Why One Executive Quit Business Travel Cold Turkey
by Dan McGinn | 12:00 PM February 17, 2014
If you’d like to have an in-person meeting with venture capitalist Brad Feld, there’s only one place where you can do it: Boulder, Colorado. Last year Feld, who is managing director at Foundry Group and co-founder of TechStars, announced he would no longer travel for business. He equipped his Boulder offices with state-of-the-art video conferencing systems, and now holds meetings using this technology or asks business partners to travel to see him. Feld, who recently wrote about this decision in Inc. Magazine, told HBR why he went cold turkey. Excerpts:
How much did you used to travel?
For the past 20 years, I’ve traveled for business between 50% and 75% of the time. There have been long stretches where I’d leave on Monday and return on Thursday or Friday. I didn’t just go to one place — I’d often go to two or three cities during the week. My wife Amy started referring to what she got on the weekends as “the dregs.”
What made you decide to make a change?
In 2012, I finally broke. I had a bike accident at the beginning of September but ignored the fact that I was badly beaten up. I traveled non-stop in September and October. By November, I was feeling depressed and then ended up in the hospital for surgery to remove a kidney stone. I recuperated in December and hit the road in January to attend CES. Within two hours of getting to Las Vegas I wanted to hide in my room. Over the first half of 2013, I struggled through a deep depressive episode – my third as an adult. As I sorted through things, I made a bunch of tactical changes and reflected on where I was at age 47. One thing I realized was that I had completely lost all the joy in business travel, and I had no interest in doing it anymore.
What, specifically, was it about the travel that was causing you distress? Was the hassle/physical wear-and-tear the bigger issue, or was it mostly the intrapersonal strain of being away from home?
It was the cumulative effect of many miles on the road. The physical impact was real: I had deluded myself into thinking that I had ways to manage it. For example, I’m a very good sleeper on planes so I’d generally just nap from wheels up to wheels down, even on longer flights. I used these naps to justify only sleeping five hours a night on the road, but this took a toll, because the sleep on a plane was low-quality sleep. I always missed my wife Amy, but it had shifted from a “I miss you / I love you / I’ll see you soon” kind of thing to a deep sense of sadness that I was spending so much of my time away from her. The combination of the physical and emotional costs finally did me in.
Did you try or consider tactics short of a complete travel ban — such as doing only day trips, taking private planes to reduce the hassle, or bringing family along?
I’ve tried everything. Amy is a writer so she’s traveled with me plenty, but if I’m trying to blend work and being with her, in some ways that gets even more exhausting. And I’d never subject her to my three-cities-in-three-days routine. The day trip thing doesn’t really work well from Denver — you can’t pull it off on the east coast and while I’ve done it plenty of times to the west coast, it makes for a very long day. Given my travel intensity, private never really was sustainably economic and the periodic private flights were nice, but in that “well — this is nice — but whatever” kind of way that didn’t really change the fact that I wasn’t home.
Was there anything you enjoyed about business travel that you miss now?
Nope. Nothing. Zero. I didn’t travel for the last half of 2013 and decided not to travel in 2014 for business. I’ll travel for pleasure, to see a friend, to spend the weekend with my dad, or to go on a vacation with Amy. But no business travel. I’ve always had a hard time doing things in moderation, so for me it’s usually all or nothing — so I decided to completely abstain from business travel.
There’s an old line that you “can’t fax a handshake.” How much are you losing by videoconferencing with people instead of meeting directly?
I still meet with a lot of people — they come to Boulder, which has the happy coincidence of being both centrally located in the US and a wonderful place to come visit. I think anything I’m losing by “not being in the mix with masses of people” is being gained through deeper thought on the things I’m working on.
As a VC, you need to conduct due diligence on companies. Isn’t this better done in-person, when you can see the headquarters, feel the office vibe, or meet employees spontaneously?
Not really. At the very early stage that I invest in, the personal relationship with the founders matters a lot, but I don’t care whether they are working out of a shed behind their house or the corner of a co-working space. So I do spend a lot of time with the founders — either in Boulder or via videoconference — and that works for me.
A lot of middle or senior managers could never dream of eliminating travel altogether — they aren’t their own bosses and don’t have total control of their work lives. Short of that, how can they work to systematically reduce travel?
I think a lot of people default into traveling. I know I have for many years. The costs to the individual, and to the company, often far outweigh the benefits. As technology continues to evolve, there are more high-quality remote options for work and collaboration (in addition to standard video conferencing), I think it benefits all organizations — large and small — to aggressively explore these. While there will always be value in being face to face, the need — or requirement — of it is overrated. In many cases, it’s just a rationalization for getting away from home, or the office, doing something different, or being heroic by physically transporting yourself all over the place.