As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we 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. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I was raised in Northern Virginia and remember listening to my father talk about business each night at the dinner table. He always sounded confident and important, and I wanted to be like him and have my own business, too. I was also driven to achieve and pushed myself to work hard because I wanted to have my own money. To me, that meant freedom and independence.
Eventually, I became the IT Director for a company, and I was working 10–12 hour days. I decided that 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 my technical consulting company began. I thought I hit the jackpot because my first contract was for the full amount of my salary, but I only had to deliver 20 hours of technical work each week. I found more clients to fill the other twenty hours, doubling my income. Without realizing it though, I had already created a trap — trading time for money and providing custom services. It took a long time to untangle myself from that structure in order to build a scalable company.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
Other than my dad, my Uncle Billy taught me that there are lots of ways to be an entrepreneur. I remember being very young when he explained to me how he put together a group of investors to buy an office building in Falls Church, Virginia, where we lived, and negotiated an ownership stake as well as a yearly management fee, without investing any of his own money. It opened my eyes to the idea that there are opportunities all around us to add value and make money.
I found other entrepreneurial role models in books. I’ll never forget reading Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill in my early 20’s and discovering we can create anything we want with the right mindset. It completely changed the way I looked at business.
But my main goal was always freedom. I started my business because I wanted freedom to do things the way I thought they should be done, freedom to set my own hours, and freedom to make money by adding value instead of filling out timesheets for other people. I also thought I would have more time, and obviously, I was completely wrong about that. No entrepreneur has “more time.”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
In the beginning, my mistakes weren’t very “funny” because they usually came at a price. I remember spending months working on a prototype and a proposal for a huge contract for a large nonprofit. I was “partnering” with a much larger firm that didn’t have the specialized expertise in business intelligence that my company had. They pitched the opportunity to me as a life-changing business deal because once I nailed this one, it would open the door for lots more like it. I was excited (and naive) and invested lots of time understanding the requirements, wrangling the pricing and writing the proposal. Meanwhile, I was turning away other work so that my team could focus on building the prototype. Then I personally delivered a series of demos to the senior leadership.
It was a huge success. I was told we knocked it out of the park, and the client awarded us the contract. But it turned out that the contract was actually awarded to the partner. I was told it was just “simpler” that way and that the partner would subcontract with me. The wake-up call came a few weeks later when the partner told me they decided to deliver my portion of the contract themselves.
This meant we got nothing (except experience) from all the months of non-billable effort spent helping the partner win the contract. I had no recourse and learned an expensive lesson. That was when I decided to take a hard look at my business. I decided to stop doing custom services work altogether and to build our own solutions that we marketed as products. This way, we could build it once and implement it instead of reinventing the wheel with each project. It also meant that we would be the ones building the direct relationship with the customer.
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?
I used to think that my business was a reflection of me, and I tied a lot of my identity and self-worth to the success of the company. As a result, I tried to control everything, which led to burnout and, ironically, kept the company from growing because I became the bottleneck. Of course, I didn’t see it that way; I just thought I was trying to deliver “excellence.” But eventually, I became so frustrated and exhausted with the business; I just wanted to escape. It seemed like the only way out was to sell the company — to escape it permanently.
By this time, I was enrolled in an executive coaching program at Georgetown University, and one of my coaches, Dr. Barbara Braham, told me something shocking. 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 run away from it, why would anyone else 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.
Like any relationship, our business reflects back to us what we put into it. In my case, I was putting in stress, frustration, and blame. So, of course, I was getting negative results! Whenever I tried to double down by using willpower and grit, I just increased the intensity and made a bad situation worse.
It finally dawned on me that if I took the time to transform my business into something I loved, then other people would love it, too. All the problems and frustrations with my business were opportunities for me to transform my company into an asset and to make it work for me.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I remember a time we worked for months on a complex project for a large client. My team didn’t push back when the client made changes along the way because they wanted to keep them happy. We ran over budget because these “extras” weren’t in the contract, and I didn’t have an early warning system to alert me about it. I decided to absorb the cost overruns — it wasn’t the client’s fault if our proposal was unclear and my staff was overly generous. I considered it a learning opportunity.
