation there is you use Google Sheets, for example, it’s part of Google’s apps. My reason for doing that is if you just want to keep that stuff on a spreadsheet, which I don’t recommend, because you can’t- it’s not a database, so it makes it harder to track your history and activities and all that when it’s just on a spreadsheet. Even if you were to do something on a simple spreadsheet, do Google Sheets because then it’s online, it’s Cloud-based, so you can pull it up on your phone or your tablet or any computer. If you need to update and do stuff you’re not stuck with having to do something that’s in your office.

Elizabeth: All right, sounds good. Armand, we’re going to link to some articles on CRM systems and how you use them. We actually have one out right now called “Why Every Small Business Owner Needs a CRM System.”

Gene: That sounds like a great article.

Elizabeth: It’s really good!

Gene: I wonder who wrote that.

Elizabeth: We also have one from Gene called “Why You Don’t Need a CRM System.”

Gene: Uh-oh, that’s a- why would I write that?

Elizabeth: I don’t know. All right, we’ll be right back with our second question.

QUESTION #2: Expanding Your Business from Service to Products 

Okay, we’re back with our second question, this is all about personal training. Chris from Rhode Island, another-

Gene: Wait, another guy from Rhode Island? Jeez, here in Connecticut-

Elizabeth: It’s a small state, and it’s very entrepreneurial.

Gene: Seriously.

Elizabeth: Chris runs a small personal training business, and he does it well and he writes: “It drives me crazy that I can’t-”

Gene: How do you know? How do you know that he does it well? Maybe he doesn’t! Maybe he’s a mess, maybe he’s disorganized, we don’t know. We’re going to assume that he does it well. Fair enough?

Elizabeth: Yes, because he listens to our podcast, so I’m going to assume that he’s doing it well.

Gene: All right, fair enough. All right Chris, we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

Elizabeth: He writes:

“It drives me crazy that I can’t take a vacation without losing money, or possibly even clients. I don’t have space in my gym for another trainer, and I want to move into selling products so that I can at least make money even when I’m not in the studio. Do you have any advice for someone who’s been working in a service-based business model and looking to transition to a product-based business model?”

We talked about this a couple podcasts ago, where someone doing construction was kind of hesitant to hire people. If the space in your gym doesn’t have room for another trainer, maybe thinking- I know this isn’t your question, Chris, but I just want to back up. You could get another gym that does have space for another trainer. If you find that, “yeah, I’m not really that in to products,” you could possibly rent another space and find another trainer to work with.

Gene: Very true, very true. I mean, if your core overhead is not sustainable because you want to take time off and it’s going to be down for a while, then that’s not a good model to be in.

Elizabeth: Yes, and you kind of deserve to be able to take a vacation-

Gene: Yes, Chris! You work hard.

Elizabeth: You’re not going to be able to not work- we talked about, a couple podcasts ago too, that Gene never takes a vacation and doesn’t work at all, but you should be-

Gene: What? Yes I do.

Elizabeth: You should be able to take some time off. Maybe think about looking for a new space. As far as working in a service-based business and transitioning to a product-based business model, I’m going to let Gene take that one.

Gene: Well, I mean they’re two completely different businesses, so it’s certainly not going to happen overnight. I don’t think you want to bank on the fact that you’re going to convert to a product-based model right away and then be able to take time off when you need. People are just going to- that’s a big assumption to make. Here is some advice that I have for you if I was- because we do the same thing. We’re in a service-based business, but we try to sell products as well. We haven’t been doing very well at it because people hire us for our services. They get the CRM software and then there’s a bunch of additional products that people can buy from us, but they view us- that’s our core thing. Chris, you’re a personal trainer- look, if I’m hiring you to be my personal trainer, that’s your core business. That’s why I’m paying you and whatever. If you want to set up a separate business of selling products, it’s just a completely separate business model. You’re really going to have to make a decision as to what you want your model to be.

Even if you say, “I want to sell some accessories, some nutrients, weights, and things that you would need for personal training,” I think that’s great, but I don’t, I mean, if you’re an individual person training, I’m assuming you’re seeing a certain amount of people per week. I don’t know if there’s going to be that much business, if they’re going to be buying so much from you all the time that that’s going to sustain you when you’re away. You chose this lot in life, to be a service business by the hour, and this is where you are. The best advice I can give to you as a personal trainer, if you’re looking for vacation, is partner with somebody else. There are plenty of personal trainers that are around, partner with some other personal trainer. Share clients, so then that way when you want to take some time off that person can cover for you when you’re away and then you can cover for that person when that person goes away as well. That way you can have your cake and eat it, too. Although I don’t think Chris is having much cake because he’s a personal trainer. Sorry, you can have your nutrient bars and eat it, too, okay Chris.

