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What is the business owner's trap and how can you avoid it?

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BizSmart’s founder and author of business book The Entrepreneurial Scale-Up System, Kevin Brent, discusses the ‘business owner’s trap’, what it is and how to avoid it.

On the scaling up journey, too many business owners fall into the trap of being at the hub of everything– creating an ‘owner’s trap’ that can be difficult to break out of.

They’ve created the kind of business that is over-reliant on them as the business owner, leaving them caught in a cycle where all the business and decisions can only come through them.

It’s very difficult to scale like this and there will be a ceiling to how far you can take your business unless you find a way to stop acting as a bottleneck.
How do you know if you are caught in the owner’s trap?

If you recognise any of the following, then you may be caught:

  • You are the only one that can sign off on projects, payments, quotes or other key areas of the business
  • Your revenue is not growing when compared with last year – you have reached a plateau
  • Your holidays get interrupted – or worse, you don’t take any!
  • You know all your customers by name
  • You get cc’d into more than five emails per day

Here are some proven steps you can take to escape the owner’s trap and prevent being dragged back into day-to-day operations.

Delegate, delegate, delegate

To remove yourself as the bottleneck you must develop leaders ‘behind’ you and, to do this, you must find ways to delegate even the things you think only you can do in the business – or that no-one else could do better.

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You should be actively and regularly looking for ways to delegate things off your ‘plate’. If you don’t, not only will you not be able to scale, but you will also run the risk of burnout and not enjoying running your business, and it will become a chore rather than a vocation.

With every task, ask yourself: does this need to be done or can we eliminate it? Is it just one of those things we have got used to doing without thinking about whether it needs to be done at all? Can it be automated or delegated to someone else?

You should have the mindset that it is okay not to be seen to be doing everything yourself and create a habit of identifying something each quarter that you are going to stop doing, delegate or manage your way out of.

Delegate authority for some of the things that you are holding onto. Do you have to sign off on every payment or quote?

Empower employees

As your business grows, you need to empower others in the business and trust that they, too, want to do a good job. Empowering your employees means giving them a certain degree of autonomy, along with the resources and tools they need, to make decisions that can improve your customers’ experience of doing business with you.

Empowered employees can take action and control decisions about work that needs to be done, because you’re giving them ‘ownership’ over their duties and responsibilities.

For this to work, you must provide the environment and framework for people to be empowered effectively so that, when faced with a difficult scenario, rather than running to you, they are able to independently make decisions for their area of responsibility.

For employees to make the right decisions, they need access to well-documented processes and procedures with clear decision pathways. This will not only help your employees carry out their tasks successfully, but it will also allow them to make confident decisions when they’re dealing with customers.

Stop giving instructions or ‘orders’. Take a leaf out of Captain David Marquet’s book, Turn this Ship Around, and give ‘intent’ rather than ‘orders’. Start by not giving the answer when an employee asks your opinion – try ‘what would you do if you were in my shoes?’ or ‘what do you think we should do?’

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Don’t be reliant on any one customer, supplier or employee

Whilst you need to be able to lean on others to some degree as your business grows, you want to create a business that is not overly dependent on any one customer, supplier or employee.

Identify key employees and how you can mitigate the dependence on them. Consider how you can make it so they would never want to leave and so they would have something to lose if they did and put in place a contingency plan for if they did suddenly hand notice.

Similarly, if you have a customer that represents 15% or more of your turnover and/or profits, this reduces your business’ resilience and increases risk. Ideally, we want plenty of relatively small customers so we are not reliant on any individual customer, meaning if we were to lose one customer it wouldn’t have a significant impact on the business.

You might also have some strategic suppliers where, if they were to decide either to stop supplying you or to hike up their prices, you would be left in a difficult position.

Assess what would be the impact on your business if there was an issue with the supply and review your supplier relationships at least annually so you can look for alternatives in advance and not just when you are desperate.

Change your mindset from selling more and more solutions, products or services to a few customers and look for ways to sell fewer solutions to more customers. It may sound daft but, essentially, aim to do one thing really well for lots of people rather than many things quite well for a few.


There is a time in every business where the owner needs to be on top of everything, whether this is during the start-up phase or when a drastic adjustment is needed. This is normal and even necessary, but it shouldn’t be forever.

If you’re continually performing day-to-day functions in your business, you’re not doing your real job which is finding new ways of developing and improving your business.

By being able to identify when your business is becoming overly reliant on you and knowing the steps to take to escape the owner’s trap, you can break through the ceiling and make time for priorities that will accelerate growth.

Kevin Brent is director of business support provider and franchise, BizSmart, and author of The Entrepreneurial Scale-Up System.

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