This month marks the one year anniversary of Atlas Civil Design, which I started after working 17 years as an employee for other people’s companies. As expected, it has taken a lot of sacrifice and hard work to get to this point. The amount of travel that I’ve done in the past year has been exhausting. I have attended countless remote meetings, put over 20,000 miles on my vehicle, and obtained Mileage Plus Silver status with United Airlines. What’s remarkable is that in the past 3 months – our most profitable quarter to date – I have done no traveling. Zero. Zilch. In fact, I haven’t attended a single meeting. My secret? Fall off a ladder.
“A life altering injury” is how the surgeon described my bilateral calcaneal fractures (i.e. two broken heels). Two intensive surgeries later, I was to discover that life alterations can sometimes be a good thing, in that they can reveal aspects about oneself, relationships, and even business that may have otherwise been missed. What became very obvious to me as I looked at my swollen, worthless, bandaged feet was that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The irony in all of this is that I pride myself as a bit of an accessibility expert when it comes to site design; however, it only took a day or so in a wheelchair to realize that virtually no public facility is really accessible to those whose feet are sticking straight out in front of them. Needless to say, the situation did not look promising for a guy whose business required him to travel 50% of the time.
Immediately, I was forced to ask the question, “Is travel really necessary?” And by “travel,” I don’t just mean boarding an airplane to Denver. Getting in a car and attending a meeting at a client’s office across town had suddenly become a major ordeal. In-person site visits, which I had long defended as a necessary responsibility of any self-respecting civil engineer, were now extremely impractical. And how would I ever build and maintain the relationships necessary for sustained business development without taking potential clients out for lunch, coffee, dinner, or cigars? Though I was able to maintain a positive demeanor, there was an overwhelming sense that this ride was about to come to a screeching halt.
I reached out to my clients and briefly explained the situation, assured them that their projects were still in good hands, and requested that I be permitted to participate in any upcoming meetings via phone. They all wished me a successful healing process and then went about their business. No one pulled their project. None of them expressed any great level of concern as to how the work would get done. No one really cared that I wasn’t going to personally attend the next all-hands meeting. To my clients, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Part of me was relieved. Another part of me was baffled and a bit deflated. Why had I been spending so much time traveling if it wasn’t an essential component to success?
The next thing I did was get to work. And boy did I work. It’s amazing how much time can be gained when one is not constantly traveling and attending meetings. My productivity shot through the roof. While I would never try to minimize the importance of face to face interactions, the fact is I had more time to reach out to more people by phone, email, and social media than I ever had driving around from one meeting to the next. The icing on the cake was that I was saving the company thousands of dollars in fuel, meals, and other travel related expenses.
One thing that the long months of traveling had taught me is how to work from anywhere. Armed with nothing more than a laptop and a cell phone, I can run my business from a coffee shop in Brazil (been there, done that). With cloud storage, email, Skype, and thousands of other great Web based information and collaboration tools available to us, it’s amazing that so many people still cling to the traditional conference table meeting. Do I really need to visit a project site in person? Or does Google Earth, online municipal GIS databases, and the 50 million scanner points that the surveyor uploaded paint an edequate picture? For me, the technology allows me to effectively work from home for weeks on end while my feet heal. The work still gets done. The bills still get paid. The backlog of projects continues to grow.
Don’t get me wrong – not being able to walk sucks and I wouldn’t wish this experience upon anyone. I can assure you, when I’m back on my feet, that I will once again be visiting project sites and meeting clients for cigars – if for no other reason than to get out of the office. But I will not be lured into believing the self imposed delusion that success is proportional to the amount of time spent behind the wheel or waiting in the security line at the airport. I’ve got better things to do… like climbing ladders.