Elizabeth: Protein cake. Another idea, I was just talking to a friend who goes to a gym in Manhattan. Think about, if you don’t have a lot of space, like gyms in Manhattan really don’t have a space, and the operation she goes to- this would be changing your business a little bit, but it wouldn’t be the huge jump, it’s still service-based. They have, I think 3 trainers share the space, and they have 5 or 6 clients come in at a time. You’re not doing one-on-one, but you’re doing more team to individual training. She loves it because she doesn’t have to have someone standing over her the entire time, but there are enough people there who are watching her form and everything. That I think would give you a little more flexibility. Now, I know that’s kind of a jump from going one-on-one training to three-to-six, or whatever setup. The other thing, I also have a friend who does at-home workout guides. That’s something you could probably pretty easily do and sell as- it would be a product, but it wouldn’t be like selling protein powder.

Gene: Good idea.

Elizabeth: You wouldn’t have to go out and buy the protein powder at a discount and then sell it with a markup. Doing-

Gene: That takes capital, doesn’t it? That’s going to take a lot of time to put that together. Then you’ve got to keep it current, and then you’ve got to market it, and make it available. It’s a great idea, but it takes some work to do that.

Elizabeth: It takes some work to do it, it’s a lot cheaper than possibly going out and creating your own product. The other thing is like a travel guide, travel workouts. Little things that people could do, like maybe an iPad app or something. I feel like you do need to think a little bigger than just selling- and again, I don’t know what you’re trying to sell, but if you’re selling products, like as Gene was mentioning weights and that kind of stuff, maybe think about what you’re already doing and how you can make more money from what you’re already doing.

Gene: That’s great.

Elizabeth: Okay, we’re going to hear from our sponsor and we’ll be back with our Word of Brilliance.

Gene: Word of Brilliance!


Elizabeth: Okay, we’re back after our snack break with our Words of Brilliance. Gene is going to go first.

Gene: My Word of Brilliance is “vacation.”

Elizabeth: Vacation!

Gene: Not for you, Elizabeth, and not for you, our fellow listeners who are thinking “oh, I can take vacation.” This is not what I mean by vacation. Here’s what I mean by vacation: everybody in your company must be required to take a vacation. Particular if you have somebody in your company, whoever is responsible for your books or your invoicing or your financials. The key, most rudimentary internal control that any accountant will tell you is that everybody takes a vacation, particularly your financial person. Do you know why? Because-

Elizabeth: I think I know why.

Gene: First of all, I love reading about financial fraud. Only because I always think to myself, “how do these guys sleep at night?” They’re stealing money or whatever, and then how do they- you read about the little old lady who’s the bookkeeper for this organization and she stole $150,000 dollars, and you’re like, god, how do they do that? If you read- test me on this. If you read any article for the next few months when any fraud has taken place in a business, and then you get to how they found the person, it is almost always the same reason. Because they weren’t in the office. They tripped and fell, or they got sick, or they couldn’t come to work for a week, or whatever. Somebody else was filling in for them, saying “oh, that’s a shame Elizabeth is out. We’ll just fill in for Elizabeth,” and then we’re like, “that’s weird, I’ve never heard of Elizabeth Co. before. Why are we making payments to Elizabeth Co.? How come Elizabeth’s mother is on they pay-” anyway, it always comes out when somebody else does your job.

Whenever you have a bookkeeper or an accounting-type person or financial person saying “I’m the hardest working person in the year, I don’t need any vacation, you can rely on me,” whatever. Don’t buy it and don’t believe it. Everybody takes a vacation, you have somebody else that fills in for them. Even if it’s not even fraudulent stuff going on, if they leave the company at least you’ve got somebody that’s trained how to do their job. That can fill in for them. That’s my word, is vacation.

Elizabeth: You know, two things about that. One, there’s an episode of House where this happens. The great TV show House, I think it’s still in re-runs on USA. Someone was out of the office at the pharmacy, and it turned out that she was stealing like all of this medication and selling it. Anyway, oh my god, I forgot my second bit.

Gene: That happens, right? If you were out of the office, even- well, in that case it wasn’t a financial thing, but they were actually stealing product from there. Which, by the way, I mentioned vacation for the financial person, but your people that are working with inventory, anybody that’s got any ownership or control over any assets. You want to make sure that they’re required to take a vacation every year and somebody fills in for them. Hopefully nothing will be revealed.

