Asking yourself “What can go wrong?” can be a little terrifying. However, the good news is that once we know what can go wrong, we’re ready to start strategizing.
If you’re a freelancer or run a business, there’s an urgent question you may not be asking: “Do I have an emergency plan for my business?” The first step in developing a plan is admitting that there’s eventually going to be a problem.
Even though major disasters tend to be rare, smaller disasters, such as a server failure or a burst pipe, happen every day. Companies often prepare for the worst but forget the everyday challenges, which can be just as crippling. The way to make sure they don’t destroy your business is to plan for them.
Ask, “What Can Go Wrong?”
In my mind, these “famous last words” are a great question to ask yourself before implementing any new plan, and in a disaster plan, they are literally the very first words of the plan itself. What can go wrong that would impact your business? You need to know this before you can develop a useful emergency strategy.
You can tackle the question in two ways: 1) identify possible hazards and figure out what effect they would have (“I could lose power, which would mean no Internet”), or 2) identify the minimum resources your business needs to function and list hazards that could interfere with those resources (“I need the Internet, which I would be unable to access if I lost power”). If you need some help identifying potential risks, a good list of both natural and man-made hazards is provided on the risk assessment page of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website (scroll down to “Hazards” and “Risk Assessment Resources”).1 You can also see some additional examples and their anticipated effects on Agility Recovery’s sample risk assessment form.2
Here’s my “What can go wrong?” list for potential hazards:
- A malware attack or hacking could compromise my IT.
- I could become sick or injured. (The impact would be slightly different, depending on whether the injury or illness is short- or long-term.)
- My place of business could be damaged in an intentional or unintentional fire. (The impact would be similar to 1 and 2 above.)
- My place of business could be robbed. (I could lose documents, property, data and/or data security.)
- Natural disasters, including severe storms, floods, tornadoes, etc. (I could lose Internet service, phone service, HVAC, power and/or water; I could be forced to leave my business location or be trapped in my business location; there could be damage to person or property.)
- I could lose Internet connectivity and/or power through a simple outage.
- My phone or computer hardware and/or software could fail. (I could lose data, be unable to access programs and files I need to work, or be unable to contact clients.)
- My car could break down (loss of mobility).
- One or more things could go wrong while I’m traveling. (Real-life example: I once lost connectivity while traveling, then got it back just in time for my laptop battery to fail!)
Once I created this list, I thought through the minimum resources that my business needs to function during a crisis:
- Data on my clients, outstanding projects, outstanding invoices, payments, and other administrative essentials.
- A working computer with Japanese-language functionality, audio and video functionality, and critical programs like MS Office.
- A working phone.
- An Internet connection for receiving and delivering projects.
- Dictionaries and other resources (it would be ideal to access these resources online, especially if you are dealing with #4 in the hazards list above).
- A means to be in touch via e-mail, whether via Internet or phone.
- My reasonably sound mind and body.
Of course, you can see quickly from this list that the functionality of my business could be crippled by tiny, mundane “disasters” such as me forgetting to pack something, me dropping my laptop and breaking it, etc.
Your lists will probably be different. Since I don’t have a physical supply chain or physical production process, I don’t have to worry about those. I’m also currently my only employee, so I only have to worry about myself. Each business has its own circumstances, so each list will differ.
So, now that you have a better idea of what can go wrong, what can you do to make sure your business can survive a crisis? This article is only the beginning of the conversation about this crucial task, but to get the ball rolling, let’s look at some risk management strategies that might help to mitigate the impact of a medical emergency.
Plan for Short-Term Unavailability
Hopefully none of us will spend too much time so ill that we can’t work, but both short- and long-term illness/injury can happen to anyone of any age, so we need to prepare. We don’t want short-term health problems to impact our client relationships, and we don’t want long-term ones to tank our businesses! Here are a few strategy tips.
