If you’re a hands-on small business owner, it’s crucial to plan for a day when a crisis — a sudden illness, family emergency, or travel disaster — keeps you away from the office.
Smart business owners get business insurance to help protect against common risks like natural disasters and theft, but then some fail to put a plan in place to safeguard the company if an unanticipated event detains the owner for days, weeks, or even months.
That’s what happened to Teana McDonald, founder of 3E Connections, a social media and public relations agency in Florida. Her attitude before a crisis hit? “I’m Superwoman, right? There’s no way I’ll ever catch the flu and be ordered to stay in bed for five days,” she says.
When she did get felled by influenza, she panicked and got sicker because she was not 100% confident that her one employee could run the business while she recovered. So she switched all in-person meetings to phone conferences. She also managed billing, customer inquiries, client proposals, and more from her bed, “while near death,” she says.
However, you can avoid a similarly dramatic scenario if you take these five steps to prepare your company for your absence in an emergency:
1. Choose a trusted employee to take over.
The first step is to identify a trusted member of your team who could smoothly take over and keep your business operating if you were suddenly unable to make it into work one day.
“You need to be able to teach that person all of your procedures and operations without worry that that person is going to steal your business from you,” says Lisandra Pagan, a consultant who helps businesses create contingency plans. To be on the safe side, consider having the employee sign a confidentiality agreement (or a non-compete, as applicable) before sharing any company secrets.
2. Create a written plan for business operations.
Put detailed operations instructions in writing for the employee you’ve chosen to take over in an emergency. One way to make sure you don’t forget anything is to pay attention and jot down notes as you’re operating the business over the course of a day, week, and month.
What do you do? What information do you use? If your bread supplier is ABC Company, then write that down, with the name, number, and email of your contact person at the supplier, your account number, how you place orders, and how you pay them and when. “The written plan needs to be super-specific,” Pagan says. “It’s got to be like a playbook the person can grab and go.”
3. Put notification procedures in place.
Confer with your personal emergency contact person outside of the business — the spouse, parent, or other relative who would be the first to learn if something happened to you. Give that person clear written instructions on how to contact your designated employee in case you’re incapacitated. Your emergency contact should tell your second-in-command to activate the emergency plan.
4. Practice the plan for a few days.
Practice is extremely important, because it allows you to see what works, what needs to be changed, and if there is any crucial information missing, Pagan says. Your chosen employee can also practice using keys, security codes, and any other tools necessary to access and operate the business.
Try a practice run when you’re going out of town for a few days, Pagan recommends. Have your employees take notes about any issues that crop up to review when you return. “If you have a document you never practice and implement, you’ll never know if it works or not,” Pagan says.
5. Review your plan periodically.
“The plan is a living document,” Pagan points out. As such, it must be reviewed every six months to a year. If the document sits in a locked drawer or on a hard drive for years, it might not be up-to-date when an emergency strikes.
Special Issues for Sole Proprietors
Are you a sole proprietor? You might think this information doesn’t apply to you since you don’t have employees, but that’s not the case. You, too, can and should take steps to keep your business afloat in your absence. For example:
- Talk to the family member who is your emergency contact about whom to notify if you’re ill or otherwise unable to operate your business temporarily. Provide that family member with a list of clients, suppliers, or other key people to notify and store it in a safe, mutually agreed-on place.
- If you have a trusted friend who is also a sole proprietor in the same field, create a buddy system to keep each others’ businesses afloat temporarily in an emergency. For example, if you’re a freelance designer, you might designate a designer colleague who would agree to step in and finish nearly completed projects for you or handle emergency work temporarily for a key client.
- If you need a family member or trusted colleague to handle tasks temporarily, Pagan recommends that you create simple video instructions, where you take screenshots of — and narrate procedures for — items they’ll need to handle.
- Enlist your virtual assistant (or V.A.), if you use one. That’s what Mandy Halgreen, a book writing mentor for entrepreneurs, did after a family emergency caused her anxiety about keeping her business running. She spent hours training her V.A. on how to handle crucial tasks in a crisis.
Setting up the plan took some time, but “it
will allow me to have a life outside of business regardless of
emergencies,” Halgreen says.
No matter how small your business, you can breathe a little easier knowing that if an emergency arises, your business will be running smoothly when you return.