With all the concerns that we consultants juggle every day, it's sometimes hard to plan for events that seem far in the future. With an upcoming major surgery, though, I'm forced to consider the possibility that something could go wrong and I might not survive. What would happen to my consulting business in that event?
If you're considering the same question, the answers will depend a lot on how you've structured your business. For example, if you've incorporated and have people working for you to whom you've delegated most of the responsibility for getting things done, then your business may be able to keep on chugging after taking maybe one day off to attend your funeral. At the other extreme, though, are sole proprietorships like mine in which nobody else does any of the work. Those businesses would necessarily come to a screeching halt. For whatever size hole you would leave in your organization, it behooves you to plan for passing the baton on to others.
I'm not going to explore the problems of legal ownership in this article. You should discuss that with a lawyer, and it will depend on the way you've organized your company, along with the provisions of your will. I'm going to focus instead on how to insure that your clients aren't just left wondering what to do next.
First and foremost, you should always be documenting your work. You should regularly check in source code to a version control repository to which your client already has access. You should train your clients and explain everything you do for them. In short, make yourself expendable. That's just good business, even if you aren't going to kick the bucket. Nobody wants you to hold them hostage to your secret knowledge. In the unfortunate case of your demise, though, they should be able to hand that knowledge off to someone else and keep moving ahead with an inconvenient pause, rather than a disaster.
It's unlikely, though, that you will have been able to foresee everything that you needed to communicate to your clients. They may have questions, or need access to documents that you've updated since you last sent them. You may also have completed work that you have not yet billed, or issued invoices that you have not yet collected.
I recommend that you designate one person to be your "technical executor," if you will. Your spouse or other legal survivors might not be the best choice for this position, depending upon their knowledge of your business. They may need help. Choose someone with enough technical ability that they'll be able to follow your directions. However, they must also be someone you can trust to do what you ask them to do, and to work well with your survivors. They must also have sufficient access to any systems or files that you will want them to be able to manipulate. I've chosen my oldest son, because he's a rock-star developer in his own right, he knows both Unix and Windows, and I know he will respect my wishes.
Leave them a document in a location you agree upon before the event (unless you're more confident than I am about your future haunting skills). Include in that document all necessary passwords, and describe in detail where to find everything. Most importantly, list the name and contact information for at least one person at each of your clients' offices. You will want them to call or email those people to inform them of your passing and offer to help them make the transition to living without you.
You will also want to include specific recommendations for how to help each of your clients. If you know someone that you could recommend to replace you, pass that on.
If certain individuals could be helpful in sorting out specific aspects of what you leave behind, agree with them ahead of time to pass their contact information on to your "technical executor." In my case, I think Chad Perrin could help anyone understand a lot of my activity in copyfree software projects, and he has agreed to let my son contact him.
Make sure you include instructions for issuing final invoices if needed. Your absence will be hard enough on your family without letting receivables fall through the cracks.
Can you think of anything else I'm forgetting? Yeah, this was a pretty morbid topic. Don't worry, I'm sure my surgery will go just swimmingly and all this preparation will have been unnecessary. But if I don't prepare, Murphy might step in and make everyone wish I had.
Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.