Real Life Struggles of Starting and Growing a Business

Barbara Stankowski President and CEO AMTIS, Inc.

Barbara Stankowski
President and CEO
AMTIS, Inc.

Synopsis

In this interview with Barbara Stankowski, President and CEO of AMTIS, Inc., we discuss what it takes to get a business started, the real-life challenges of what it takes to grow, the meaning of persistence and resilience, and why it’s so important to invest in developing your people.

Highlights

“There is no perfect plan.  There's a learn-and-do, fall. Pick yourself up, learn and do. Fall down, pick yourself up and do and keep on going.”

“So what looked like the darkest hour, the hardest time, the most sleepless nights produced a great result.”

“You can't underestimate the impact that you have as a leader.”

About Our Guest

Ms. Barbara Stankowski completed a distinguished 28-year career in the U.S. Navy in 1998. Prior to establishing AMTIS, Inc. she worked as a training and education consultant bringing over 30 years of program management, training development and IT operations experience to the company. She is a leader development expert, exceptional coach, speaker and facilitator.

Barbara holds a Master’s of Science in Computer Science from the Naval Postgraduate School and an undergraduate degree in Psychology from Pennsylvania State University. She is a graduate of the Joint Forces Staff College, was a Senior Fellow at the Naval Postgraduate School 1998-1999 and was inducted as a Penn State Alumni Fellow in 1996.

Transcript

Seth: Hey, everybody this is Seth here on Modern da Vinci. I want to welcome you to our interview series. We are speaking with business owners, leaders and experts to see what we can learn, what inspires us, and especially as we think about what matters to us in terms of leadership, and how to grow a business. And today, we're honored to have our guest on Barbara Stankowski, the President and CEO of AMTIS. AMTIS is a professional services and training company based in Orlando Florida. And, Barbara thank you for being on. You're approaching your ten year anniversary with AMTIS. Tell us a little bit about AMTIS and what it feels like to be approaching ten years?

Barbara: Unbelievable. Hard to think that it's been a ten year journey. But what a journey it's been. AMTIS is as Seth said a services company. We started off focusing predominantly back in 2007 on training development, developing products for customers. And doing a little bit of leadership development and we've developed into a multifaceted company delivering executive coaching, leader development facilitation in one area, doing training and evaluation, doing the entire ADDIE model (analysis designed development, implementation and evaluation) of products both web based, instructor led and blended solutions. And we do business processing services, as well as professional services. Today, we employ about one hundred seventy people located in twenty locations across twelve states. With the revenue of approaching twenty million dollars a year. Not the way we started off. But it's been a great journey.

Seth: So, Barbara these are impressive numbers when you talk about revenue and employees.  And I've had the benefit of working with you now for years and kind of being able to watch this happen. What kind of growth has that been over the past couple years?

Barbara: Well, I tell everybody it takes five years to get traction, to get started. And the first five years were okay but somewhat dismal.  I never thought I'd have more than ten employees. For the first five years we averaged probably in between five and ten employees making. Oh, one seven years, a little less than a million, other years a little over a million dollars a year. And then we hit the five year mark and we just took off. But you know if we hadn't been persistent and stayed the course, we never would've saw the outcome after five years.

Seth: So those are two words Barbara that I want to come back to because folks who are listening to this, many of them are curious about what does it really take to go from maybe starting something to a small company to one that's just it's going through this incredible growth like you guys are. So, I want to hold on to those two themes as we talk.  But before we go too far into AMTIS, I'm also curious. Just more about you, you truly had what I think is a unique career path leading up to where you are now. Can you tell us a little about that journey?

Barbara: Actually I'm certainly not a young entrepreneur. The small business administration calls me their encore entrepreneur with just means I started when I was older than dirt.

Seth: [laughter] It sounds like a compliment.

