Numbers. What gets measured gets done. You can’t fix what you don’t see. Pick 5–7 Key Performance Indicators that measure your growth, marketing, customers, and efficiency. Then share them with your team. When everyone works together to achieve goals, it’s a force multiplier for success. An example of a valuable KPI is the ratio of Lifetime Value of a Customer to Customer Acquisition Cost. A good target ratio is three to one. This means the revenue each customer generates during the life of their relationship with your company is three times the cost of the sales and marketing expenses to acquire them.
As a part of my series called “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debbie King.
Best-selling author and mindset expert Debbie King founded and grew a technical consulting business for years before realizing she was creating a trap — the business didn’t scale, and it took all her time. Resenting the price she was paying for “success” and feeling frustrated by her business, she went in search of answers and discovered a way to rethink her relationship with her business and increase its value so that it worked for her. After scaling and selling that business, Debbie created the company Loving Your Business and now teaches her proven approach to other business owners.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was four years old, I decided I wanted my own business. My father was always talking about business at the dinner table and I wanted to be important and confident like him. It was many years before I had the courage to actually do it. Other than my dad, I didn’t have any entrepreneurial role models, and I remember even he told me I was crazy to leave my high-paying job as an IT director to start a technical consulting business. “You love your job. Why would you give up your great salary and paid vacation? How will you get health insurance?” he asked.
It was true that I loved what I was doing, but twelve-hour days were the norm and I decided if I was going to work that hard, it should be for myself. I went to my boss at the time and offered him the opportunity to be my first client and he said yes.
That’s how it all began. I thought I hit the jackpot because my first contract was for the full amount of my salary, yet only required twenty hours of technical work per week. I found more clients to fill the other twenty hours, doubling my income. Without realizing it, however, I had already created a trap — trading time for money and running a lifestyle business. It took a long time to untangle myself from that structure in order to build a scalable company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I remember the first time I applied and was selected to be a speaker for a large trade show event in DC. Although I couldn’t really afford it, I decided to also buy a booth in the exhibit hall. It was my first time speaking and exhibiting and I was intimidated both by the size of the event and the other business owners who seemed so confident and successful. At the time I was barely covering payroll and was counting on this event to raise the profile of my company. But I kept thinking, “You don’t know what you’re doing, and everyone can tell. If you were really successful you would have other people manning this booth instead of doing it yourself.”
I was doing my best to ignore the voice in my head and smile at the prospects until the exhibit hall closed and I could escape. Suddenly two large men approached me with strong Russian accents and said, “Do you know who we are?” I had seen them before but didn’t remember where. “We’ve been watching you,” they said. “You’ll never make it in this industry now that we’ve decided to take on this market.” I remember my heart pounding wildly as I looked around for support. “What are you talking about?” I said. That’s when they told me, “Starting tomorrow, we’re cutting our prices in half and targeting your clients first. There’s no way you can stay in business because we have a longer runway than you.”
At the time I was one of only a handful of women tech entrepreneurs and I’m sure they thought they could easily intimidate me. But the opposite happened. I felt a surge of adrenaline as I looked them right in the eye and said, “Bring it. I’m not worried about you because you don’t understand this market. It’s not just about price. I understand my customers and they trust me. I’m not offering a commodity; I’m solving their problems.” Of course, I sounded more certain than I felt, but a funny thing happened after that. I decided to double-down by finding more ways to add value, instead of trying to match their unsustainable discounted price. My business really started to take off and about a year later I heard those guys had closed up shop.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The work we did was technical and the people we hired were expensive. Balancing supply and demand became critical to profitability. So, I started focusing my attention on increasing sales and eventually, we were doing lots of different types of projects for lots of different clients. It’s tough to scale that kind of business because each engagement is different and there are so many moving parts — estimating, project management, team dynamics, cash flow, testing and support.
Because I believed the company was a reflection of me, I tried to control everything, which eventually led to burnout. The only solution I could see at first was to sell my business so I could escape it.
At the time, my business coach was Dr. Barbara Braham from Georgetown’s Institute for Transformational Leadership, and I’ll never forget what she said. “Decide on purpose to love your business again.” At first, this sounded ridiculous to me. Love was the last thing I felt for my business. Besides, I owned a technical consulting company and thought, “What’s love got to do with it?”