Elizabeth: Yes, exactly.

Gene: Probably not, but hopefully not.

Elizabeth: Probably not. I wonder though, in Europe there’s much more co-training in jobs. Everyone is pretty much trained to do everyone else’s job and we all know they take more vacation than we do in the US.

Gene: They certainly do, those people. They’ve certainly figured it out.

Elizabeth: That might be something to work towards. Especially in a small business, I feel like people should know how to fill in for other people pretty regularly.

Gene: They should, they should. I agree.

Elizabeth: There’s so many studies out there on how much better you are if you take some down time and take a vacation.

Gene: Absolutely right, absolutely right.

Elizabeth: My Word of Brilliance, or Words of Brilliance this week, and this is actually kind of related to vacation, is “Bagel Thursday.” I worked at an internet start-up and every Thursday- you know, we had all these perks. People would come into the office with their roller blades on, we had a pool table, we had a deck, you could go out there and tan out there, we had a keg in the office every Friday. Our favorite perk was, aside from health insurance and all of that, we had Bagel Thursday every week. I feel like it’s probably the cheapest thing the company did. This was a company that also had massages at our desks, like they would have masseuses come in and give us [hand 00:29:04] massages, it was really over the top. Bagel Thursdays. You go into the office, there would be bagels laid out. Cream cheese, butter. It was such a nice perk and it’s really funny because I recently got together with a bunch of my friends, they were my coworkers there, and we remained friends and it’s been 15 years. We still talk about Bagel Thursday and how much we loved that.

Gene: You talk about perks. There’s a tech company called +rehabstudio in the United Kingdom, told their staff that they would get the next Monday morning off after the Game of Thrones premier.

Elizabeth: Brilliant. Brilliant!

Gene: Everyone looking for perks like that, right, to get everybody together to do- isn’t that a great idea? I totally agree. People love free food, people love days off, people like free stuff. We talk about perks, another good perk, if I can even just say-

Elizabeth: Definitely.

Gene: There’s a really good site out there, it used to be called Plastic Jungle and now it’s called Cash … it’ll come to me. Anyway, it used to be called Plastic Jungle, so if you Google “Plastic Jungle” you’ll find CardCash, that’s what it’s called now, it’s called CardCash. What they do is they buy and sell discount discount cards. Meaning that, I had, a couple years ago for Christmas somebody gave me a $100 gift card to the Hair Cuttery. Most people can’t see me on this podcast, but if you saw me you would understand that a $100 gift card to the Hair Cuttery for me is kind of a useless gift, right? I would never- it would take me 10 years to work off that gift card. I went on to Card Cash and I sold it for 50 bucks, and then they turned around and sold it for 75 bucks. Everybody wins. If you’re looking to give stuff away like perks to employees, you want to give- people love to give out gift cards. Who doesn’t love a gift card to the Outback Steakhouse, the greatest restaurant ever, right?

Elizabeth: I love Outback.

Gene: Instead of spending $100 for a $100 gift card, you can go onto Card Cash and get one for 75 or 80 bucks. It will save you a few bucks, but then you can also give it to your employees, they love that stuff.

Elizabeth: Yes, that’s a great idea. Yes, I feel like people really appreciate those perks, and how much could Bagel Thursday possibly cost? If you did that for your company’s 10 people, I know you’re virtual, but that would be like, 20 bucks?

Gene: I know, it’s like nothing. It’s incredible to me how so many of my clients, they pinch pennies on certain things that are just ridiculous. Even if it’s 100 bucks, It’s like, dude, 100 bucks a month, what is that? Your employees love it. Let them come and get their bagels, bring in pizza once a month or whatever. It’s nothing to you and it’s so huge for people. It’s nice.

Elizabeth: It’s something people appreciate and remember. They rather you fully fund their 401K, but they’ll take a free bagel!

Gene: That’s right.

Elizabeth: Like, that’s fine.

Gene: That’s right.

Elizabeth: All right, Gene, thanks so much for being here another week and we’ll talk to you all again next week.

Gene: I look forward to it. Fun.

2 Responses to "To Do Lists and Expanding Your Business from Service to Products"
    • Diane DeSantis | October 25, 2016 at 6:46 pm

      How do I submit a question for your suggestions? Thx

      • Elizabeth Larkin | November 8, 2016 at 3:18 pm

        You can submit your question right here.

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