Running a business can be frustrating, overwhelming, and exhausting but you can’t just walk away. You’re committed to what you’ve created, have clients and staff you care about, and you don’t want to work for someone else. Debbie King knows what it’s like to feel trapped by a business she used to love.
She felt that way for years before she made two fundamental shifts. She changed the way she thought about her business and the way she ran it. In her new book, Loving Your Business, Debbie shows you how to rethink your relationship with your business and reclaim your life. Instead of taking everything from you, your business can give what you really want. More time, a sense of purpose, and ultimately complete financial freedom.
Drew Applebaum: Hey listeners, my name is Drew Applebaum. I’m excited to be here today with Debbie King, author of Loving Your Business. Debbie, I’m excited you’re here, welcome to the Author Hour podcast.
Debbie King: Thanks so much.
Drew Applebaum: Debbie, to kick us off, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Debbie King: Well, I started a technical consulting company, I think it was the year 2000, and I was super excited to do what it was that I was already doing, but do it for myself. I found that I was working 60 hours a week for somebody else and I thought, well, if I’m going to work that hard, I might as well start my own business.
I was super excited, took all of my energy and enthusiasm, and launched a company that provided data analytics services and really, time for money kind of a model. Which I rapidly found didn’t scale.
Drew Applebaum: What about yourself personally?
Debbie King: Well, I was born and raised in Northern Virginia, five miles from DC, and I’m a big believer in meditation and living a healthy lifestyle, because I think that when we take care of our vehicle, which is our body, then it helps our mind.
Drew Applebaum: Couldn’t agree more. Now, back to when you started your own business, what goal did you hope to achieve by going off on your own?
Debbie King: Well, I think like many of my friends that are business owners and entrepreneurs, I thought I was going to have more time and money and freedom, like literally. I have to laugh at the naïveté. I literally thought I was going to have more time, money, and freedom, and of course, it was the exact opposite. I had no time, I had zero freedom, and although I had a little bit of money, I was always worried about it because the more I grew, the more money the business took. I found that the faster I scaled, the bigger the problems were.
I thought I was going to have the life of Riley and live this beautiful, wonderful, entrepreneurial dream where I had many millions and all the time in the world, and that is the opposite of what I found, during the first decade anyway.
Drew Applebaum: You mentioned, one day you were driving, and all of a sudden, it hit you, you didn’t like the business you created and you weren’t feeling like yourself much either. Tell us about that day in the car and about those feelings?
Debbie King: Yeah, I remember I was just driving to the office and I thought, “I just can’t do this, what has happened? I don’t like my business, I resent it. My business is taking my life from me.” It took my marriage, it’s taken my youth, it’s taken my health. I was in blame mode and I was blaming my business, which, if you think about it is ridiculous, but many of us do it.
I was blaming my business for the way I was feeling when my business was my own creation. That was a big epiphany. When I reached that, almost what I call rock bottom of I can’t stand it another minute–I can’t even bring myself to go into the office. So, that was the beginning of the search to change it.
How Do You Feel?
Drew Applebaum: For all the biz owners out there listening, what question should they be asking themselves to see if they’re in the same situation you were at that point?
Debbie King: Well, I think the first question is, how do you feel? In business, listen, I get it, I am a technical person, I have a statistics undergrad and I built a data analytics company that did data warehousing, but there’s this other side of life that I don’t think business people talk enough about, which is how we feel.
I think that we have this barometer that tells us whether we’re moving toward what we want or away from what we don’t want. There’s a big difference in the quality of your life, depending on which those are. The question I would urge all business owners to ask themselves is how do you feel? Are you feeling frustrated, exhausted, overwhelmed, anxious, panicked, or bored, miserable? There’s a spectrum of feelings that we have.
Feelings are not some soft, squishy, woo-woo thing that, are not supposed to make us think of people crying. Feelings are the signal to your mind to tell you to stop, realize what are you thinking, what are you creating, and do you want that?
I think that’s the main purpose of feelings. When we’re feeling good, when we’re feeling excited, when we’re enthusiastic, and when we have energy, the actions that we take to achieve our goals feel almost effortless. Or even if they require effort, it’s a fun effort. We want to do it but when we’re feeling resistance, and unhappy, then the actions we take are hard. We’re using willpower and grit and we burn out. Everything can be found if we stop for a minute and check in with how we are feeling. I was feeling dread that day when I was getting ready to go into the office.
I thought, how could this be? I created a situation where I am feeling dread, so that means I can create a situation where I am feeling fulfilled. I just had to stop and make a decision to do that.
