CEO Profile with Debbie King: Leadership in Association Analytics

DSK Solutions founder and CEO, Debbie KingDebbie King is a highly accomplished entrepreneur, technology visionary and passionate communicator. As the founder and CEO of DSK Solutions, she is at the forefront of the data analytics and business intelligence industry, providing solutions for some of the largest and most well known associations across the U.S. In this interview, she shares her insights about entrepreneurship, business leadership and creating a vision for growth.

WP: Tell us a little about yourself and your professional background.

DK: I went to George Mason University where I received a B.S. in Decision Science and Management Information Systems. I worked for seven years as Director of Information Technology at the National Institute for Governmental Purchasing (NIGP), a nonprofit association of government purchasing agencies. When I decided to found my own company, NIGP was my first client.

WP: What led you to pursue the entrepreneurial journey?

DK: My father and uncle were both entrepreneurs, so I grew up in an entrepreneurial family where the conversations at our dinner table weren't about the day's work or the latest water-cooler gossip -- they were about taxes, employees, sales goals and the challenges of managing people and leading a company. From the time I was about four years old, I realized I wanted to be like my dad. It helped that he told me I could do anything in life that I set my mind to, and that my parents instilled in me the values of hard work and self-reliance. For example, my parents didn't pay for my college education -- I worked through school, paying my own way. I am very glad for those kinds of experiences, as they force you to become focused on taking responsibility for your own life and future.

WP: You began your career working for a major association and becoming a leader. How did that experience guide you toward forming DSK Solutions?

DK: I knew that I wanted to build my own business, so the key was how to do it in a way that worked for me and for my employer at the time. I reached a pivotal point when I found myself working an 80 hour week, and I said to myself that if I am going to work this hard, I should be doing it for my own business. When I decided the time was right to strike out on my own, I spent two days writing a business plan. I then went to the CEO and presented a business case for how the association would actually be better served by retaining me as a contractor rather than keeping me as a traditional employee.

The key value proposition was that they were paying me a director salary, but there were many tasks on my desk that were not necessary for a director-level executive to perform. So, I suggested that they retain me on contract for specifically the responsibilities that a director needs to manage, and have another internal employee perform the rest. I had that person ready and trained so the transition would be smooth as well. The association saved money because they paid me less as a contractor than they were paying me as an employee, but it was more to me because I was now being paid to perform about 20 hours per week of high-level work, rather than what had become 80 hours of work, much of which could be done by someone with less experience. The point is that I took the time to engineer and present a win-win business case so that everyone would benefit, not just me. I made it easy for the CEO to say “yes” because I considered my proposition from his point of view. I have a special appreciation for this forward-thinking CEO and in fact they are still my client to this day – 15 years later!

WP: By taking that approach, you began DSK Solutions with one client already on board. What other factors helped you to successfully launch your business?

DK: I also volunteered heavily in the association space during my career -- largely in a local user group that consisted of other organizations like NIGP. When I joined the user group, I offered to serve as the board secretary -- a role that is very important to do well but that most people perceive as a boring and undesirable position to hold. However, taking this role showcased my ability to focus on details, synthesize information, maintain a proper organizational structure and be attentive to precision. This led others to trust me implicitly and develop confidence in my skills and abilities.

Soon thereafter, I began to add more clients as a direct result of this role. Also, in talking further about my transition at NIGP as well, I should emphasize that the key is effective communication. I really cannot overstate the importance of communicating clearly, openly and consistently -- and doing so in ways that show others that you value their goals and objectives, not just your own. Both at NIGP and in my user group, I tried to put the needs of the group first and communicate in ways that reflected the other person's point of view. Those two skills served as an outstanding foundation for my business.

WP: How has DSK Solutions evolved over the 15 years since you formed it in 1999?

