Tuesday, September 1, 2015

You Need a Vacation (Tradecraft)

You never really know if your policies and procedures, the real creative job of store owners, will work until you're gone. One of the things I've realized by owning a store is even work can be a form of laziness if you do the wrong work, and strangely enough, time away from the store is critical to your work. I'm not talking about recharging your batteries, which is good, I'm talking about stressing your business to see if it's strong by not being there.

My main job as a business owner (after a decade) is creating policies and procedures. This is not something you can buy or borrow, like a McDonald's franchise handbook or something amazing veteran retailer Jim Crocker wrote. These are hard won nuanced changes to how you run your individual business. The principles are somewhat universal, but the details are all yours. It's how you run your business, which can be as idiosyncratic as you like. It's also how you want your people to treat others, your culture of customer service and how far you'll go to fix problems. You can't declare a culture, you have to formulate it and develop it over time and teach it by example.

Our policies and procedures have come from years of meetings, networking and improvements. There are plenty of totally acceptable things employees do, that I don't like (do not chevron product, for example or no product ever goes directly on the ground). Unfortunately, as the owner, you're always personally tweaking, modifying, straightening, and smoothing, which means you're never quite sure how it will work without you until you're gone.

Besides the policies and procedures, your job is also to clear the way for your employees to be successful. But what happens when you're gone? Does your manager clear the way or does it remain obstructed until you're back? How empowered is your manager to clear obstructions?  Do they have resources like credit cards and cash on hand or will you get a call while you're on the beach because the store is out of toilet paper? Have you communicated these things or do you feel it's easier to just do them yourself? If you just do them yourself, you will always be doing it. Ask a parent.

Lets look at why you want to be gone. Your business will never have much value until it can be run without a dedicated, on site owner. You can't go on vacation. You can't sell it. You can't retire. You can't successfully open another store. You certainly can't leave it to your hapless heirs who will delay their own lives while they run it into the ground. That's fine for most people, but your perspective may change as you get older, when you hit 40, and 50, and 60. If you're going to devote your life to this thing, make sure you have a plan to leave it.

I've read that most small business owners have their business as their only retirement asset by the time they're ready to retire. I've seen how hard it is to save for retirement while owning a business, so I think this is true. Money you could be putting into your retirement fund is just as eagerly needed in your small business, and it always wants more investment. I figure I need to gross a couple million dollars a year to have both a growing business and a strong retirement fund (probably not going to happen). Start working from day one to make your business a strong retirement asset rather than a ball and chain.

After you get back from vacation, before you walk into your store (assuming it's still there and there's no fire damage), stop. View it with fresh eyes. It's something taught to me by the wonderful Heather Barnhorst, who recently passed. Before you rip down old Pokemon posters from the window, make a note to have a new policy on posters in the window. Before you straighten shelves, make sure you have a policy on how often employees should walk the aisles and straighten shelves. Find our whose been chevroning products and stacking them on the floor and punish them (kidding). Take all that tweaking, straightening and smoothing you do, and make sure others are doing it. That's your job, right? My store was in great condition after three weeks, by the way.

What problems arose while you were gone that you normally handle? My biggest problems were in areas that haven't quite transitioned away from me.  Does every invoice from received orders make it to my in box? If they don't, the whole system comes to a screeching halt while I deal with curious distributors who wonder if I've mailed a check or three (answer, I don't know, I delegated mailing them). It doesn't help that one supplier doesn't include paper invoices, another puts them on the inside of the box and another attaches them to the outside of the box. Some don't say "invoice" on them for arcane accounting reasons.

I have a fantastic manager, so on my return, I spent approximately six hours catching up after three weeks. Two of those hours were making sure my insurance wasn't canceled because I forgot to write an account number on our auto insurance check (opening mail and paying bills is still a job only I do). Another two hours was talking about my vacation over lunch. It went so smooth without me I came up with a new project for my managers. Always have a manager trainee on hand. I can't be lying on a beach in Hawaii in my golden years and have my manager give me their two weeks notice when it takes us a year to train up a new one. Then my manager can go on vacation and come back and do this work. That's a project for next year.

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