From the October 1998 issue of Startups

Your home office is abuzz. Orders are piling up. Assignments are coming in. Customers are calling, faxing and e-mailing you for information; they want their questions answered now.

Is this any time to take a vacation?

Probably not. Homebased entrepreneurs are rarely able to drop everything and take time off to revitalize themselves unless they've done some serious planning. You know customers have to be attended to and feel you're the one who does that best. You worry that the loose ends you don't tie up will have become knots by the time you return--or that something much worse will happen. "People have an overwhelming fear that when they return from vacation, their business won't be there," says Stacy Brice, president of AssistU, a Cockeysville, Maryland, homebased business that trains assistants virtually.

Maybe it's time to plan for what Susan Pilgrim, author of Living InSync (Health Communications Inc.), calls the "three R vacation": time off to renew, refresh and relax. Pilgrim, president of Life Investments, an Atlanta consulting firm that helps people balance their business and personal lives, says people who run businesses from home often work 14 to 16 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week. "This kind of pressure is bound to make anyone feel burned out, and that diminishes what you can give to your customers," she says.

Despite your need for a vacation, planning for your absence is difficult--even for Pilgrim, who readily admits, "After all these years, it's still a challenge."


Patricia Schiff Estess is author of Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage and Kids, Money & Values (both published by Betterway) and president of Working Families Inc., a Manhattan firm specializing in family memoirs.

Pack It Up

The challenge is a psychological one: You have to get your mind ready to go. To do that, consider these techniques:

  • Give yourself "permission" to leave the business. If you truly understand you must take care of yourself to take better care of your business, you'll more easily allow yourself to leave. One seemingly silly but helpful trick is to write yourself a permission slip, says Hiyaguha Cohen, a career consultant in Shirley, Massachusetts. "Once you put your plan down on paper," she explains, "it seems more important, and you tend to take action on it."
  • Block out the time well in advance . . . or it will slip away. For Barry Schneider, president of Pram Advertising Co. Inc. in New York City, that means tracking sales to determine the slowest times of the year, then coordinating plans with his wife, who works for an architectural firm. With advanced planning, the Schneiders are able to take a month-long vacation and at least one long weekend every year.
  • Simplify things by asking your travel agent, spouse or traveling companion to do most of the legwork. Have someone else plan the trip and book airline, hotel and rental car reservations. Planning to get away shouldn't be stressful; otherwise, the trip won't seem worth it.
  • Start small. "Anyone who's nervous about leaving their business should start by taking a short trip--perhaps a three-day weekend," suggests Brice. A successful three-day break can be stretched to five days the next time.
  • Get mentally ready by getting physically ready. Just before you go, get a haircut or some new clothes. "By changing your look," says Cohen, "you subconsciously know you're about to embark on something new and important."

Ready For Departure

Each homebased entrepreneur needs to put different plans in place before he or she can take time off. Here are some of the management dilemmas you'll have to address before leaving:

  • Do I need anyone to cover for me? For some people, this is neither possible nor desirable. The freelance writer doesn't have an understudy, for example. But if the assistance needed is administrative and you often have someone helping you, this may be the time to further tap into the aide's skills. For example, Brice has her virtual assistant check her phone and e-mail messages daily when she's away. Because the assistant is already so familiar with the business, her instructions are to handle all responsibilities and only call Brice if there's a family emergency or a media call.

If you don't have an assistant, virtual or otherwise, but think you need someone to check the mail and return important phone calls, then partner up. Try to strike a deal with someone you respect who also runs a homebased business. There are a number of duties you can help each other with when one of you takes a vacation: opening mail, depositing checks, taking orders. Your "crib" sheet should include important phone numbers, how routine matters are handled, and what constitutes an emergency that warrants a phone call to you.

  • What do my clients need to know? Some people, like Schneider, don't change the message on their answering machine when they go on vacation because they call in daily (though stress gurus would say that defeats the purpose of getting away). Only when Schneider returns a call does he tell the person he's out of town. "With the technology available today," Schneider says, "nobody even knows you're gone."

It's different for Ralph Levey, president of Italy Farm Holidays Inc., a Tarrytown, New York, company specializing in arranging vacation stays in apartments, wineries, houses, castles and family farms in Italy. When he and his wife visit their second home in Tuscany, Italy, twice a year--a part-vacation, part-scouting trip--his voice-mail message tells his clients he's in Italy and won't be able to send them brochures or return their phone calls immediately.

Pilgrim relies on her voice-mail message to provide information. "I usually say I'm out of the office and will have a limited amount of time to return calls," she says. "However, I tell them if they leave their name and number, I'll return the call when I get back. And I do."

  • What can I do before I leave that will help relieve stress when I get back? Pilgrim never makes appointments on the last day before a vacation or the first day back. Instead, she devotes those days to doing things that are top priorities, including returning phone calls.

°/ooIs it possible to mix business and pleasure? When Levey and his wife are in Tuscany, for the most part, they're on vacation. But they also spend a good chunk of time roaming the Italian countryside, stopping at trattorias and lodgings to evaluate and possibly recommend to travelers. It's part of the job.

For entrepreneurs in similar trades, it's also possible to mix business and pleasure. But most homebased entrepreneurs don't--and mixing the two isn't relaxing. "Going on vacation means `hanging out,' doing whatever you enjoy doing," says Pilgrim. "And attending a trade convention is not hanging out--even if you occasionally sip a mai tai by the pool."

  • How can I use technology to buoy, not sink, a vacation? Whether you can avoid technology altogether while on vacation depends, of course, on your type of business. Levey couldn't be away from his office for too long without his notebook computer and cell phone, but he uses them only when necessary.

Schneider, on the other hand, doesn't have to haul his fax/answering machine around with him when he spends a month in Florida each winter--but he does. It gives him a sense of security--even though he rarely uses it.

Stacy Brice is different altogether. She wants to get away from technology--and likes to go either where it can't be used (a mountain cabin with no phone jacks) or where it's too expensive to use regularly (a cruise).

All the consultants to homebased businesses whom I talked to admit getting away is difficult--even for them. Yet all appreciate how important vacations are for revitalizing your body and spirit. Pilgrim recommends a quarterly vacation, though she realizes that's not always possible. But just understanding you can't go at a breakneck pace indefinitely is the first step toward walking out the front door.

On Hold

because he Considers efficient service paramount when running his successful travel business, Ralph Levey leaves a thorough message on his answering machine when he's vacationing in Europe. Levey, the president of Italy Farm Holidays Inc. in Tarrytown, New York, assures clients he checks his messages daily and will return calls immediately if there's a problem or in a few days if the matter isn't pressing.

Levey used to include the phone number of his house in Italy--in case of an emergency. "I stopped doing that when one client, thinking Italy was six hours behind New York, not six hours ahead, called at 1 a.m. with a question about his travel plans," he says. We learn from our mistakes.

Contact Sources

AssistU, (410) 666-5900, http://www.assistu.com

Italy Farm Holidays Inc., (914) 631-7880, italyfarms@aol.com

Life Investments, (800) 730-0662, http://www.speakers-podium.com/susanpilgrim