When your health suddenly lands you in a hospital bed, what happens to your business? Dana Flannery found out the hard way. Do you have small business contingency plans in place for your business?
A few years ago, I learned something useful – that the pancreas is a vital organ that ‘overreacts’ to getting its ducts blocked by gallstones. Like, one little gallstone issue and your pancreas sets fire to your entire abdomen in protest.
I learnt this at 3am in the emergency ward at Prince Charles Hospital. What I also learnt was that my little business could not survive without me. In fact, one week out of the loop and out of my mind on painkillers was enough to create a tidal wave of drama.
The first gallstone is always the hardest
One week and a lot of hospital jelly later, I was sent to bounce up and down half naked in front of man with an ultrasound machine (ahhhh the dignity). It was determined that I had eleven mobile gallstones and would need my gallbladder removed, once the swelling in my pancreas decreased.
While this sounded like fun, the real fun was in my inbox. My projects were running well behind. I hadn’t been able to contact clients while high on Endone so they were annoyed. The monthly clients were all expecting work to be delivered.
It was chaos and I was high as a kite and too sick to work. I sent a series of “I’m so sorry, apparently I was a few hours off death” emails. The clients calmed their proverbial farms long enough for me to sleep for about twelve days; the pancreas is a vengeful little organ.
So by this point, I was woefully behind. There was no real way to catch up and frankly, I was too sick to do the work anyway. I surrendered. I gave in. I devoted what little energy I had to finding someone to help me.
I was sure I couldn’t afford it. I was sure it would mean financial ruin and me losing control of my own business. I was sure of so many things, but nothing trumped my certainty that I simply couldn’t do the work.
The game changing months between hospital visits
The business had no infrastructure. Nothing. My inbox was like Tokyo station at peak time. None of my stock standard emails or forms were in a stock standard template. I was re-inventing the wheel anew for every new client; I had no operations manual.
I had a spare room and a website that ranked for some good keywords. The rest was ad hoc.
First, a systems and admin virtual assistant. An admin all-rounder who was ready to do invoicing and bookkeeping, send props to new clients, manage the tidal wave of stuff in my inbox and generally keep things moving along. The right one was not the first one I interviewed. I liked the first one. She was a sweet pea. The other one, the one I chose, was a hard arse. There is nothing better for a business than a hard arse in the systems and bookkeeping seat.
While she set about creating systems for my ‘new team’ I found a team. In fact, I had already had a team in the wings. A couple of former workmates did some copywriting for me when I got busy. They listened to me when I wanted to whinge about the challenges of the soloist life. They were mates and they were familiar enough with what I did to be able to ‘step in’ for me. They were keen for the money. I was keen for naps.
Things you ponder when your gallbladder is actively trying to murder you
Hours from death… is how the excellent, if a little tactless, doctor described the oversized pancreas he was viewing. Passing a big chunk of ‘stone’ through your very fine and delicate duct system… well let’s just say childbirth would have been a welcome distraction.
So I got to thinking about death. What would happen if I died at the hands of my angry, angry organs? I have a will that dictates what becomes of my child, my house and ‘not so super’-annuation but what about my little biz. Does it just disappear forever? It had regular clients who regularly put money in my bank account.
I did what anyone with zero legal understanding would do, I wrote a little note to stick in my ‘will envelope’ about how the business would pass part to my husband and part to my ‘soloist copywriting’ friend. Probably not legally binding but my husband isn’t a jerk and my friend would do well with it.
That sweet moment when you say goodbye to your useless freaking gallbladder
Move over appendix, there’s a competitor for most problematic unnecessary organ. My second hospital trip was much different. For starters, I wasn’t on death’s door and I was able to plan. I also took my mobile phone charger this time. And I mentally prepared for that god awful jelly.
I had time to prepare and this time things were different all round. The business ran itself thanks to a very efficient systems VA. The writers took the work and did an awesome job. The clients had clear and regular communication. Monthly work went out on time. I still had to eat hospital jelly.
What I wish I’d done from the very start
- Cultivated friendships with my ‘competitors’ who could take work referrals in an emergency. I was lucky to have contacts already but it would have been nice to have a proper SEO contact who could pick up any dropped balls. Soloists are not competitors. We’re all in this together.
- Spend just a little of my freelance money on an admin person. Training up my systems VA took every last ounce of energy I had. If she’d done a few hours a month for me previously, it would have been a much simpler process.
- Put smarter pricing in place. I was guilty of undercharging. In retrospect I wonder what I was thinking. Charging enough that you can afford to pay someone else to do your job in an emergency is absolutely vital. While you’re busy putting up prices, factor in a few hours for your VA.
- Create a business manual. I suck at admin. Ask anyone. I am the worst admin in the history of business ownership. Getting a user manual in place is just a case of jotting down how you do things and refining it when you find a better way. It also forces you to think about how you do things and ways to improve your business structure.
- Create templates for all the stock standard forms and emails you send. That way, when you do bring a VA or soloist buddy on board, you’re not paying a fortune in hours. Getting that stuff in place is a massive time and money saver long term.
- Manage client expectations from the start. Be upfront. Tell them about the business you run. Tell them that you have infrastructure in place in an emergency but that in essence, you are the go-to gal (or guy) and on occasion, this can cause short delays. Be up front.
- Include my business in my will. As a freelancer type, I didn’t place enough value on my business. I considered it something I did to make ends meet and to exercise my brain in a way I enjoyed. Rubbish. My business and yours is a valuable entity that needs to be addressed in writing, by a proper lawyer. You’re leaving behind something you created.
I was lucky it was gallstones. It could have been a stroke. Or a heart attack. It could have been a terrible accident that left me in a hospital bed for months. My business barely survived – hours from death… barely able to pass this obstruction.
I was able to remove the problems with a painful and difficult re-alignment. The business has gone from strength to strength since. High prices meant better clients and I let go of ‘control’ and took on more soloists to help out regularly.
The business grows, my pancreas shrunk and I’m enjoying a professional life without unnecessary burdens.
I still hate hospital jelly.
Has unexpected sickness ground your business to a halt? Share your learning in the comments.