Are You Irreplaceable?

How to make sure your business can thrive without you, and five steps to get there.

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The second year of running your company is notoriously tough, but for business owner Chris Ashton, the ground was cut out from under his feet--literally. Ashton, 38, began his second year as co-founder of Petplan Pet Insurance with a fall from the second floor ledge of his New Jersey home, suffering injuries that kept him out of the office for five months. Suddenly, Ashton had to face the question many entrepreneurs fear: Can my business run without me?

Making sure your company can operate in your absence should be a basic element of business planning, but many entrepreneurs don't consider the possibility until it's too late, says William Rothwell, author of the book "Effective Succession Planning" and president of Rothwell & Associates, a State College, Pennsylvania-based consulting firm. "We tend not to want to think about terrible things like our own death or disability," says Rothwell. "Planning for short-term and long-term replacements is key."

Related: Seven Cringe-Worthy Business-Plan Mistakes

After his fall, Ashton realized he and his wife Natasha were still micromanaging the company since founding it in 2006 despite their staff of ten. The duo did everything from running meetings to signing checks to making sure printer cartridges were replaced. The accident, says Ashton, "was a big wakeup call for us. We learned very quickly that you have to spread the knowledge."

But how do you do that? Here's how to get started.

Get Your Job In Writing. It's easy to become mired in day-to-day tasks and lose track of how you're running your company. Knowing how you spend your time daily is key to ensuring your business can run without you, says Rothwell. "To say, 'Who can jump in and do my whole job?' without unbundling what that job requires is not possible.'" Ask yourself: What are the short-term and long-term aspects of the business you take care of? Write them down. 

Prioritize. You'll find that certain responsibilities stand out among the many. Identify your priorities and start thinking about what would happen if you weren't around to do those tasks, says Rothwell. This ensures that if you're pulled away from your job unexpectedly, the people who step in will know what to tackle first.

Create Processes. Writing out step-by-step instructions for your most important tasks will ensure those responsibilities are taken care of in your absence. Whether it's payroll or tracking sales and expenses--responsibilities that business owners tend to guard closely--making sure someone else knows how to handle those tasks is essential. For example, after Ashton's fall, he switched from manually signing every check himself to using an electronic signature. 

Make sure to think long-term, too. Sonny Clark, founder of the Nashville, Tennessee-based IT-consulting firm Advanced Network Solutions, had been running his business for nearly ten years with a dozen employees when he was diagnosed with Leukemia six years ago. But it was not until the week before he went into the hospital for a bone-marrow transplant that he drafted his will and realized it was too late to put together a buy-sell agreement. "The time to do it is not when you are sick in the hospital," says Clark, who has been in remission for five years. "You want to negotiate those kinds of things before you need to."

Related: Tips For Planning an Exit from Your Small Business

Identify People Who Can Step In. Make a list of all your key contacts, starting with employees, vendors, clients, bankers, accountants, and lawyers, and think about who could take over each of your responsibilities. "Don't think necessarily of just one person as a replacement," Rothwell says. 

Susan Carter, author of the book "How to Make Your Business Run Without You," suggests jotting down the key strengths of each of your contacts so that work can be delegated more easily in your absence. You might even think about which competitors could best handle your customers if need be, she suggests.

Step Back While You Can. It often takes an emergency for small business owners to realize they don't need their hands in every aspect of the business. At Petplan, Ashton and his wife found they didn't have to run every meeting if they created team leaders rather than overseeing the company's sales and claims teams themselves. "That really helped us take our hands off and give other people responsibility," he says. 

Getting away from day-to-day chores has also allowed Ashton to spend more time on the company's long-term growth including raising money, expanding marketing efforts, and launching a new pet health magazine called Fetch. Today Petplan has fifty employees and an estimated revenue of about $30 million, up from $19 million last year. "The accident helped us step back and not be mired in the day-to-day operations," he says. "We can focus on the bigger issues.

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