She said I needed to change my perspective. If I resented my business so much that I wanted to sell it as fast as possible, why would anyone want to buy it? That’s when I had the epiphany: I was in a relationship with my business, and love had everything to do with it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you don’t love your business, no one else will either. Not your team, not your customers, and not the market.”
It’s amazing how long it took me to realize that loving my business is a choice, not a result. I thought the business had to take care of me before I could love it, but I discovered it was the other way around. Loving it on purpose was the way to be sure it would take care of me! The way we think and feel about our business directly affects the way we run it and the results we get.
Before I learned this, I spent a lot of time resenting my business and trying to escape from it. Once I took a three-week trip to New Zealand to ride horses on the spur of the moment because the stress was too much, and I decided I deserved it. What I was really doing was running away and abdicating responsibility. This is common for us as entrepreneurs — we try different “flavors” of escape. We try to “buffer” with food, alcohol, shopping, Netflix, or whatever. But the real solution is to fix the relationship we have with our business and to realize it’s not responsible for how we feel about ourselves. Like any relationship, our business reflects back to us what we put into it.
The relationship we have with our business consists of our connection with ourselves, our team, our customers, and our solutions. And it’s a two-way street, which means our customers and our team also have connections with us. Each of these connections represents an opportunity because each is an aspect of our business to strengthen as we scale.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Everyone knows that making decisions with data is important, but raw data is like oil — it has to be refined before it can be understood. Association Analytics makes it possible to see the “story” in the data so that leaders can make decisions with confidence.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Instead of creating a custom data warehouse for every client, we created one productized solution. People said it couldn’t be done because everyone’s data was different but by identifying the 80% of what our customers had in common, we captured the most important elements.
With a productized solution, we train the customer. We use all our experience, wisdom, and market research to ensure that the solution adds as much value as possible to our niche and solves their key pain points. Then we promote it and train our customers on how to use it. It’s like inviting them to come to our movie. Our job is making it the best movie and making sure people know about it. They either like our movie or they don’t.
This freed us from the vortex of trying to understand all the specific exceptions and unique business rules of each customer. Training the customer on our system, rather than them training us on theirs. Shifting our focus to creating the best solution, rather than providing the best service. That’s what enabled us to scale.
When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?
I read somewhere that entrepreneurs are the only people on earth willing to work 80 hours a week just to avoid working 40 for someone else! That was me. I wanted freedom most of all. Freedom to do things the way I thought they should be done and make money doing it. I also thought I would have more time, and obviously, I was completely wrong about that. No entrepreneur has “more time.”
When I was building Association Analytics, my self-esteem was directly connected to the success of the business. The business became the core of my identity. I didn’t realize I was doing this, of course, until many years later.
The problem with it is that when you believe your business is your identity, your brain feels like your survival is at stake whenever something goes wrong. You’ll put everything into the business and have nothing left. We think this is a good thing. But it’s not. It leads to overworking and overmanaging, two things that limit our growth. In my case, I used pure willpower and grit to keep going, but I felt trapped and miserable.
What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?
My drive now is completely different. My purpose is to add value to the world by helping other entrepreneurs rethink their relationship with their business. To fall back in love with it and turn it into an asset. Because when our business is an asset, we have options, and I’ve discovered that’s the real freedom we all want. Freedom to choose. Freedom to scale our business, or sell it, or even turn it over to someone else to run. Freedom to work as much or as little as we want in the business and have the time and money we deserve in exchange for the value we add to the world and the risks we take as entrepreneurs.
When we change the way we think about our business and the way we run it, something magical happens — we no longer need to escape it.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I recently published a bestselling book, Loving Your Business. I’m also launching a 12-week Masterclass for business owners, which distills everything I’ve learned over 20 years into the most important mindset and strategy tools to grow your business and love it at the same time.
The topic of this series is ‘Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue’. Congratulations! Seven figures is really a huge milestone. In your experience what was the most difficult part of being able to hit your first million-dollars in sales revenue?
Looking back, the most difficult part was changing my mindset. By that I mean the process I went through to change my beliefs about what was possible. It’s one thing to take action to hit your goals — and I definitely have a bias for action because that’s what gets results. But all the action and goals in the world won’t help you if you don’t believe you deserve success.
