In this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interviewed Alyson Caffrey, the founder of Operations Agency and the co-creator of the operations simplified framework, which is aimed at streamlining the backend operations for digital and creative agencies. She is also the author of The Sabbatical Method: How to Leverage Rest and Grow Your Business. With a wealth of experience in helping agency owners find a balance between their work and rest, Alyson sheds light on how the Sabbatical Method can revolutionize the way marketing systems are handled.
Working less to achieve more is a paradigm shift in the traditional hustle culture, especially among agency owners in the marketing realm. Alyson Caffrey joins me to elucidate how the Sabbatical Method is transforming the marketing systems landscape. We delve into the concept of “systematic rest,” an innovative approach to interspersing work with adequate rest to not only prevent burnout but to significantly enhance productivity and creativity. By embracing the Sabbatical Method, agency owners are discovering a potent strategy to scale their business while reducing the hours they traditionally grind away, making the notion of working less to achieve more a reality.
Questions I ask Alyson Caffrey:
- [00:45] How does rest contribute to business growth?
- [02:31] Can you explain the framework you mentioned?
- [03:43] Is a long sabbatical the goal of your method?
- [05:44] How does your 90-day method alter established work habits?
- [08:28] Do founders grasp your concepts both logically and emotionally?
- [11:10] Can you explain the operation simplified hierarchy?
- [14:37] What daily habits do you recommend for gradual improvement?
- [18:54] How can one develop discipline in creating effective systems?
- [21:54] How should these changes be planned in quarterly planning?
- [24:37] Where can listeners connect with you or learn more?
More About Alyson Caffrey
- Get Alyson’s book – The Sabbatical Method: How to Leverage Rest and Grow Your Business
- Find out more about the Operations Agency
- Connect with Alyson Caffrey on LinkedIn
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Connect with John Jantsch on LinkedIn
John Jantsch (00:08): Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Chance. My guest today is Alison Caffery. She streamlines the backend operations for digital and creative agencies, and she's the founder of Operations Agency and the co-creator of the Operations Simplified Framework. We're going to talk about her most recent book, the Sabbatical Method, how to Leverage Rest and Grow Your Business. Allison's also the host of the Growing Pains podcast, so welcome to the show, Allison.
Alyson Caffrey (00:43): Thanks for having me, John. Appreciate it.
John Jantsch (00:46): Okay. I'm probably not the first person to say this, but REST is not often associated with growing a business, so tell me why it should be.
Alyson Caffrey (00:55): Yeah, that's an awesome way to frame that question honestly. So I started thinking about the function of rest after I went on maternity leave with my first son. My business was three years old and it still needed me a lot. And I remember it being a really confronting experience because I thought to myself, well, how can I actually take some time off and also simultaneously grow my business? And I started just considering that growing a business is a high performance effort. We need to be able to put out a high performing output and we need to be able to be really consistent. We need to be really clear. We need to do the specific activities that are going to bring us the highest level result. And one of those activities actually is rest. If you think about someone summiting Everest or training for a marathon or doing anything in the physical high performing nature, rest is woven into every single training plan out there that exists. But for some reason, we as small business owners think that momentum and hustle and grinding and are going to be the answers to a lot of our problems, when in fact implementing rest actually can preserve the longevity of your business and really prevent against burnout, which has unfortunately become such a commonplace in the entrepreneurial spirit.
John Jantsch (02:16): And I do think that there, unfortunately for good or bad, there are bad examples of everything. I think there's a lot of bad examples of just what you talked about. The whole hustle and grind thing became kind of badge of honor for some people. I do think we're going the other direction. Fortunately we're going to get into the specifics, but maybe since we're calling this a framework or a method, let's kind of big picture, what is it in a nutshell?
Alyson Caffrey (02:42): Yeah, so the sabbatical method is kind of like hard 75 for business owners. It's really supposed to serve two main purposes. First is to give you a hard stop and kind of a reset. If you've been really needing to take a rest from the business, if you feel like you're at the edge of yourself, if you're grinding and at full speed, this is supposed to be your permission because Alison Caffrey says there's a return on investment for rest. This is your permission to take that time. Second is it's a lifestyle. So after you finish hard 75, you're not supposed to just start snacking on the Cheetos right away. You're supposed to consider what can I take from this really challenging disciplined time and how can I weave it into my overall health and wellness in my personal life? And that's what I want you to consider operationally in your business. How can I weave rest into the way that my business performs so that I can see more return on investment and more longevity overall? So that's what the sabbatical method is in a nutshell.
