“They Say It’s My Birthday” – Happy Birthday Association Laboratory Inc.

At the Hotel Bar

On April 6, 1999, I officially notified my adoring public that I was starting my consulting firm, Association Laboratory. My shingle officially hung out. I awaited the corresponding fame and riches.

[crickets chirping in the background]

Still waiting.

This month, Association Laboratory Inc. is celebrating 25 years in business. Honestly, these past 25 years have been some of my professional life’s happiest and most successful 4 – 5 years. I kid, I kid [weeps silently].

In all seriousness, I never imagined being in business this long. I did not even conceive of it. I was so focused on establishing, sustaining, and nearly “profiting” that other potential professional lives took a back seat.

Then I looked up, and it was 25 years later.

To be clear, this isn’t some whine about how I only cared about work. I took plenty of vacations, had plenty of fun, and found time for a great life outside of work with a great wife. I enjoyed family, friends, etc.  So don’t believe the small business or entrepreneurial “hype” about someone’s “deep passion for Blah Blah and Blah”. At the end of the day, it’s still working, like anything else.

Things I never imagined in no particular order.

  • That Association Laboratory would be the leading source of sector research in the association industry through our Looking Forward Dashboard.
  • That we would produce successful conferences on membership, meetings, and content.
  • That we would organize a successful annual healthcare association CEO strategy summit.
  • That I would have a blog (they didn’t exist) let alone a mildly popular one called From My Seat at the Bar.
  • I would speak in Dubai, Delhi, Brussels, and cities all over the United States. Often for money.
  • I never imagined the many drinks with coworkers or what constant travel really meant (#millionmiler).

So, as I look back 25 years, let’s see what lessons can be learned.

It’s People PEOPLE.


It’s easy to imagine a business. You think about new clients. You get more. You grow. It’s all very logical. But while you might imagine the future of “business,” it’s hard to imagine how all the people you meet who support you and who you support will change your view of life and work.

You see, the company isn’t just about you. It’s also about all the others who see it as a step in their lives. Maybe it’s a short-term gig for extra money or to learn a skill. Maybe it’s the next step in their career. Maybe it’s the right service, at the right time, to help a CEO make a big leap forward.

My lesson? Organizations need to be built around people, not the other way around. They need to be flexible to adapt to the changing needs of these people. And, if your company isn’t the best for them, let them go on with their lives happy with the knowledge that your organization contributed.

That is a good segue to the next lesson.

Create a platform for peoples’ success.


During the past 25 years, I’ve watched people I enjoyed working with outgrow Association Laboratory. I watched them take the skills or confidence they developed and move on to whatever they believed was the next step.

Some examples of peoples’ next steps?

  • Association CEO
  • Food/culture blogger
  • Professional shooting coach
  • Started their own company
  • Retired
  • Back into association management
  • Commercial real estate broker
  • Salesforce consultant
  • Youth camp counselor
  • Meeting executive at a college

You get the picture. However different their lives became, they used Association Laboratory as a stepping stone for a moment in time.

My lesson? Create an organization that prepares people for their next step. A place they can graduate from and go on to better things. Welcome them with open arms if they come back for help.

Is it money to buy a house or pay for college? Is it developing a new skill? Is it the satisfaction of working within a great team, solving challenges together? All are good – your organization is (or should be) a platform to help people with their lives.

If you are not the best platform to help, tell them and help them move on.

Learning is not failing.


Most people don’t recognize how hard consulting is. They all know consultants, so they figure they understand. But you only meet successful consultants. The unsuccessful ones disappear (not dead, change jobs). Successful consulting is about applying your knowledge efficiently, and it’s much harder than people think.

The result? There is a steep learning curve. You watch people struggle to do work that isn’t their best. They know it isn’t their best, which frustrates them. The learning curve to basic competency is roughly two years. So many very different things need to be learned by doing—it’s an apprenticeship model.

My lesson? Recognize the difference between stumbling and falling. Realize learning is not the same as failing.

I’ve watched tears of frustration come from someone struggling to do their best and knowing they are not. Be patient. Coach. Teach. Train. Encourage. Be relentless in your positivity as a leader.

The mirror doesn’t lie.


Early on in Association Laboratory’s history, in November (or most Novembers), with my year nearly done, I would ask myself a simple question: “If I’m doing so well and working so hard, why am I so broke?” The plan says I should be rich.

I have often been frustrated at Association Laboratory. For many years, our highest sales year was also the year we lost the most money. I was flailing at times.

At one point, I interviewed for a couple of jobs, thought of getting out, and talked to friends I trusted. I was not obliged to run Association Laboratory for the rest of my life.

I discovered that my problem wasn’t with my job or the company but with my performance. I was married to an old business model that didn’t work. It was too expensive, with a fragmented culture. There was nothing to build on, just repeated tasks every year. The people were great, but the model was broken.

My lesson? The first place to look for problems (and solutions) is yourself. You need to be honest about your and your organization’s performance. Only then can you “blow it up” and do what needs to be done sometimes.

Today, we enjoy growth and profitability, and the company is more sustainable than ever. But it was a hard switch that took years.

Take vacation.


People used to ask me how many days of vacation I got. My response? I get “365 days of vacation. The company has to convince me to come to work by being interesting and lucrative (sufficiently).”

Your job shouldn’t be a chore. Going to work shouldn’t make you stressed out or sick to your stomach. That’s a sign you need to get out.

Association Laboratory’s job is to revolve around the people and act as a platform for their success, and I’m one of those people. As the company evolved, I started to pay myself first, not others. I gave myself a raise, too. I used the company to help me do work and work with folks I’d have never imagined otherwise. I’ve worked on strategic planning, membership, meetings, global expansion, chapters, education, DEI, emerging leaders, ethics, M&A, and other interesting issues with interesting people. I’ve produced conferences and written whitepapers. All fun. Mostly all for money. 😊

My lesson? The organization has a responsibility to you. If it doesn’t meet those responsibilities, look elsewhere. Regardless of your ownership situation, take a vacation, enjoy a hobby, quit early on a Friday, or have a glass of wine with lunch. You deserve it. The fate of nations is not riding on your next work task.

Additional lesson: Please don’t whine or humble brag about working 60 – 80 hours a week. You’re not. This tells me you don’t know how to manage your time or organization.

Find a partner that will tell you you’re full of shit but still be there when you do it anyway.


I met a girl in early 2002 who is now my wonderful wife, Martha. I remember her asking me in a skeptical voice (I now realize that’s her normal voice), “Dean, why did you start a company to serve organizations that aren’t supposed to make a profit?”

That is an excellent question.

“My GOD! LOOK OVER THERE!!!” I shouted as I ran away.

Martha continues to be a skeptic, adviser, confidante, and investor in Association Laboratory. Things she probably never imagined (or wanted) to do.

Without her guidance and support, there would be no 25th Anniversary.

My lesson? When smart people who care about you tell you that you may be wrong, you should listen to their perspective. When they help you despite your failures and frustration, showing that confidence, give them the credit they deserve.

Few things are more satisfying than having people believe in what you’re trying to accomplish. Try to do the same for someone else.

Last Call


A couple of years ago, I suddenly realized Association Laboratory was my life’s work. I didn’t seek it out. It found me.

Maybe that’s the final lesson. You don’t find your life’s work, it finds you.

Maybe it’s your family, hobby, local nonprofit, church, or work. But keep an open mind to what the world has to show you and what it may have in store for you. Someday, you’ll look up and realize—this is pretty cool.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed in ways big and small over the last 25 years.

Just some thoughts from my seat at the bar.

Happy 25th Anniversary, Association Laboratory Inc.