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.

Maintaining Work/Life Balance (When You Work From Home)

With the increase of mobile technology and the high cost of office rentals, it is increasingly common for small business owners to work from home.  And since they’re their own bosses, those entrepreneurs can get left out of the discussion of how to achieve work-life balance.  After all, how do you “get away from work” when work is where you live?  In this article, we’ll discuss some steps that can be taken to maintain work-life balance when working from home.

1.  Have a separate space.

If possible, keep one room in your home dedicated exclusively to work.  Don’t do work anywhere else in the house, and don’t do leisure in that room.  It’s too easy to take a break from playing a game or watching a show to “answer a few work emails real quick”.  (Likewise, it’s too easy to check on Facebook mid-conference call.)  If you make a space just for working, it helps you to fully commit to what you are supposed to be doing at the time, whether that is working or relaxing.

On top of the mental and emotional benefits of having a dedicated workspace, there is a financial benefit.  A home office deduction can be a huge boon at tax time and, per the IRS, is defined as, “Exclusive and regular use as the main place in which you conduct your business...”

Of course, not everyone will have the option of having an entirely separate room for a home office.  If that’s the case for you, try to find a way to differentiate your “workspace” from your “living space”.  Make sure that, when you’re working, your area is free of distractions.  If you normally listen to Top 40, turn the radio to classical.  You can even have a picture or two you set up on your desk, as though you were working at an office away from home.  Just find a way, personal to you, to clarify in your mind that you’re currently “at work”.

2.  Have set work hours…

Now, this isn’t to say that you’re required to work a standard 9-5.  Many of us go into business for ourselves for the freedom and flexibility that comes along with being your own boss.  However, not having a particular time set specifically aside for work tasks can also make it easy to procrastinate.  Find a regular time, maybe daily or once a week, when you look at your schedule and map out exactly when you’re going to work on specific work tasks.  And stick to it.

3.  …And set leisure hours.

Again, this doesn’t mean you ignore a work emergency because you refuse to do business after 6.  However, it is imperative that you find times when you focus your energies on something besides work (even if it’s just to focus on a tv show you really enjoy).  Living and breathing work 24/7 is a good way to burn yourself out, and to forget what you enjoyed about your business in the first place.

4.  Have someone keeping you accountable.

Everything in life is easier with a partner.  Even if you are the sole employee of your company, you should have a friend or mentor who can give you the kick in the butt you need when you’re lacking motivation.  (Of course, the various benefits of having a mentor are a different article for a different day.)  Likewise, in your personal life, you need a friend who can make plans with you to have fun and relax, and who won’t let you off the hook if you try to bail for work reasons.  Find a friend who will hold you to dinner plans, and who will confiscate your cellphone if necessary.  (No work calls or emails at the table!)

Most of all, remember that, when you own your own business, you are in charge.  It’s doubtful that anyone starts a business with the dream of working 60+ hours a week and never having a night out again.  Remember what you’re working for, and go easy on yourself every once in a while.  Work to live; don’t live to work.