John Jantsch (03:43): Alright, so the end goal then is to, I mean people think of a sabbatical, people leave the country, leave their business for three, six months. I mean, is that really the ultimate goal? However you define that?
Alyson Caffrey (03:57): It's interesting. I get asked that all the time and the short answer is no, it's not a traditional sabbatical. Sabbatical to me is just as simple as closing your computer at 6:00 PM if that's what you've been struggling to do. Everybody needs to begin where they are. And just again, in any physical training plan, we don't go out to run 26.2 miles on day one of our marathon training. We run one mile and then we get nice and rested, then we go out for maybe a two mile run the next day. So that's the same position I take with sabbatical planning. A lot of us think that sabbaticals are this Parisian six month, three month time off, and a lot of it feels really inaccessible to business owners and transparently, if you tried to do that at this point in some of our businesses, our business would just fall apart if we just kind of decided to go take this super long vacation.
(04:47): So what I tried to kind of reposition the term of sabbatical is consistent and appropriate rest at different levels of the business. So that might mean closing the computer at 6:00 PM making sure that you're not answering emails or doing specific client projects over the weekends. Making sure that you block in sometimes in your monthly cadence to review your overall goals and consider what are the systems I have in place for the business and how am I systematically going after what I want to achieve and how am I achieving results for clients? So those are kind of the different types of things I would consider as implementing rest into the business. And of course you can leverage these exact tools to build up to a three month sabbatical. That's what I personally did to take my maternity leaves with my sons and I was able to take some really meaningful time off that really did shift the direction and clarify the purpose of a lot of the things we were doing in operations agency.
John Jantsch (05:44): So one of the book's Promises is somewhere buried in there is that we're going to do this in 90 days, right? We're going to correct a lot of bad habits in 90 days. A lot of business owners, the way they work has taken them 20 years to get there. So how do you get the mindset shifted? And maybe it's just people, they get burned out enough, they're like, I got to do something, and that alone is enough to make 'em create a difference. But what do you say to those people that have really just kind of established this way to work for many years maybe?
Alyson Caffrey (06:16): Yeah. There's kind of two things I think John that you've asked that are relevant to unpack here. First is that I know a lot of digital agency owners who really struggle to get themselves out of the day-to-day operations of their business because they have a lot of industry expertise and a specific formula that lives right up here in the brain that they use to approach their client projects and really get some of the best results on projects. One of the things that I position in the book is really being dialed into that over a 90 day period is to understand what am I doing that is actually systematic things that I do day in and day out for every single project? And then what is maybe that 80 20 rule that we can identify that 80% is repeatable and about 20% of my involvement is actually custom.
(07:02): So I think that mindset first and foremost is one of the most challenging to overcome because it forces us to reconcile with the fact that although we do have about 20% of the secret sauce, a lot of what we're doing actually is repeatable and actually can be delegated. So if you want to grow the business and you want to be disciplined about removing yourself, those two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they pair really well together. And the second really big thing that I think folks need to understand about running a business at large, I learned this actually from just my very recent years of becoming a mom. My oldest is three. And I think to myself, sometimes I say, look, I can outsource specific aspects of my parenting. I can outsource my child's education to a teacher. I can outsource childcare to a daycare.
(07:48): I can outsource their physical education or fitness to a specific sports team or to a community of folks who could get that outcome. But at the end of the day, it relies on me to be the parent to raise a capable adult in that way. And I think a lot of us as business owners hear this zone of genius and stay in your specialties and all these things, but we forget that businesses actually need a really full spectrum and rich amount of skills that we actually need to develop if we want to see its success. So a lot of owners will say, well, I'm not a systems person. And I'm like, well, that's what your business needs you to be right now that need you to be systematic if you want to grow it to the point that you desire.
John Jantsch (08:28): Well, you were certainly singing my tune. I mean, I've spent the last 20 years actually licensing my agency methodology to hundreds of agencies. And I will tell you that it is so freeing when people realize, oh, I can scope this and I don't have to be the one doing all the work. But probably the biggest challenge for a lot of people is mindset. They actually draw their energy from doing the work or being the savior or being the one who can have the answer. And I think sometimes I think logically everybody gets what you're just saying. I think sometimes emotionally it's actually harder.
