The life of an entrepreneur is filled with irony. You don’t have to own a business for long to start noticing the gaps between what you thought versus what you got. One of my favorite entrepreneurial ironies goes something like this: People often list “freedom over my time” as one of the primary reasons they start a business, yet entrepreneurs constantly bemoan how hard it can be to take a vacation.
The short-term consequences of not taking a vacation from your business may seem tolerable. Your spouse and children may be disappointed, but you’ll make it up to them next year. You won’t get the R&R you know you need, but you can tough it out for now. The long-term impact of not taking vacations, however, goes beyond compromising health and relationships to affecting the business asset itself.
First, let’s take a quick look at how vacations take a backseat to business ownership. I’ve noticed — and experienced firsthand — that vacations fall off the business owner’s radar for three different reasons at three different stages in the business life cycle.
During the startup phase vacation plans often get scuttled for financial reasons. This is the bootstrapping phase of business ownership. Budgets are tight both in and outside of the business. Even if you can afford to take a vacation during this stage, the priorities are to conserve cash and focus all of your time and energy on turning a profit.
Once the startup phase is in the rearview mirror, your business enters the survival and growth stage. At this point your reasons for not taking a vacation have gone from financial to physical. While your business is perking along nicely, your physical presence is still required for it to run smoothly. At this stage, your business is experiencing some serious growing pains that probably revolve around hiring good supervisors and managers. You feel a tension between profitability and sanity: the former takes a hit if you hire some serious talent to help you run the business, but the latter will suffer if you don’t.
You manage to take short vacations during these years, but they are constantly interrupted by Emails and phone calls.
Even as the business reaches maturity, some owners still have trouble taking extended time off. With the first two excuses (financial and physical) off the table, vacations now represent a mental dilemma. Your identity and daily rhythms are so thoroughly intertwined with your business that it’s just too hard for you to mentally “check out” and take a two-week vacation.
You may or may not take vacations during these years, but find it increasingly difficult to enjoy them.
There’s an additional irony associated with the issue of vacations. While your justification for not taking vacations may be to protect the profitability of your business, you are actually hurting its value.
When I meet with an owner who is considering selling their business or putting an exit strategy in place, vacations are one of the first things we discuss. On the surface it may seem like a nice topic for easy conversation between two strangers, which it is. But it’s also a quick way to begin determining how much a business is worth, and whether it would attract interest from potential acquirers. Simply put, if your business can’t run without you then you don’t really own a business, you own a job.
In the decade as an M&A advisor, I’ve heard a variety of answers to my vacation question. Not surprisingly, the most successful owners have built an enviable life outside of their business.
They take at least four weeks of vacation a year, or more. They go to remote locations in Canada or the western U.S. where they are completely unplugged for weeks at a time. They have homes (plural) where they spend part of the year, either here or abroad. These business owners look forward not only to their next vacation, but also a handsome payoff when they eventually decide to sell their business.
If this sounds like you, then congratulations. You’ve won the great game of business. If not, stop avoiding vacations and start seeing them as a litmus test for the health, sustainability and value of your most valuable asset: your business.
Barbara Taylor is the co-founder of Allan Taylor & Co., a boutique mergers and acquisition firm in Bentonville. She is a regular contributor to Forbes.com and a former New York Times blogger. You can follow her on Twitter @ballantaylor or visit her company website at www.allantaylor.co.