Business Emergency Plan: How to Create a Backup Plan as a Business Owner

Dealing with a business emergency is never a fun thing. But in order to deal with it successfully, you have to create a plan of action. I know this because, well, something I couldn’t control happened without warning.

On this exact day four years ago, I was sitting in my bedroom brainstorming names and trying to come up with something that encompassed my personality as well as my message.

After lots of coffee, and crumpled up pieces of paper, I registered the domain name.

For the entire month of June I’ve been planning a big birthday celebration and working on a fun giveaway behind-the-scenes.

My idea was to write up some lessons that I learned from being in business these past four years and then offer a huge discount on the products available in my store.

But then something happened that I never expected.

Create a business emergency plan

On Tuesday, June 16th at 8:45pm, I got a call that changed my life. My sister was rushed to the ER after having a nervous breakdown. The details were horrifying, and as the message was relayed to me I went from shock, to anger, to crying in three seconds flat.

Gone were my plans for celebrating, as they were replaced with the need to focus on my personal life. The rest of my week has since been a whirlwind of personal issues and family emergencies.

My business was immediately thrown into a massive upheaval as I pushed everything aside to spend time with my family.

As the hubs and I drove to the hospital, and my mind was finally calming down, the one thing that popped into my head was that I didn’t have an emergency plan in place for my freelance business.

What was I going to do about project deadlines? Would my clients be flexible if I asked them for an extension? Were there appointments that needed to be rescheduled? What about the weekly newsletters and social media posts?

In other words, was my business prepared for a personal emergency? The answer was no.

As the different projects and to-dos raced through my head, I knew I wasn’t prepared for a worst-case scenario and now was the time that I needed it more than ever.

If you’re currently in emergency mode, here’s how to create an emergency business plan that will ease the stress during this trying time.

Set up a vacation email responder

The first thing I did when I woke up the next morning, was turn on my laptop and create an “Out of Office” email responder.

I kept it short and to the point, but made sure that anyone who emails me knows I won’t be able to properly respond to their message until I get back into the office the next Monday.

This is very easy to do if you have a Gmail account.

You simply go to your Settings and scroll down to the Vacation Responder section under the General tab. Type in your content and then choose the days you want the email responder to be active.

That’s it. In less than 1 minute I was able to take care of all the emails coming into my inbox for the next week. Here’s an example of what my vacation responder says.

freelance business emergency email

Design a step-by-step plan

If you’ve been reading Careful Cents for any length of time, you know that I love systems and processes. I’m a Type A person who likes to do things my way, which is why I literally wrote the book on how to work with team members when you’re a control freak.

Needless to say I have a documented process for everything, so why not an emergency situation?

Pull up Google Docs, or Microsoft Word, and write out detailed steps for how you want your business to be run when you engage emergency mode.

Who needs to be contacted immediately? What should the emails say? Do your email subscribers need to be notified? Do you need a Do Not Disturb sign on your website?

List everything for who your team should contact and what you want the entire process to look like. Then keep this document updated on a regular basis (I suggest working it into your quarterly business reviews).

The point is, to design a step-by-step plan of attack when an emergency situation starts going down. This way you won’t have to worry about your business while you take care of personal things.

As a freelance business owner we are the spearhead to the whole operation, but that doesn’t mean it has to go down when we’re out of commission.

Keep your team updated

My next step was to email my assistant editor, project assistant, and team of writers to let them know that I would be slow to respond or unable to deal with anything for the next week.

I asked that they carry on like normal, and continue with any tasks they were already assigned.

This is a great example of why it’s so important to work with other people even when you’re a solopreneur. We may be the only person employed by our businesses, but that doesn’t mean we have to go it alone.

It’s important to have people you can rely on in emergency situations, as well as reach out to for support.

Keeping your team in the loop is crucial when you’re dealing with personal life events. This is when you’ll want to enact a process for what each team member is supposed to do.

From contacting clients, rescheduling calls, handling emails, and managing the newsletters, your team should be able to handle anything on your behalf so you can take care of what’s important in that moment.

Employ an emergency backup contractor

Don’t want to outsource work to a team member on a regular basis? That’s okay, you should still find someone who can work with you as a backup.

What happens if you’re experiencing a personal emergency, like getting sick? What if you need to fly out of state for personal reasons? Who will take over your work if your clients won’t allow for an extension?

In this case it’s best to work with an independent contractor on an as-needed basis who can fill in for you when you’re unable to produce the work requested.

You don’t have to hand over all of your work to them, but just taking a 2-3 projects off your plate could help you manage this emergency situation.

Let your clients know that this freelancer is filling in for you due to an extreme situation (you may want to put this in your contract ahead of time so clients are aware and consent to this).

The backup contractor will then work on the project as if it’s their own, submit the work on time, send the invoice, and get paid.

I would also suggest having multiple backup freelancers on call so you have options in case one of them is experiencing their own setback situation.

Here’s what you’ll want to provide your backup contract freelancer:

  • Login credentials for your project management tool or spreadsheet so they will have the basic details of your business tasks.
  • Document that details your processes and workflow.
  • List of invoices and status to make sure you get paid.
  • Access to a FAQ page so they will know the exact answers when clients have requests or questions.
  • List of names for emergency contacts or other team members who potential clients can be directed to.

Create a client contact spreadsheet

Two days after the emergency died down I was able to get back into the office to catch up on some work.

The number one thing on my priority list was to create a Client Contact spreadsheet that explained the details of all my clients and projects.

You don’t have to create a spreadsheet specifically, as a regular Google Doc will work too. The point is to include as much information as possible so when you share this doc with your team, they won’t have to ask any questions.

