How one small-business owner and his partner (and wife) are running their business remotely—while they travel the world.
By Andrea Holved
The idea was planted well before David Johnson and his future wife and business partner, Anna Copley, got married, had kids or even started PickleballCentral.com—and long before they saw their fledgling online business grow so large that they signed a lease on 5,000 square feet of warehouse and office space and hired 19 employees.
“We discovered we had a mutual interest in travel, and we said, ‘Hey, if we have kids sometime, we’d love to take them on a long trip,’” Johnson remembers. “We talked about it way back then, and then four or five years ago we started thinking, ‘Well, what would be the ideal time to take the kids on a trip?’”
They wanted to embark on their trip around the world before either of their two daughters hit high school—“when it would probably be harder to convince them that it was a good idea to leave for a year,” he says—but they also wanted both girls to be old enough to travel well, and to remember details of their experiences abroad. Since their oldest will be a freshman in high school next year and their youngest is 10, this year seemed like their best bet.
“We may have tried to figure out how to do it even if the business wasn’t so large,” he says, “but the fact that it grew nicely, and that we could hire the staff, made it a lot easier to make the decision to go—and to look forward to going.”
Their online store, which carries pickleball equipment and accessories, may have made their journey possible, but it also presented a problem: How could Johnson and Copley continue to run a thriving business while traveling thousands of miles away? (Pickleball, played with paddles and a plastic ball, is essentially a mix of tennis and badminton.)
The ‘dry run’
Last summer, the family of four spent two weeks in England to test everything out: the girls’ travel ability, the ease and expense of cell phones and Internet connectivity abroad, the communication between PickleballCentral’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and wherever Johnson and Copley were on a given day.
“That was kind of a dry run for us,” Johnson says. “We didn’t have the full staff at that point that we do now, and we knew that we were coming back in two weeks, so we didn’t have to hand off a lot of the tasks to folks. But we were able to show that the business ran fine while we were gone, and we were able to show that we could check in with the technology that we have to monitor the business and talk to [our staff] if there were issues.
“It made us a lot more comfortable, knowing that all seemed to work well for the short two-week period, and that if we extended that to ten months, we could probably make it work just fine,” he says.
So Johnson and Copley decided to make their dream trip happen, and launched into full planning mode to prepare for it.
They started by letting their staff know that there were leaving, and making some new hires—including a product manager and a part-time interim general manager—to ensure their shoes would be filled.
“For the two months before we left, we really tried to hand off a lot of the operational day-to-day stuff to our staff, so that they had a couple of months to really run with the business while we were still around and could answer questions or help out,” Johnson says. “That was a really good thing to do, so that when we left it wasn’t abrupt, but folks had been doing pretty much what they would be doing for a month or two before we left.”
Johnson and Copley also documented all of the operational procedures that had previously existed only in their heads, so their employees had easy references.
“This [trip] forced us to really look at every aspect of the business and make sure we had people who were going to cover it and who knew how to do it, and that we had policies in place,” he says.
There was also the trip itinerary to plan, as well as the girls’ homeschool curriculum, and details of their technology access to nail down. They needed a good international cell phone plan, and sprung for new smartphones and laptops for every member of the family to ensure connectivity.
Johnson and Copley figured that if they could call and email their staff members, monitor the business’s performance in real-time and continue to direct strategy, they’d be just fine.
On the road
Johnson and his family have been traveling for nearly six weeks now, landing first in Copenhagen in July and then making their way to Amsterdam and now through Paris. From Paris, they’ll be going to Switzerland, then Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, India and then Bali for Christmas—but everything in 2016 is still fairly flexible. They plan to tour Australia, Southeast Asia, China, Japan and Peru before coming back to the States in early May.
“Things are generally going real well!” Johnson says. “As long as we’ve got an Internet connection, that takes care of 99% of what we need.”
He estimates that he and Anna each spend about a tenth of their day working on the business, by either communicating with staff back home or monitoring key performance indicators like sales numbers in Volusion, their online storefront software, or cash flow in QuickBooks Online, or month-over-month numbers from the management dashboard they built themselves in Google Sheets.
That all of their business software is cloud-based makes it easy to keep tabs on the business and collaborate with their employees.
“Even if we’re out sightseeing or something, with our phone, we can quickly look in and see how sales are going, and if there are any urgent emails we need to take care of,” he says. “We keep our finger on the pulse throughout the day, but we dive in and do more extensive stuff either late at night when we get back in or early in the morning before we go out for the day.”
Not entirely smooth sailing
They’ve hit a couple of bumps so far.
“We had one major issue with our website,” Johnson says. “There was a data corruption issue with our customer database, and so we had to actually turn the store off so people couldn’t place new orders.” It took 14 hours to get the site back up and running smoothly, and Johnson estimates that they lost $4,000 to $5,000 in sales because of the closure.
“It was a bit frustrating, because we weren’t there, we weren’t talking directly to the folks that were trying to solve the problem. So we just had to rely on our staff back in Kent, that they would be able to resolve it, and they did,” he says. “I think even though we hate to see the website go down, we were comforted by the fact that they were able to solve it, and take care of the problem.”
When Johnson and Copley needed a couple of tax documents notarized a few weeks ago as part of their effort to expand their Amazon store into the U.K., “it was actually quite difficult to do,” Johnson reports. They eventually succeeded, but the process took over 33 hours and required a trip to the U.S. embassy.
Back in Copenhagen, while Johnson and Copley were on a long walk along the waterfront, they took a rest and checked their phones, only to discover that one of their major vendors had been acquired.
“It was quite a surprise to us,” Johnson says. “We’re out there—we’re looking at the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen—and all of sudden we had this business thing that happened and it’s sort of big news, so we spent some time checking in and trying to figure out what it meant to our business, and what exactly was going on. So, business can interrupt the sightseeing even when you don’t plan on it.”
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