- For Freelancers: Plan now what you’ll tell your customers if you’re unavailable for a period of time. You don’t want to just go AWOL and stop responding to customer queries because you don’t know what to say. My personal suggestion is to ask one or more trusted colleagues if you can refer your clients to them when you’re unavailable.3 Then if a client offers you work while you’re ill, you can say that although you have to take a week off to recover, you recommend contacting trusted colleague Jane Doe for urgent projects.
If you don’t currently have trusted colleagues (and you really do need to trust the quality of their work), plan another type of response. The bottom line is to have a rough draft on hand of what you’ll say so that you don’t freeze—or worse, end up accepting work you can’t do. I’ve seen freelancers lose clients because they agreed to a job whose deadline they couldn’t realistically make due to illness, and then were too afraid to answer when the client e-mailed asking where that overdue project was.
If you’re hospitalized while you’re in the middle of a project, you need a quick way to let the project manager know the project is jeopardized. Keep your clients’ numbers in your phone’s contacts list and back them up somewhere in case you lose your phone.
- For Small Businesses: Make a plan for how to keep your business running if any critical employee is unavailable for a month. This can help keep your services at least partially available for the duration, or get your business back up to full capacity faster. To do this, you’ll need to ask your employees for written instructions about how to cover their jobs. But be conscious of your approach!
Often when you ask employees to write down their job responsibilities, they become justifiably afraid you’re about to downsize. They worry that you want them to do this so that you’ll know how to take over for them when they’re laid off or fired. This could lower morale or even make some employees uncooperative. Avoid this by stating clearly upfront that you’re coming up with disaster plans in case anyone gets sick and others need to help out until they get well. Tell your employees that if they ever need to be gone for a week or a month, you want to make sure they won’t come back to a huge mess. Note that this will also help in the event of vacations or bereavement leave.
Ask them to document their most critical responsibilities/processes and what the company should do to cover those in their absence. Is there a report they need to make once a month? Is there a vendor only they have a relationship with? Is there a critical process only they know how to do? Get it all documented. And if you haven’t done so already, don’t forget to document what your employees would need to do if you were gone as well.
Plan Your Emergency Savings
This applies to all emergencies! Any certified financial planner or other finance professional will tell you to have at least three times your monthly income in savings, just in case of an emergency.4 Some will recommend six times your monthly income, especially for freelancers. Having that cushion to fall back on while you are out of commission could mean the difference between “This is awful” and “I’m bankrupt.”
Review the Services You Offer
Let’s say you have a long-term health issue that is partially but not completely incapacitating. It could be six months of chemotherapy or a permanent/semi-permanent disability. There may be some services you offer which you can continue offering in that scenario to keep some money coming in, even though you’d probably have to cut down on their volume. On the other hand, there may be services that you can’t perform. For example, a portion of the work I do is simulcasts. I’m thinking now, before I get sick, about whether I could realistically continue doing simulcasts. Realistically, I don’t think I could. But I could still take other types of translation work. Everyone’s situation is different, so think about yours. If you’re a full-time interpreter, maybe you’ll decide you wouldn’t be able to do in-person interpreting while sick, but you could do phone interpreting. If you do a type of work that you don’t think you could perform at all while sick, is there another skill you have that you might want to try turning into paid work?
Get Health Insurance
This is not optional. It doesn’t matter if you’re healthy; you still need health insurance. If you don’t have any and it’s not in your budget, redo your budget. This should be considered as critical as buying food and paying rent. In other words, a #1 priority. Medical bankruptcy is the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States.5 Of course, being insured doesn’t guarantee you’ll never be in over your head if you get hurt/sick, or that everything you need will be covered. But consider this: if you don’t have insurance, it could mean owing $50,000 in medical bills instead of $10,000.
Consider Special Plans if There are People Who Rely on Your Income
Okay, so you’ve kept your business going at partial capacity by maintaining good client relationships, having emergency savings, offering services at reduced volume, and taking advantage of your health insurance. Awesome! But let’s talk for a moment about a long-term disability—months, years, or even lifelong. In that case, even in our awesome scenario, you’ll still have a reduced income for a long time. And, as much as it hurts to even write this, you need to consider that in a worst-case scenario, you might be too unwell to operate your business and won’t have an income.
