Memo to Boss: Time to Re-Pot and Re-Charge

Many people start a small business because they want to re-pot themselves. Think of it this way: you take a root-bound plant, put it into a new pot with fresh soil so that its roots can stretch out, and then watch the plant grow. That's the image of a healthy plant and a healthy person.

If you have succeeded in moving on from a played-out career or a dead-end job to re-pot yourself as a small business owner, then you have already experienced this sense of renewal. Countless people come to the conclusion that they would rather work for themselves after working for other people. Still others wait until they’ve retired from their main careers before becoming entrepreneurs. No matter how they arrive at owning a small business, though, it feels like starting over.

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One of the first references to re-potting comes from a 1980 article in The Wall Street Journal (with thanks to the excellent Web site, Double-Tongued Word Wrester Dictionary). The article about the then-president of Verbatim being fired includes this anecdote: "Mr. McCuen, contacted at his home in Sunnyvale, was rather stoic about his dismissal.… 'It’s about time for me to get repotted somewhere else.'"

Some people, though, don’t wait to re-pot themselves as small business owners. They are born entrepreneurs who have been making money since they were 9 or 10. Take, for example, Sean Belnick, a 19-year-old undergraduate at Emory University who started his own business when he was in ninth grade. His stepfather had sales experience in the office chair industry, and Belnick knew how to put together a Web site. So the young man suggested that they sell office chairs online.

Five years later, what started as an after-school project in a teenager’s bedroom has grown into a full-fledged $15-million dollar online business called . A recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution (April 28, 2006) points out that Belnick has always had the “entrepreneurial bug”:

In fifth grade, he started a mini-Pokemon card empire on eBay after figuring out that he could buy packs of cards and sell off the most valuable on the Web for a profit. "We would go to the mailbox and the checks would just roll in," [his mother Lesley] Glazer said. The preteen made more than $4,000. "That was Sean, always trying to make a buck," his mother said, laughing.

“Trying to make a buck” is an excellent reason to own your own small business. But so is that other reason that feeds the soul: doing something that you love. And all is well until you find out that running a small business is no escape from hard work. In fact, it’s the hardest work of all, because you are constantly on patrol, searching for new customers, new products and services, new ways to save money, new financing. Is it any wonder that small business owners end up working longer hours than their employees?

An Inc. magazine article points out that small business owners are able to work those long hours because they are resilient. They don’t wilt under fire. They keep their eyes on the big picture (such as, I’m working to send my kids to college), and they don’t sweat the small indignities and inconveniences. Since small business owners control their own business, they are more able to weather the storms.

But what happens when the body and spirit begin to wear out from being constantly on the spot? All that hard work leads to a sense that the business simply can't survive without you there. And that’s when the first signs of exhaustion begin to appear – not sleeping well at night, dragging out of bed in the morning, feeling fuzzy-headed in the morning or afternoon, being short-tempered – none of which makes for either good business or a good home life. Being so tied into one’s own business makes it difficult to see that it's time to stop and re-pot – or at the very least to recharge.

It's coming on summer, and now is a great time to get away from the business to recharge your batteries and your brain. Just as everyone needs to sleep to re-charge body and brain, every small business owner needs to take time away from the business to get a new perspective on life and the business.

I can hear all the excuses cranking up now – “But I don’t have time to take a vacation.” “I can’t get away now.” “No one else can handle the business.” To borrow from poker lingo, these are clear “tells” of an overworked small business owner. It’s time to adopt a slacker attitude to give your brain and spirit time to recoup. Because slacking provides downtime away from your everyday concerns – which is exactly what your brain needs to reawaken your creativity.

Time away from the business spent with family and friends doesn’t mean time wasted. Aside from the benefits of having fun with people you love and care for, it also gives your brain a rest. Every creative person I've ever known uses this trick: they think about a project or challenge that's facing them, and then they let their minds go somewhere else. They either go to sleep and let the mind work unconsciously or they do something to relax (take a walk, go out to a movie, fix dinner) to let the mind work on the problem under the surface. More often than not, they have a Eureka! moment when they come back to the problem.

The same thing happens when you get away from your business for a week. You leave behind all the little problems and daily crises that get in the way of thinking about the big ideas that might help your business grow. If you can re-pot your brain for a while, it will reward you with new ideas that take root to help you solve some ongoing problems or to help you branch out in new directions.

It’s a classic conundrum: you can’t get away but you must get away. Re-potting isn’t easy to do, yet it’s the best way to bring new energy to your life and business. So take the next important step: plan that vacation now and buy your tickets, so that you don’t let the summer sun get away. You will need that sun to help your re-potted plant grow fast.

Susan C. Walker writes a personal finance and economics column for as well as this small business column. She works for Elliott Wave International, a market forecasting and technical analysis company, and has been an associate editor with Inc. magazine, a newspaper business editor, an investor relations executive for a real estate investment trust and a speechwriter for the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. She graduated from Stanford University.