A few important things to share in your Client/Project spreadsheet include:

  • Client’s name and email address
  • Due dates and deadlines
  • Guidelines
  • Appointments
  • Websites and log-in details
  • Specific information or client-related notes

As a freelance writer and business consultant these are the major points that need to included with an emergency info spreadsheet. But you may want to add other details as you see fit.

Do work in advance

Since your income is completely dependent on the fact that you need to work to make a living, taking time off to take care of any emergencies can wreak havoc on your cash flow.

To prevent additional damage in the future, work in advance and stay busy when you have the opportunity to do so.

In situations like these you’ll be happy that you have some extra money in your savings and a cushion of time to submit your work by the deadline. Your goal is to fill in any gaps in productivity or workflow to account for future inconsistencies.

It takes a while to find the right work-life balance, but it’s better to stay busy and take a break when you need it, than to be forced to work while you’re in emergency mode.

Don’t let emergencies control you

Emergencies, whether they’re business or personal, suck. But don’t let them ruin your life or your plans. Deal with them as quickly as you can, give yourself the time you need, and then get back into your business.

It will be a good distraction from the grief, illness, or other emotion you’re feeling. I still plan to push forward with my plans to celebrate my blog’s 4th birthday, but I don’t feel like celebrating right now.

I can still throw a virtual party, and offer a big giveaway when I’m ready — even if it’s a week late.

There are no right and wrong ways to handle personal emergencies, but when you’re a business owner there are a few realities you have to deal with. When you’re not working, you’re losing money.

This compiled with the other emotional and physical issues can take a huge toll on you and your business.

Use these tips to prepare your business for an emergency, so you will feel as little impact as possible.

Had an emergency affect your business? How did you create a plan to deal with it?

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Read Comments

  • Comment Author image blank
    First off, congratulations on your website anniversary! I've been a long-time reader, first time commenter. I'm sorry to hear about your recent family emergencies. Being prepared for emergencies like that is not something I even thought about before. I'm going to be setting up a freelance accounting business and these are all helpful steps to have in place. I'm bookmarking this article! Thanks Carrie!
    • Comment Author image blank
      Thanks for the first comment, Jeff! It's always nice to connect with long-time readers of the site. :) Being prepared for an emergency is something I never thought about either, but as you can see, it's an important topic to tackle while building a business. Good luck with your accounting biz, and let me know if you ever have questions. I'm happy to help!
  • Comment Author image blank
    Sorry to hear that about your sister Carrie. This is a great post though, showing us that a freelance business can have weak points. I'm working on some things that will give me a little room to play when there are emergencies that come up.
  • Comment Author image blank
    Dj Hagerty
    Wow, Carrie, I'm so sorry to hear of your family situation -- been there, done that with my sister. On the other hand, congratulations on the website anniversary. And thank you for the excellent advice based on experience. Dj
    • Comment Author image blank
      Thanks for the support, Dj. It's a tough situation but we're getting through it one day at a time.
  • Comment Author image blank
    Coach Jennie
    Wow. What a remarkable story to share with the world. I hope your sister is recovering quickly and my thoughts are with you and your family. <3 I'm sorry that your biz anniversary was jacked by family emergency, but I'm grateful that you're so willing to share the truth about how hard something like this is to manage when you own your own business. Unfortunately, I've had a couple personal emergencies to contend with in the last few years. One of the best things my VA encouraged me to put in place when we started working together was an emergency procedures. All I have to do is text her with a few details of what's happening and she immediately reschedules client sessions and other appointments, takes care of my online community, and coordinates with my Masterclass. I highly recommend creating procedures like this so you can hand the biz baton over to a trusted teammate and shift your focus to your priority.
    • Comment Author image blank
      I love this idea! I'm thinking I need to put something in place like this that will allow me to get away and know my business is safely in the hands of another team member. Thanks for the support, and sharing how your business handles emergencies!
  • Comment Author image blank
    Jen Ferris
    A big congratulations on your four year anniversary. You've had good successes over the years. I'm pleased you're still willing to celebrate this milestone, even if it is down the road a ways. The story of your sister reminds me to take better care of myself and not to forget that self-care is just as important as meeting deadlines and serving clients. Life sure does throw us some unexpected curve balls, eh? I am thankful you showed us a strategy to deal with some of these unexpected events. I hope you're remembering to take care of yourself.
    • Comment Author image blank
      You're so right about self-care, Jen. It's SUPER important to take care of yourself, so you can give 100% to everyone else -- including your clients. Even with all the family stuff going on, I'm thankful that I can celebrate 4 years with Careful Cents. Thanks so much for the support!
  • Comment Author image blank
    Carrie, i find this so informative and i will definitely apply these useful tips you have cited. Family emergencies are unavoidable, when my 2 year old son was hospitalized two months ago, i did not have any of these in place and it was cumbersome for me as i struggled in that hospital bed to answer to text messages and phone calls.Now i have set a Vacation Email responder, its a savior. I hope all is well with your sister.
    • Comment Author image blank
      I definitely know this feeling, Chella. It's tough when you're trying to deal with personal issues but you still have to run your business. I can't imagine trying to do that when a child's in the hospital, that sounds terrible. I'm glad you now have a vacation email responder in place, it's been a lifesaver to me too.
  • Comment Author image blank
    Firstly, I hope your sister is recovering well. Secondly, I could not have found this post at a better time. At the beginning of summer I had a family emergency that meant I had to postpone work, push clients to the side, and focus of family rather than finances. I'd only been freelancing for a year, so I was worried about getting a bad reputation but all my clients were so understanding. I know now that I need to put a back-up plan in place in case something like this happens again - thanks for the push I needed!