But after the work was complete, the client delayed signing the acceptance document. Final payment — 30 percent of a huge contract — was due upon this acceptance. Their senior leadership team was at a weeklong retreat. Once they returned, most of them would go on vacation. Doing the math, I realized it would be a minimum of three weeks before we received sign off; add the normal thirty-day processing time, and it would be almost seven more weeks before we got paid.
Work for other clients had been put on hold for months, which meant there was no money coming in from anywhere else. Our financial situation was dire. I’d been transferring my own money into the business bank account and had been counting on this large payment to stabilize us.
I went to meet with my bank manager. This kicked off a lengthy two-hour process of filling out a line of credit application, each page feeling more invasive than the one before.
Then I read the part that said I would guarantee the line with a lien on my home. If I didn’t sign the paper and didn’t make payroll, my staff would be in trouble, word would spread, our reputation would tank, and we’d lose business. Or, if I did sign the paper, I would be putting my home at risk. I felt completely trapped by my business.
I felt angry at myself for not preventing the situation and embarrassed like I was groveling to get the line of credit so I could make payroll (which I was). I signed the papers with burning resentment — for the bank, for the client who hadn’t paid, and even for my team. The business survived, but I felt like it took a few years off my life.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
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! This was the case for me. I never wanted to go work for someone else.
Also, I didn’t want to just walk away because I was committed to what I’d created and had clients and staff I cared about. And at my core, I had the fundamental belief that I was capable and could figure it out.
What changed things for me was learning how to manage my mind. Specifically, how to separate facts from thoughts and to realize that I have control over my thoughts. My thoughts create my feelings, and feelings are the fuel for my actions. That framework made sense to me and helped me turn things around.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I would say that I succeeded in spite of willpower and grit rather than because of it. I fueled my business with grit for ten years before I really hit a wall. The problem wasn’t my business, though. The problem was my mindset. The way I was thinking about myself, my team, my clients, and my services caused me to feel frustrated and overwhelmed. Once I realized I was not the business — instead, I owned the business, and it was separate from me — I was able to start treating it like an investment and be much more objective about it.
In terms of resilience, I believe the only way to fail is to quit. I kept pivoting and trying new things because that’s how I learned what would work. Every result either gives us what we want, or it gives us more information. Eventually, I met a coach who helped me understand that it’s not just about strategy and tactics, although those are important. The real distance between where you are and where you want to be is less about what you need to do and more about who you need to become and what you need to believe.
That’s why mindset is so important. Beliefs are thoughts we have repeated for so long we think they are true. How you think and feel about your business drive your actions, and actions create your results. This framework helped me see that everything starts with our thoughts, not with the circumstances of the external world.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Service-based consulting models like the one my business was based on are hard to scale because they’re dependent on people instead of systems. To overcome this, my company created one productized solution. People said it couldn’t be done, but we looked at the problems 80% of our customers had in common, and then we built a solution (or product) that solved those problems for them.
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 how to use it. They either like it, 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. We could train the customer on our system, rather than them training us on theirs, and shift our focus to creating the best solution rather than providing the best service. That’s what made us stand out and enabled us to scale.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Start by recognizing that you aren’t the company. You own the company. Then love both. When you intentionally decide to love your business (and yourself), you’ll stop running yourself into the ground trying to prove you can do everything. You’ll recognize the business isn’t a measure of your self-worth. Just like you can’t hate yourself thin, you can’t resent your business and grow it. Loving your business is a decision, and it’s the first step to freedom.
From there, run your business like you plan to sell it (even if you don’t think you want to). Treat it like an investment and turn it into an asset other people want to buy. The by-product of doing this is that you create a business that can scale and run without taking all your time. This is how you’ll finally achieve the combination of freedom and security you really want.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
After spending a decade trapped in a cycle of trial and error, I discovered how to turn my business into a scalable asset that could run without me — a business I could love, and my customers, team, and the market loved too. Now I’m on a mission to make sure other business owners don’t have to learn the hard way. I wrote the bestselling book, Loving Your Business, for exactly that purpose. I also created 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.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Mindset 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. Our relationship with our business consists of the thoughts and feelings we have about it. The quality of our relationship with our business drives every decision we make or don’t make, every success we have, and every failure. Our relationship with our business is responsible for how profitable the business is and how much time we 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. Learn to generate feelings that drive productive action because that’s 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. Run your business like you plan to sell it. Even if you don’t plan to. This is a great brain hack because when you start thinking about selling your business, you’ll start acting like an investor. One trap I fell into was running my business like a lifestyle company instead of an asset. Don’t get me wrong; I loved the expensive company car, the exclusive business clubs, and the upgraded hotel suites. But by not reinvesting in my business, I was missing the opportunity to build an asset that would ultimately take care of me financially forever, and that would leave me feeling energized, fulfilled, and truly free. I was able to course correct, though, by filtering every business decision through the question, “Will this increase the value of my company?”