I’ve come to realize the amount of time it takes to achieve goals is less about what we do and more about how we think and feel. This is why the imposter syndrome is such a problem. We think we don’t know what we’re doing, which makes us feel inadequate, and then we second-guess ourselves. All of that is unnecessary. It not only slows us down, it wears us out.
If I could give an entrepreneur one piece of advice it would be to spend time upgrading your beliefs. Because when you truly believe you deserve to hit that million-dollar mark, you will. The best thing about beliefs is that they are totally within your control — you can decide to believe anything you want because a belief is just a thought you keep practicing until it’s true for you.
Could you share the number one sales strategy that you found helpful to help you reach this milestone?
My best advice is to turn your services into solutions. A solution is like the product for a services business.
In my business, we initially did technical work with data. We did consulting, predictive modeling, data visualization, and data warehousing. It was all hard, unique, and very difficult for new employees and contractors to learn. At first, I thought it was great because I didn’t have much competition, but after ten years, I realized why. It was killing us because it wouldn’t scale. Each time I sold a project, we started over from scratch because each client was “different.” Every project was priced differently, had different requirements and deliverables, and had lots of different business rules unique to that customer. Whenever we finished an engagement, it felt like we won a BATTLE and we were exhausted. The prospect of doing it all over again with the next client started to feel overwhelming.
That’s when I realized what we were doing was like creating a feature-length film like Star Wars for every single client! It wasn’t sustainable, and it would never scale. The answer was to create one great film and sell tickets. To create one solution and market it like a PRODUCT. I looked for the 80% that all our clients had in common and focused on that. By shifting our time and energy into building a solution instead of doing custom work, we created an ASSET that we owned. And we greatly simplified our business.
When you have a productized solution, it becomes easier for your team to sell, and you can reach more customers. And one of the best things about products is that you can charge for them in advance because everyone expects to pay in advance for products.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you or your team made during a sales process? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
That’s the thing about mistakes, right? They don’t seem very funny when they happen! It’s only afterward that we can kind of chuckle and shake our head in amazement. I remember a time I spent more than 20 hours on a presentation for a large client in DC, only to have the power go out in the building a few minutes into my demo. Although my laptop still had power, there was no way the people in the room could see the data visualizations on my tiny screen. My mistake was not having a backup plan — there wasn’t even an easel or whiteboard in the room that I could use to draw the concepts. I remember waving my hands and pointing and drawing in the air trying to convey my solution. I think they admired my energy and enthusiasm because we won the deal even though they didn’t know exactly what it would look like or how it would work!
Does your company have a sales team? If yes, do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
In the beginning, I didn’t have a sales team because I loved doing the selling! After all, what’s more fun when you believe in something than to explain it to someone else? Plus, as the owner, you have the most on the line and the most to gain when you win. But I learned the hard way that if you don’t have a sales team, it means sales don’t happen when you’re not around.
In my case, it also meant that my customers were buying based on the strength of my personality as the owner. The relationship was between my customer and me when it should have been between the customer and my company. You must have a sales team because if you’re the one making all the sales, the business can’t grow without you. When that’s the case, the business isn’t really an asset; it’s more like a glorified job. The key is to turn services into solutions that can be marketed as products — because to do that; you have to systematize and streamline what you do so that it’s possible for other people to sell.
Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”. Please share a story or an example for each.
- Mindset. This is the foundation for everything. Here’s what they don’t tell you in business school: the most important thing about your business is the relationship you have with it. Your relationship drives every decision you make or don’t make, every success you have, and every failure. Your relationship with your business is responsible for how profitable the business is and how much time you spend in it. Like any relationship, your business reflects back what you put into it. Are you putting in stress, frustration, and blame? If so, it makes sense that you’re getting negative results because your actions will be ineffective coming from feelings like those.
How you feel determines what you do. Learning to generate feelings that drive productive action is the way to achieve your goals. Becoming aware of negative feelings like frustration and overwhelm is also important because you can use them as a trigger to ask the question, “Will this state of mind lead to the result that I want?”
