The Worlds Longest Month – How much does your business really need you?

I’m happy to be home, and I don’t mean that in the ordinary ‘happy to be home’ way. You see, our annual trip to Asia went well this year, but just as we were getting on a plane from Tokyo back to the US I suffered a medical emergency and wound up in the hospital. Everything turned out fine – I’m home again and steadily recovering from what turned out to be a nasty but routine illness. But I’m happy to be home, in a big way.

So, back to business: why am I writing about this?

First, I wanted to explain my long absence, and thank everyone at SitePoint (members included) for their patience and kind words. Second, being away from my business and my clients was a big eye-opener so it seems an idea blog post.

Most of you understand the value of documenting and codifying all of the procedures that make your business run. A business that is overly dependent upon one person has little value to anyone but that one person, whereas a well documented business allows new employees to quickly step up into various roles if need be. This message was popularized in Michael Gerber’s ‘E-Myth’ books, in which he details the importance of a business’s ability to run independent of its owners and without being overly reliant upon individual people.

To be honest, I have invested quite a bit of time in this approach and felt that I had done well. One of my business objectives is to free up more and more personal time, so I’m always looking for ways to outsource various aspects of the business. I recently took steps to outsource more of the bookkeeping, payroll, receivables/payables, and project management. I turned over all but my smallest clients to trusted project managers who in turn report to me on a weekly basis (I manage the smaller ones myself, which will be the topic of a future post). I even gave my top QA lead new responsibilities including making decisions about which projects need more testing and which need less.

Stuck in a hospital in Tokyo without an internet connection or international phone (or the energy to use them) this whole concept was really put to the test.

Could my business run without me? The answer is: ‘Yes’, for a little while then ‘No’ not very well in my complete absence.

I was already feeling a bit of pressure when I got ill. I had been out of the country for a month to begin with, and there were loads of tasks waiting for me upon my return. Ordinary workflow had gone fine without my onsite, but I still checked in with everyone from time to time, and answered emails routinely. I had expected to handle the things that most required my presence when I got home, and having missed a month of ordinary workflow I expected to take about 2 weeks to catch up.

With another week spent at the hospital and unable to communicate at all, things got a bit tricky. Although I had great confidence in my project managers and QA leads, they had eventually run into procedural (and even legal) matters that required my input. Meanwhile, my accountant had pushed forward with tax preparation and was waiting for a number of responses from me before he could more forward. My attorney was also waiting for responses from me. Mail piled up with routine correspondence. Documents needed to be signed. The bills got paid, since that is outsourced, but the ‘miscellaneous’ category fell more and more behind as time went on.

Finally I was well enough to return home. Having missed about month of ordinary workflow plus a week of complete downtime, I now expected it to take about 4 weeks to fully catch up. I’m about a week in to the catch-up and I’m wondering if the 4-week estimate was over ambitious. The problem is that when so many delays occur, spin-off issues start to come up which make the original problems much more complex. A missed task that would originally take 1 hour might now take 2 or even 3 as I tackle the original problem as well as the mess caused by the delays.

To make matters worse, business doesn’t stop during this catch-up phase and the phone rings just as much as ever. So, all of this catch-up needs to be done on top of the ordinary demands of doing business. We’re having a great wave of new business which doesn’t help the catch-up effort although it’s good news in general. Yet another factor is that people don’t work as well when they are under pressure and multi-tasking too much – it’s stressful and over time leads to lower efficiency. So, things aren’t going quite as fast as they could during this period.

I’m now estimating that the month of decreased productivity will take about 2.5 months to compensate for. Sure, the real crunch will only be for the next couple of weeks, but I expect to be busy for weeks after that before settling into my usual schedule. In hindsight, I would have benefited greatly by having someone who could step up and make important business decisions (such as tax preparation strategies), act as signatory for the business on legal documents besides checks, and make workflow decisions at a high-level. It’s not easy to find such an arrangement, but I might just start looking for a way.

In the end, I don’t think my business, clients, or health will suffer any long-term effects. I did learn, however, just how much my business relies upon me personally! Now I’d like to hear from some of you – what would happen to your business, your websites, your projects, or your clients in your complete absence? How long could you go before having problems, and what can you do to mitigate this risk?

Good to be back on SitePoint!

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  • http://www.assemblysys.com mniessen

    Good to see you’re back (and healthy), and thank you for taking the time to write a blog entry, even in the current situation.

