FORTUNE SMALL BUSINESS Owner's Manual

Who will replace me?

When illness struck two of our top officers, we were jolted into better contingency planning.

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By Susan Wilson Solovic, as told to Malika Zouhali-Worrall

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SBTV.com CEO Susan Wilson Solovic
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ST. LOUIS (Fortune Small Business) -- I launched SBTV.com, an online small-business television network, with my associate, Dan Demko, and we brought an IT consultant, Michael Kelley, on board as partner and COO. We were a good team, and SBTV.com blossomed. We won the Most Innovative Company award at the annual American Business Awards, and we were profitable the following year. It was an exciting time for Dan, who serves as president, myself, Michael, and the entire team.

The following year, in October 2006, Michael was diagnosed with a rare skin cancer. I was getting ready to host a live broadcast in New York City when I heard the news. I had to smile for the cameras, but underneath I was devastated.

Over the following months, Michael went through multiple operations and treatments, but the cancer continued to spread. It soon became clear that he would be away from the office for some time.

That was no small catastrophe. Michael was our tech genius. He had conceived the major Web site redesign that was due to roll out in the coming months, and it didn't take us long to realize that our succession planning was inadequate. We had each nominated two people to step into our shoes should anything happen to us. Because we had so few employees at the time we made the plans, the substitutes we identified were all from outside the company.

Talk back: What are your contingency plans?

That wasn't ideal. Michael's replacement knew very little about the business, and Michael was put out of action so quickly that he had no time to transfer his knowledge and work. What's more, he had written hardly anything down, so the IT department was forced to work from scratch on much of the Web site. Launched two months later than planned, the redesigned SBTV.com turned out to be a watered-down version of what we had envisioned, and our technology spending almost doubled during those months.

Then it was Dan's turn for bad luck. This past January he was rushed to the hospital with an inner-ear infection and dangerously high blood pressure. The doctors said that there were some severe blockages in his heart, and that they were going to have to insert stents.

Now I was running the company without a president or a chief operating officer. After a sleepless night, I came to the office wearing no makeup and mismatched socks. I knew what I had to do. Almost immediately I called six of my key employees to my office and explained the situation. I laid out our revenue and audience goals for the year and told them that with two partners missing, I would rely on them to take on more responsibilities. If we succeeded, I said, everyone would get a raise and possibly a bonus.

I led the company by myself for six weeks, thanks largely to the help of a small but talented and dedicated workforce. During those weeks I learned that I could trust my staff with ever more responsibility. In February, Michael returned to work. Dan followed three weeks later. Despite having twice been given only six months to live, Michael continues to defy the odds, so we are cautiously optimistic. Nonetheless, he's still going through treatment and was out of the office for three weeks in early June.

But this time we were prepared. Michael had put together a detailed technology project plan. He had also trained several employees, who were able to take over his responsibilities while he was out. I'm currently making sure that every key person in the company, myself included, does the same.

It's been a tough year. With all the technological glitches, SBTV's audience numbers declined in 2007, making the Web site a hard sell to advertisers. Revenue dipped to less than $2 million.

This year, however, first- and second-quarter revenues have already come in above expectations, and we anticipate doing more than $3 million in 2008.

The whole experience has taught me a lot. As well as cross-training a couple of employees, I now use monthly staff meetings to communicate the thought processes behind my decisions to everyone at SBTV. We also review financials and audience numbers together and talk about the critical elements of each and every employee's job, because it's important that people understand the overall picture as well as their individual role.

We don't want anyone at SBTV to be myopic anymore. You never know what's going to happen.  To top of page

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