2. Focus. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to turn your business into an asset is to constrain your focus, narrow your target market, and carve out a niche. This allows you to differentiate your business in the market. A narrow focus and a clear niche enable you to communicate with prospects and customers in ways that create an immediate connection. You understand them, and they can feel it. They trust you and want to work with you. You become an expert in that domain and can charge a premium. For example, instead of marketing to law firms, you market to law firms specializing in family law. Instead of targeting businesses with more than 100 employees, you target only healthcare businesses with more than 100 employees.
3. Turn services into solutions. To break the trap of trading time for money, turn your services into solutions that you market as products. The best way to grow is to sell fewer things to more customers, but most of us end up selling lots of things to lots of customers. My advice is to constrain and simplify. Identify what 80% of your customers need and build a solution that does that because that’s how you can scale. Even better if you can bill monthly and generate recurring revenue. Is there a way to create a membership site with monthly training videos and a customer forum for interaction? Can you package and provide your company’s expertise via online courses and subscriptions? Always be thinking of ways to simplify and systematize in order to scale.
4. Numbers. What gets measured gets done. You can’t fix what you don’t see. Pick 5–7 Key Performance Indicators that measure your growth, marketing, customers, and efficiency. Then share them with your team. When everyone works together to achieve goals, it’s a force multiplier for success. An example of a valuable KPI is the ratio of Lifetime Value of a Customer to Customer Acquisition Cost. A good target ratio is three to one. This means the revenue each customer generates during the life of their relationship with your company is three times the cost of the sales and marketing expenses to acquire them.
5. Freedom. When your business is an asset, you’re not the company — you own the company. Real freedom means your business runs profitably without you. Start now to make that happen. Decide to hire a management team with long term incentives to stay. Change the definition of success so that it’s not about you — it’s about your company. Also, make sure you are free from dependence on any one customer, supplier, or employee.
What would you advise to another business leader who initially went through years of successive growth but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
When my growth stalled, it was because I became the bottleneck. The things that made the company successful initially (my own willpower and grit) were the things that eventually put a ceiling on our growth. Because to truly scale your business, it can’t be about you as the owner. It has to be about understanding your ideal customer and making it possible for your team and your solutions to add value in a way that solves problems for them.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
From a strategy perspective, think about how you can solve bottlenecks and problems for your specific niche, then systematize the solution and make sure they know about it. When your solution solves problems for a specific niche, then your marketing acts like a homing signal to draw those specific customers to you. One of the biggest problems for most of us is we try to market to too many different types of customers at the same time. This type of generalized marketing is not effective because when you try to talk to everyone, you’re really talking to no one.
From a mindset perspective, use your mind like a tool. Your mind is the source of the money you make. It seems like it’s the solutions we sell or the customers who buy them that create the money we receive, but it’s our mind. Our thoughts are what create the solutions which lead to the customers who pay us in the first place. Ask yourself “How can I…?” questions. The answers will lead to the result you want.
Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Simplify everything. Less is more. Make your solutions easy to use and easy to understand. Be careful not to solve the wrong problem. For example, if you have lots of customer service requests, it’s quite possible that the solution is not to hire more customer service people. The real solution may be to simplify the solution and/or the onboarding/training process.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
A high churn rate is a warning signal that customers don’t see the value in what you’re offering because if they did, they wouldn’t leave. Instead of discounting price, which leads your business down the dangerous road of commoditization, find ways to add more value in a way that matters to them. Bundle additional offerings. Find creative ways to create community. I’m also a strong advocate for the Net Promoter Score — one simple question that asks on a scale of 0–10 how likely are you to refer a friend or colleague to our company. A low score serves as an early warning sign for churn, and a high score is a solid predictor of future growth.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Loving your business is the fastest way to freedom. You’re in a relationship with your business — which starts with your thoughts and feelings about it. Love means you spend quality time with your business, you’re intimate with your numbers, and committed to personal and professional growth. When you love something, you’re open. You’re willing to be vulnerable and admit when you make a mistake. You care about the quality of the relationship and you look for and show appreciation.
Nurture your business and treasure it. Appreciate yourself for having the courage to build a business, and appreciate your team and customers for being on the journey with you. Love your business, and it will work for you.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Elon Musk is my favorite entrepreneur. He’s such an incredible visionary. I’d like to ask him about the future and thank him not just for the Tesla I drive but for the many ways he pushes past barriers that others say are “impossible.”
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!