When Amber and Steve Sawaya landed a big project right before a planned vacation, they figured they could bring along their laptops and squeeze in a little work on the trip. But right as they left town, the project started to fall apart.
As a result, the couple spent 12 hours a day in the lobby of their Seattle hotel, writing code instead of seeing the city with the friends they had come to visit.
“It’s one thing when just my husband and I ruined our own vacation, but then we ruined it for other people who had planned all this stuff for us to do,” says Amber, co-owner of Salt Lake City-based Sawaya Consulting, a company that designs and develops websites and mobile apps, among other corporate tools. After another vacation to Hawaii was ruined by the inability to step away from the work, Amber knew a change was necessary. “We decided that’s not how a vacation is going to work,” she says.
For small business owners like the Sawayas, a vacation is not a luxury. They value the freedom to get away, recharge, and revitalize, without feeling the business will sink without them. But many entrepreneurs are usually so closely involved with daily operations that the idea of leaving even for a short time can seem like courting disaster. How then can small business owners get away on a much-needed break without spending the entire time worrying about their company?
We asked owners of different kinds of small businesses how they prepare for a vacation and actually enjoy their time away.
Remain accessible, but not all the time
One of the most important things a small business owner can do before leaving the office for vacation is to set employees’ and clients’ expectations when it comes to their availability. That’s what Mike Sprouse did this spring when he left on his first vacation in two and a half years: two weeks in France with his family. The president and CEO of Sprouse Marketing Group in Chicago set a daily schedule for answering email and phone calls. He shared it with his staff of 10 and with his top clients. And he stuck to it.
“Everybody knew exactly the hour I’d be checking in, in the morning and in the evening,” Sprouse says. “Then I planned my vacation schedule around those two hours of time. As long as you communicate clearly with people, it takes a lot of the stress out of being away.”
Sawaya says she has a boilerplate email drafted to let her company’s most active clients know when she and her husband will be away. It lets them know who to contact in case of a tech emergency. She has learned to leave the laptop at home, taking her tablet computer instead. It lets her stay in touch, but she can’t do any design or coding on it.
Now that their company is established, Sawaya says getting away is easier. One of the only issues she’ll respond to on vacation now is a new client inquiry. She and her husband use contractors on most projects but have one full-time employee in Brooklyn. On occasion, they go to New York to meet with him or with clients. Sawaya says on those trips, she likes to schedule all the business for one day, then take a few for themselves to enjoy the city’s attractions.
Learn to delegate
If your business remains open during your absence, Sprouse recommends that the company carry on business as usual. Maintain a regular schedule of deadlines, meetings, and reports, he says, both internally and with customers and clients.
“I feel like it created a lot of confidence for our staff that they could operate independently, and it assured our clients that they worked well while the boss was away,” he says.
Sprouse started his company in 2011, after several years in corporate marketing. Although it was a long time before he took his first real vacation, he says that gave him time to build a team he could trust in his absence.
The key for Sprouse was finding a balance between delegating responsibility and checking in briefly every day. Sprouse says he didn’t want to tell people not to bother him on vacation. If there was an urgent issue, he wanted to know sooner than later.
“I’d rather have a lot of emails when I get home than have nothing, and have to connect the dots of what’s happened,” Sprouse says.
Give advance notice if you temporarily close shop
What if you can’t take your work with you? Melissa Chandler, co-owner of Atomic House of Hair in Louisville, Kentucky, is about to find out. This month, she and her business partner, Jessie Starks, will close their salon for three days, plus their usual weekend, so both owners can take a vacation.
This will be the first time they’ve taken time off since opening in September, Chandler says. The partners opted to vacation at the same time (separately), because their duties are so different. Chandler runs the business operations and serves as receptionist, while Starks is the principal stylist. They employ three other stylists plus a nail technician. Neither partner felt she could operate the shop without the other being present, nor did they have people prepared to step into their roles just yet.
“We’re waiting to see if our clients are upset or if they understand, and if we have a loss of money or if it’s worth it,” Chandler says.
To prepare their customers, Chandler says they gave a lot of advance notice and rearranged some standing weekly appointments to take place right before and after the closure. And she will make a point of checking the shop’s answering machine and email a few times while she’s away. Still, Chandler is a big believer in taking vacations. “l think they help your mental health,” she says. “But they’re easier to do when you’re working for someone else.”
Don’t second-guess the value of getting away
Even Sprouse says he was concerned that his clients would feel abandoned the first time he was away. But those fears were unfounded. Clients appreciated that he was reachable in case of emergency, Sprouse says, but they also told him to go and enjoy himself.
More importantly, Sprouse says he hoped to set an example for his own team. In a few weeks, one of his key staff members is taking a week’s vacation with her family. He hopes she comes back as energized as he did.
As for the Sawayas, they’re determined to right their Hawaii wrongs. The couple has a return trip booked for September.
“When you spend the time and money to go all the way to Hawaii, and you don’t feel like you’ve had a vacation, there’s no point,” Sawaya says. “When you don’t take any time off, your on time isn’t very good either.”