Although her jewelry-supply company is called Blue Buddha Boutique, Rebeca Mojica wasn't feeling particularly Zen at her first entrepreneurial retreat.
"I spent the first few hours feeling antsy because it wasn't moving fast," the Chicago-based entrepreneur recalls of her experience at Big Rock Valley, the Edward Lowe Foundation's property in rural Michigan. "The session was very conversational and cerebral. I was, like, 'No, we should be doing things, lots of activities! Boom, bang, c'mon guys, let's go!'"
Later, chatting with other participants by the fire, she started to get the idea. "I was more relaxed than I'd been in quite some time," she says. "I realized that the whole point of the retreat was to take a break from the daily grind. To not feel like you're juggling eight things while standing on one leg and trying to put out a fire across the room."
On her next retreat, Mojica was ready to slow down. One activity was a silent walk in the woods, contemplating questions posted along the way. "I wished there had been a little more time allotted to this activity," she says. "It was really nice to enjoy nature, to really be in the moment."
A retreat can be a great way to step back from your business for a new perspective, learn from experts and other entrepreneurs, and just refresh your brain. But before signing up, you'll want to do a self-assessment. "You have to evaluate what you really need," says Kimberlee Williams, CEO of Jersey City, N.J.-based leadership coaching company ignitem. Some retreats are social, some emphasize motivation, some "are like one long infomercial," Williams says. "Make sure you're going to get value while you're there and it's not just a way of getting into their sales funnel."
Denise Blasevick, CEO of The S3 Agency in New Jersey, took the same silent walk in the woods that Mojica did--but felt differently about it. "I'm just not into that kind of thing," she says. Nor motivational pep talks, nor trust exercises--Blasevick prefers a retreat that emphasizes learning and includes a "behind-the-velvet-ropes experience at a really cool company." In planning a retreat for her Entrepreneurs' Organization group, she's considering Memphis and Atlanta, where participants might visit the headquarters of FedEx, Coca-Cola, UPS or Home Depot.
Retreats can vary in length. "A two-day retreat has a ton of benefits, especially if it's off-site and in an area completely different from where your business is," Mojica says. "But at some point I would love to do a longer retreat, like a week, to get into more issues and more meditation."
Williams has found another way to go deeper: stay on-site. She did her first retreat in New York City and returned home to her own bed each night. Subsequent sessions further afield showed her the benefits of staying on-site. "In the hotel room at night, I would do the homework of the day," she says.
And finally, when you change your environment, you never really know what's going to trigger a new idea. At Big Rock Valley, retreat participants stay in restored railroad boxcars. That idea started with founder Edward Lowe, who used a caboose as his own retreat. "It was a thinking caboose, where he would go to think," Mojica says. "That was so inspiring to me. I need a caboose."
One of the most important elements of any retreat is what happens after it's over. "The learning is good, and you need that, but a lot of it is about the execution," Williams says. "A coaching component helps you with the execution."
Sophia Dembling's latest book, 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go, comes out this year.
5 Reasons to Retreat
1) You need perspective to keep your business moving forward. "Retreats can be a fabulous way for entrepreneurs to pop the bubble they may find themselves in," says Beth Buelow, founder of coaching company The Introvert Entrepreneur. "There's a safety in the busy-ness that comes from putting your head down and throwing yourself into the day-to-day responsibilities of running a business. But that safety can lead to stagnation."
2) Sitting and thinking is work, even if it looks like goofing off. "There is value in learning and absorbing, but in the past, I did that only in my spare time," says Blue Buddha Boutique's Rebeca Mojica. "I thought, That's not real work. But it is real work, and it's the kind of work that only I, as the leader of the company, can do. I'm the one who has the whole picture."
3) You can connect with professionals with a range of skills. Kyle Kesterson, founder and CEO of Seattle-based animation startup Freak'n Genius, attended a Global Shapers retreat that included people from the worlds of technology, media, sports, engineering and the arts. In one session, participants listed their areas of expertise and discussed what they could do to help the others. "With such a high-performing group, it took up a whole board," he says.
4) You don't know what you don't know--and sometimes you need other people to help you see things differently. "You can look at what other entrepreneurs are doing and ask how does this happen, and they can hit you over the head with the most obvious thing," says Denise Blasevick of The S3 Agency. She hired an account manager after attending a personnel investment session at a retreat.
5) It's an investment in your business. "Generally the money isn't that big a deal unless you're doing something really outrageous," Blasevick says. "The cost is not doing it, in my book.
The right retreat should facilitate experience-sharing, resulting in new thinking." --S.D.