What's a small business owner to do when they're faced with a life-changing event like caring for an elderly parent?
It's not often talked about in the media, so most people don't realize how at risk business owners are of falling through the cracks and losing their business in these situations.
It actually happened to a friend of mine. Her husband had a terminal disease and relatively little life insurance, and they were both self-employed. She managed to keep her business going while he was sick, but lost it after he died.
And it almost happened to me. When my mother was in the early stages of Alzheimer's, we didn't realize how fast it was progressing and I hadn't made plans for how I could adapt my business to be able to care for her.
Don't put off preparing for the turns your life may take.
Even though I had already cared for my father-in-law with Alzheimer's for 7.5 years in the 90's, she progressed differently than he did so I was still unprepared for balancing caring for her with running my business. I thought I had more time than I did.
In trying to adapt to the new reality, I made a bad hiring decision that almost put me out of business. As she worsened, although I was working in the business 7 days a week, I was physically absent from it much of the time. Like a snowball, the effects of that hiring decision were disastrous since I wasn't there to monitor things closely.
It's easy to look back and realize what I should have done if I hadn't been making important decisions in the middle of a distressing situation. If I had taken the time to plan ahead, caring for my mother would have had very little effect on the business, other than the natural effects from the emotional toll on me.
There's no Family Medical Leave Act to let us business owners take leave and later pick back up where we left off.
But I realize now that I could have, in effect, created my own Family Medical Leave Act.
That's why I want you to start planning ahead now, even if you have no reason to think you'll end up in a caregiving situation.
You never know when you might have your own health issue, and positioning your business now to be able to pivot when/if needed can make a huge difference in your ability to recover. Or you might just want a break, a long vacation to unwind and decompress, and planning your strategy now will let you do that.
This is what I wish I had done, and you should do now:
- Take time for some real soul searching to remind yourself why you started the business in the first place. I started the business for lifestyle freedom and to avoid working in a corporate environment, yet found myself slowly losing my freedom and dealing with more red tape as we grew because of the types of projects we were taking on.
- List everything you like and don't like about the business, and figure out how you can do more of the things you like and less of what you don't like. I'm not talking about delegating to other people (though you can do that). I'm talking specifically about not doing things that are low profit and high touch, those things that sap your resources while not moving you forward. You know them, the ones that just eat up your days and soul. In our case, just not responding to RFP's any more and not submitting proposals saves me a ton of time and frustration.
- Carve out a highly targeted niche market you can work with that will truly value your strengths, so you can be more selective about the clients you work with and demand higher prices. The truth is, I don't need very many clients to meet my definition of success, which places a high value on personal freedom and enjoying what I do. You need to decide what your own definition of success is and find clients who are the best fit to help you reach that, clients who will value what you bring to the table so they're willing to pay the prices you deserve.
- Create productized services that would make it easier to communicate pricing and value. By doing that I can avoid writing proposals or having lots of meetings or phone calls to help a client decide whether to proceed with a project. I used to spend hours writing a single custom proposal and then wait weeks or months for a response, but I haven't written a custom proposal in months. Now our prices are what they are, take it or leave it. Either way, I've saved hours that I can now use to work with other better-suited clients to make more money – or I can use them to work on the business or even just relax.
- Develop highly structured processes for the productized services which help keep clients accountable for holding up their end of the bargain in moving projects forward. Most clients don't mean to be unresponsive, but having a structured process that doesn't vary prevents them from taking over a project and dragging it out to suit their schedule. It's human nature for things to expand to fit the time available, so we now limit that time and both we and the client benefit.
- Use all of the above to delegate more authority and responsibility to other staff or to contractors so you can use your time in the most valuable way.
Bottom line of all of this is that if I had taken the time to listen to my gut and heart and continued to build a business that suited my own lifestyle desires rather than the prototypical design firm, I would have made much better decisions and we all would have had less stress and more money. I've had the same core team for years and they're awesome, but they've endured hell to help me recover from that big mistake.
Don't be complacent if you've already been in this situation before because it might be different this time around. Caring for my father-in-law wasn't as disruptive because I was just working part-time then, didn't have employees, we weren't dependent on my income, and I was already caring for our 2 kids so was in caregiver mode anyway. This time, we were empty nesters and I was used to working weird hours on large projects.
Plan now how to make your business adaptable to the possible upheavals in your life, and prevent finding yourself in a situation similar to mine. Then it won't even matter that the Family Medical Leave Act doesn't apply to you.
Even if you're not the primary caregiver for your loved one, the increased time demands, emotions, and stress can make it very difficult to keep a business going without at least bad hiccups during this time period. Be prepared!