Off-Sites For Startups: Balancing Costs And Benefits

There are times when gathering everyone together away from everyday responsibilities is just the ticket for re-energizing teams, recalibrating strategy and marshaling the resources to move your business forward with renewed strength and purpose.

I think more and more people are recognizing the need to unplug in order to really connect. Take a look at the growing trend toward “camps” modeled on childhood summer camps.Outsite, a co-working space that doubles as a destination for off-sites, promotes itself as the perfect getaway place for corporate retreats. Camp Grounded reaches out to a broader audience — not just business teams, but all sorts of adults who are willing to pay someone to take their smartphones away from them.

But at what cost? Running a startup means carefully calculating the value of every penny you spend. Also, in a start-up environment, every minute is precious. It may be tempting to use the time and money you’d spend for an off-site on something that delivers more immediate, tangible value.

On the other hand, running a startup also means understanding the value of the long view — and that’s what an off-site is ultimately all about. It may not bring an instant bump in revenue, but it can definitely pay off down the road in more productivity, better processes and other improvements that are essential to your successful growth.

Let’s look at a few basic rules to follow so you can ensure that you get the most from your investment in an off-site.

1.) Go in knowing what you want to achieve.

An article in the Harvard Business Review pointed this out years ago, and it’s as true as ever today: People often seem to think if they plan an off-site, invite the team and schedule a couple of experts to talk, they’ll end up with a perfectly good set of strategic priorities. But that’s like going to the grocery store without any kind of plan and expecting a successful dinner to fall out of the random bunch of kale, box of crackers and carton of milk you picked up.

In reality, the thinking and planning you do to prepare for an off-site are every bit as important as the actual event. One way to ensure that your company gets maximum value from the time and money you’ll be spending is to set clear expectations ahead of time. Share with your team what you’d like to get accomplished. Give them a chance to be heard if they feel strongly about something. Let them know what you’re envisioning and expecting from them. Without this important step, you’ll find it easy to get derailed, and you’re likely to achieve very little of what you’d hoped. So first decide what you want to accomplish, and then think about how the best means to achieve it — which leads to my next point about having a successful off-site.

2.) Plan for the unplanned, too.

The best off-sites have an element of fun and offer time for human connection. In an attempt to cram in a lot of content, companies often eliminate this portion, but it can be one of the best opportunities for your employees to get creative and brainstorm new ideas. It also presents an opportunity for people who don’t work closely together to bond over a shared activity. Every year, the CEO of Rakuten takes his employees on a mountain that is known to have claimed more lives than Mount Everest. He believes that working through difficulties on the mountain represents the ability to work through difficulties at the company as a team. While most of us probably aren’t that brave, there are several ways to weave energizing activities in throughout the day from including simple icebreakers to planning activities like a scavenger hunt or participating in a volunteer outing together.

3.) Align scope, activities and goals.

Everything from where you hold off-site meetings, to how often you schedule them, to who needs to attend should be aligned with the goals you’ve set for the event. For example, the social media tool company Buffer invests significantly ($111,874, by the company’s own count) in regularly scheduled all-hands-on-deck retreats. They do it because the company’s workforce is almost entirely remote, and the retreats provide invaluable opportunities to get to know each other and get things done as a team.

That’s the right approach for Buffer, but it might not be for you. Different kinds of retreats work well for different purposes, and it’s up to your company to decide what you need. Do you run a small startup that will benefit from meetings with everyone, or are you at a stage of growth where a leadership-only meeting would be more useful? How many people should you have for an effective meeting? Will your goals be best served by an exchange of ideas with each other, or by learning from experts you bring in? And where should you meet? Urban hotel, off the beaten path or something in between?

4.) Remember there’s a reason it’s called an off-site.

No matter why you’re having an off-site or where you’re going to hold it, there’s one thing you always want to keep in mind: Off-site means off-site. The whole point of going off-site is to get away from on-site distractions. It’s hard to think about the company’s future and the big picture of how to realize that future when cell phones are buzzing every two minutes with calls and texts from clients and colleagues. In order to make the off-site more successful, offer dedicated times to check email or respond to phone calls so that your employees can be truly be present and not feel like they are completely neglecting their business or family.

Of course, you don’t necessarily have to go far away physically to get away from distractions. It may be fine to meet at a modest facility in-town rather than travel to a destination event; it’ll certainly save you some of those often-scarce startup dollars.

Again, as in all decisions related to off-site meetings, it all depends on what works for you and your team. Think long and hard enough about what you want to get out of your off-site and how you’re going to make it happen, and you’ll have a much better shot at benefits that will pay off for a long time to come.

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