When we’re gone

On a somber note, we all know what a living will is, or a last will for distributing our worldly goods, but how many people have a will that helps those who come into our office to pick up the pieces when we’re gone?

None of us are immortal. I know a number of people in my small business circle who aren’t with us anymore. Their departure was swift and unexpected – for many business colleagues anyway. In many cases their families were aware of long-term illnesses that were not announced in business circles. In other cases there were physical events for which no one was prepared, or even tragic traffic incidents.

When one of us leaves this world it’s a shock for anyone left behind. There is a great deal of pain for family, friends, and yes for business colleagues. In business these days we frequently spend more time working together than we spend with our families. It’s an intimate association of personalities pulled together, usually without the intimacy we share with those we’ve chosen to be around us. It’s not easy on any of us to lose someone with whom we’ve worked closely, a business partner, customer, or someone with whom we share ideas that no one in our families would understand.

I’ve been through the process of having to go through the personal belongings of family members after they’re gone. It’s a time of extremely mixed sentiments. There is complete depression from the whole situation. There are especially rough moments when we find mementos that we ourselves gave or which were a part of some event where we participated. There are happy and surprising moments as we find things that teach us something that we never knew about someone so close to us. Sometimes there is frustration – what do we do with this thing, this piece of paper? Who will want this? Does this mean anything to anyone else? How can we throw away something that means nothing to us or that we don’t understand when it may have meant so much to someone else?

For those who need to clean up the office of a colleague the exact same thing applies, though there are of course fewer personal effects that need sorting. But for many of us the work we do is important to us, and some of it may not stop with our own existence – or in some cases we’d hope that were the case anyway. We accumulate HowTo information about hardware and software – that has to mean something to someone. Even when we’re gone it would be nice to leave something behind to save someone else the time that we invested (wasted?) in digging up esoteric information. We write down ideas and bits of insight that wouldn’t mean anything to our families but might be a whole new business for one of our colleagues. Perhaps the legacy we leave to our family is not what we have done but what someone else can do with ideas we weren’t able to implement.

There are many common questions that should be answered, both significant and mundane, including the following:

  • Who owes us money?
  • Who wanted to buy our offerings?
  • What pet projects were we working on that we would like to continue on without us? Who might want the technical books?
  • Where is the software license key for some expensive bit of software we have?
  • Where are the passwords for all of the files, systems, programs, email accounts, and websites?
  • What account or database table contains programs that we sell or the source that our clients will need to manage their businesses when we’re gone?
  • Where are the contracts that our partners signed? What are the obligations to our partners if our business can no longer perform as agreed?
  • Are there any regular maintenance updates (file purges, period end closes…) that we do for others which someone else should now be doing?
  • Where is the latest code that we were working on for clients? 
  • Where are the documents in our PC’s with business models, software flows, specs for works in progress, or those wonderful ideas that we haven’t dared to share with anyone else yet?
  • Where are the little software utilities that were helpful to us – the freeware we downloaded or the macros we wrote to help us manage our environment?
  • Which contacts in our various chat, email, and other lists do we want to notify with specific messages?
  • Which browser bookmarks might be significant to others who are in the same line of business – versus the bookmarks that we just saved for "maybe some day" reading?

There are so many little things that won’t mean anything to anyone. And there are other bits of information that are critical for our businesses to continue to function so that our families can continue to benefit from the work we’ve done. One of my cousins had to hire someone to do a forensic analysis of her husband’s PC after he (a young man) died unexpectedly. The information on that system was critical to the survival of the business that he grew, and which she took over, and unfortunately much of it was lost. I think about that situation whenever I bury some bit of significant business detail in a sub sub sub folder on my PC, or whenever I put a password on some file. The information we want secure today may need to be easily accessible tomorrow. It’s important for those we leave behind to know where this information is, why it’s significant, and how to access it.

I recommend to everyone that you/we take a small bit of time over a period of time to document the sorts of things that are important to you. It may not be a spouse or child that needs to read it but a business partner, former co-worker, someone in our Skype or IM chat list, or someone from an internet forum who will be best qualified to execute this special "will". I suppose my next step will be to look around to see what software or services exist to (securely) facilitate this endeavor.

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