I know I should have processes in place to operate my business without me around. But I don't. Here's how I run my business--even from "vacation."
It's almost here. It's only about two weeks away. It's the Olympics, in London. I'm going to be there. And I'm dreading it.
"Really?" people ask me incredulously. "How can you be dreading the Olympics? It's the Olympics! They're great! It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing! You're going to love it!"
No, I'm not going to love it. That's because I'm going to the Olympics with my wife, my three teenage kids and...three of their friends. That's eight of us all together. What was I thinking when I agreed to this idea so long ago? The kids have been looking forward to this for a year. My oldest son was online last fall securing us tickets to soccer, beach volleyball, badminton, basketball, and other events. It's a very full schedule. President Obama will love the Olympics. So will Kobe Bryant. But I won't.
Did I mention that we're all staying with my father-in-law in London? My wife grew up in London. His flat is about the size of my bathroom, excluding the tub. Did I mention that two of the soccer games are in Manchester? That's about three hours from London and we haven't figured out how we're getting there yet. Did I mention that it's forecasted to be cold and rainy in July? I don't need to mention that because...it's England. Did I mention the crowds? The cost? My in-laws? Those guys from al-Qaeda who keep lurking around the complex? Oh, and did I mention that the drinking age in London is only 18? I found that out just a few weeks ago. And what a coincidence....my oldest son (and his friend) just turned 18. Imagine that!
So I'm not looking forward to the Olympics. I get why people like it. And of course I have a lot of respect for the athletes, mainly because they worked hard to be there and didn't have their parents foot the bill so they could wear "U.S.A. Rocks" shirts, drink their way through the week, and confirm to the rest of the world why to hate us.
And that's not even the biggest reason why I'm dreading the Olympics. The biggest reason is that, for ten days, I'm going to be away from my business. That's a thought that gives pause to every small business owner I know.
If my business were better organized than I wouldn't have to worry as much. If I followed just a portion of the advice in one of my favorite business books, Michael Gerber's The E-Myth, then I would be in much better shape. Gerber says that a business, to succeed and create value, should be able to operate without the owner. I should have processes and procedures in place that my employees follow. My business should go on just fine without my day-to-day management. I should be the thought leader, building value over time with my sage direction and wise choices, while leaving the day-to-day operations to my crack management team following rules established long ago. That way I could comfortably leave for weeks at a time and travel the world with my family, drinking in the cultures of other countries, and enriching my children's experience while the cash keeps flowing in stateside.
But that's not the reality. At least not for my business. I read and loved The E-Myth but I don't follow those lessons any better than the tips I learned from reading Fifty Shades of Grey (to my wife's bitter disappointment). If I were to get run over by a bus of Japanese tourists in Trafalgar Square my business would fall apart days later. I have no procedures, rules, or policies. I'm a micromanager and get too obsessed with irrelevant details. I sign all my checks and scrupulously review my payroll runs. Instead of reading great business books I read my general ledger.
The thing is, I'm not that much different from most of the small business owners I know. And although these business owners are not stupid enough to travel to London with six teenagers where the drinking age of 18 is, at best, loosely enforced, they still will be taking their own vacations this summer. To the shore. To Disney. To a nice quiet lake away from all children but close to large bottles of alcohol. Aaah, sweet.
But some of the smartest business owners I know also do some smart things to keep a hand in running their businesses, even from out of town.
No one, and I mean no one I know who runs a business in 2012 has an "out of office" message anymore. It's just not done. I understand that people want to "take a break" and "get away from it all." But those are employees, not business owners. Business owners are available all the time. Even when they're on vacation. I'm not saying you should be wrapping yourself up in work all day while you're supposed to be spending time with your family. But for some issues or emergencies or customer needs you have to be around. Customers do not care that you're on vacation. They care about their orders and their projects.
And don't try to get away with the old "...won't have access to email or voicemail" excuse. Maybe that worked in 1965. But not in 2012. There are few places, other than my 79-year-old father-in-law's flat in London, that do not have internet access nowadays. If you're a business owner you own a smartphone (you DO own a smartphone, right?) and most smartphones offer global access. So you can get your calls, send your emails, fire off a text message, no matter where you happen to be. Even if you're on a cruise you can make sure to check emails a couple of times a day. It won't kill you. But not doing so will kill you. Or your business.
Travelling business owners all have remote access to their offices. That's why a recent survey found that the average small business owner will work on average about 18 days this summer remotely. There are too many inexpensive tools for this. Try GoToMyPc or LogMeIn for example. Or maybe you've already got a remote desktop setup using Microsoft or Citrix technology. Or maybe you've already done what so many others are doing and have hosted your accounting, customer, order entry, and office systems with someone in the cloud. This way you're still able to check on what's going on back in your office from wherever you are.
I do these things when I travel. Even on vacation. Because I want to spend the day with my family (yes, yes, I still do want to do this even after all of my complaints). I get up really early before them. Like five or six in the morning. I take my laptop and check up on my stuff for a couple of hours. And I have my smartphone by my side all day to make sure I'm available if any big issues come up. And then I try to steal away for an hour in the evening to check up on things again. The people in my office are good; they know not to bother me unless it's really a big deal. And I've found that 99% of my clients are good too. I tell them I'm away and can respond more fully when I return and (this is key) I then ask them if that's okay. And they always say, "Sure." They get it. Most of them are human beings who also like to take vacations. And the rare customers who don't get it usually don't wind up being long term customers anyway....typically by mutual agreement and usually due to a list of other factors too.
And you know what? In the end, leaving my business is a good thing. Like every other business owner I know I want to have more time off as I get older. I want to play more golf. Do a little travelling. Visit my sons in prison. Planning a vacation is a good opportunity to get my staff up to snuff for my absence. Gerber's 100% right when he says that a truly valuable business is one that can run without its owner always around. I should make more use of his wisdom. Wait, here's a good way to start: Maybe he can go off to the Olympics with my kids and their friends and my wife and I can take a quiet two weeks in the Poconos. Yes?
GENE MARKS is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.