Last week, the inconceivable happened to a copywriter colleague of mine when her husband suddenly and unexpectedly died. So instead of spending her week finalising client copy, chauffeuring her kids around town and writing her next YA novel, she was choosing caskets, planning a funeral and writing a eulogy.
For the most part, her clients were incredibly supportive and understanding. But there were still deadlines to be met.
And it got me thinking: Would Black Coffee Communication cope without me? Even for a short time?
I suspect the answer is “no”.
Like my friend, a lot of my client interactions and ideas are in my head. Sure, there are project proposals and plans, but my approach to detail is fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants (just ask any of my long-suffering former staff members). When you work for a big organisation, there are safety nets to ensure “business as usual” – succession plans, standard operating procedures and even crisis management (should the tragedy be internal). But when you run your own business, there is none of this. And yet, for most of us, our business income is vital to sustain our family.
We tend as a community to pretend death and disability doesn’t happen. But it does. And often in shocking and unexpected ways. And when it hits, the last thing on your mind is work. Yet the death of a loved one does not mean the death of bills or mortgages or school fees.
So how can sole traders “tragedy-proof” their business?
I try to maintain a spreadsheet of work in progress as well as leads. By “try” what I actually mean is that I have one that I rarely update and that is currently pretty useless. My record keeping has never been great – once upon a time I had staff that dealt with this. But my friend’s tragedy has shown me that I need to get better. Much better.
Put processes in place (and document them)
It is all well and good to have records, but not if no one knows where they are, or how to read them. So take some time to draw up some processes. In my case it should cover nurturing the initial lead, through the briefing and quoting stages, on to developing the copy deck, writing the drafts and then invoicing (including all passwords). I don’t have it written down, but that is about it.
Have a solid network of colleagues
While I may be a sole trader, over the years I have gathered an experienced and trusted network of copywriters all over the country. Some have years of experience, some just starting out. They have different skills sets, different rate cards and different styles, so I know that if I can’t do the work, there is always someone who can. Which is relief not only to me, but to my clients.
Clients deserve to know when life throws you a curve ball (it’s up to you how much information you give them), but they also expect their work to be completed.
And as for new leads, these days you can easily set up an autoresponder and refer the sender to a trusted colleague (see above point!)
My friend was fortunate that her sister was able to take the reins, email all her clients, explain the situation, a
nd offer referrals to other writers. And because of the circumstances, the clients were, naturally, understanding and sympathetic.
Sole traders should probably take out income insurance that will cover mortgages and bills should we be unable to work for one reason or another. And in another case of “do what I say, not what I do”, I don’t have such insurance. But I do have a minimal mortgage (with a fair whack of advanced payments and equity I can draw on). So the way I see it, that is my “income insurance”.
Stick to a routine
While death of a loved one, or serious illnesses or accidents, knock routine out the window, not all tragedies are horrific. Maybe there has been a break up or divorce, a health scare or a parent moved into residential care. Setting a schedule can help push past these stresses – even if all the schedule initially involves is getting up, getting showered and getting dressed.
About the author: Nicole Leedham
Nicole is the Word Barista at Black Coffee Communication. With more than 20 years in the communications game, she has developed some strong opinions on grammar, punctuation, copywriting and, well, pretty much everything. When she is not sharing these opinions – for the benefit of her clients, of course – she enjoys relaxing with a good book and a good red. Her young children, however, have a different agenda.
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