Drew Applebaum: Yeah, one of the interesting connections you made in the book is comparing, owning a business to being in a serious relationship. Talk to us a little bit about the similarities and differences that you found?
Debbie King: Well, if you think about it, if you’re in a serious relationship, you care about the other person and the way you show it is by paying attention to them, listening to them, spending time with them, all of these things, and you’re looking for things that are good about them.
What happens over time, for most business owners, is that we stop looking for the good and we’re totally focused on what’s wrong because it represents risk.
I mean, intellectually, it makes sense. Especially once you hit a million dollars and the stakes start to get a little higher, you’re looking for risk. The problem is, when you’re looking for that, that’s what you see, and so you focus on all the things that might be going wrong that you need to do something about.
There’s this thing we have, confirmation bias, which is really, where we see what we are looking for.
The more we look for what’s going wrong, the more we see that kind of thing. It’s the same in a marriage, or with a parent child-relationship, and so, what I encourage business owners to do is to decide on purpose to love their business again. To me, what that means is loving yourself, loving your team, loving your clients, and loving your solution. Those four connections become a source of appreciation and a positive feeling.
A business consists of those things, yourself, your team, your clients, and your solutions. When you treat your business as though it was an important relationship, you’re going to spend time with it, you’re going to nurture it, you’re going to look for what’s good, you’re going to pay attention.
Some of the dysfunctional ways that we as business owners act in relation with our business are, sometimes, I have many clients that will tell me this, they don’t want to look at the numbers.
If you know the numbers are bad, you need to want to look at them. If you don’t want to look at them, that’s the opposite of what you want to do because, when you love something, you spend time with it and you want to know more about it. Even when it’s hurt. When the business is not doing well, that is not the time to take your attention off of the important things about it.
I think that another way that businesses are like a relationship is that it’s almost like a child that goes through stages of growth and there comes a time in the growth of the business where you can’t be the center of it. They have to graduate and go on to their own version of life.
One of the biggest messages that I want to get out into the world is the idea of being trapped by your business. When I was trapped by my business, which is when I felt that dread, it was because of the way I had established the relationship.
Instead of the business having a life of its own, in order for me to mitigate risk, I really created this place where I felt like I had to be in charge of all the major decisions. The company couldn’t really run without me. I couldn’t go on vacation for a month, for example, and have it continue to grow. It might not tank, but it certainly wouldn’t keep growing if I wasn’t there.
This idea of creating a business that can run without you, as a way of thinking of a relationship with a child that eventually becomes so self-sufficient that they can stand on their own, that’s something that I encourage business owners to aspire to.
Drew Applebaum: Now, you did mention about the biz owner trap and, in the book, you talk about a lot of business owners create that trap for themselves because of a few fatal mistakes. One of them being, running their business like a lifestyle company, instead of investing in it like an asset. Can you talk to us about your experience with this in your company, and why reinvesting in your business is so important?
Debbie King: Well, it’s so funny because it all ties into why I was in this place where I resented my business, and how dysfunctional it is when that happens. What I was doing, because I felt like I was working so hard–and I was, 60 hours a week and more–I resented my business and because I resented my business, I felt like it owed me. Because the business “owed me,” I would take out distributions, which are totally legal, but a bad idea, to do random things.
You know, three weeks riding horses on the beach in New Zealand and stuff like that, as a way to escape the pressure of the business. Instead of solving the underlying cause of the reason, the business was causing me pressure, which was that I hadn’t built a management team, for example, who could run the business, and I didn’t have a scalable solution. There were some fundamental business reasons why the bigger we got, the tighter the trap became. Instead of, initially anyway, dealing with the underlying cause, I was just trying to treat the symptoms by running away. I see a lot of that and many of us do it in other ways too.
Over-drinking, over-eating, over-spending, over-whatever to just buffer away the pressure of running the business.
Drew Applebaum: You mentioned another mistake is being so personally involved in the operations that the company can’t run without you. Can you tell us your experience with this, and some of the benefits of creating a company that can run without you, and maybe letting go a little bit?
Debbie King: Well, one of the stories that comes to mind is I was riding my horse, I think it was a Sunday afternoon, and it was just a great day, beautiful fall weather in northern Virginia, and as I was going towards the woods, he got spooked and bucked me off, and I broke my ankle really badly. The helicopter had to come, and they cut the boots off, and I was in the hospital for three days and had to have reconstructive surgery, and I had no plan for the business.
