business advice | Mar 16, 2021 |
I need to take a sudden personal leave, but I’m a one-person firm. What do I tell my clients?

Dear Sean,

As the founder of my design firm and its sole employee, I’m everything—including my own HR department. As a one-person firm, I have sometimes struggled to strike a balance between unplugging for something like a vacation without leaving my clients in the lurch. That, at least, was something I could plan ahead for.

I recently had a death in my family. It was unexpected and very sudden, and I need time to grieve and help my family put our loved one’s affairs in order. But I’m confused about how much time I can truly take off, and I’m worried my clients won’t understand. How do I navigate this?

At a Loss

Dear At a Loss,

I can completely relate to your situation. I am also, by choice, a solo act—a setup that works for me and how I want to offer my services. I understand the harsh reality you are confronted with, deciding whether to be there for your family or live up to the promises you made to your clients. In short, there really is not a good answer.

Here’s the hard truth: Something is going to give, and you need to accept it as a consequence of your choice. Even though it might not be a silver bullet to ease your conscience, there is some freedom in knowing that there is no right path, only the one you are compelled to take.

As for your business, you can feel awful, distracted, angry, happy or sad—your clients do not care. You, your art and your creative business exist to provide a journey to hope. Your professionalism is expected and demanded. You would never go to a Broadway show (which I, for one, cannot wait to do again) and forgive an actor for mailing it in because they had a fight with their partner just before curtain time, and the same goes for your professional performance.

That said, your clients also knew what they were signing up for when they hired you and only you. The risk of your becoming unavailable (with no substitute) was well considered. So you can get a pass for your current situation—just know that it will not come free.

My specific advice is to not be “half-pregnant.” If your family situation dictates that you are not capable of doing your best work, do not mail it in. Instead, announce that you will hit pause until a specific date when you will become available again. If it is possible to set yourself up for the hiatus—even if it is a few calls to vendors or collaborators that are involved in your projects to let them know the situation—definitely do that. And if there are those who can proceed in your absence and you are comfortable with their having direct access to your clients, so much the better. Then you must disappear.

The second you step on the stage, you are no longer you—you are the star of your show, with the expectation that your best performance awaits. No excuses. If your best is not possible, do not step on the stage. Your instinct, which I know oh so well, will be to try to give the illusion that you are capable of touching base, working at, say, 60 percent until you are ready to refocus. This will result in an epic fail, as your clients will feel slighted and your personal situation will not receive the (ongoing) empathy you need.

Best to stop everything and then restart when you are able to be fully present. You will overcome your clients’ disappointment with the delay by resuming with singular purpose and conviction—never by trying to split the baby when it is obvious where she belongs at the moment.

Homepage photo: © Aerial-Drove/Adobe Stock


Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

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