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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Small business owners disconnect for a tech-free break

Taking a leap of faith to let others step up and take responsibility

In the Himalayas, mobile phones signals are a rarity - something business owners travelling to such places must take into account. The National View
In the Himalayas, mobile phones signals are a rarity - something business owners travelling to such places must take into account. The National View

While hiking in the Himalayas for three weeks, Mike Scanlin had no mobile phone service much of the time and no way to charge his phone. Running his business – a one-man operation – became a very sporadic proposition.

It was a calculated risk. "I felt I was going to lose customers, lose some business if they couldn't get a response for three days," says Mr Scanlin, the owner of Born to Sell, a business software company based in Las Vegas.

"But it's worth maybe losing a bit of business to accomplish the items on your bucket list."

Changes in technology have made it possible for vacationing small business owners to never be out of touch – unless they decide to go to a part of the world without enough mobile phone towers, bandwidth or electricity. Sometimes they find out by surprise. But many understand that they are losing their tether to their companies. Some leave the business in the hands of trusted employees, or have projects and pressing matters dealt with, so being out of contact will not be a problem.

Mr Scanlin was able to check emails when the hiking group made it to the top of inclines during his trip. But in valleys where they camped, there was no service. And even when he could get a connection, he could not download documents or photos, and the nine hour-plus time difference with the US meant a lag between emails and replies. He could not go online to fix any problems that might come up with his website, and there was no one back home who could do it.

It did make Mr Scanlin, whose company was just 18 months old when he made the trek a couple of years ago, a little uneasy. Born to Sell survived, however, and he has since visited places such Peru and Easter Island, located nearly 2,900 kilometres off the coast of Chile, where mobile phone and internet service were often unavailable.

Checking in is the norm for most owners. With tablets or smartphones in hand, many set aside time on a trip to at least read important emails or touch base with employees and important clients. In a recent survey of 700 small business owners and managers released by American Express, the vast majority said they check in by phone or email while on vacation. More than half of those do so at least once a day. But nearly a quarter do not check in.

Aaron Hockel knew before he left on his two-week honeymoon to Peru last summer that he would have minimal access to a mobile phone network or the internet. So he decided to just be offline and leave the digital marketing company, AltaVista Strategic Partners, in the care of his three business partners and 15 staffers. They would deal with customers and issues that were his domain.

"It was a scary proposition at first because two weeks is a long time to disconnect," says Mr Hockel, whose company is based in Glen Burnie, Maryland, in the US.

At places such as Machu Picchu, the historic Incan mountain fortress, there was no connectivity. But even at a hotel with Wi-Fi, Mr Hockel ignored his email inbox.

"I knew, if I open this, I'm opening a Pandora's box," Mr Hockel says. When he returned home, he found he had made the right choice: "Our staff did an incredible job communicating and tackling issues."

Corey Kupfer, an attorney for 30 years who also has a speaking and consulting business, called his office several times a day from vacations in the early years of his practice. By about 15 years ago, he was calling just once a day, and he realised the problems his staff talked to him about were things they could handle on their own. He told them he would not call in on his next vacation.

"People figure things out when they don't have you as a crutch. It empowers them and helps your team to grow," says Mr Kupfer, who is based in New York.

He has travelled in recent years to Ecuador, the Utah desert and the West Bank and had no mobile phone service but no worries because his staff and partners can handle the business without him. His mantra: "I'm not that important".

Owners of brand-new companies are less likely to disconnect. In May, Brad Weber was ready to leave his laptop home and his 10-year-old mobile app development company in the hands of his 15 staffers.

"The business had matured to a point and the team gelled to a point where I felt comfortable doing it. I knew they'd be able to handle whatever came up," says Mr Weber, the owner of the Colorado-based InspiringApps. He went on a week-long sailing trip off Grenada where he had to focus on the sailing.

"There was not much energy left to think about the office," he says.

* AP

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