Originally created 07/23/01

Too afraid to take a break



Since opening his Fastsigns franchise in Durham, N.C., three years ago, Richard Clemens has put off taking a vacation.

Like most small-business owners, Clemens has found it nearly impossible to tear away from the daily grind of running his own business. Even as he recently prepared for his first vacation - a quick trip to the mountains - Clemens was worried about what major business crisis might arise while he was gone.

"This would be the first three-day period I'd be away from my little baby," Clemens said.

Fastsigns creates nearly 100 signs and banners a week for a variety of businesses, including real-estate agencies, marketing firms, trade show organizations and construction companies.

Clemens admitted that working virtually nonstop for three years - drumming up business, meeting deadlines and training staff - has taken its toll. Even this time, he opted not to leave his three-person staff in charge for an extended vacation.

"I'm still a little uncomfortable about taking a week," Clemens said. "I would need another six months with them before I can do that."

While nearly 70 percent of the nation's small-business owners say they are planning getaways this year, only 18 percent intend to be away longer than two weeks, according to an annual poll by American Express.

For new entrepreneurs, the idea of taking time off can be downright scary. In many cases, the business is their main source of income. Business owners often become so intimately involved with the day-to-day operations of the company that it becomes extremely difficult for them to break away, even for a week. And now that the economy is slumping, many are even less inclined to get away for fear of being hundreds of miles away when potential clients call.

But avoiding that first extended vacation can actually hurt a small business, some consultants say.

"Usually, three years is about the max they should let it go; after that, they are being counterproductive by not taking time off," said Jim Bird, president of WorkLifeBalance.com, an Atlanta consulting firm.

By the third year, the excitement and enthusiasm of building a new business have waned, and fatigue and burnout start to set in, Bird said. It's only then that some business owners realize they haven't prepared their companies to be run without them.

"(Entrepreneurs) are so protective of everything that most fail to develop the people around them," Bird said. "Even if you have just one right-hand man, you should develop that person to handle the business when you are not there."

That's much easier said than done, said Estella Bell, owner of Vision Alterations & Custom Sewing in Durham, N.C. Bell said she has tried to train numerous employees but hasn't found anyone willing to do the tedious work.

"I have tried everything I could, but I have not been able to get anybody to come in and take over the shop while I get a break," Bell said.

Bell has added roughly 175 clients since starting her company two years ago. Many of them, including local hotels such as Days Inn and Marriott, need her services right away, making it difficult for her to take time off.

To eventually get away, Bell said she may have to resort to Plan B: Close the shop for a week. "I'll just stick to it a little while longer and find an off-peak period when things slow down," she said.

But most consultants don't recommend closing a business to take a break. "What you are trying to do is build a business that can function without you," Bird said.

In some ways, getting away from a company is an important test to determine whether it's successful. "I know my business is thriving when I'm lying out on the hammock sipping a beer knowing the money is still flowing in without me," Bird said.

A big challenge for many owners is learning to develop a life outside the business.

Highly driven entrepreneurs can become addicted to the highs and thrills that come with building a business. Running a successful company gives them big doses of enjoyment and a sense of achievement.

"It's like a little alcohol is pleasing, but then you go too far," Bird said. "The same holds true if you get addicted to the highs of entrepreneurship."

To ease some of their discomfort over taking a first vacation, small-business owners should start planning at least two to three months in advance, said Genevia Fulbright of Fulbright and Fulbright, an accounting and consulting firm.

"You have to have life balance," she said. "You can build your business to a point, but you need time for your family and time to clear your mind."

If taking one or two weeks off isn't possible, Fulbright urges her clients to take several mini-breaks throughout the year. "I tell people if they only can do three days at a time, then they need at least five or six of those a year."

Before leaving, the owner needs to write a checklist for whomever is left in charge. It should include any major deadlines or deliveries, a copy of the travel agenda, including telephone numbers, and general office procedures.

For peace of mind, business owners also should arrange for "silent shoppers" - friends or family members who pose as customers - to visit the business and test how well the staff is doing in the owner's absence, Fulbright advises.

It usually takes a few tries for an entrepreneur to effectively plan a vacation. And even then more than 40 percent of small-business owners vacationing this year will take a cell phone, and 19 percent will carry a laptop computer, according to the American Express poll.

Clemens succeeded in keeping his mind off work while in the mountains.

The owner of Fastsigns said he checked in on his company only once while he and his wife were vacationing.

And when he returned, all was well.

"There were no fires, no explosions, no disappearing employees or customers," Clemens said. "In fact, they brought in a couple of nice new jobs. Maybe I should go away more often."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)

How to get away:

Write a checklist for whomever is left in charge. The list should include any major deadlines or deliveries, a copy of your travel agenda, telephone numbers where you can be reached and general office procedures.

Plan your vacation well in advance. Buy tickets and book hotel rooms. It's harder to skip a vacation when you've already spent the money.

For peace of mind, arrange for "silent shoppers" - friends or family members who pose as customers - to visit your company and test how well your staff is doing while you're away.

Take a vacation at the same time each year to keep your clients happy and the business running smoothly.

Use the first three days of your vacation for play time. If absolutely necessary, take the last two or three days to mull business ideas after you've had a chance to relax mentally and physically.

If you must check in, set a time each day to call the shop. Otherwise, put the cell phone away.