    I’ve been thinking about that lately, and the conclusion is also that my businees relies upon me personally! It would probably just be a matter of days or a few weeks before seeing my business suffering from my absence, which is obviously not a good thing.
    I’ve already started documenting and simplifying my tasks as much as I can, which also means I become more productive myself. But for me, the main problem would be finding someone I could trust enough to take my place. Indeed, while it could be problematic not having any sales (current worst-case scenario), it would be even worse if the person in charge didn’t act in the correct way. This could even damage my business’ reputation or relationship with some customers and have long-lasting negative effects.

    I hope to see you write a little more about finding the right person and arrangement, as you’re looking for a solution to that problem.

    Michaël

  • http://www.sitepoint.com Mark Harbottle

    I’m glad to hear that you’re well Dave. Welcome back!

  • Kailash Badu

    I am glad to hear that you are fit as a fiddle now. When you wrote me a week earlier that you had an emergency at Tokyo, my first impressions was that it would be one of your family members. The very fact that you took out time to write emails in tough times show how agile a manger you are. Now that’s really something a savvy businessperson should pick up.

    The business that relies heavily on a single man has a single point of failure. Which is not a good sign for a healthy business and can often stymie your growth (or mere survival) severely, if cannot prove to be fatal. As a business owner you always need to have a contingency plan in place:
    1. Identify critical processes in your business and have a clear and unambiguous understanding on who is responsible for running those processes.
    2. What if the person responsible for these processes becomes unavailable abruptly for whatever reasons. Do I have a substitute in place? The substitute doesn’t need to have the same level of capability as the person he should substitute does, but the person should be able to pick up things from where they were left off. Well documented business procedures would indeed prove to be the lifesavers here.
    3. Delegate your key responsibilities (strategic decisions as well) from time to time to your trusted employees. This will prepare them for taking up reigns of business when you are unavailable rather than just wait until you make it back to business. Also make sure that you leave your employees to their own devices so that do not look up to you to make mundane decisions. Also, train them to be accountable for whatever action they take. as long as they do so, they are free to decide

  • http://www.trulybored.com Gamermk

    An interesting read and you’ve definitely shown why small businesses struggle so much. They rely on individuals, a lot.

    What steps do you take to rely less on your employees?

  • http://www.revmedia.com dhecker

    Thanks all, for your kind remarks.

    Garmerk: The big surprise here was that I took the time to ensure that ordinary business processes would be covered in my absence, but I failed to provide system to ensure leadership and decision making if I wasn’t around. If I had a partner who could have jumped in with the skills and confidence to start handling all of my e-mail and phone calls, it would have been easier. Lesson learned: it’s not enough to establish procedures for the services you provide, the leadership element needs to be capable of working without you, too.

  • http://www.trulybored.com Gamermk

    This kind of situation you propose seems to stem from either:
    1. being unaware that you required a partner
    2. being aware, but not feeling there was someone capable of handling such a task

    Which case do you think is the most prevalent in business and how should one go about acquiring a partner?

    Furthermore, what is the correct number of backup partners to have?

  • http://www.sitepoint.com Simon Mackie

    Great to have you back on board, Dave.

  • http://users.cg.yu/divine Divine

    Hmm, can you explain a bit about documenting your tasks and workflow?

    Thank you for post, good to see you`re well.

  • lukemeister

    Great post. I got sick for the entire month of Feb 2006, and I was an integral part of a 4 person web development company. I was able to communicate by phone, and was able to drag my sickly self into the office a couple times, so stuff didn’t get too outta control. Basically when I got better I had a good 40 hrs of graphic design work to catch up on myself, 2 projects that were over their time limit with very antsy clients (understandably), and all kinds of fun tax stuff that I was behind on.

    I actually found that even though I didn’t have a system intentionally put into place for this incident, that my employees really stepped it up and took care of things above and beyond, without my really needing to explain too much. I think they felt comfortable crossing areas because we had such a tight knit group that had specialists, but everybody always saw what the other team members were up to and how they handled things on a daily basis. This actually led to a promotion of one of my employees who actually became a business partner as well after some more time.

    Interesting what you learn about your team when something like that happens.

  • http://www.xraysierra.com XraySierra

    I’m not very good at leaving my business behind. I always have to know what’s going on and what everyone is doing. You are very right when you say we should document everything we do, a habit I will start getting into!

  • http://www.actra.no/ Pacifer

    I love teams. Sure they can be an hindrance sometimes when either they don’t see your point of view, or don’t understand the full picture. However I still love them. I am so limited in many ways, and then it’s great to have people that compensates for those weaknesses and also that can pull some extra weight when you’re out of action for a while.

    I had this experience and things worked out just great. Because the management team, and people around the team, was in place before I got sick. It was just so beautifully to see that things actually continued without my hands on presences. Sure it was not perfect, but things went on their normal way, more or less.

    It is in the good times you lay the foundation for handling challenges.

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