The founder retreat revisited

Two years ago, I started experimenting with a founder retreat. While my first retreat felt a bit strange and barrier-breaking, I’ve learned to love the time away from my daily tasks. This post is a follow up of the things I’ve learned while going away for a founder retreat every 6 months during the last couple of years.

First, some of you may notice the change of words from “Personal Retreat” to “Founder Retreat”. When starting this practice, the retreats were highly driven by my personal goals. At the time, I was working as a consultant full time, which is why most of the goals I set for myself were related to technologies and activities around me and my freelance work. Since then, I’m now able to dedicate myself almost full time to my SaaS business elmah.io. I still set personal goals for myself, but most of my focus on the retreat goes into the business (hence “Founders” retreat).

Location

Played tourist in my own city on my recent retreat.

The important thing is to get out of the office. I usually pick a hotel somewhere, since they often provide conference facilities (still feel strange writing things on a whiteboard alone). For the winter period (typically January or February), I’ll find a nice place with a Spa or other facilities able to provide a bit of summer-vibe into the cold period. For the summer and sometimes sunny weather in Denmark (July or August), I pick a place close to something interesting to visit. While a place with a whiteboard is nice, writing stuff directly on the PC from a hotel room is fine as well.

Tip: When I tell people about the necessary cost for food and accommodations, they often offer me their couch or guest room for free. While staying with people is fine when working a long day or something similar, I always say no thanks when on the retreat. It’s important for me to be alone during those days.

Spoil yourself. If you’re into food, find a good place to eat.

Timespan

I always book a place to stay for the night, but I’m usually back home before closing time on Day 2. I’ve seen people go on 5 day retreats, but I’ve never felt that I didn’t finish the activities that I wanted to get done in 2 days.

Agenda

I’m not a big fan of processes. But I seem to have settled on a couple of items that I go through on each retreat. The retreat roughly breaks down into three major areas for me:

  • Goals
  • Relaxation
  • Hackathon

While some people use the retreat as time off, I typically make it a combination of business related thoughts, getting some exercise (typically by walking around) and working on a fun code project.

Goals

This is the most important activity for me and pretty much why I take the time off for a retreat. Looking at the goals set on the last retreat, as well as creating new ones, is a good way to evaluate if you are on the right track. I set monthly goals as well, but it’s easy to forget about the long-term goals while being busy running the business.

Tip: Don’t set a timespan on each activity during the goal phase to force yourself into a major brainstorm. I’ve tried both and I don’t believe that my goals and ideas get better by spending more time on them. Your first thoughts are probably there for a reason.

I’ll start by following up on the goals from last time. I don’t have any fancy or expensive system for managing goals, so I just mark the goals with colors on a Google Sheet I’ve created. Green for the goals done, yellow for those started, but not yet completed and red for the areas that are far from being done. I’ll create a comment for each goal with a status and my thoughts. Both red, yellow and green goals can act as input for the goal setting for the next 6 months.

To get additional input for new goals, I’ll usually create a timeline of the things I’ve achieved/experienced since the last retreat. I have a terrible memory, but I’ve found that looking though the commit log, my blog (both this blog, as well as blog.elmah.io) and my calendar makes a good base for getting the major activities written down. Activities act as input for new goals.

Creating a timeline is a great way to follow up on your achievements.

To help setting new goals, I usually write down 3 good and 3 bad things from the last 6 months. The timeline of the activities helps me remember what went good and what went wrong and having a list of 6 items, acts as great input for new goals.

Armed with the goals from last time, the timeline and good/bad things; it’s time for setting new goals. Like mentioned previously, I don’t take a lot of hours setting new goals. Some of the goals may be something I’ve thought about before the retreat, while others are born out of the evaluating phase just finished. Most of my goals tend to be directed at the business, but I believe that it’s important to set personal goals as well. To force myself to remember that I’m aiming for:

  • At least 1 personal goal (example: find a mentor, go to this conference, etc.)
  • At least 1 revenue goal (I’m a geek and tend to focus too much on tech if I don’t force myself not to)
  • At least 3 business goals (example: launch feature x, increase traffic with x, etc.)

Tip: There’s a lot of ways to write down goals (like SMART). The important part for me is, that I’m able to measure if a goal is achieved or not. Having a goal saying something like, “I must be happy to work every day” is harder to measure than “triple monthly visitors on the blog” (that is an actual goal from last retreat and yes, that is achieved 💪).

It’s impossible for me to set a time on the activities in this phase. Sometimes it takes a few hours and other times a day. I’ve found that I’m getting more productive over time, though.

Relaxation

Doing non-business-related stuff isn’t the purpose of my retreat, but it’s a great way to take breaks and think about the other activities. I’ve played golf, went to a spa, listened to podcasts, walked a lot, visited an island, played tourist in a nearby city that I visit weekly and more. I try to plan for the weather, which is why my summer retreat usually has a lot of outdoor activities. I’m an introvert and therefore, I like to be by myself (doesn’t mean that I don’t like to hang out with others like some people think). Spending time with myself helps me recharge my batteries.

Visited an island with a very long bridge. Felt like taking a photo.

Hackathon

I’m a nerd. There I said it 🙂 How often do you take time off to hack on something fun? We’re all busy, why looking at new technology sometimes only feel possible through daily projects or in the evenings. I use the retreat to take some quality time off for creating something fun. I must admit that over time, I’m starting to move more towards hacking together some prototypes, which could directly benefit the business. I love developing off-topic things, but I’m just too invested in my business right now. With that said, I still believe that it’s a good idea to look at something completely different from time to time.

Conclusion

The Founders retreat is something that I love doing and look forward to. Setting goals for yourself and your business is a great way to push yourself to move forward.