What I Learned Starting Association Laboratory

I’m not a “milestone” sort of person. I rarely celebrate with big birthday parties for example. My wife and I famously celebrated our anniversary with a drink at the United Club once as we passed each other in the airport.

This year, though, when I announced the 20th anniversary of starting Association Laboratory on LinkedIn, the response surprised me. I received more than 7,000 views of the post. I only have 1, 531 connections on LinkedIn. People I’d never met were interested and supportive.

It got me thinking about how it all began and what I learned about business and life through the years as I conceived, started and grew my small business.

Below is the original HQ of Association Laboratory (no hassles please, I’m not a photography consultant). I started the company out of my condo on the 12th floor.

Original HQ of Association Laboratory

 The voice on my answering machine for the company was an English woman who lived on the same floor.  I loved her accent and how she pronounced LaBORatory. Awesome.

My first work task? Typing up a database at the Starbucks (sponsor opportunity?) across the street.

“Seems like just yesterday I bet … congrats on all you have accomplished and for getting the right names into that database!”
Steve Smith, CEO at AAHPM

Starting any venture is full of surprises and lessons learned. I’ve traveled to places I never thought I’d visit and worked with people all over the world.

I’ve come up with some of the following lessons that I hope are useful not just to aspiring entrepreneurs but everyone else too.

Without further ado; here we go.

Taking charge of your life is more satisfying than you think.

I had good bosses and good jobs prior to Association Laboratory. I had a great deal of freedom to act and took ownership over the work. But I was very surprised at how satisfying it was to take charge of my future. I think we forget how our current jobs, colleagues, etc. place subtle limits on the vision we have for our own lives.

By starting your own company, you will have an opportunity to create the professional life you want, without those influences.

Risk is other people’s money, when it’s your own, it’s fear.

I can’t help but laugh sometimes when I watch convention programs about “risk” or “failing fast”.

When you’re spending someone else’s money and have a whole organization with a 100 year history built around you to provide help, you’re not really “risking anything”. Fear of being embarrassed at the staff meeting isn’t “risk”.

Experiencing real risk, and the true calculation of whether or not what you’re doing is worth the real risk is a substantially different feeling.

You feel it late at night lying wide awake in bed. Dealing with this fear teaches you how to properly evaluate what you want and how badly you want it. Is your company worth your house? Your kid’s education? That sort of thing.

By starting your own company, you face personal consequences, perhaps long term, difficult to survive challenges that alter how you make decisions. Understanding and solving this equation prepares you for life’s ups and downs as few things do.

You aren’t as smart as you think.

 When I speak at conferences, I often say that a young consultant is like a teenager. Completely confident that they are right without the actual experience to give them judgement.

“Love working with you!  Congratulations!”
Sue (Sheehy) Bessner  Director, Professional Development

I reminisce in my speaker intro about the time I was all puffed up after a presentation – people saying, “good job” and “good presentation”.

The last person, a kindly older woman, walked up to me and said, “You did a great job, but your fly was open the whole time.”.

Starting your own company, you come face to face with your own flaws, incompetence, laziness, etc. Nobody to blame but yourself. This will give you perspective and humility that is hard to come by some days.

Other people are smarter than you think.

If you survive hanging out your shingle and manage to make a living at this thing, you’ll be temped to think you’re the smartest person in the room.

Presentations to the Board will be old hat. People will seek you out at conferences to ask you questions. You’ll be introduced as a “thought leader”. The risk, here, is you start to think you’re the only one with a brain.

“Congratulations! You are a valuable resource for those of us in the association industry.”
Joanne Cannella Constantine Director, Strategic Relationships at AOIA

But as you develop professionally, you’ll find yourself growing more aware of how sharp some people are and discover that you listen more and talk less in meetings.

Starting your own company gives you the opportunity to learn from and grow through other people in ways you never imagined. It’s a gift to constantly be exposed to people working on some of the most difficult challenges in the industry.

Your Big Vision and Life’s Dream is still work – take a vacation.

People used to ask me, “How many days of vacation do you get?”. My response? “I get 365 days of vacation. It’s the company’s job to convince me to come to work by being interesting and lucrative.”.

I often hear gushing crap about a person’s “vision” or “life’s dream” and made up stuff about how they work 100-hour weeks year after year because of their “passion”. It’s all crap. If you’re that person, you’re boring. Get  a hobby.

