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Exit: John Warrillow

Test your company’s value by going on vacation Add to ...

A holiday can be a good way to test how well your business can run without you — in other words, how sellable it is.

I had been running my research business for five years when I decided I needed a proper vacation. Not one of those quasi-vacations when you take your mobile to Florida for a week and check in three times a day. I needed a real vacation.

My wife and I booked a three-week trip to Australia. I sat down with my general manager and told her that she was in charge. I arranged to give her signing authority on cheques of up to $5,000 and engineered things so that no larger cheques would have to be written while I was away.

I met with our entire team and explained that I would be going away for three weeks and I would not be available. In my absence, I told everyone that our general manager had full and complete authority.

My last words to my team were: “If the office is burning down, don’t call me — call 911.”

While we were in Australia, I did not check in. I felt as though I was being a negligent owner at first. Then I stopped obsessing and started to enjoy the trip. We dove at the Great Barrier Reef, climbed Tasmania’s highest peak, bar-hopped in Sydney — it was a trip of a lifetime.

When I returned to the office, I found things had gone very well. My staff didn’t really acknowledge my return, which I took to mean they had enjoyed not having me around. Sales were fine, operations were good, there were no irate customers demanding to see me.

My business had thrived without me, and I had indulged in a glorious three-week break. Perfect.

A few years later, the birth of our first child prompted me to consider a bolder experiment. I decided we would move to Santa Cruz, Calif., for three months. It would allow me to spend quality time with our new baby and to live in a town where a cold day meant having to don a sweater.

I decided that a three-month window was too long to go without being in contact with my company, so I arranged a one-hour weekly call with my management team every Friday at 11 a.m. (ET).

The first call went fine, and I slipped easily into the role of absentee owner — congratulating the team on its accomplishments and praising its efforts.

Then week two came along and our sales numbers had slipped a bit, so the call dragged on an extra half-hour or so. In the third week, sales had slipped again, and the call pushed past two hours as I started to get involved in directing the team’s reaction to our falling sales numbers.

As the weeks went on, our sales numbers continued to deteriorate. I got deeper and deeper into the weeds of managing the business, and my management team became resentful of my remote meddling.

Instead of enjoying the Santa Cruz sun, I was obsessing privately about how they could screw things up so royally.

I returned early from California to a demoralized staff and an impaired company.

In retrospect, I think extended vacations are a great way to test your business’s saleability, but if I were to do the California sabbatical again, I would:

(a) Cede full control to my managers as I did during the Australia trip.

(b) Build up to the three-month break. My business was not ready to jump from three weeks without an owner to 12 weeks. I should have built from three weeks to four, then five, and so on.

Special to The Globe and Mail

John Warrillow is the author of Built To Sell: Turn Your Business Into One You Can Sell . Throughout his career as an entrepreneur, Mr. Warrillow has started and exited four companies. Most recently he transformed Warrillow & Co. from a boutique consultancy into a recurring revenue model subscription business, which he sold to The Corporate Executive Board in 2008. He is the author of Drilling for Gold and in 2008 was recognized by BtoB Magazine’s “Who’s Who” list as one of America’s most influential business-to-business marketers.

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