Back To Basics
You hear it all the time: Stressed-out stockbroker and harried housewife tire of the high-pressure job, suburban doldrums and hustle and bustle of city life. So they sell the beachfront condo or two-story Tudor, chuck it all and move to Montana in pursuit of the simple life. Sounds great. But what about when you own a business?
For workers in today's ultra-favorable job market, forsaking the fast-paced city for greener pastures isn't unfathomable. For entrepreneurs, however, eking out a simpler way of living isn't so, well, simple. With employees and customers to think about, you have more than a career at stake. And you have a business you've worked long and hard to build.
Those facts didn't stop Sue Scott, owner of Primal Lite Inc., a lighting products manufacturer in Richmond, California, when she decided it was time for a change. After spending more than a decade in the Bay area, often working 14-hour days and weekends building her international business to projected 1999 sales of $6 million, the 45-year-old single woman had grown tired of her hectic, urban lifestyle. Born and raised in Arizona, she longed for the quiet beauty and slow pace of the Southwest and missed pursuing her longtime passion for horseback riding. Determined to do something different, she got on a plane in April 1998, flew to Durango, Colorado, and bought a 100-acre ranch so she could be closer to the horses and country living she loves.
But when Scott moved to her dream home in August 1998, she chose not to bring along her business; Primal Lite's headquarters and 12 employees remain in California. She takes care of business from the ranch and via a two-person satellite office in an old bank building in downtown Durango.
For entrepreneurs like Scott who yearn for small-town America, moving away from the city lights and running your business from afar is more of an option than ever. Of course, there are the obvious compromises. Scott admits it was difficult getting used to no longer micromanaging, performing certain duties and retaining close personal relationships with employees. But it can be--and is being--done.
"A lot of entrepreneurs might think about pursuing this because, frankly, they can," echoes Charles Matthews, an associate professor of strategic management at the University of Cincinnati and director of the Small Business Institute, which provides no-cost counseling to small businesses from faculty-supervised students. "Advancements in communication, business travel and technology have all become extremely distance-friendly."
Still, this undertaking isn't a walk in the park, particularly for employees. Scott, for instance, spent months allaying workers' fears that the business would move--or be closed down. Because of the distance, employees have had to learn new ways of working and communicating. They submit weekly reports to Scott, keep their phone conversations succinct and work more independently, solving critical issues themselves and only bringing Scott in when absolutely necessary.
Having critical employees already in place, creating solid contingency plans and regularly emphasizing the benefits of this unique working style are all necessary steps, Matthews says. A key part of Scott's strategy has been the development of an operations manager position. Several months after her move to Colorado, Scott promoted her executive assist-ant, Claudine Huey-Bolton, into the new position, primarily because they share a strong working relationship based on communication and trust. Scott relies on Huey-Bolton to represent her interests, make important operational decisions and keep her constantly informed via phone, fax and e-mail. "Key employees who share your vision and are capable of providing essential leadership are a must," Matthews says.
Scott has also made it a habit to visit the main office at least once a month. But the most important part of it all? Instituting an open-door policy, Scott says, so employees feel you're always available no matter where you are.
And it goes without saying that even though Scott's much happier out on the range, she's hardly attained the simple life. In reality, although living in a remote spot has made many things easier, the change has inevitably brought new complications into the picture as well. "It's not the [panacea] you might think," Scott admits. "If you think, `It will be great--I'll have a home office and sit and drink tea on the deck,' you're fooling yourself. It just doesn't fall together like that. Everything has a price."
The At-Home Version
Yearning to get away from it all but can't? Take time out to read the following tips on how to lead the simple life without putting distance between yourself and your business:
- Quiet time. Sometimes it's hard to find, but experts advise making room for it. It can be as simple as going to a nearby lake at noon or getting in a workout at the gym when it's empty. "Entrepreneurs need time to reflect on their business and where it's going," says Charles Matthews, an associate professor of strategic management at the University of Cincinnati and director of the Small Business Institute. "Find some time every week to get away."
- Break the routine. If it's all getting to be too much, Matthews recommends doing something out of the norm--even if it's only for a few minutes. Take a brisk walk, pick up the kids from school--whatever it takes to recharge your batteries.
- Home front. Setting up an office at home for, say, working occasional mornings there, builds flexibility into your schedule, provides more quality time for you to spend with your family and keeps you out of the hectic commute. One caveat: Be sure to establish ground rules with your family first.
- Get away. If you can take a true vacation without any distractions, do it (and tell us how). If not, work a few hours of play time into a business trip or designate certain hours to take care of business when you're vacationing. It's all about defining your leisure time, not letting your business define it for you.
While the boss is off living the good life in the Alaskan wilderness or Colorado countryside, what do the employees think of it all? We asked the workers at Sue Scott's Primal Lite Inc. for their honest opinions. Here's what they told us:
- On their fears: "In the beginning, I had a lot of worries," recalls Claudine Huey-Bolton, Primal Lite's operations manager. "How would we work together? Would I still have a job? Where would I go?"
"I lost my breath when Sue told us she was moving," says Sally Cervetto, who works in Primal Lite's in-house sales department. "It felt a little lonely knowing I wasn't going to see her regularly. I had a lot of questions and concerns about how we'd function on a daily basis."
- On the working environment: "You have to make a major adjustment," Huey-Bolton says. "You and your boss have to be in synch in working style and priorities. It takes strong individuals to do this."
"Our conversations are different because now we're dealing by phone," Cervetto explains. "We have to be much more direct and zero in on the situation at hand."
- On trust: "If you don't have a tremendous amount of trust, you won't survive this style of business," Huey-Bolton says. "For owners to trust their [managers] to handle the business in their physical absence, it's truly the highest form of flattery."
Primal Lite, (510) 234-1000, fax: (510) 234-1004