Fiona Pedley (The Canine VA) and Sam Hogwood (me! Escape From The City)

We’re big fans of working on your business as much as working in it, but when times get busy or overwhelm sets in, and you have no chance to leave your desk because you have client work to deliver, the thought of going on a business retreat is very appealing.

When it was suggested that a CEO business retreat would be a great thing for us business buddies to do, the first thing that put us off was the eye-watering prices many retreats offered – and, in some cases, the income many expect you to earn before you even get a foot in the door. Of course, if you are hitting a certain high-income bracket, it may be more exclusive, but others are shockingly expensive, focusing on profit over experience!

But this isn’t a blog complaining about the highflyer club.

What does running a business really mean?

Our businesses are thriving in different ways. As business owners, we agree it’s not easy to build and grow one and not feel the burn. Fiona has been running her business full-time for two years, with an additional year on top while working full-time employed. She supports a diverse range of canine businesses, including dog trainers and walkers, groomers, vets, pet sitters and many more. Sam has been running hers for around 18 months after 20 years of being an EA in the City. She was a more traditional VA for a couple of years before evolving to the disciplines of copywriting, research, proofreading and editing – everything to do with words, communication and detail. Sam still supports a couple of VAs with their businesses, doing diverse tasks, including copy work, and writes many blogs for clients.

We’re both at the stage where we know what we’re doing and love our work. However, the one thing we find incredibly challenging is working on our businesses, emphasising development and growth while offering more value to our clients. This includes keeping on top of finances, learning new software (for us and our clients), keeping up with marketing, and developing new ideas – the list is as long as we let it be! It’s great to have all these ideas, but when do we get the time to work on and implement them?

We’ve taken part in a few of the fantastic Get Shit Done Days with our amazing VA community [run by our awesome VA coach and mentor Amanda Johnson. These have been a great way to work with business peers, but we wanted something that wasn’t over one day, and with more of a 1-2-1 element. Something that also ensured we indulged in some obligatory self-care, culinary delights and relaxation!

We started chatting about how great it would be to go somewhere lovely and breathe fresh air. After Fiona researched it, we decided to drive ourselves to Brixham, a little fishing harbour along the Devon coast.

Brixham is a gorgeous place south of Torbay and part of the glorious English Riviera. Fiona has visited on several occasions with her husband Jon and their 6-year-old springer spaniel Kensi and loves it because she knows the area. It was a roughly equal drive for both of us, so we chose to go there. 

Our little 3-day seaside business retreat was born!

We arrived at Broadsands, a short distance from Brixham, on a windy and sunny Wednesday lunchtime in March. By the time we tucked into sandwiches, we were talking about what we wanted from the next few days with genuine excitement. Fiona brought Kensi with her for fun, and after a short drive to our appt overlooking Brixham Harbour, we knew the next few days would be productive as well as a little holiday paradise for us and Kensi.

We had a fantastic harbour appt that could have housed more of us, but it allowed us lots of room. With comfy beds, we both slept like goddesses for three nights. It was spacious and warm, and working in the kitchen provided the space we needed during the day. The living room was a cosy spot for evening chatting and chilling.

Our first day and night meant we didn’t stop nattering about what we wanted to achieve for our businesses, celebrating the fact we were there with a pint at The New Quay Inn and dinner at Albero’s where we both enjoyed a hearty dish of pasta with a glass or two of Italian wine. Kensi enjoyed the fish coming out of the kitchen, only to have her yearnings quashed when it kept going to a different table!

While we were not full-time tourists in Brixham, we did take in some of the coast. On Thursday morning, we walked up to the cliff top at Berry Head, followed by breakfast of eggs benedict and a pot of tea at The Guardhouse. It’s a stunning coastline that we’re incredibly lucky to have just a few hours’ drive from where we both live. Sam was born in Dorchester, Dorset, so the desire for much more of the coastline is firmly part of her life goals.

What do we want, do we really really want?

Thursday afternoon was spent brain-dumping and brainstorming lots of ideas on large pieces of paper with coloured pens—essential to everyday planning! It was revealing and interesting how several things we wanted for our businesses suffered due to commitments for busy client work. These things often get left until last or don’t get done at all because life takes over again.

