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

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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!

Dave HeckerDave Hecker
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