Remember when you were still fully enrolled in the Rat Race --- when you rushed to your assigned position in Corporate America every morning? When The Daily Grind was more than just a reference to the place where you grabbed a latte on the way to work?
Now be honest . . . . how many mornings did you wake up and hit that alarm reset button --- rollover and dream about not going to work? How many mental health days did you take --- come on --- be honest about it!
In talking with other solopreneurs, one of the first things that always comes up is being able to make your own schedule and set your own hours. As a night owl I must admit it was one HUGE attraction to me. After decades of dragging myself out of bed at 5am in order to be in my appointed spot at 8:30am, one of the true joys in my life is being able to wake up naturally – minus the mechanical squawking from some form of alarm device. Letting the dogs out; grabbing a good up of coffee; checking e-mails; planning my day in peace and quiet.
Each of the last 3 years I worked in an office full-time, I ended up with pneumonia. My job was stressful and doctors said all the stress in my life was killing me. Every year I’d get sick and fight my way to work morning after morning. My co-workers hated having me there as much as I hated being there. The bosses? Well, not so much. It’s easy to say “stay home so you don’t make the rest of us sick” but in the end, the top brass wants you there unless you’re in a coffin. They have no patience for the 7-10 days it may take for meds to kick in and the worst of something to disappear.
Heaven help you if you are in an accident or experience a death in your immediate family. Most bereavement leaves are measured in days, not weeks. I spent more than 3 days grieving my beloved Giant Schnauzer, Ms. Madie. But most law firms I worked for considered 3 days bereavement normal for the death of even the closest family member!
So off we go into the Wild Blue Yonder --- we start our own businesses and we live the good life. All is well with the world. Year 1 is fine. Year 2 is OK. Year 3 is well under way. Suddenly --- disaster strikes. A loved one dies; you have an accident; you get sick and just can’t drag yourself out of bed. Now what?
A friend recently had open heart surgery – they cracked his chest open. He runs his own high-end auto restoration business. Following surgery he couldn’t lift, pull, push --- couldn’t even be around his dogs because they might jump on him. How many months would pass before he could work again? How would he pay the bills? How many clients would disappear over the hill during that time?
How do you talk with clients when you sound like Kermit the Frog? Of course you COULD pretend to be the new receptionist. But what about that client meeting scheduled for 3:00 this afternoon? That ratty old bathrobe and those fuzzy pink bunny slippers won’t exactly add confidence to your latest recommendations. And that luncheon meeting you scheduled to introduce a new vendor to your favorite client? Kind of hard to handle when the flowers on the table remind you of the casket blanket you just picked out for your Mom’s funeral.
Solopreneurs really need a backup plan. Calling a temp service just won’t get the job done for the majority of us. The majority of us work in highly specialized areas. Which means we need a backup system equal to the job we would be doing if not for the emergency.
Do you network heavily in your business? I do. I call it the poor man’s marketing, but that’s really a misnomer because networking produces referrals and referrals are the best marketing any business can wish for. But I also network with other Virtual Assistants. Talking with other Virtual Assistants gives me a way of sharing ideas and letting off steam with folks doing work similar to mine.
Networking also brings me in contact with others working in specialties similar to mine. Cultivating these contacts is more than just a means of staying on top of the competition. Familiarizing myself with these contacts, how they work, what kinds of clients they have, how busy they are, the professionalism (or lack thereof) they display in different arenas –all of this allows me to assess how well we might work together if the need arose.
Once you find someone who feels like a good fit in terms of skills, knowledge and personality, it’s time to find out if there is a mutual interest in exploring a little work together. Most people are flattered when approached with the idea of collaborating on a project. In my experience, the idea that you think highly enough of me to share a work project is the equivalent of high praise from the front office. Sharing a job – or subcontracting out extra work when you are busy --- gives you first hand experience with how this person actually works when a deadline is involved. You get to see the quality of the finished project and now have a handle on how the person paces him/herself to get the work done.
If this experiment works well, it’s time to approach the emergency backup concept. The idea being that if you became incapacitated at some point, this person would be amenable to stepping in and handling things until you were once again able to handle things yourself.
One caution, however – before you arrange a sit-down meeting to discuss this option, you need to work through the plan very carefully in your mind. You will need to know exactly what you expect and how you want to implement the plan. Keep it simple, but ask yourself the following questions:
- How will I expect this person to step in? Will I determine client priorities and assign them individually to the backup person (“BP”)? Will I provide the BP with a copy of my calendar and expect him/her to carry forward with as little input from me as possible? Will I give this person access to my computer or a special disk where I keep client matters stored or will I provide everything required via email or CD transfer?
- Do I want this person to be in direct contact with my clients? If so, how do I protect myself from client loss? If not, how do I want the BP to proceed?
- Will I make the initial contact with my client and explain I have arranged for BP coverage? Or will I advise the client of this when I provide the actual work product to the client?
- What kind of payment arrangements are acceptable to me? If I plan to essentially subcontract the work out to the BP will I pay the BP my full rate or a lower rate and keep some for myself? If the BP is dealing directly with the client, will the client pay the BP directly? What rate of pay is acceptable to the BP?
- What kind of accountability do I expect from the BP?
When you meet with your BP choice, be prepared to lay your cards on the table and be up front in your discussions. If you do not feel comfortable doing so, back off as it is unlikely this relationship will work in an emergency. During an emergency everyone’s emotions are stressed out --- the purpose of having a good backup system in place is to relieve some of the stress by taking care of your clients and keeping your business running.
If all goes well at the meeting, follow-up with an email or letter outlining what you discussed and any agreements you reached. Ask the person to confirm the understanding as spelled out. Less formal then a contract, but at least you have the basics in writing.
So save that frog voice for blowing off telemarketers. And remember – like the annual fire drills we all grew up with, the important thing is to have the plan in place BEFORE you need it.