Being on the retreat showed us that we know what we’re doing but need to be visible so that our ideal clients can find us if we’re to impart our expertise. Overwhelm is very real and debilitating at times, and just by talking, we were reminded we’re not the only ones experiencing that feeling of drowning in a sea of information!  

Of course, as part of a CEO retreat you also have to have a hoard of cheese and good wine to consume while you brainstorm and iron out ideas! Just to get those creative juices flowing, you understand. After a couple of drinks in The Old Market House, just along the harbour, we returned to the appt to share stories about our lives, and where we wanted to be by this time next year 2025. 

Part of Fiona’s ambition for her canine business is also to design and sell her books, complementing her services and providing support for the industry. These include books tailored to different areas of the canine industry that’ll be brilliant for her doggy clients and anyone else in that world. The dream is to be able to both have the life she and her husband want, one that has her running a successful business while they take holidays in their favourite part of the world, Pefkos in Greece – as well as breaks on the coast as they do now with Kensi. 

For Sam, it’s about buying a property where she lives in Kent. She and husband Ben have been renting for a decade, and now it’s time to move, to lead a simple and happy life growing Sam’s copywriting business, and for her and hubby Ben to nurture his love of music (playing and writing about). Continuing the love for his career in classical music is the dream. 

What did we achieve on our retreat?

In the time we worked on our businesses, we were very productive:

– We brain-dumped everything clogging up our heads and got it down on paper. Cutting out all the fat and focusing on the meat!

– We both identified what we didn’t want anymore – i.e. no signing up for more courses to cancelling memberships we don’t use or need. Cut out the noise.

– We had to be realistic about what we want to achieve in the next quarter – versus our 12-month goals. Be clear, take action and be accountable!

Versus – what we don’t want anymore. Often, we think others know more than we do – but that’s not always the case (experience permitting). People work with us because of who we are, not just what we do.

– We wrote some social posts and took many pictures to remind us of the point of our mini break and to use in the future.

– Sam ate too many Haribos!

– Fiona had a closer look at her packages and has decided to streamline and develop the ones she wants to focus on, like her Acuity package, notebooks & record books.

– Sam identified several packages she wants to focus on, including a couple of new things and the development of current ones, including more meaty copy projects.

– We also tackled some “how to” tech things (mainly for Sam), emphasising that tech needn’t be the enemy conspiring against us!

– We ate a LOT of cheese.

We clarified many things by constantly talking about what we wanted for our businesses and sharing challenges. 

The last supper

Life will always have its challenges. Running and growing a business is never easy, but having the freedom and flexibility to do your own thing is an incredible opportunity. By taking ourselves on this retreat, we were able to focus not only on what we want but also on what we don’t want! It shone a light on the things that keep repeating themselves, like the things you know you need to do but keep ending up at the bottom of the pile.

In summary, we loved every moment and we’ve committed to do the following:

– Be clear about what we want to offer our clients. 

– Cut out anything that doesn’t work. We call it the bin bucket!

– Set out and map clear goals for April – June 2024 and manage time productively.

– Be clear about what we want for our own lives. Dream BIG.

– Focus on getting into healthy habits – managing time better, taking action and not putting things off.

– Focus on self-care. Without it, we can’t run our businesses.

– Remember to listen to your gut – if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

– Ignore the FOMO and the temptation to add yet another thing to our to-do list.

– Collaborate on a project or two! 

– Remember, doing the right thing takes time. It’s not all about us; it’s about our clients. Do it for them, and if they’re the right clients and happy, that will make us happy.

– Keep remembering what we want in life. 

– Move house.

– Stay calm. Keep breathing!

By Friday, we’d finished and strolled around the harbour over lunch. It was our last day and night, so we took ourselves back to The Prince William and had dinner there while Kensi enjoyed a Paw Star Martini courtesy of Sir Woofchester’s 

We highly recommend doing this if you want to take time out for yourself and your business. You don’t have to invest in expensive retreats or weekends away. After all, it’s your business, and if you don’t thrive within yourself, your business will suffer. Taking the time to clear your head and focus on what we’re doing has been crucial to us getting clear on many things. Get yours booked now.