3. Don’t trade time for money. Imagine individually creating a brand new, high-production film like Star Wars for every person who wants to see a movie. You’d never do it because it wouldn’t scale. Yet this is exactly what so many of us do when we own a service-based business.
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. A solution is like the product for a services business. Bonus points if you can bill monthly and generate recurring revenue. Ask yourself how you can systematize your process, brand it, and market it like a product. Automate as much as possible. Can you create a community or membership site with monthly training videos and a customer forum for interaction? Can you package and provide some of your company’s expertise into online courses and subscriptions? Always be thinking of ways to simplify and systematize in order to scale.
When you do this, you offer all customers a ticket to the one film you already created — your solution. This solution (or product) solves the common problems for your niche and uses your unique process to do it.
4. Embrace the numbers. Accounting and I got off on the wrong foot. I got a “B” in my freshman accounting class and, for a perfectionist like me, that was humiliating. I decided that I just wasn’t a numbers person — a mindset that came back to bite me and my first business at tax time. Looking back, though, I can see that I also avoided it due to other issues. I wanted to think about the future, and accounting made me look at what happened in the past. For years I watched the top line (the amount of revenue we made) and the bottom line (the amount of profit). But I rarely looked at the categories in between. This lack of focus is part of what prevented me from growing my company faster.
You may think you’re so busy managing the day-to-day that, as long as you’re profitable, that’s all you need to know. But it’s not. 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.
5. Don’t make it about you. Business owners often tie our identity and self-worth to the business’s successes and failures. When we do, we want to control everything because it’s a reflection on us. That makes the company dependent on us.
I learned this lesson the hard way one beautiful, Fall afternoon. I was riding my horse in the woods when he got spooked and bucked me off. I broke my ankle badly and was in the hospital for 3 days getting reconstructive surgery. While I was out, my business came to a stall. This is kind of embarrassing because we were already at $1 million in revenue at this point, but I was still doing all the invoicing; no one else even had access to the books. Because of this, we ran into cash flow issues. Not only that, I had been making all the decisions for my team, and they were afraid to take action in my absence. Soon after, I committed to taking the steps to turn my business into an asset that could run without me.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
The biggest change has been deciding to rethink my relationship with my business and make it work for me. Now I love my business on purpose, which means looking for the good, and turning it into an asset that has value beyond the revenue it generates. Real freedom means your business adds value to the world and runs profitably without you. And I’ve changed the definition of success so that it’s not about me — it’s about the solution, the team, and the customers.
I also have a morning routine that keeps me centered. I start by writing in a journal to get all the thoughts out of my head where I can see them (and decide if I want to keep thinking them), followed by a 20-minute meditation, and a 30-minute run.
Managing my mind means deciding on purpose that I am responsible for the meaning I assign to every circumstance. With practice, this has become my new baseline. Now it’s easier to take action because I generate thoughts that motivate me instead of expecting the outside world to do it.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I think there is room for both learning from experience and learning from others. Certainly, when we face a challenge, figure it out, and grow from it, we’re more likely to remember it.
But I’m also a believer that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” As a tech entrepreneur, I scoffed at the idea that feelings had anything to do with running a company. If anything, I thought they were a liability! But eventually, I reached a place where the message of loving my business really resonated. When it did, I learned exactly what I needed from the coach I was working with, and it changed the trajectory of both my company and my life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. Loving it means you feel connected to yourself, your team, your clients, and your solutions. It means you spend quality time with your business, you’re intimate with your numbers, and committed to personal and professional growth. Think about it — when you love something, you’re open. You’re willing to be vulnerable and admit when you make a mistake. You care about the relationship, and you look for and show appreciation. Do this with your business.
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 treat it as an asset, and it will work for you.
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