Small business owners have the same problem employees have: They forget their purpose in life is not actually to work. Usually that’s because most of us don’t ever think about a purpose, but that’s an article for another day. Even if you have some purpose for your life, you can’t very well pursue it unless your business is part of that purpose (a highly recommended approach) or your business doesn’t need you to function. This week’s article is to get you to free your business from you so that you can take your family sabbatical.
– Matt Scherr
Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.
– Seth Godin
I used to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation. If you’re not familiar with it, well, welcome to Earth, space traveler, and let me explain the role of Captain Picard in the show. He assesses the dilemma for this week’s episode, takes suggestions from his crew, nods at the one he agrees with, points imperially, and says, “Make it so.” OK, my work here is done. I’ll be watching from my lounge chair here, crew. Good luck with the freaky space beings.
It’s just like being a small business owner.
Now that you’ve had a good laugh and I have demonstrated my complete lack of authority on the subject of small business, I’ll provide a disclaimer here: The ideas and suggestions to follow are meant to persuade you, small business owner, that a family sabbatical is actually possible for you. I am no business expert, nor, if I were, would I know your particular business situation. You, being an individual with a business as unique as you, will have to determine your own specific strategies to make your sabbatical happen. But the point is, with few exceptions, happen it can.
Let’s start with one of those exceptions. As Radical Family Sabbatical contributor Dan Clements points out in Escape 101, If your business is you — that is, if you yourself are the product or service (doctor, lawyer, artist, massage therapist, etc.) — then you don’t so much own a business as a job. And your options are essentially the same as an employee’s: 1) take a sabbatical from your work, 2) work remotely, or the nuclear option, 3) quit. (See this article for more details.)
But within option #1 you may have another great option a mere employee does not, depending on your business: use your trade where you go. A massage therapist, for example, may be able to continue to earn money with his trade while on sabbatical. It may not be much, depending on where in the world he goes, but any income earned is money not spent. And there may be no better way to engage in a community, create relationships, and remain purposeful, than by practicing your trade.
Now, the rest of you own a true business. At least for our purposes, that means a commercial entity that does not depend upon its owner or any other particular person to exist and function. Of course that’s not to say that you, the owner aren’t invaluable and indispensable, but in theory if you rear-end a 1970 Ford Pinto and meet your maker, someone else could run the business.
So if it’s true in theory but not in reality, what is the difference between the two? That, Ms. Business Owner, is not only the difference between you taking a sabbatical…or not, it is the difference in you ever having a business that will give you what you probably always wanted out of your business—namely greater personal freedom, flexibility, and wealth—or not. On the happy news front, you don’t have to get all the way to your business being free of you to take a sabbatical, just part of the way (see the example below).
There are essentially four things your business depends upon you for. Your ability to be free of the incessant demands of your business depends upon eliminating those dependencies. Here are those things and what you have to do to lose them:
What you have (money or capital): If you’re paying your business, rather than the other way round, we’ll presume you’re in start-up mode. Once out of start-up, this one takes care of itself in an otherwise healthy business.
What you know: If your business depends upon something locked in your cranium, it’s time to either share it with someone else who can reliably back you up, or document it and provide access to appropriate people.
What you do: It’s hard to find good help these days. If you want it done right, do it yourself. If it’s to be it’s up to me…There are countless aphorisms that will feed your ego while ensuring you remain chained to the helm of your business. But any process consultant could come into your shop, shadow you for a time, document precisely what it is you do and how you do it, develop a training program to communicate those processes, and have someone (or something) else doing it inside of a month. As you are a small business owner, of course, it actually is up you to document your processes and find a new operator for them. The key strategies to do that are delegate, automate, and virtualize. You must become unnecessary. Someone or something else must be able to do (nearly) everything you do. Look at bookkeeping; it is such a common and successful system, many business owners couldn’t even do their own books.
Who you are (relationships): Relationships have always been a critical piece to any business. They continue to be, even in our virtualized Internet world. Successful Web-based businesses must still establish trust, provide good service, and create relationships with customers in order to be sustainable, even though there is never any actual interpersonal interaction with a customer. But those businesses are a great example that, even if your business has been built upon your identity, it doesn’t have to remain tied to you to survive and thrive in the future. You know Burt’s Bees? Besides his picture on every product, Burt hasn’t been a part of the business since 1993. Your job is to provide the business with it’s own identity based on trust and dependability by fostering an appropriate culture and ensuring systems and processes support that culture.
Doing all these things is what the business self-help literature means by “working on your business, not in your business.” Perhaps the easiest way to focus on these things is to step back on a regular basis and ask whether someone could buy your business. If not, why not? Whether you want to sell it or not, the answer is the piece you’re missing to eliminate the interdependence you have with your business.
Meet my friend. We’ll call him Ben, because that is his name. Ben owns a real estate company. I had presumed that because real estate is so very deeply about relationships that Ben could not free himself from his business for a sabbatical. But here’s his situation relative to the business dependencies above.
– What Ben has: The business requires no further investment on Ben’s part to succeed.
– What Ben knows: Realty is an established business model anyone can learn, and Ben could easily transfer or document his particular knowledge necessary for the function of his business.
– What Ben does: Provides great and honest service to his clients. Rare in business and real estate? Maybe, but unique to Ben? We hope not, and the specific things he does that define his service can certainly be taught and “institutionalized”.
– Who Ben is: The kicker. Realtors have their pictures plastered on business cards, calendars, note pads, planners, and about any other flat surface you can imagine. This is a business all about Ben, his personal relationship with his clients, and (so I thought) his physical presence with them to show a home. If Ben wants to sell his business, his absence is a pretty big issue to address. But what if he just wanted to run his business from Fiji? That’s a big commute to meet with a client. But then he told me that with virtual applications available now, he makes sales now without ever being in the presence of the client. In one case he and a buyer were in separate geographic locations, connected via Skype video to a conference with the seller in a New York high rise who walked around with his iPad for a virtual showing. Given a decent Internet connection, Ben might just as well have been in Fiji.
With the Internet and technology, insurmountable hurdles to geographic and business independence have been flattened. You don’t have to pilot your business like a big, clunky ol’ cargo ship. You have the U.S.S. Enterprise at your disposal, you now know what you have to do…make it so!
If you own a business and haven’t yet read Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited for an authoritative and more thorough version of the points made above, do yourself that favor. For some cool, modern techniques of delegation and virtualizing (and to start drooling over the possibilities once you’ve freed yourself from you business) read Tim Ferris’s The Four-Hour Work Week. And again, you’ll find more specific resources on freeing you and your business from geography at LocationIndependent.com.
[Ed. Note: Matt Scherr is the founder and editor of Radical Family Sabbatical and has as much authority telling you how to run your business as Captain Jean Luc Picard. But he hopes he inspires you to research more for yourself.]