“You and your team create such excellent work. Wishing you at least 20 more years of success!”
Karen Nason, CAE Association Management Professional

I love vacations. I love day-drinking in my garden on the weekends (and weekdays). I love biking, reading, cooking, hunting, site-seeing, hiking, current events, trying to learn languages, concerts, summer dance in Chicago, skiing, reading, picnics, concerts at Millennium Park, dogs (and cats), politics, my wife, my family and my friends. All of these things are the “life” in “work/life” balance.

Starting your own company gives you the choice to decide how your life is reflected in all the things that aren’t work- enjoy the freedom and go have some fun.

Let other people help and let other people use you and what you’ve developed as a platform for their own success.

I’ve lost track of how many people advised, supported or helped me over the years.

 Maybe it was money when things were tight, a referral for business or an idea on how to solve a problem. Maybe it was quietly picking up the drinks at a convention or making sure I was invited to the right reception.

As I look back, it seems like a never-ending string of people providing me with different perspectives. People who wanted me to succeed.

You don’t have to know everything, do everything and be everything. Listen to others and let them help you.

“I’m proud to have been part of Association Laboratory for ten of those years. Congratulations!”

Cecilia Sepp, CAE, CNAP Principal & Founder, Rogue Tulips LLC; CEO & Founder, The 501c League; Founder, the 501c/Association Mentoring Network

 Starting your own company gives you an opportunity to learn from anyone you choose. Take advantage of it.

Conversely, help others. Maybe it’s giving someone a small, short-time gig while they’re between jobs. Maybe it’s showing them how to penetrate the industry and make a name for themselves. Maybe it’s giving them a job they love.

Starting your own company gives you a platform to help others. Use it. It will make you happy.

Make hard decisions and keep the faith because life isn’t fair.

In the summer of 2001, I started my first real office and hired my first staff person. I had a professional print piece designed and produced. I was ready to grow and excited about my company’s fast growth in just two years. Time to go national and break the surly bonds of Chicago’s limited market!!

My new office and national direct mail campaign, which I financed with a 2nd mortgage on my condo, dropped the week after 9/11.

The phone didn’t ring for 6 months.

“Congrats man. Most folks small biz dies after a couple years! 20 years is something to be very proud. “
David B. Wheeler, Chief Executive Officer, International Higher Education Group LLC

Never in my wildest business assessment did I think I’d have to adjust to a national terrorist tragedy and corresponding impact on the economy and industry.

 Life sucks sometimes. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t cause it. Creditors didn’t care.

This forced me to decide. Get out? Stop and move on? Fight through it? It was by far the most difficult time I’ve faced in business.

To survive, I had to be honest about the company. What was realistic given the new environment? What could I change or influence? To survive, I had to make tough choices. I fired the staff person. I got rid of the office.

20 years later, here I am – writing blogs read by several people each month. What a country.

Starting your own business teaches you that life isn’t fair and good intentions, and “passion” and “I’ll just work more hours” aren’t always sufficient. Sometimes you have to stare into the abyss and this will teach you about yourself like few other things.

You will have unintended successes.

In 1999, I never imagined what 20 years would hold.

We now have a small professional staff working from California to Florida and offices in Chicago and DC. We’ve served hundreds of associations and even some for-profit companies on two continents.

The company has produced successful conferences, published a library of strategic white papers and conducts the industry’s leading environmental scan, Looking Forward, each winter.

As of this summer, the Georgia, Tennessee and Colorado societies of association executives have entered into content distribution relationships with the company. We had more than ten organizations act as research sponsors for Looking Forward.

“Thank you, Dean, for all that you have done and continue to do to support the association community. It continues to be a pleasure to work with you and your team!”
Cynthia Simpson, Chief Development Officer, Women in Science

I’m a Fellow of ASAE and a former member of the Association Forum’s Board of Directors. I’ve led strategic planning efforts from Switzerland to Indiana and in August, I speak at the Indian Association Congress near Delhi, India.

Starting your own business opens doors for you that you never new existed and gives you opportunities you never realized you wanted.

In summary.

I’m not recommending everyone start a business. I’m positive I would have made more money doing something else. I would have slept more soundly at night.

But it’s difficult to look back at all the people, the lessons, the work and the fun and conclude that everything wasn’t worth it.

Good luck to everyone from My Seat at the Bar.