Value Added: Being your own boss can be a joy — until you want a vacation


Jamie Ratner, founder and CEO of CertifiKid, organizes her days away from work into segments. She plays for four or five hours, then checks back in with the office. (Dottie Millwater Photography)
Thomas Heath
Reporter August 19, 2012

Most entrepreneurs tell me the thing they like best about their lives is not having a boss.

Until they want a vacation.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

Take Jamie Ratner, founder and chief executive of Certifikid, a family-oriented daily deals business she runs out of her suburban Maryland home.

The mompreneur, who has 15 employees, was frantically organizing a week’s worth of daily coupon deals so she could head out of town with her lawyer husband and two young children.

When I reached her by phone, Ratner, 34, was calling the owner of the beach house she planned to rent, making sure the Internet connection was working. She didn’t want a repeat of last year, when an unreliable signal forced her to be glued to a corner of the house where the transponder was located.

“I send my deal out every day to 60,000 subscribers, so I need an Internet connection,” she said.

(I know the feeling; you can’t afford to go dark for too long, lest your audience forget you.)

Like others I interviewed, Ratner organizes her days away from work into segments. She plays for four or five hours, then checks back in with the office.

“You have to prepare like crazy to ever go on vacation,” she said.

With a $2 million-plus business that puts about $350,000 in her pocket, checking out for a week means money lost.

“You can be like people in Spain and close shop for a week,” said the workaholic. “But then you think about the revenue you could be making and ask yourself, ‘Is it really worth that?’ ”

It is for entrepreneur Larry Nelson, who unplugged for a full week a few years back on a trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

“It took me three days to stop thinking and stop reaching for my BlackBerry,” said Nelson, 55, founder and chief executive of TrafficLand, a Fairfax County company that connects with more than 10,000 traffic cameras across the United States and sells those feeds to television stations, online traffic sites and newspaper Web sites (including washingtonpost.com).

“I felt great when I got back,” Nelson said. “That’s my recommendation for anyone who hasn’t figured it out yet. Turn off the BlackBerry at least once a year for at least one week.”

Joe Payne agrees.

The chief executive of Eloqua, a 400-person Tysons Corner software company, said his family has a rule prohibiting two-way electronic devices on the beach. Like Ratner, he segments his day, checking e-mail in the morning and then later in the afternoon or evening.

In between is family time.

Payne recently took a long-planned beach vacation, which happened to arrive a week after Eloqua went public on Aug. 2. The company helps clients — from the Washington Capitals to the Republican National Committee — measure the seriousness of visitors to their online sites.

“I had no guilt,” Payne said. “In any given week, I work at least 60 hours.”

Besides, he added, “if my company with 400 employees couldn’t operate without me, then I’m a bad CEO.”

Linda Roth doesn’t have a management team to turn to. The owner of a small public relations firm specializing in the hospitality industry is practically a one-woman show, which means working vacations.

“Corporate executives have a hierarchy to make decisions,” she said. “I have no hierarchy.”

She once spent her vacation on the telephone, rounding up former Redskins players with whom she had worked in the past for a last-minute appearance at a shoe store opening.

It wasn’t because she was unprepared. There are uncertainties in any business, she noted, especially openings, when “you are at the will of the construction guys.”

She must be able to communicate with clients and her staff 24-7, so she is always on her mobile device, whether she is in Europe or on the Beltway.

For Phil Becnel, 24-7 means in the middle of the night on a boat full of sleeping tourists in Vietnam, which is where the small-business owner found himself conducting a conference call to drum up business.

“Everyone says, ‘Leave town and go and have fun and don’t worry about work,’ ” said Becnel, 38. “The truth is, your clients don’t wait for you. Clients aren’t employers. And if you’re not delivering to them, they are going to go somewhere else.”

Becnel founded Arlington-based Dinolt Becnel & Wells Investigative Group, a boutique private-eye firm that earns a big chunk of its income evaluating people’s body language. His six-person firm grosses about half a million dollars a year, and any lost revenue can hurt.

The guy is on a short leash. So short, in fact, that it contributed to the breakup of his first marriage.

In 2005, the year after he formed the company, Becnel recalled, he got a call from a client when he was in Emerald Isle, N.C. “A law firm wanted us to investigate a fraud scheme. It sounded promising, so I went up the street and found a coffee shop and worked on the case all week. I left my family at the beach while I was at the coffee shop. And that’s the stuff you do for clients. That marriage didn’t last long.”

When he phoned me last week from Emerald Isle, Becnel was reviewing some investigative reports and doing a few hours of administrative work.

But he was also spending several hours a day with his two children — putting some balance back in his life.

For previous Value Added columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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