Unlike many of his friends who own small businesses, Alan Tiet, 46, a Vietnamese immigrant and co-owner of Dynamics USA, a Rosemead (Calif.) startup that maintains computer systems for small- to midsize companies, regularly takes vacations.
As for those friends, "I think they're crazy," says Tiet, who took his family -- his wife, Janice, and four children to Vancouver and Lake Louise for nine days in July. "They don't have time to enjoy their lives. They say they're getting their enjoyment from work."
Tiet, who regularly works 60 hours a week, says balance is important. People who devote their lives exclusively to work "are missing out on something. They come across to me as too stressed out, not relaxed. That's not how I want to come across to my customers," he says.
He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Chicago-based correspondent Ann Therese Palmer about how he has been able to overcome the small-business owner's curse -- trying to find some relaxation time without jeopardizing his ability to meet customer needs. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
How do you deal with your trepidations of pulling away from your business knowing that something could go wrong with an important customer while you're gone?
I spend about 60 to 90 minutes every day of a vacation on work-related issues. I don't have a BlackBerry. I do have a cell phone that's always with me. I check e-mail twice a day.
My philosophy is that you've got to delegate. I'm here in case there's a crisis, but I've learned to delegate to the people who work for me. They can take care of emergencies. You have to train yourself with the right kind of mindset. I have to remind myself that there's always work, and there always will be. I want to enjoy myself and my family.
What are your weekends like?
I usually try not to schedule any work on the weekends, but we're network consultants, systems integrators, [so] if one of our clients has to do major maintenance or a system upgrade, it's got to be done on a weekend. That happens about once a month.
I screen my calls on the weekends. If I get a call from a customer who doesn't a have 24-7 contract, I let the phone ring.
Are you working more hours than you used to?
I've worked for a number of companies in the past as an internal systems consultant. I've always worked a lot of hours -- on average about 60. Now, I'm working about the same, but the difference is I own my own company. I'm rewarding myself by working these hours.
Are you working smarter because of technology?
Technology is making those 60 hours worked much easier than before. If I need to prepare a quotation for a big project, in the past I had to make a lot of phone calls and do research. Now, I just go on to the Internet in my off hours at night and find everything I need in significantly less time. It has made me more efficient.
With technology and the Internet, I can stay in contact with my staff and customers. When I'm on vacation, I usually hear more from my staff than from clients. They don't call unless it's an emergency.
I always carry my cell phone so customers can contact me. When you're in business, it's a given. You have to pay your rent. You have to pay your staff. You've got to be accessible.
Can you ever completely relax and tune out?
No. Because I own a small service company, I'm always on call. When customers call, they have an urgent need. Being on vacation or away from work wouldn't be considered an excuse. When you run a business -- it doesn't matter how small -- you always have to plan for something unexpected to happen. You have to stay alert all of the time. EDITED BY Patricia O'Connell