DK: When I first started DSK Solutions, I was working in databases writing reports -- creating and analyzing data for clients. I have a technical background, and I really enjoyed it. In fact, it seemed like getting paid to play a video game to me! But I knew that I could not grow a business if I didn't shift my focus away from doing it all myself, and I knew that in order to scale I needed to hire other people. I have to tell you, we all agree that in business cash is king and the most critical skill is focusing on and protecting cashflow.

But for me, the greatest challenge was actually going from doing the work myself to hiring and supervising other people who do the work. My sense of self and personal satisfaction was derived from the process of creating the work product, so even today, years later, I have to purposefully work at reframing what success looks like to me -- and repositioning it in my mind so that I now take equal value from guiding, enabling, mentoring and watching others do the work successfully, rather than creating tangible outputs myself.

WP: And along with changes in your busines came changes in the marketplace.

DK: Yes, absolutely. In the technology business, the only constant is change. After I moved away from writing reports myself and hiring staff, there were lots of classic ASP applications that needed to migrate to, so we focused on one particular product and became the leader in that specific space, working with Association Management Systems (AMS), and it was very profitable. But about four or five years ago, I saw that this sector was going to wane -- everyone was converted or was in the process converting -- and the promise of enterprise systems such as AMS, ERP or CRM applications as the 'holy grail' capable of solving all organizational data problems failed to manifest. What the vendors did not seem to understand was that organizational dynamics, lack of accountability, resistance to change and the complexities of individual associations tended to blunt the impact of these systems. This created a real black eye for the industry and left a large gap between promise and reality.

WP: So you felt it was time to think anew about how best to help your clients?

DK: Precisely. What I saw was that there would always be different systems, and there would always be a new platform or application emerging to become the new 'must-have' technology. But rather than be dependent upon the ebbs, flows and whims of the newest technologies or the vendors themselves, I wanted to focus on how we could add the most value to our clients, which is by synthesizing and analyzing the data that these systems produce. In other words, the systems that collect the data will change, and even the types of data that is collected will change, but what won’t change is the need to make sense of all this data.  As technology continues to evolve there will be more and more data to be integrated and analyzed.

WP: What do you see as the inherent value of analytics and business intelligence for associations?

DK: Looking at data, finding answers in it, and using the data to create the future: that is what inspires me. You can actually analyze what happened in the past and coalesce environmental factors to predict what will happen in the future. And even if you are not right all of the time, you are definitely going to be more accurate than if you rely on the typical leader's choices of instinct, politics or tradition as your primary tools for decision-making. I am so excited about the future and data's role in it because we can truly do a better job of helping people with data. For example, in the medical profession, once we really start to be able to harness big data, we will able to do a much better job predicting disease epidemiology or identifying factors and cures that can improve human health.

What I like to tell clients is that, if you have more decisions to make (and we all do, every day), and less time to make them, it increases the risk of making a bad decision, because you don't have the time to think it through. Using data to make decisions minimizes the risk of making a bad one. The other key point is that data is a critical business asset -- just like buildings, equipment, cash and employees. Fortune 500 companies know this, but associations and nonprofits -- who are often awash in data -- are just starting to understand this potential.

WP: What led you to seek a consultant to assist you with the growth strategy for DSK Solutions, and why did you choose to work with Wendt Partners?

DK: It's important to recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a leader. My strengths have been energy, enthusiasm, ambition, optimism, vision and a high risk tolerance. What isn't in that list is detailed planning, execution strategy and tactical alignment. I knew that if I was going to scale my business, I needed to have a professional on board to analyze the situation objectively.

What led me to choose Wendt Partners was, first and foremost, listening skills. I felt from the very beginning that this was not just another 'cookie-cutter' consulting engagement (and I have seen and experienced many of those over the years myself). From the beginning, I felt that Wendt Partners brought an innate understanding -- and specifically an understanding and appreciation for the business owner's perspective -- that allowed the conversation to proceed in an almost shorthand fashion, which resulted in us building a rapid rapport. The amount of information that they synthesized was astounding to me, so I really consider it fortunate that I found Wendt Partners.

WP: What are one or two key outcomes from your work with Wendt Partners that were particularly valuable to your business?

