How Do I... Take a Vacation

August in Washington means vacation for many people -- many people other than small business owners.

"Vacation for a small business means you can lose business," said Lyn Beer, owner of Kitchen Quest, a one-woman firm in Vienna, Va.

While Beer didn't take a vacation for 10 years after starting her kitchen remodeling business in 1993, she said her experience has taught her how to fit some relaxation into her schedule. That's why she was able to successfully take a lakeshore vacation in Wisconsin last week.

"Most small business owners tend not to like a 9-to-5 job anyway, but it doesn't mean you don't remember what it's like to go to the beach," she said.

To take a vacation, she recommends managing clients' expectations while you're away with these tips:

* Tell clients in advance that you're going on vacation, but assure them that they can reach you and that you will bring their materials along. She notes it is especially important in a "hand-holding business" like home remodeling where clients turn to their contact for support and guidance.

* Clarify for them where their project is going to be in two weeks. Let them know what will be done in your absence.

* Give clients an assignment when you're on vacation. Let them know you'll be back in two weeks, but in the meantime, for example, you'd like for them to review color samples. Beer recently set up a meeting with a client and an appliance retailer so that they could discuss products while she was out. "It keeps the project rolling and the client is taking action," she said.

* It can be OK to let your clients know that you need to rejuvenate so you'll come back to their projects refreshed.

* If it's the beginning of a project, tell the client "I'm booked next week," which actually means you're going on vacation. But, still find out if they really need you to start right away or if they can wait two weeks before the initial meeting.

Beer generally works on about five kitchens concurrently and when she founded her business after a 20-year career as a pre-school teacher she said she hardly left the telephone. "When you've got a new business, you have to put your all into it...I think it takes at least five years for a business to really start going," she said.

"A good business means you have clients, but in this day and age with cellphones, a computer and instant messaging, clients have no patience to hear that you're going on vacation and you'll be back in a week. That just doesn't fly."

Beer learned the ropes of kitchen remodeling by finding an apprecenticeship after she contacted the National Kitchen and Bath Association.

"I found someone who worked out of her home and let me tag along and do some office work," said Beer, who now works out of her home.

After a couple of months, she was hired by home design giant Bray and Scarff to work at its Rockville, Md., store, beginning on its opening day. Less than two years later, she left and founded her own firm.

According to Beer, kitchen remodeling in the early '90s was not the big business it is today. "There were no popular magazines dedicated to the subject and it was a budding industry then," she said. "I got in at the right time."

It was her own experience with kitchens that propelled her into the industry.

"Every standard kitchen is made for someone who is at least four to five inches taller than me," said Beer, who stands five feet high. "It hurts your body to work in an area that isn't made for the right height -- whether you're tall or small."

She cultivated clients by writing articles about home remodeling issues for local newspapers. "People read these articles, see your name and you get calls and business," she said. Beer got a big break when she collaborated on an article for Washingtonian magazine about a program she had run at a children's museum downtown during her years as a teacher. In 1995, a writer from the magazine who she had known from the museum piece ran a story on kitchens and featured her heavily in it.

She estimates it takes her average client about four years to decide that they might want to remodel their kitchen. Even if it took them years to reach a decision, "when they make the phone call, you have to be there and be ready to meet their needs," she said.

She recommends that every small business owner pick at least one day of the week not to go into the office. Beer chose Sunday. For the first 10 years, Beer worked six days a week, about 10 hours a day. She often worked in the evening and on Saturday mornings to offer meeting times when clients would not be in their offices.

While she found it important to be extremely flexible, especially in the first years of the business, she reiterates the importance of off-hours privacy when working from the home.

"Small business owners need to be careful that their clients don't think 'if I'm paying you, I own you.'"

One Sunday a client knocked on her door unannounced. She was "having a crisis over color choices," Beer recalled.

She said she was shocked that someone would have the audacity to come over to her house on a Sunday: "I stared at her in shock and said 'we can handle this tomorrow.' The client huffed and puffed but in the end backed down, and I think respected me for laying down the parameters."

As her business grew, Beer was able to take some long weekends by planning ahead. She now takes her cellphone and work-related folders with her on vacation.

Summary: Lyn Beer, owner of a one-woman kitchen remodeling business, didn't take a vacation for 10 years after starting her business in 1993. Her business grew and naturally she gained more experience over the years. She offers tips that she wished she had at the beginning so managers of startups can better plan for vacations or at least a little rest and relaxation.

By Sharon McLoone |  August 10, 2007; 6:00 AM ET How Do I...
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