Alyson Caffrey (09:08): And it's interesting, a lot of the things I focus on in the book and even with my team, actually just before I hopped on, we were crystallizing our quarterly plan for Q four. And one of the things I do actually to wrap that exercise, wait
John Jantsch (09:21): A minute, Q4 already started and you're just now finally finishing your plan.
Alyson Caffrey (09:24): I'm finalizing it literally today. I was out with my mastermind planning last week, and it's interesting because what we do is we finalize and put the bow on everything with a daily habit tracker. And the reason why I love habit trackers and focusing on activities inside of the business is because it does a great job of removing that emotional element to doing the work that is important to drive you forward. I think all of us can get pulled in to, how do I feel about this? Or I just don't feel like it today, or You know what, it's easier for me to just go back into WebWork because that's where I'm comfortable and excited to contribute. But at the end of the day, if your business needs you to be in a different seat and it needs you to be doing different activities, identifying those at 30,000 feet inside of your quarterly plan and then really deciding every day to say, listen, I'm going to show up to this activity with no emotion as much as I possibly can come in and do the work. And if I really feel like I'm doing something that isn't bringing me joy and bringing the business value, then we can reassess how that's going. But if it's driving the business forward in the way the direction that you're wanting, that's one of the quickest, most easily implementable things I have found that remove that mindset, emotional element from approaching your daily work.
John Jantsch (10:51): So we've gotten halfway through the episode here, and I haven't really brought up the hierarchy, which is really the foundation obviously of the book. The big idea is of course the sabbatical, but how you get there in stages, and again, I don't know how you want to address that, if you just want to start riffing on that, but unpack the operation simplified hierarchy.
Alyson Caffrey (11:14): So the hierarchy really was birthed by really just considering operationally, what does a business need to survive and thrive? And I rooted it in Maslow's hierarchy of needs because just like any human being, we've got some of the basic stuff that needs to happen, process creation and quarterly planning, really hitting those metrics, the habits, like I just said, that's kind of the big foundation of how we want to operate. The next is really just defining a home and considering that if we're going to invite team members to collaborate on key projects, what do those projects look like and how can I create repeatable, profitable projects at my agency? The third is really driven on metrics. So what measurables do we have in place to tell us what decisions we need to make next? And then how can we scale this thing? How do we invite a community and grow our reach and our impact and really scream from the rooftops now that we have this incredible backend well of procedures, what are our front end procedures for the growth side of the business in sales and marketing?
(12:17): And then finally, profit and prosper is kind of the tip of the pyramid there, which I actually say is custom. We want to be consistently putting profit back into the pockets of the owner in its key stakeholders, but we also want to help our clients and the people that are involved with our business really prosper in whatever way that we've outlined for them and that looks different. I have some agency owners who really love to work the six months on, six months off schedule. They really love to be at home and working on their business and then take six months in Mexico, so that looks different. Their operations look a little bit different than somebody who really wants to create a strong full stack agency team. That's just a very different model. So I consider those as kind of the foundational elements. Now, something really important that I did also really focus on inside of the book is that first and foremost, these aren't achieved in sequence.
(13:12): I know so many business owners who have the sales and marketing stuff dialed in, they've got really incredible reach and impact and all of that in the marketplace, but then they actually super lack some of that repeatable project and profitability stuff. So it doesn't mean that you need to focus on it in sequence. I do in the book because I feel like each and every one builds on one another. And the second thing I will also mention is that it's never done. We're always going to be doing this work just like your physical fitness. You don't work to get a six pack and then eat Cheetos on day 31. It's something that we are consistently working on and refining as the business is growing and as it's breaking the processes that we currently have.
John Jantsch (13:55): And I think that's a key point. Once you get safe fulfillment dialed in, then you have maybe more capacity. So that creates another problem. And so then you have to go revisit sales and marketing. I mean these levels, you're just coming back to 'em. I mean, you're revisiting 'em even once, as you say, you've got 'em dialed in. But I think there is a little bit of just Maslow talks about, I mean, you can't even begin to think about profits if you don't have the basics. I mean, there is some order of things that you have to get certain things done, but you're right. I mean, nobody shows up in any perfect stage. We're all one foot in each stage, I suppose, at some point.
Alyson Caffrey (14:36): Yeah, absolutely.
