NEW YORK— While hiking in the Himalayas for three weeks, Mike Scanlin had no cellphone 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 Scanlin, 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 cellphone towers, bandwidth or electricity. Sometimes they find out by surprise. But many understand that they’re 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 won’t be a problem.
Scanlin was able to check emails when the hiking group made it to the top of inclines during his 2012 trip. But in valleys where they camped, there was no service. And even when Scanlin could get a connection, he couldn’t download documents or photos, and the nine hour-plus time difference with the U.S. meant a lag between emails and replies. He couldn’t 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 Scanlin, whose company was a year-and-a-half-old when he made the trek, a little uneasy. Born to Sell survived, however, and he has since visited places like Peru and Easter Island, located nearly 2,200 miles off the coast of Chile, where cellphone 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 don’t check in.
Aaron Hockel knew before he left on his two-week honeymoon to Peru last summer he would have minimal access to a cellphone 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 Hockel, whose company is based in Glen Burnie, Maryland.
At places like Machu Picchu, the historic Incan mountain fortress, there wasn’t any connectivity. But even at a hotel with Wi-Fi, Hockel ignored his email inbox.
“I knew, if I open this, I’m opening a Pandora’s box,” Hockel says. When he returned home, he found he’d 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 Kupfer realized the problems his staff talked to him about were things they could handle on their own. He told them he wouldn’t 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 Kupfer, who’s based in New York.
Kupfer has traveled in recent years to Ecuador, the Utah desert and the West Bank, had no cellphone service and 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 jelled to a point where I felt comfortable doing it. I knew they’d be able to handle whatever came up,” says Weber, owner of Boulder, Colorado-based InspiringApps. He went on a weeklong sailboat trip off Grenada where he had to focus on the sailing.
“There was not much energy left to think about the office,” he says.
Still, for some owners, being out of touch isn’t part of the plan.
“There was a bit of a gulp,” recalls Chris Brantner about his Rocky Mountain backpacking trip this spring when he had virtually no cellphone service. His brothers, who work with him at his Houston-based company, CutCableToday.com, were doing their jobs, but “I’m the guy who gets the call at 8 p.m. if the website’s down. That was probably the most worrisome part, if things stopped functioning.”
Brantner, whose website provides information about cable TV alternatives, was able to give one brother a heads-up that he wouldn’t be able to access the website if needed. After that, with nothing more he could do, he went back to hiking.
“It was nice to get away for a few days and turn off my brain,” Brantner says. When he reconnected, he found the website hadn’t crashed and no harm was done.
Dale Janee was caught by surprise during a weekend trip to a rural part of Poland in 2014, discovering there was no way to go online or connect with customers as she expected. Janee, the owner of a pillowcase maker called Savvy Sleepers that sells to beauty salons and retailers, worried that clients who wanted to place orders or had questions would turn to another supplier when they were unable to reach her.
“It felt like an eternity to be disconnected from my business,” Janee says.
While at the airport to head home, she logged in and found all was well. Since then, the Dallas-based company has grown to the point where Janee has hired an assistant who can keep an eye on the business when she’s away. And, she realizes, the walks she took and books she read on her trip provided a needed respite.
“At some point, you have to disconnect on vacation,” she says.