What does automation REALLY mean in a small business?

As you’d expect, using as much automation within your business makes complete sense, as the core benefit is very obvious. By using automation within your business, you can reduce the time and effort taken to get things done. By freeing up your time (or the time of your staff), that gives you more time to spend on other tasks. (Or, you might just want to work fewer hours).

And yes, automation can help with boosting company profits too.

Whilst the idea of automation in a business is really obvious, what does it actually mean? And what about those processes that you can’t fully automation? Where does leverage fit in? That’s what we’ll cover in this article.


In a nutshell, what is automation?

In a small business context, an automation is “Using software and technology to execute a business process or activity without the need for manual or human intervention”.

That means we can use software tools (either tools that are off-the-shelf, no-code solutions, as well as bespoke software tools) to replace a business activity that either us or one of our team would otherwise do manually. Examples of those activities include:

  • Automatically sending out emails to prospects (people who have contacted your business showing interest but not yet become a customer). If you had a service-based business, this might be automated emails that help with sales follow up.
  • Using email marketing to nurture existing customers, with a view to keep in touch with them and remind them we still exist.
  • Monitoring customer emails and looks for customers who are showing high levels or anger who need calming down.
  • Automatically posting your content across your social media channels at specific times.

You’ve probably seen the software tool Zapier, which is a great example of a software application that can connect software tools to each other.


Explaining “leverage”…

You may have heard of the concept of “leverage” in relation to automation. You may remember your physics lessons at school when you learnt about levers. Leverage is the concept of using a tool to maximise the output, by using a small input. What you might have learnt at school would have been choosing the location of a fulcrum of a lever to lift a heavier weight using a small amount of physical effort.

In small business terms, what we mean here is using a software tool to do lots of “work” for us with very small input. Therefore if we automate a business task using a software tool, we’re gaining a lot of leverage as we do the initial setup work and the software does the rest for us.

Automation within a business therefore is an example of gaining lots of leverage by trying to replace manual processes and routine tasks with automated solutions. Invariably we use software tools to create these automations.


What happens if we can’t FULLY automate a business task or process?

In short, that’s still going to improve your business by reducing manual effort.

There are going to be plenty of tasks within a business that can’t be automated at all. e.g. you can’t automate creativity, or having conversation with a client where you listen to their business needs. Yet you can use tools to semi-automate tasks. You gain advantage by leveraging technology to automate parts of the process.

Semi-automation Example – The ‘Process’ to be automated:

e.g. You’re an accountant who is talking to a prospective client about their business. This is a conversation that’s going to end up with a sales proposal.

  • The conversation, asking questions and building rapport are all elements that require a human touch to build a relationship.
  • Your sales process includes a PDF report that highlights all areas of their accounts that need addressing, an indication of any high-risk areas, plus 3 different prices for that client to choose from. In order to accept the proposal, the prospect clicks on the relevant button and signs the paperwork.


Semi-automation Example – Where we could automate:

  • Software can be used to create the PDF report using a template system that means it takes 10 minutes or so to write the report. The prices could be calculated by answering some questions and a bespoke tool that generates a price.
  • And the document-signing process can be automated using off-the-shelf software tools.



That means about 50-80% of the sales process could be automated, leaving the rest for the human touch.

The prospect benefits from a slick process and gets a proposal quickly. You benefit from having a sales process that takes 1 hour, rather than the 2-4 hours of effort it took you previously.

Essentially, if you can only semi-automate a business process, then that’s still a good thing! You’re looking for anything you can do to positively impact your leverage (and your clients).


Where do you start with automating something in your business?

If you’re a small business owner, you’re going to be busy! I’m sure that you love the idea of using automation tools to save you some time, but you’re probably going to be unsure of where you start.

Our recommendation? Start small. And start with the boring mundane tasks.

Look at the work you do day-to-day, and:

  • look for the tasks that you find dull
  • look for the things that you procrastinate on
  • look for the things you dread
  • look for the things that take too much time
  • look for the things that aren’t being done as well as you’d prefer

From here, you can brainstorm ways to break a task down into what could automated. By breaking down the process, you can look for where your time and resources are being spent. You can increase efficiencies with your own time and energy by automating any of these elements. Saving 10 minutes of dull work by using a software tool is very worthwhile.


Using Automation for Marginal Gains…

You can imagine that it would be very easy to become obsessive about automating everything in your business. Yet a successful business isn’t defined by how much automation you have. It’s defined by customer experience, and ultimately profit.

You’re going to find patterns within your business. These are ideal targets for improving productivity and efficiency.

The idea of a “marginal gain” is a meaningful but small increment that accumulates into something significant when compounded together. i.e. lots of small efficiencies lead to a big improvement over time. If you can save yourself 1 hour of work every day, then that leads to hundreds of hours of savings over a year.

Don’t try to be perfect. Just look for small ways to use tools to save time with your workflows.


Will there always be a return on investment by automating something?

In short, no!

Sometimes the cost of a software tool (or having a custom software tool created) is simply too high and not worthwhile. However, there are always new software tools coming on to the market, and you never know what tools might exist within 12 months to solve a particular business process.

Equally, there will be tasks that don’t need any automation, and it would be pragmatic to keep those tasks as manual. e.g. reaching out to a past client with a personalised email rather than computer-generated one.


Is it worth documenting out every process in your business first, before automating anything?

If you’re like many small businesses where there’s more work than time, the answer is no. It’s a very time-consuming task to document all of your business processes. In an ideal world, yes, you’d probably benefit from having everything documented.

You can benefit from automating elements of your business processes without needing a fully mapped out business process plan. You might find that once you have some automation solutions in place within your products and services, that you want to come back to this and invest some time mapping out those processes, but that’s entirely up to you.


So, coming back to the original question… what does automation and semi-automation really mean in a small business?

Being both practical and pragmatic, it’s all about using software tools to get more things done with less effort. Automation typically means the ‘full automation’ of a task. Semi-automation simply means using tools to reduce human effort within a process whilst still being practical. You’re using tools to help reduce your manual effort and free up your mental energy and time.

We’d estimate that a typical small business might only automate up to 5 tasks or ‘things’. That’s a very modest number indeed, as most businesses won’t naturally tend towards trying to automate elements of their business.

A well-optimised business might use automation on 50+ different tasks or processes, and will be continually looking for more opportunities.  I’ve personally encountered businesses that significantly automate their operations, and it’s a core part of their strategy that ends up improving their profitability.

I’d recommend that you don’t become obsessive about trying to automate everything, and instead focus on 1 or 2 particularly boring or time-consuming tasks. Then repeat the process by automating other tasks. You’ll benefit from marginal gains (i.e. the aggregation of small wins over time) if you simply focus on automating the smaller processes as you encounter them.

Oh, and it’s a perfectly sound strategy to target tasks that are particularly easy to automate. You’ll gain confidence and experience with automation and you’ll want to do more!