John Jantsch (14:37): So you mentioned it already, but I had it on the list here to talk about because I do think that it's crucial to making any of this happen in its habits, isn't it? And so talk a little bit about the daily habits that you talk about, your daily five, I think it is habits, but then just what are some of the things that you've seen have really helped move people along because they're doing 1% better each day kind of thing?
Alyson Caffrey (15:04): And I have to give a shout out to Atomic Habits by James Clear. That is one of my favorite books of all time. And if anybody listening has not read it, it's worth a read and a reread perhaps every single year because as you grow as a professional and a human being, hearing that information again is just astronomically more valuable every single time you read it. So that's definitely number one. A lot of my thinking around habits is formed from the expertise of James Clear and that specific book. I think one of the big things that I love to focus on when generating habits first and foremost, is understanding the difference between leading and lagging indicators. So habits really apply to the former, what habits can I keep that really will help me be the person or have the business or have whatever it is that I really want?
(15:50): Those lagging indicators are the outcomes. And I think a lot of folks think that habits are for people who are organized and systematic and have schedules and all of those things, but I'd like to kind of challenge how we think about habits because habits exist. They just do, and we need to reconcile sometimes the first step is really understanding that we do keep habits, but they might actually not be pushing us toward the things that we want, the people we want to be, the businesses we want to have, the lives we want to create. And
John Jantsch (16:21): Bad habits are habits, right?
Alyson Caffrey (16:23): Exactly. But I think a lot of folks think habits and then they're like, oh, you're going to tell me some system or some hack about your calendar or whatever else. And really, habits just are right. They're good, they're bad, they're whatever. And I can't really get any more clear on that. I think a lot of folks need to begin with, okay, what are my habits currently and are they pushing me toward the thing I want? And I think taking a stock of those. So first and foremost, foundational habit kind of creation is to consider what do I literally want? And is every single habit that I keep in my day driving me toward that specific thing? And a lot of that is eliminating some of those things that one of my coaches actually calls it time assassins, and he says it's like drinking alcohol, watching television, eating refined sugars, even those personal social media.
(17:11): Exactly. Things that literally just rip your time away. And I think a lot of us, as we start to consider, well, I don't have enough time in the day to let's just say serve 50 clients versus 20 clients who don't have the time, the question then becomes is, am I not disciplined enough in developing the systems? Am I not disciplined enough in removing the things that aren't serving me? And so I think starting there with really just being critical and assessing how you're spending your time is wonderful. And then really, again, planning those habits at your quarterly planning. So just saying, Hey, listen, if I'm putting on this side of the equals sign the business, I want the life, I want the health level that I'd love to achieve the family life that I love, what does that look like? And then what habits do I need to keep daily?
(17:53): I was actually just doing this exercise with a client of mine, and he was telling me that he wanted 300 new leads into his pipeline every single month. And I told him, I said, well, with your current strategy on doing lots of one-to-one, I was like, you're going to probably need to do about 900 reach outs every single month. And I was like, here's what it literally looks like in your calendar and here are the habits you'd need to keep. I was like, do you think that this is sustainable? And he first immediately was like, no. I was like, so this is actually why we don't hit quarterly goals is because we set the goals and then we don't literally create the habits day to day and ask ourselves, is this a life that I would want to live and get excited every single day to wake up and do? And if the answer is no, then we need to start to work backwards from there.
John Jantsch (18:42): Yeah, actually, somebody inadvertently showed me their calendar this week. That was the most scariest thing I've ever seen. They from about seven in the morning to seven at night had something every 15 minutes growth. I think it's stage four maybe growth a lot of times happens to people and maybe people you've worked with, they've gotten some of this other clutter out of the way. And so growth happens and then another problem shows up, quality starts to fade. I mean, how do you constantly juggle those two things that are sometimes in opposition?
Alyson Caffrey (19:13): It's interesting, I have an entire section in the book about this because that is by far with agency work. The biggest thing I've seen. So it's called, the chapter is called Classic Coca-Cola Quality. And I tell this story about how Coca-Cola launched this thing called New Coke, and it just failed. Epically failed. They tested it, they asked the market, they did all these things around launching this new product, and it was terrible. Folks actually started stocking up on Coca-Cola classic because they were petrified that it was going to go away. And then I was joking about it. I was like, this is either the best marketing scheme ever, or it was just the biggest classic face plant for Coca-Cola to launch this new thing. And really what it came down to was the quality, right? It came down to, well, people preferred this over that and they thought that they were going in the direction of what people wanted, but ultimately they needed to listen to their people.
