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Balancing Life and Practice

New Business Owners Struggle With Vacation



Associated Press
July 2005


Like parents leaving their child with a sitter for the first time, new entrepreneurs struggle with the idea of taking a vacation. They worry about losing clients who might need them while they're away, and, if they have employees, they worry about the work being done right in their absence.

Veterans of vacation angst say they've found ways to make it easier to take time off. They've set up their companies so the business can run without the boss there. And they've armed themselves with plenty of technology to stay in touch - although that can lead to a tug-of-war between enjoying a trip and taking care of business.

Gregg Steiner - who this month is finally taking his first vacation since starting his Sherman Oaks, Calif., firm, Pinxav, about four years ago - is traveling to Yosemite National Park with his family. He's made sure he can conduct business easily while they're away - they'll be traveling with a trailer, and all the campgrounds where they'll be overnighting have Internet connections.

"I've gotten the technolgy so I really can do anything everywhere," said Steiner, whose company sells diaper rash cream.

Steiner said his sister, who works for him part-time, can keep an eye on the business, and he's arranged for a company to send out packages for him.

But while he's comforted by the fact that customers can reach him if necessary for most of the trip, Steiner suffers from the worries that afflict most business owners - what if he misses a big deal, a big order from a big retailer who can't get him on his cell phone while he's out hiking?

Still, Steiner is aware that he needs to treat this time as time off, not a working vacation.

"I'm not going to be crazy," he said.

Jeff Ben Ezra didn't take a vacation from his Hazlet, N.J., chiropractic practice until there was enough cash flow to pay his staff and operating expenses. Solo practitioners like Ben Ezra, whether they're in a medical field or are lawyers or accountants, don't get paid if they're not seeing patients or clients, so no money comes in at vacation time.

It took five years for him to take a vacation after he started his practice.

"We really had to preplan," Ben Ezra said of himself and wife. "We needed enough money to go on vacation, enough money for home expenses, and enough money to pay the staff."

More emotional factors also contributed to Ben Ezra's vacation angst.

"You worry that you've let somebody down. People are entrusting their life to me," he said.

Eventually he did go to Florida with his family, but it was hard to let go: "I was probably calling once an hour."

Since then, Ben Ezra has made vacations easier on himself by having a colleague cover for him. He calls in at most once a day, knowing that his staff will call him if there's a problem.

Sometimes a vacation shows a business owner that they need to change the way they run their business.

Priscilla Colon's first vacation after starting her Miami public relations firm in 2002 was something of a disaster. She planned a week-long sightseeing trip to Budapest and Prague last August, but spent almost all her time away working.

"Everything seemed to be under control," said Colon, president of Acqua Communications. Then, "clients started requesting my support," and didn't want to work with her staff.

The systems in her office, which required her to approve work before it went out, also created something of a bottleneck that she had to fix from thousands of miles away.

When Colon returned, she began restructuring her company. Now, for example, when she takes on new clients, they begin working with her staff as well as with Colon from the get-go.

Her company has also grown more successful, allowing her to double her staff. And with her company more evolved, she's planning another vacation, in late September. Colon feels more confident that she'll be able to enjoy this one.

A well-run company that grows over time will easily survive its owner's absence.

Alfred Portale found it very hard to take any time off when he opened the Gotham Bar and Grill, an upscale Manhattan restaurant, more than 20 years ago. He worked 40 days straight before even taking one day off. The day he got married, he and his wife went down to City Hall in the morning and he then returned to the restaurant to oversee lunch.

It didn't help that the first time he took a week off, for a trip to Italy, the restaurant was in the process of being reviewed by The New York Times. The Times' critic came to the restaurant twice while Portale was away.

"I was miserable, trying to call every night to see what went on," Portale recalled. "I should not have gone."

On subsequent vacations, Portale was still tied to the business, calling in frequently.

At some point, it sank in: "It isn't a vacation if you call in every day."

Years later, with a highly professional staff, some of whom have been at the Gotham for two decades, Portale is able to go away feeling confident that the restaurant will continue to do well. But he does leave a phone number where he can be reached in an emergency.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press

  
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