Preparing For The Worst

Preparing For The Worst

Maureen Farrell, 09.17.07,
6:23 PM ET

There is no crying in baseball, and there are no "sick days" when you run your own business.

Still,
there are plenty of ways entrepreneurs can get sidelined–from sudden
illnesses and travel delays to pregnancy and military duty. Without a
well-defined plan, those leaves of absence can pose a dangerous threat.

"If something incapacitates you, it can be the death knell of
your business," says Karla Leavelle, president of Human Capital
Advisors, a McLean, Va.-based consulting firm that counsels small
businesses.

How do you hedge the risk of lost leadership?
Business insurance doesn’t help. Property and liability coverage come
in handy in case a customer slips and falls in your store or gets hurt
using one of your products, and business-interruption insurance covers operating losses if a hurricane reduces your building to rubble.

If you really want things to run smoothly in your absence, you need other protection in place. Here are some tips:

Have A Point Person

Be
it the chief operating officer, outside counsel or even a trusted
executive assistant, at least one person should have access to
everything that keeps the place running–including passwords, bank
account numbers and keys to safes. You might even consider handing over
power of attorney in your absence.

Doling out that kind of trust
isn’t easy, but if something goes wrong while you’re gone, you’ll wish
you had. "Owners are always scared that someone is going to steal
secrets of the organization," says John Vyhnanek, a restaurant
consultant in Boston. "It’s a bit like walking a tightrope, but someone
has to keep the business going if you can’t be there."

Vyhnanek
learned that lesson the hard way as owner and head chef of the old
Harvard Street Grill in Brookline, Mass. While he hadn’t logged a sick
day in 10 years, Vyhnanek hadn’t shared his food-preparation techniques
with anyone either. (There was an assistant chef, but he only knew his
way around appetizers and desserts.) One day, the odds caught up:
Felled by the flu, Vyhnanek closed the restaurant on a Saturday night,
leaving bills for 90 dinners on the table.

"It didn’t make us go under, but [it] made paying bills tough for a few weeks," he says.

Build A Detailed Org Chart

In
grainy detail, map out the work flows in your organization. Identify
who does what and who can take over certain roles if need be. Start by
having employees write out their own job descriptions and the list of
activities they do on a daily basis.

"No one can duplicate the
charisma of an entrepreneur," says Louis Celli, head of the Northeast
Veterans Business Resource Center, which mentors military
entrepreneurs. "But if the entire business is systematized, that can
sustain the business until the entrepreneur returns."

Better
yet, if you codify thoroughly and thoughtfully enough, you might even
discover ways of making your business run more efficiently day to day.

Form Partnerships

If
you own a medical, law or accounting practice, your clients simply
can’t wait for you to return. That’s why you should draft a written
agreement with a local competitor who can cover for you in the event of
an emergency (and visa versa).

Hammer out the tough questions
upfront, such as referral fees–both for your clients and any they
might refer to your stand-in. You’ll also want to make sure the fees
are comparable, lest your clients blanch at getting a fatter bill than
they are used to.

Go Mobile

Even if you aren’t a gadget
guy or gal, if you run your own business, you have to have access to
critical clients and information at any moment.

Addictive as these devices can be, you probably need a personal digital assistant. While Apple‘s
(nasdaq:
AAPL

news


people
) Newton flopped back in 1993, PDAs are everywhere now. The popular BlackBerry, made by Research in Motion
(nasdaq:
RIMM

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people
), runs $100 to $500. You’ll also pay about $100 a month to a service provider such as AT&T
(nyse:
T

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people
) or Verizon
(nyse:
VZ

news


people
), though you can save a few bucks by bundling the connection with other phone or Internet services.

Want
access to all your files from your hospital bed? No problem. For
another $20 a month, companies like Citrix and New Moon Canaveral IQ
will let you grab anything on your computer desktop through a secure
server. You might get hung up, but in the Internet age, your business
shouldn’t.

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