Vacations Are Easier Said Than Done For Many MSPs
Summer officially ends at the end of next week; did you get a chance to unplug from your managed services provider (MSP) and take a vacation?
How about during the past year?
For countless MSPs, the answer is a resounding “no.”
To some extent, a lack of leisure time is endemic to growing a business, but that doesn’t make the practice of going years without meaningful time off any less taxing on mind and spirit.
“I always took a vacation, so do the partners in my current MSP,” said Gary Pica, who in addition to running the popular MSP peer groups organization TruMethods, has run MSPs since the mid-1990s. “Working with so many MSP’s, the smaller shops where the owner is still the lead tech tend to struggle with getting away.”
“Even when they are on vacation, they are tethered to their phone,” he continued. “Some of this is the nature of the business and some of it is owners not willing to let go and empower their team.”
Katy, Texas-based MSP SabinoCompTech is run by the husband and wife team of Angel and Nancy Sabino, who are also raising children ages 12 and 9.
Asked whether they take regular vacations from the business they started nine years ago, Nancy Sabino replied: “Define vacation.”
“We try to get out of town or have some sort of staycation for the kids so they don’t hate us,” she said. “We definitely do it for the kids. They kind of keep us in some cycle.”
For the first seven years, SabinoCompTech was largely a computer repair shop with a less-than-ideal business model that didn’t allow the couple and their young kids much time away.
In fact, they didn’t take a day off together during the first four years.
“We were a startup and we were working in the business so much,” Nancy Sabino said. “We were both in roles that were needed. If we weren’t in the business, things would either just pile up or they wouldn’t get done.”
Eventually, the business and staff grew to the point that the owners would take a day off here and there, like a Friday in front of a long weekend.
Business, operational models matter
In 2015, Nancy Sabino joined an incubator and the couple wholly redesigned the business into a recurring-revenue MSP.
While changing the business model, the Sabinos devised new processes and roles that would allow them to increasingly step away without significantly affecting operations.
“We started with the end in mind,” she said. “The end in mind is for the business to be able to run without us.
“We started designing processes and roles that did not depend on us.”
Things quickly improved on the vacation front.
By July of 2016 – less than a year after the business model change – the couple and their children traveled to Orlando, Fla., for a full week visit to Universal Studios and a stay with relatives who had no Internet service.
“It was wonderful,” Nancy Sabino said. “It was the longest vacation we had ever taken.”
“Our team was wonderful,” she went on. “They tried not to call us. We called them, whenever we could. I did have to take one day to catch up on emails and payroll.
“I used the hotspot on my phone in order to get Internet.”
This year, due to the needs of the business, the Sabinos have been able to get away twice this summer for three days each, once for a stay at a nearby water park resort with the kids, and another time for a short, working vacation.
“We do quarterly business planning, so we went to San Antonio to do that,” Nancy said of she and her husband. “It was also our anniversary week.”
The business hardly missed a beat.
“Everyone else’s roles continue,” she said. “All of our customers are taken care of. Literally, the only things that don’t happen are sales and meetings.”
The couple expects their ability to get away will only increase.
“As we grow, the roles and responsibilities that we’re currently sitting in will be filled,” Nancy said. “The more we grow, the more we can step out.”
Arlin Sorensen, another long-time MSP, is founder of HTG, one of the largest MSP peer group communities, with members around the world.
“We always took at least a week vacation, sometimes in conjunction with an industry event,” he said of the MSP he owned for 27 years. “I often did work as part of it so it wasn’t a work-free vacation, as I would often do email or take calls early in the day.
“But we did something each year.”
Sorensen grew up taking family vacations every year, so he made it a priority to build regular vacations into the operations of his own business.
“Early, it was about communicating with customers that I would be gone,” he said. “It was a huge driver to having a team and also for partnering with others who could provide coverage, if needed.”
It would be 15 years before Jamison West was able to take a real vacation from Arterian, the Seattle-area MSP he owned for 21 years.
“That was from being a one-man band through a 10-person shop,” he said. “Never really was able to do anything regularly.”
At first, the team was too small to run the business without him.
After that, it took time to find and develop staff that he could trust with his livelihood.
“Once I had a leadership team – even a strong No. 2 – I was suddenly able to take a week, and eventually was even able to do that a couple times a year with one completely unplugged,” West said.
By the time he sold the business to Aldridge a couple years ago, West had mastered the art of getting away.
“I took probably three to four full weeks off,” he said. “I would typically completely disconnect for at least one of those weeks; zero communication.”
“For the other two to three weeks, I typically did not bring a laptop,” West continued. “I only used my mobile to respond to critical issues and such, maybe check a couple times a day and ask my leadership team to text if there was something absolutely critical – which, by the way, nearly never happened.”
With solid managers on staff, arrangements for taking vacations became simple.
“If I had an executive assistant at the time, I tended not to use out-of-office and just let my EA triage emails, send to people to respond, or hold until my return,” West explained. “If I didn’t have an executive assistant, I had an out-of-office with contact information on whom to connect with for various purposes.
“As we matured, I also had legal and financial authority – to specified limits – handed to specific members of the leadership team in my absence.”
For Nancy Sabino, finding ways to take time off is a matter of good mental health.
“Work-life balance is very important,” she said. “I struggle with it… it’s very, very important to keep that balance.”
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