So, if anyone in your life (including you!) relies solely on your income, and your disability becomes permanent or fully incapacitating, it could jeopardize lives. Or at least quality of life. What can you do about that? If you work for a business or are a member of a union, you may already have long-term disability insurance (check with your employer/union rep). If you’re a freelancer or small business owner, you may not have this coverage unless you’ve purchased it privately. Start researching long-term disability insurance and find out more about it and whether you might need it. But remember, I’m not a finance expert and can’t tell you what you should do! You’re probably not an expert either. I would recommend speaking with a trusted legal or financial professional to help you make your decisions.
Note: you may have worked jobs that would qualify you for Social Security disability benefits. If so, this is an important part of your disability planning, but be aware that Social Security programs are subject to change. These Social Security benefits are also not the same as the long-term disability insurance mentioned above.
Some people also buy long-term care insurance. Others elect to use a different financial tool, such as an annuity to prepare for potential long-term care needs. (You can find information about topics related to long-term care at http://longtermcare.gov.) I’m certainly not an expert on this topic either, which brings me to my last point.
Links for Emergency Preparedness
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety
Prepare My Business
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Social Security Administration
Know Where to Turn for Legal/Financial Advice
A trusted friend who has been there pointed out that if you have a really serious health crisis, such as a bad car accident or debilitating illness, you’ll be better off if you already have someone who “knows the ropes” and can advocate for you while you’re not thinking clearly. She recommends lining someone up now, before anything goes wrong. Whether another party might be liable and you need help straightening that out, or you need help coordinating a complicated disability claim, legal advice could be invaluable. What I thought of immediately was to build a relationship with a professional by simply hiring one to help me with all that pesky stuff: a will, medical power of attorney, long-term disability planning, etc. It would also be a good idea to ask this person during your initial meeting if he or she will be able to provide specific help in situations like the ones just mentioned (and what the fee would be). For example, many of you may already have a CPA lined up for your taxes and other business needs. If so, ask them what they recommend. What can they do for you?
Prepare for the Worst, Then Relax
One thing not to do: when you are sick or injured, do not let “what-ifs” get in the way of dealing with reality. This is not the time to dwell on what you might have done differently “if only.” That can paralyze you. Instead, focus on doing what you need to do now.
I hope disaster never strikes you or me, but if it does, having a plan will make things much easier. It’s already helped me overcome the more mundane crises in my own life. I think the translation community could benefit from a broader conversation about emergency planning, and this is only the beginning. I’ve received great ideas from colleagues commenting on the blog posts from which this article evolved! What emergency plans have you made? Have you ever had to use them? What do you wish you had more information about? Let’s work on ideas to make all of us more disaster-resistant.
- “Risk Assessement” (U.S. Department of Homeland Security), www.ready.gov/risk-assessment.
- Sample Risk Assessment Form, www.agilityrecovery.com/assets/SBA/riskassmtsba.pdf.
- McKay, Corinne. “Some Thoughts on Leaves of Absence (Maternity and Otherwise),” Thoughts on Translation (August 15, 2013), http://bit.ly/McKay-absence.
- “Getting Started: Establishing a Financial Safety Net,” http://bit.ly/financial-safety.
- Khazan, Olga. “Why Americans Are Drowning in Medical Debt,” The Atlantic (October 8, 2014), http://bit.ly/Atlantic-medical-debt.
Sarah Lindholm has over a decade of experience translating Japanese anime and films. She spent several years working in-house for two different U.S. distributors, seeing the entire localization and release process from the inside. In addition to her freelance business, she is currently the quality assurance translator at FUNimation/Group 1200 Media, where she spends her days making anime translations more accurate across the industry through periodic peer review and continuing education initiatives. She blogs at http://sal.detailwoman.net. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.