Can Your Business Run Without You? (Beta Test)

Perhaps the most cliched goal in the small business world is to structure your business so that it can run without you. It’s something many entrepreneurs run toward, but that few achieve. And, if it is achievable, it’s even harder to test. Sure, you can go on vacation and tell everyone not to bother you unless it’s an “emergency”. Or, if you’re like me, you might go backpacking off-grid for a long weekend. But that’s really not the same as your business running itself without you. After all, how often is a business owner ever in a position where they absolutely cannot, for an extended period, respond to an urgent need within their company?

I recently did get the chance to see how The Bookkeeper operates in my absence. After a concerning checkup in January, I went in for a lung biopsy and was diagnosed with cancer in February, then scheduled for surgery in March. (Spoiler alert: The surgery was successful and I’m going to be fine.)

However, this did mean I was going to be out-of-work for weeks, with some of that period including a 4-day hospitalization, where I could not be accessible for even the tiniest work question. (I’m fairly confident in my accounting skills, but doubt I could T-chart a transaction with a chest tube in.) We had to make some quick, difficult decisions about how my work would be divvyed up and if we could even keep all of the work at TBK.

I also had to have some hard conversations. Telling someone you have cancer isn’t easy but, what became burdensome was having to tell new people over-and-over. However, I wanted to be honest with clients about why I wouldn’t be available. Most people were great. There were some awkward questions, but I wasn’t offended. (“No, I wasn’t a smoker. Yes, you can get lung cancer without smoking.”)

But, overall, things went fine in my time away. I had the benefit of having a co-owner who could pick up the slack and, as mentioned, I had a couple of weeks in which to make decisions and prepare. Perhaps that’s not the exact same as having a unicorn business that can operate perfectly in your absence, but I was proud of how TBK weathered nonetheless.

The hard part was in coming back. My first week I only worked a few hours, but already felt like I was un-needed, or didn’t know my place in the company anymore. As I started feeling better and working more, I came to see this as a blessing in disguise. Suddenly there was time to work on those marketing initiatives I’d been putting off, or work proactively on some new forecasts for clients.

As I’ve been getting back to full-time, the second-hardest aspect has been not slipping into old bad habits. One of the things a lot of people don’t realize about cancer is that it’s rarely considered “cured” right-away. My medical team feels confident the surgery removed all the
cancer, but I won’t actually be considered cured until 5 years of clean scans. I’m currently considered “no evidence of disease” (or “NED”) and will have to have scans for the rest of my life. It’s important to keep the new structure we established while I was out, so my time is not bogged down with things I shouldn’t be doing. It’s also helpful to keep my time flexible so I can assist if an employee needs to be out unexpectedly; I know so well now that anyone could have to be gone from work at any time.