The business didn’t have a way to really keep going. It just so happened that it kept going with the projects that were underway but the business side of it was stalled. For example, this is kind of embarrassing because I think we were already at a million at this point, I was still doing the invoicing myself. Because I wanted to make sure it was done right. It was important to me that the invoicing be done right because the projects were 50 to $100,000 projects, they were big projects, so we didn’t have a lot of invoicing, but still, they were detailed. It was the end of the month when I broke my ankle and nobody else in the company even had access to the QuickBooks online to do it.
Even if they had, I probably wouldn’t have let them. Once I got out of the hospital, I still was not able to focus on it for two weeks, so that caused a cash flow problem because we were late getting invoices out.
Not only that but my team, because I was micromanaging everything–I actually like to call it over-managing. I was over managing everything in the business. When I was there, they hadn’t built the capacity to make decisions on their own. I had thwarted that in them by making all of the decisions for them. So, they hadn’t built the muscle and then they were afraid to make decisions in my absence.
That was a really bad decision to not have a team, and when I recovered, I decided that that had to be fixed right away. That was a point of failure. That was a big risk, for example, that I had been ignoring. See, I thought, and many entrepreneurs do, that if we take care of everything then we are limiting our risk, but the opposite is true. The more involved we are in every single aspect of the business, the greater the risk because then we become the single point of failure.
So, it is super important to begin with the end in mind and I think the end in mind as a business owner is to build a business that adds value to the world and is an asset for you. A business that’s an asset for you is something that can run without you.
Drew Applebaum: Right, you actually go into the book about some of the pitfalls of overworking and over-managing. Do you want to go into a few more of those pitfalls?
Debbie King: Well, over-managing is another kind of overworking. When you are overworking it’s because you think you have to. For me, I was either trying to mitigate risk, or I was trying to prove that the business was successful because it made me feel as a human being that I was successful. So, I wrapped up my own self-worth in the success of the business, and that’s a dangerous road, because some days you’re successful, and some days you are not.
When your business is the measure of your own self-esteem, you set yourself up for another trap. That was one thing that happened when I was overworking. I was overworking to prove my value, and the reality is, we are all inherently valuable as humans and it is not the business that does it for us. Overworking and over-managing was similar because I wanted to make sure that everything was done right. The problem is when you hire people that tolerate over-managing, they’re usually not the best people.
The best people are ones who like the ability to make some decisions on their own and the ability to learn and grow. So, you are creating another trap for yourself as a business owner when you over-manage. The good people will quit, and the bad people will stay, and so then you end up with a group of people who have acquiesced to your over-managing style, which perpetuates the need for you to keep over-managing. So, it’s yet another trap.
So the secret is to find a medium between the people that you need on your management team that you want to be able to think, and act, and make decisions on their own, and that means you have to be willing to let them make some mistakes. That was a very difficult thing for me. You can do that once you recognize that the business is not a measure of your own self-worth. If you think the business is a measure of your self-worth then any time somebody on your team makes a mistake, you think it’s a reflection of you.
Once you realize that that is a myth then you can allow people to make mistakes because they learn and grow much faster from mistakes than just from nagging.
Then the second tier of people, those are the management layer that you need. What I found in my business, as I turned it from a services company that was doing projects that were unique into a solutions company that offered a platform, a similar solution for every client, the kinds of people I needed to run a solutions company didn’t have to have the same skills as the people that were running a services company. In other words, instead of hiring a lot of very expensive, highly technical consultants, I was able to build a product, which was just a solution made of services that were systematized, and then I could hire salespeople to sell that product, and customer service people to help the customers and the clients.
There were so many lessons in there. The main point is that when you’re over-managing, the good people will quit, the bad people will stay. The second corollary to that is when you change your company from services to solutions, the kind of people that you need changes because instead of having a whole cadre of superstars, you need a management team, and then you need a team of people who can sell it and who can support the customers, and that is a much more scalable business model.
Thoughts Are Not Facts
Drew Applebaum: You actually have a technique in the book of how to create a healthy and balanced relationship with your business. Can you tell us about a few of the steps in this process?
Debbie King: Well, the first thing that I go to when I think about that is the model. I have a process where you separate your thoughts about what’s happening, whatever it is, from the facts of what is actually happening. What’s tricky about that is a lot of times we think that our thoughts are facts, and most of the time they’re not. They are stories that we made up about a fact and so we have interpreted reality through the lens of our beliefs.
Many of these beliefs came to us through childhood or have been reinforced with an experience that we’ve had in our lives, but aren’t necessarily facts. They’re just stories. The challenge is that the way we think about something, such as the relationship with our business, changes how we feel about it. So, if we think that our business is taking everything from us and our business is ruining our lives, which is what I thought for a long time, then we feel bad.
