I have to admit I was a bit skeptical before Inc. began its virtual experiment earlier this month. My work as a magazine reporter is such that I am constantly interacting with other writers and editors. During the past few weeks, I have become a huge fan of Skype as a way to stay connected with my colleagues, but working virtually has meant missing out on that spontaneous meeting in an editor's office to discuss an idea, or the inspiration and energy that comes from a random conversation with a co-worker in the hallway.
What's more, I knew after attending an in-office session on the psychology of virtual work, conducted in January by consultant Cindy Floggart, that I'm the type of person that may not be as productive in the home-office environment. So, for most of this virtual month, I've scheduled my workdays with a destination in mind -- a café, a library -- and spent time accomplishing tasks in places where other people were around.
But, last week I left my apartment in New York City for one of the quietest places around: Alpine, Utah, population: approximately 9,800, where my dad, Dean Schweitzer, who runs a home-based business, has a second home (His primary residence is in Southern California).
And what I found during my time in Utah surprised me.
I used to think that the buzz of office phones and constant stimulation was integral to my work lifestyle. Well, it's hard to argue against working from home when I'm starring out at the majestic snow-capped mountains from my dad's huge kitchen window, and the only noise is of the sound of my fingers typing on my keyboard. Granted very few people work in places where they have this kind of view...
But scenery aside, coming here has helped me understand virtual work from the perspective of an entrepreneur. The Inc. challenge for our editorial team was to see if a magazine staff could go virtual, and there have been all kinds of lessons that have already come out of that. I've had the added benefit of seeing how our subjects, the people who are actually running virtual companies, are doing it.
My dad is a pediatric dentist, and in 2008 he developed an esthetic full-crown restorative procedure for children and the PedoNatural Crown, an original product integral to the procedure. He holds seminars out of Salt Lake City where he trains other dentists on how to perform the specialized restoration, and he sells PedoNatural Crown kits with all the materials needed for those dentists to implement the procedure in their own offices.
My dad is his company's sole employee: He serves as the marketer, the public relations person, the fulfillment center, and the web developer, among many other things. So when you do all that my dad does for his business, the concept of having an office really becomes meaningless. He doesn't go to his company each morning; his company goes with him wherever he may be.
During my few days in Utah, my dad was preparing for an upcoming seminar in Salt Lake City. As I sat downstairs doing research and preparing for interviews with sources, I listened to my dad record audio for an instructional DVD he's going to sell, and polish the language on his Website. I also watched as he meticulously put together all the materials he would need to bring to the seminar -- instructional packets for the dentists, models to work on, ordering forms, etc. -- and marveled at all the work that went into creating each element of his business.
Time seemed to go a little more slowly while I was there. Either that, or I was completely free of distractions, and being among nature has a way of helping my mind focus. I barely thought about the things that normally consume me at home like what I will eat for lunch, or when I will catch up on my DVR. Luckily for my dad, that's what almost every day is like for him. And the best part was seeing first hand the joy he gets from putting everything he's got into the business, no matter the place or the time.
The virtual work life isn't for everyone, of course, and there is no denying that there are many entrepreneurs who have built wonderful cultures that employees yearn to be part of. But as my stay at my dad's home has taught me, entrepreneurship in its truest form has nothing do with the physical structure, boundaries, or even culture of a company. In most cases, entrepreneurship is about starting something out of nothing and pushing the limitations of the status quo.
To see more of my virtual experience in Utah, here's a video interview I did with my dad using a Flip Cam:
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