Founders: step away from your startup for a holiday; smell the sea, feel the sky

I opened one of the final boxes lingering from our recent house move, marked Ian’s holiday photos at the weekend. They’re from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, so not quite sepia. Sometimes I like older photos of me better than the newer ones, although it’s always a little unnerving looking at the visual evidence of your past life through the lenses of today.

Aged 14, it’s shocking how young, thin, and geeky I looked. Scruffy school blazer and tight, tiny tie knot, I was in my Latin-American-Marxist affiliated with Tony Benn phase – intellectual posturing, because I could be cantankerous, irritable, and juvenile back then. Not much change nearly fifty years later I hear you cry.

There was a special photo of me – the one accompanying this blog – outside our touring caravan in Cornwall in the hot summer of ’76, which I’ve always treasured. Sleeping in the awning I could feel the sea and smell the sky. Yes, the cider was that strong. That was a great family holiday. Fast forward to 1979 and our first family holiday abroad in Spain, photos of me with extreme sunburn and the mandatory sombrero. Then onto 1982, camping in North Wales with three mates and photos of the tents with holes in and guy ropes chewed through by pesky sheep in an early August morning near Llanfairfechan.

Another colour photo was of a holiday in Blackpool. We used to go every year and drive up and down the Golden Mile for the Illuminations. Staggering though it may seem now, it was exciting to see trams covered in light bulbs to look like they were space rockets. We didn’t even get out of the car. However, the most memorable photo was that of my first digital watch, a Casio. I’ve always been slightly obsessed with the passing of time, none more so recorded by the photo at school during my O levels at 12.34pm on 5 June 1978. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.

But back to holidays. I like to go somewhere with time to sit and think and, occasionally, just to sit and not think at all. Apart from that, I’m easily pleased. We’ve had happy overseas holiday memories – endless nights of endless ouzo in Greece – but there’s also bad stuff. I’m recall the trouble in Marrakech as a nineteen-year-old student when the entire Medina bazaar was haggling en-masse to trade for my then girlfriend (long blond hair). I affronted them by refusing to barter. With hindsight, I should have taken two camels, some nice leather slippers, and a decent rug.

Then there’s the food poisoning in Portugal (chicken), Athens(Greek salad) and Italy (seafood). Stop remembering the sunsets and sea food platters, start remembering the sunburn and seafood splatters. Avoid the sun, although that’s what we go for! For me, pale is interesting. I’m 100% Anglo Saxon, as in Thomas Huxley’s division of humanity, although to be fair, I have a skin tone that could optimistically be called ‘North-of-England olive’ after two weeks abroad, more accurately described as ‘Lancashire white’ – not to be confused with the potatoes of the same name. So, I’ve defaulted to my favourite bolthole this year, and we’re off up the road, to Anglesey.

The seabirds call loudly in friendly Welsh accents, the unmistakable scent of salty water in the air as the tide slowly inches its way up onto the shore. Anglesey has everything, beaches and views that inspire, a place that appeals to all the senses, a place to get away from it all. And some great siop sglodion too. Anglesey has many remote beaches, the more deserted the better for me, trudging slowly over wet sand, sit on the promenade, write a postcard. Perfect beaches, perfect water, your own space, all the vital elements for a holiday.

Yet many founders are reluctant to take holidays, despite the research on taking vacation time showing it is beneficial not just to you personally, but also to your startup – there’s a personal and business case, as the hustle-bustle startup culture comes with the visible costs of compromised work-life balance and mental wellbeing. It is therefore essential for founders to prioritise their downtime. Old habits die hard, especially those built and cemented through habits of focus and feedback loops that reinforce your fear of stepping away, so what are the key things to consider?

1. Proactively prevent burnout – before and after Time off the grid can be an effective way to prevent feelings of being overwhelmed.  Continuous time on-task sets off strain reactions, fatigue, and negative moods, which drain focus, physical, and emotional resources. Our ability to self-regulate and stay disciplined wanes and must be replenished. Take a truly restorative vacation with the same tenacity as your startup efforts and come back better than before.

Plan for your return to work before you leave. Triage your priority list of what you need or want to tackle in the week or two after return. Also block off time in your calendar your first week back so you’ll have built-in buffers to catch up rather than coming back to a calendar full of back-to-back meetings. Startup speed is the form of ecstasy that technology has bestowed on founders. Ditch the tech, have face to face meetings to reconnect, and plan to get back in the groove at your own pace.