We feel resentful, we feel annoyed and even angry, and then the actions that we take when we feel that way are not going to be efficient or effective. They are going to lead to a result that we don’t want. So, one of the main techniques that I use from a mindset standpoint is to look at what’s actually happening through the lens of, “What am I thinking and feeling and how is that affecting what I’m doing?” Because that whole thing–thoughts, feelings, and actions–that’s how we get results.
So if the relationship with my business is not what I want it to be, the first step is to notice the feeling that I am having, then identify what am I thinking, choose new thoughts that give me new feelings, before I take any action. We know this. We’re taught this as children–wait 10 seconds, count to 10 before you say something. The idea behind it is to take a minute to get ahold of yourself so that you are being proactive instead of reactive.
You are choosing what you’re doing instead of just being on autopilot and I think that’s a really key component to establishing a healthy relationship with your business, because what is a relationship anyway? A relationship is a word like geography. You can’t touch it. You can’t touch geography. The map is not the territory. So, relationships are the thoughts and feelings that we have about something.
We have a relationship with money. We have a relationship with our partner. We have a relationship with our business, and that relationship consists of the thoughts and feelings that we have about it. So, in order to have a healthy relationship, you want to notice what your thoughts and feelings are, recognize how they are fueling the actions you take, and whether those actions are giving you the results that you want, and if not, it is time to up-level your relationship with new thoughts and feelings.
Drew Applebaum: I think one of the more interesting things that you mentioned in the book, especially about long-term vision, is that you should start coming up with an exit strategy in the beginning, right when you start your business, which I think a lot of people don’t do. Can you tell us how you found that out what the benefits of having that vision early might be?
Debbie King: Well, the thing is nobody does it really. Not first-time entrepreneurs. Second-time business owners do for sure, but first-time entrepreneurs for the most part, unless they’re taking DC money or they’re doing something different, they are not thinking about the exit. They are thinking about, that they want more time, money, and freedom, and they’re thinking the way to get it is to build their own business by doing what they already know how to do but doing it for themselves and then hiring more people.
They just naturally, organically built it that way, and that is a way to create a trap. Although the best time to come up with your exit strategy is when you start a business, I think it is almost unrealistic to expect most people to do that, and certainly most of the business owners I talk to don’t, but as I say in the book, the second-best time is now. So, the minute you recognize that you don’t know what your exit strategy is, it is the time to start asking the question, “What do I want?”
What do I really want? Especially after 10 years of running your business with the pace at which life is changing, your desires are likely to change. I think that by asking what you want, the next question is obviously, how do I get it? And I advocate for building a business that you could sell if you wanted to, even if you have no plans to sell it. The reason is that when you build a business you could sell, in order to sell it, you are increasing the value of your business. You are turning your business into an asset.
When your business is an asset, it means that it is a scalable business that runs without you profitably and has positive cash flow. When it can do those things, you may not want to sell it but you could just become the chairman, an investor in your business, removed from the day-to-day, and have it continue to provide you with a quality life, or you can scale it, or you can sell it, or you can pass it on if you have children.
My belief is that building a business that you can sell is the best strategy for loving your business because, when it is an asset that has value, you have options and that feels great. That’s the thing that entrepreneurs and business owners really want. That sense of freedom, that knows that we have a valuable asset that is working for us, giving us the life that we want. We can keep it and scale it or sell it. We have options.
I believe that whatever time it is in your business to think about an exit strategy is as soon as you hear the phrase, and then begin building your business into an asset, even if you have no plans to sell. You never know what the future holds, and when your business works for you, and it’s generating positive cash flow, and all of those things that I said, then you may find you want to keep it, but start out with it as if you’re investing in it like it’s an asset.
Drew Applebaum: Well Debbie, writing a book is no joke so first of all, congratulations.
Debbie King: Thank you.
Drew Applebaum: And if readers could take away just one thing from your book, what would it be?
Debbie King: I think that the way to have a life that you love as a business owner is to combine love with logic. Mindset with strategy. So, decide on purpose to love your business, and then run it as though it was an asset you would sell in the future, and that’s how you’ll really love your business.
Drew Applebaum: I love that. Debbie, it has been such a pleasure and I am so excited for people to check out this book. Everyone, the book is called Loving Your Business, and you can find it on Amazon. Besides checking out the book Debbie, where can people find you?
Debbie King: They can go to the website, lovingyourbusiness.com and there’s lots of information there.
Drew Applebaum: Awesome. Debbie, thank you so much for coming to The Author Hour podcast.
Debbie King: Thanks.