I recently did something that scares the crap out of most entrepreneurs: I completely disconnected from the small business I started. As in I shut down my email. I left the country. And I instructed clients and employees not to contact me unless human lives were at stake or the building was burning down. For a month.
I’m making it sound like this was some kind of rash decision. Actually, it was over a year in the making and meticulously planned. I call it the Entrepreneur Stress Test, because just as governments put banks through simulated financial crises to test their resilience, small business owners and team leaders need to test how they’ll perform without their business, and how their business will perform without them.
As I learned, the Entrepreneur Stress Test doesn’t just change your business; it changes your perspective. And in my case, your entire life.
WHY I DID IT
Like many entrepreneurs, my business brand was tightly tied to my personal brand from the moment I hung out my shingle. The clients who trusted me to negotiate their media buys thought of me as “The Tracy Call Agency.” That was fine when I was a one-woman show. But then I started hiring, growing and adding new services—until one day I realized that “Media Bridge Advertising” was bigger, better and more versatile than “Tracy Call” ever could be.
Despite that, my clients still saw me at the center of everything. I’m not sure why. Oh yeah, because I put myself there!
At its core, the Entrepreneur Stress Test is about getting out of the way to make room for Trust, with a capital “T.” You start as an entrepreneur by breeding dependence and making yourself indispensable. But the more you build a company, the more the opposite needs to happen: Clients need to trust your team. Your team needs to know that you trust them. And you need to trust the idea that you can walk away and everything will be fine.
HOW I PREPARED
The Entrepreneur Stress Test requires three forms of preparation: operational, technological and psychological. Operationally, I told my team about the plan a full six months out. Around the same time, I started dropping hints to my clients. After that, I gradually included other team members on meetings and communication. By D-Day (that’s D for “Disconnect”), everybody was ready for the switch to flip. I even had a little fun with it, composing an auto-response email telling clients not to contact me for a month, signed: “Tracy (Don’t) Call.”
On Day 1, I cut access to my email inbox on my phone and other devices. Most importantly, I removed every app from my phone that I didn’t absolutely need, and moved other ones off my home screen. My plans involved spending more quality time with my wife and son, so I vowed to not use my phone unless absolutely necessary.
HOW IT WENT DOWN
As D-Day approached, I grew excited about spending time in Europe and California, and I was remarkably calm about the test. I had a few days at home before hitting the road, and the change in my life hit the first morning. Unlike many entrepreneurs, I’m a homebody at heart. Before I knew it, I was right back to my old pattern of doing the dishes, cleaning the house, working out and cooking healthier meals. My mind and body appreciated the space. It’s almost like my senses came back.
Once we started traveling, I was able to feel fully in the moment instead of being tugged back to the business and constantly looking over my shoulder. Denmark, Germany … eventually catching the end of the Tour de France in Paris … it was incredible! Yes, I sometimes grabbed my phone out of habit. But not nearly as much as I thought I would. When I used social media, I found myself taking the time to fully digest people’s updates and read entire articles. I noticed that the less I used technology, the less my son used it, and the more we truly engaged with each other. I stopped skimming life.
Did my clients and employees still call? I had one client call during the entire month. I directed her back to the team, and they took care of it. Speaking of my team, they hit it out of the park. By empowering them to make big decisions without the security (and cover) of my approval, they learned how to trust themselves like never before. Since returning, I’ve noticed a huge rise in their collective confidence level. The sleeping leaders have emerged, and I’m frankly not sure how much longer that would have taken if I hadn’t left.
I should also mention that my team turned a profit for the month, landed some big new clients and even made two new hires! What really made me smile was expecting to see 3,000 unopened emails when I returned and instead discovering that they had responded to everything that needed attention and deleted everything else. Being gone a month and coming home to a clean inbox—now THAT was amazing.
WHAT I LEARNED
On a professional level, the Entrepreneur Stress Test gave me the validation I needed: I’ve built something that doesn’t depend on me every second of every day. That’s the Catch-22 of starting a business. Like a nonprofit whose ultimate goal is to NOT be needed anymore (think cancer or Alzheimer’s research), the ultimate entrepreneur’s accomplishment is to make yourself expendable—at least for a month. : )
My team’s performance didn’t come as a surprise. I know they rock. The true revelation came on a more personal level. Every spouse, partner and parent knows that their family relationships could be better. I knew it, too. But until I took the Entrepreneur Stress Test, I didn’t fully appreciate how much real estate my business was taking up in my mind, heart and soul. I didn’t realize how much of a barrier technology had become between me and my son until I took it away. And as I’ve said to people who have asked about the experience, I feel like the Entrepreneur Stress Test saved my marriage, and I didn’t even know it needed saving!
Was I excited to get back to work? Absolutely, I couldn’t wait. But I didn’t feel withdrawal, or like some empty space needed to be filled. I wasn’t full of big new ideas and crazy goals. I felt calm. I felt balanced. And I felt ready to listen like never before. I’ve always been a doer—that’s what we revere about small business owners—but the Entrepreneur Stress Test made me realize that I can’t lead if I don’t listen.
One of the first things I did was approve my team’s idea to condense the workload and take Fridays off for the rest of the summer. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I had a hunch that it would improve creativity and productivity, and that’s exactly what happened. First, it lifted spirits and took everyone out of their normal rhythm. Even more importantly, it taught everyone—including me—to front-load our work so we could truly take Fridays off. The normal habit is to procrastinate and even push some work into the weekend. Having Fridays off really motivated people to be ultra-productive Monday through Thursday. As a result, I might make this an ongoing June-August policy.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I’ve never met an entrepreneur or small business owner who couldn’t benefit from taking a step back—not just taking a day off here and there, and not fooling yourself into thinking you’ve already got that whole “work-life balance” thing all figured out. I’m talking about truly disengaging, setting solid boundaries and committing to your own version of going off the grid.
If you find yourself feeling curious (or a little jealous) about the experience I’ve just described, do yourself a favor: Take the Entrepreneur Stress Test and learn how to stress a little less, trust a little more and rejuvenate your soul. Take it from me: It’s probably the best thing you can do for yourself, the people you work with and the people you love.