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TIME OFF

Summer vacation eludes many entrepreneurs Add to ...

Sherry Colbourne’s summer calendar includes a special extended family gathering in August that her partner’s mother arranges at the cottage every year.

“It’s a priority. I carve it out [of my schedule]because it is so important. Everyone tries to be there,” says Ms. Colbourne, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Ladybug Teknologies Inc., a Cambridge, Ont.-based firm that sells personal breathalyzers.

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But in the years since Ladybug started up in 2004, Ms. Colbourne has often found herself making the more than 250-kilometre trip back to the office after only a day or two, while the rest of the family settles in to enjoy a week or two at the cottage.

“It’s a constant struggle,” Ms. Colbourne says. “Like most entrepreneurs, I’m passionate about my work and I love to do what I do, but that means leaving the 9-to-5 world behind. Balance is hard.”

As summer vacation season kicks into gear, many of those in business for themselves will only dream of beaches and docks, for delayed, abbreviated or missed time off is one of the prices many entrepreneurs pay for owning a business.

While surveys show that many people leave vacation time on the table, it can be even tougher for small business owners to take a summer break, whether it’s because they feel they can’t afford to, feel they have too much on their plate to stop, have too few employees to take over, fear down time will cause business downfalls, consider themselves too essential to be absent or just love what they do too much to leave it behind.

Just 46 per cent of U.S. small business owners are planning to take a summer vacation of at least a full week this year, according to the 2011 American Express OPEN Small Business Vacation Monitor survey of about 500 small business owners. The top two reasons given: busy work schedules and affordability.

As well, a third of the small business owners said they feared clients and customers would not receive the level of service they are used to while the owners were on vacation, and nearly a quarter felt they would miss an important business opportunity while they were away from the office, the survey found. More than a quarter – 27 per cent – say they “feel guilty” for taking a vacation.

“Those who are their own boss often make up reasons not to take time off. It’s always ‘when my desk is cleared’ or ‘after I land the next client’,” says Sean Shannon, managing director of Expedia.ca, whose own firm conducts an annual “vacation deprivation” survey of Canadians’ unused vacation time. In last year’s survey, the most recent numbers available, 12 per cent of those polled responded that “work is their life and they are too busy to get away,” he notes.

The challenge for entrepreneurs: how to take a break from the everyday stresses, strains and crises of running a business while still ensuring the operation continues to run smoothly.

Ms. Colbourne has mastered a few tricks to help create down time.

Unless they are on a business trip together, she and company chief operating officer Christine Montag stagger their vacation days so that one of them is always available for clients and subcontractors, who have varying demands on their own schedules.

Although Ms. Colbourne never shuts off her phone, when at the cottage she refuses to take it down to the dock, preferring instead to check it periodically.

And while it may be hard to find an entire week to devote to vacation, both women occasionally tack on a personal day or two to business trips, devoting time to shopping or other fun.

After aches and pains resulting from 80-hour work weeks sent Ms. Colbourne to the chiropractor, she reminded herself she needed to find time to relax.

“I realized I needed to put Sherry back on the priority list,” Ms. Colbourne recalls, noting that feeling rested and in good shape is critical to maintaining the energy and creativity demanded of entrepreneurship.

Like Ms. Colbourne, Rob Dawson laughs when asked how much vacation time he has had since launching Innivity Marketing Group Inc. eight years ago.

This summer will be the first in four years that he will take a summer break – two weeks at a cottage.

He credits more staff, better planning and family needs, with his children at an age – one and three – to go away for pulling vacation time together this year.

“We’ve grown the business and, with more people, there’s more flexibility and a better team as opposed to having to wear all the hats every single day,” says Mr. Dawson, whose Sarnia, Ont.-based company creates and implements marketing campaigns.

Still, he won’t leave work totally behind. When Mr. Dawson is on vacation, he has his Blackberry on his hip at all times and brings his laptop with him to stay in touch with his 10-person office.

He will leave a phone number where he can be reached with a couple of staffers, arrange daily check-in time on his BlackBerry, devote once a week to answering e-mails – and be available to handle any significant issue, if it comes up, he says.

“My family comes first, but being an entrepreneur means clients’ needs come a close second,” Mr. Dawson says. “This field is timeline-driven. Everything is for yesterday, and that means often I can’t control the schedule.”

One memorable vacation a few years ago, Mr. Dawson booked off eight days in June to take part in a wedding on the east coast. No sooner had he arrived than there was a crisis at the office, and he had to devote two days to help trouble shoot long-distance.

“You smile through the whole thing because that’s what pays the bills,” he says.

Yet, Mr. Dawson sees both personal and business sense in taking vacation time. “You need to recharge your batteries; you can manage stress better and be a clearer thinker,” he says.

On top of much-needed relaxation and vital time with family, allowing others to step up to the plate builds corporate trust and teamwork, he adds.

If tearing yourself away from work is a problem, consider vacation time as a test, suggests Beverly Beuermann-King, a stress and wellness expert from Little Britain, Ont.

“If you don’t have a back-up plan, how will your business survive should something happen to you?” she asks.

Plans for vacation time should include clear instructions on how you can be reached, and under what circumstances you would expect to be contacted, she says.

Aiming to take off smaller blocks of time is one way newer entrepreneurs can manage down time, Mr. Shannon says. “You have to be pro-active and get things done in advance,” he advises.

Other moves experts suggest are operating summer hours, with shortened workdays or Friday closings, creating a long weekend.

If the budget does not allow for travel, even a local long weekend can go a long way to recharging the weary entrepreneur, as long as you follow guidelines and break from usual patterns, Ms. Beuermann-King says.

“If you’re planning a staycation, you’ve got to treat it like a vacation, and ensure that time is not about getting chores done around the house, because then you’re just exchanging one kind of work for another,” she says.

“Ask yourself what your goal is and then stick to it. If it’s spending time with the family, shut off your phone and focus on them.”

VACATION TIME

Being your own boss can wreak havoc on vacation plans if you are not disciplined about setting aside relaxation time. Here are some tips from the experts:

Build vacation plans into your business plans

Spelling out steps you will take to create leisure time helps make it happen. Include how things will be handled in your absence, assignment of roles to other staff, handling customers and clients, things that must be done and things that can be put aside, ways you will, and will not, stay in contact. Use your time off as an opportunity to test how your business works without you as well as a chance to give other staff more responsibility and development, build teamwork and reinforce trust.

Communication

Leave an explicit set of instructions on how and when you are to be contacted. If you know you will be called if something urgent happens, you can relax.

Accept lost opportunity

If you are a one-person or small operation, accept that taking time off may mean missing an opportunity or two. Recharging is just as important.

Disconnect

Ideally, a vacation also means taking a break from your cell phone and your laptop. If you absolutely cannot live without being connected, discipline yourself to check in at set times, rather than jumping every time the phone rings.

Change of scenery, change of pace

If you can’t arrange a change of scenery, arrange a change of pace. If you must stay home, promise yourself you’ll do all the things you’ve put off – go to the movies, play a round of golf or go hiking.

Take smaller blocks

If you just can’t get away for an extended period, operate summer hours, shortening workdays and creating more long weekends.

Break patterns

If time off doesn’t involve going away, break your usual routines and treat a “staycation” like a vacation.

Don’t feel guilty

Recharging is important. Taking a breather helps you be better at your job.

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