2. Give yourself permission to check out If you believe that everything depends on you and the doors to your business will close if you are away, then even if you do manage to get away, you won’t be feeling relaxed while you’re gone. Some founders have a distorted view of their own importance. When your take a step back and change your perspective, give yourself permission to not be indispensable for a time. Odds are your venture will be okay if you’re out for a week or so.

Don’t try to cram everything in before you go. In order to start your break with the energy to enjoy yourself and your loved ones, spend no more than your normal number of hours the week before you leave. It can be helpful to leave some projects unfinished. Coming back to where you left off means you’ll have something to return afresh to when you get back.

3. Trust your team Think about things that must happen while you’re gone, ensure you have delegated to handle situations as they come up. Try to anticipate scenarios and cover off with the team. Unless you trust your team, you’re always going to be waiting for things to go wrong. Therefore, at every level, founders must have people they trust, so make the conscious effort to let go and build faith in your team.

Of course, this should be BAU anyway, delegating work the right way and creating a proper structure keeps you away from day-to-day operational issues, ensuring you focus on the business roadmap and long-term plans. You’ll be amazed by what you see. Even though you fear taking a vacation, you’ll probably come back and breathe a sigh of relief. The business will be humming along, serving clients, and empowering the people who run it – including yourself.

4. Your startup will grow stronger & learn While you’re walking on the beach, your startup is going to face some challenges. Don’t think about it. Just keep walking. What will the business do in the face of these challenges? They’re going to learn. Experience is the best teacher, so when team members face a perplexing, thorny, dilemma, they are going to think, work, strategise, and solve that problem.

Most importantly, they will learn how to function without the constant presence of their founder, and flourish. That’s good for them and you. So, the longer you stay away (within reason) the more you’ll enjoy the benefits.

5. The change of pace is important If you treat a vacation as the equivalent of a weekend off, full relaxation is not going to happen. There should be a change of pace. When you go on holiday, it’s a new routine and rhythm. Freed from the schedule of the working life, press pause. Pause refreshes. Everyone needs downtime to renew. Time away while accumulating new experiences can be stimulating, ensuring you return invigorated. Make the change of pace count, make the switch between time-off and time-on deliberate.

Also, get rid of the guilt. As a founder, being away from your venture may lead to guilt but it is important to focus on the fact that taking time off is only a way to recharge, return stronger and with a rejuvenated mind. Guilt is a wasted emotion in this context. If you’re feeling guilty, you’re neither enjoying your time off nor being productive.

6. You became a founder to be in control of your own destiny Your team members work hard and love their jobs, but still look forward to a break. They want to see family and to explore the world. Why shouldn’t the founder be able to take a break too? Founders are not superhumans, they’re individuals just like anyone else. They have their own needs, struggles and challenges. Being a founder doesn’t mean giving up the right to choose where, when, and how is best for us to relax.

Everyone deserves a semblance of work-life balance, but whilst some startup leaders knowingly forgo some of that, gambling for an outsized portion of the startup’s upside, there are also those who do not. And those who don’t need more than just a ‘semblance’.

7. Your startup is your passion, but sometimes you need to take a break from passion Founders are truly passionate about what they do, starting out because they find happiness in the flow of solving challenges and owning the work for themselves. But they put their health, relationships, and families on the line. Social activities seem like obstacles to the success of your startup, not opportunities for much needed perspective.

Founders then find that taking time to recharge and spend time with loved ones is necessary for success. They realise that running a startup is a marathon, not a sprint. Taking time off to go away, well guess what, your venture will still be there on Monday and customers will still be using your product. The world will keep spinning. Your calm mind is the ultimate weapon against your challenges, so relax.

8. You can’t get away from challenges, but you can get away and recharge Einstein said that invention is 1% talent and 99% hard work. He worked ten hours a day, six days a week, sustained by the excitement of finding creative solutions to pressing problems. He often spent long stretches of time away from family and friends to dive into his theories.

While Einstein refined his theories all the way to the end of his life, his demeanour changed in his final years. His last words were I want to go when I want. I have done my share; it is time to go. I will do it elegantly. I’m sure plenty of startup founders can identify with this sentiment.

Taking a break is a chance to rekindle the romance you first had with your business, and only by putting it all down do you realise that the both the romance is still there, and that the work is never going to be done. Ideas are easy, implementation is hard. An entrepreneur is ultimately a doer not a dreamer, so don’t limit yourself by forgetting that in between goals and results is a thing called life, that has to be lived and enjoyed. Smell the sea, feel the sky, let your soul and spirit fly.

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