DK: First of all, I feel much more confident now about the business from an objective point of view. As a business owner or CEO, you cannot always see the forest for the trees. I had a vision for how we could grow, but now it is on paper, fully defined -- and it is real. I was not able to focus while also dealing with the day-to-day responsibilities of running the company, and I would never have been able to produce the deliverables that I received from Wendt Partners. It doesn't mean that as an entrepreneur I don't have the intellectual capacity to do it -- but the reality is that I would never have been able to take the time, focus in and achieve clarity.

Second, Wendt Partners objectively identified the risks associated with our position and strategy. As CEOs, we are too close to our business and I know that I would never have been able to clearly identify and manage the risks. But since Wendt Partners took the time to detail points of risk -- and present options and strategies for addressing them proactively -- now I can face those risks head-on and mitigate them in a logical fashion, and without being surprised. As I am looking to scale, I want to be smart about it and Wendt Partners helped immensely with that.

WP: How would you describe the value of Wendt Partners as a strategic resource to other CEOs?

DK: If you want to grow your business, and you are serious about it, then you should seriously consider working with Wendt Partners. Entrepreneurs often say that "the fee is the cure", and what that means is that you put a stake in the ground, and draw a line in the sand, when you commit the resources (financial and otherwise) to a growth strategy engagement like the one offered by Wendt Partners. This commitment shows to you -- and to your team -- that you are serious about driving growth in your company. And if you are not willing to make the investment, it means you are not serious.

What better investment can you make than in your own business -- and especially in understanding how to grow your own business? And working with a highly regarded partner like the Wendt Partners team truly allows you to see clearly what your risks and opportunities are, and to communicate those points to others in an articulate way. It also lends enormous credibility to your business if you are looking to bring in a new partner, attract new investors or make other strategic moves.

WP: What are some key pieces of advice that, in your experience, you'd like to share with other CEOs?

DK: My first piece of advice is to figure out what you are best at, and do that at least 80% of the time. Most entrepreneurs fill their day with things they hate doing. It is an absolutely guaranteed path to diminishing returns, and it is death to your soul and to your business. My second piece of advice is that you need to be willing to invest in having other people do the things you don't like to do or are not good at doing, so that you can free your time while you also build a team of people who all do the things they are best at.

The result of that commitment and investment is not linear growth, it's not even dramatic growth -- it is exponential growth. Along those lines, my third piece of advice is to invest in your people. At DSK Solutions, one of our largest line items in every year's budget is dedicated to training and development. I want my employees to stay intellectually stimulated and constantly learning, which in turn ensures that our culture continues to evolve and grow.

WP: Share with us some of the commitments you're focused on that center around your vision and passion.

DK: A lot of people talk about lifelong learning, but I believe in it with every ounce of my being. Lifelong learning means always exposing yourself to new ideas, new relationships and new insights. I read extensively and I stay actively engaged in meeting and working with other entrepreneurs. I've become very involved with EO, the Entrepreneurs' Organization, where I meet and engage with other CEOs. Being involved with EO -- which has chapters all across the country -- is one of the best decisions a business owner can make. In addition, I completed the Entrepreneurial Master's program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and just graduated from the Executive Master's in Leadership at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.

WP: What are some final thoughts and experiences you'd like to share in closing?

DK: How you think about life shapes how you experience it. Put another way, our thoughts create our reality, so I read a lot about how positive, focused thinking and visioning can be practiced creatively by effective leaders. In my own experience, a positive expectation of a good future seems to correlate in real life with good things happening.

Also, it is important to have outside interests besides the business, for example I ride horses. Many CEOs let business consume them, and for a long time that was true of me as well. After all, wisdom often comes not from being able to tell others what to do, but from having learned the hard way what not to do! Balance for the CEO is an essential ingredient not only in mental agility and emotional stability, but also in the creativity and flexibility that are the hallmarks of a successful business leader. There's no doubt about it: better balance in your personal life leads to better success in your business.

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