(20:08): And so what they did was they launched Coca-Cola classic. So first and foremost, if you're in a growth stage, keep asking your people for their feedback 100%. That is the best way that you will know and understand and just open up the conversation that, Hey, listen, we're going through a growth period right now and I still really value your feedback and I want to make sure that you continue to get results, even if there are several missteps in your fulfillment process and you're still working out some stuff because you've opened up that loop with your clients and because they know that it's important to you that you hear from them, they're going to be a little bit more understanding if there are a couple of missteps. So that's number one. Just open up that and listen to your clients. Second thing is to make sure that we're defining two types of quality.
(20:53): First is production quality. So that's the timeline through which things are delivered. And the second is outcome, quality. So that's ad spend. That's specific outcomes that you are getting for your clients and quality levels there. So defining those metrics are going to be absolutely instrumental. And then just again, do that little equation, right? Consider to yourself, we have 20 clients right now where we can ship websites in about three weeks time at this level of quality, measurable. If we had 50, here's what that would look like. The clearer you can get on those metrics, the easier it is to run possible resourcing scenarios. And you can kind of hedge these growth points and these friction points a little bit simpler.
John Jantsch (21:38): This is scary idea for some people, but I am always telling you have capacity ahead of demand, because that's where I see people really get in trouble is like, oh crap, we just sold a whole bunch more work. Let's go fix it somehow, as opposed to, oh, we've got the capacity in our normal systems to deliver. Okay, last question. Last idea is profits and prosper. I dunno about you, but I'm just amazed at the businesses I've come across over the years. Were profits in particular just aren't even part of the equation. It is like, I want to get paid a job and the idea of working profits into it, I don't know if you're familiar with Mike Al's work profits first. That idea is just so foreign to people.
Alyson Caffrey (22:20): Yeah, I love Profit First and I think being disciplined in prioritizing profit, either in distribution to owner and key stakeholders or in early growth years, reinvesting into the business and the professional development of the leaders or both, right? If we've got the margins and they're really strong, is critical. I think it's John Maxwell does Leader Lid. It's like a really famous concept and he talks about that the leader or the organization will only grow to the capacity that the leader has professionally and personally developed. And I think if we leave out profits, not only are we doing our business a disservice because businesses exist to be profitable, we exist to make money and reinvest that money into growth and reinvest that money into our communities and into our families and all those things. So understanding that economically, it's our job to be profitable, I think is first.
(23:13): Second is that we are going to do our business and our community and our teammates a disservice by not reinvesting our profits into our professional development, especially in those early years. And then creating a professional development budget as things start to get a little bit more sophisticated. I mean, hands down has been the absolute leader in why operations agency has been able to grow to the point that it is. And why I've been able to confidently lead and be able to get folks unstuck with their operations is because of the level of professional development that I've done over the years. And I think a lot of folks forget about that and they think, well, I'm just going to discount my prices in tough seasons and I'm just going to take this project or what have you. But being disciplined and saying, Nope, this is our pricing because this is our scoping and this is our profit margin, I promise. Well, sorry, I can't make any financial promises probably on a podcast, but I will say that it has been my experience that the more I say no to projects that are hefty discounts or things that perhaps I'm not excited about or don't fit into our model specifically, I have been rewarded tenfold on the other side with projects that are exactly in our wheelhouse, exactly in our scope, and exactly within the profits that we desire.
John Jantsch (24:24): And had you taken those less than desirable projects, that opportunity may not have come your way. I see that all the time. It's like, I'm busy doing this work over here, so I can't see the real thing, the opportunity that's in front of me. So Alison, you want to tell people who invite people where they might connect with you, find out more about your work, obviously find out about how they can acquire the book.
Alyson Caffrey (24:45): Yeah, of course. Well, the book is on Amazon. I'm most active on Instagram, so you can follow us at Operations Agency and if you dmm me Duct Tape, I'll send you my five best agency SOPs, absolutely no opt-in, all absolutely free. So that I think will be the really best way for folks to just see what the power of having really clear standard operating procedures looks like in your agency. And I have been totally victim in the past to not being able to actually see the results of something before I get a tiny taste. So I think that'll be a great place to start. Awesome.
John Jantsch (25:19): Well, again, I appreciate you taking a moment to stop by the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, and hopefully we'll run into you one of these days out there on the road.
Alyson Caffrey (25:25): Thanks, John.
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