Barbara: Anyway, I spent twenty eight years in the Navy. I did a lot of interesting things in information technology and training. And I had the opportunity to focus on leader development training for the Navy. And looking at how to deploy that, both leveraging technology and instructor lead. That experience and that twenty eight years in the navy was really fantastic and honed my leadership skills. I retired out of major command where I was responsible for an organization of about fifteen hundred people located in forty nine different locations around the world. Great experience. I loved every moment. I went from there to be a contractor working with, working in a variety of woman own small businesses. I did that for about eight years. And just decided I really didn't like the business model. I resented watching the owners get bigger cars and bigger homes.  The majority of the people who gave up their intellectual capital didn't get a whole lot out of it, except certainly we had a job. I can't knock that, but I thought I'd like to do better, and try and create a place where people could come do their best work. Bring their minds to work, have a place where they could come to work and apply their passion, and where I provided environment that allowed them to do their best work and have their autonomy to do their best work. So that was kind of the challenge to create a place where, again, people could come to their best work. Apply their passion and be rewarded for it.

Seth: So, you know, one of the next questions I wanted to ask you was, when did you really know that you wanted to start your own business? But I think you answered that. You used a very powerful word, you said "resented". So this sounds like what you were observing in the way these other people are running their businesses just did not jive with your personal values.

Barbara: Exactly. And at the time I had to start the company with a partner who said, "why don't we do this?" and I said, why not? I'm fifty eight. My kids are out of school. I've got a navy retirement. What's there to lose? Let's go do this and, so we did and I have to tell you that I would – you know Ken Blanchard talks about the situational leadership II model. I was a D1. I was wildly enthusiastic. I didn't have a clue. I was unconsciously incompetent of creating a business. So it was a fumble and learn all along the way.

Seth: So what is that say, I mean you think about that, and if you were to say to another prospective business owner out there who's struggling to come up with the perfect plan.  As you reflect back on that, what would you tell them?

Barbara: No. There is no perfect plan.

Seth: Yeah.

Barbara: There's a learn-and-do, fall. Pick yourself up, learn and do. Fall down, pick yourself up and do and keep on going.

Seth: So, I think that's great insight because the reality is, you already had a lot of great experience at that point and yet it was still, you were going into the unknown. There was just no way to know exactly what was going to happen. And so go back, think about when you're at that time you're decided okay, I'm going to go for this. I don't have anything to lose or I'm not afraid. What kind of goals are you thinking about? What kind of experience we're you envisioning at that time?

Barbara: I would have just been excited if I could make enough to make my own salary and my partner's salary.

Seth: Sure.

Barbara: Enough to pay the bills and stay self-employed. Didn't have any great vision when we started. Well, no. When we started, we thought, okay, we're going to do services. We don't need to have an office. We can work from home, and we'll basically do staffing. So will be putting bodies into government offices. Don't have to have an office. Don't have to have infrastructure. If we need a place, we can rent a conference room for the day. Our first contract that we were awarded required us to have an office.

Seth: [laughter] Okay.  Okay. So. You had to throw out plan A and move right to plan B?

Barbara: Exactly.

Seth: Amazing. Okay. If you can remember in that moment seeing that first contract and it said you have to have infrastructure, what did that feel like?

Barbara: Oh, crap. [laughter]

Seth: Oh my goodness.

Barbara: So then it was all about solving the immediate problem. How to find an office? How to find furniture? Had to buy computers? How to buy a server? How to install phones?  Had to hire people and get them to work. And so we did it.

Seth: Was there any moment in there when you thought to yourself, "Wait a minute. This isn't what I signed up for. I'm out". Did that thought ever crossed your mind?

Barbara: There were many times in the first few years that I thought, "What are we doing?" Particularly when one day we couldn't make payroll and I had to take the checkbook for my line of credit on the equity in my home and write a forty thousand dollar check to pay cover payroll.

Seth: Wow. Ouch.

Barbara: Yup.

Seth:  Listen, you say that my stomach dropped. [laughter] It's stressing me out and I didn't even have to live through it. So there was something inside you that said, "well, this is painful. But I'm committed".

Barbara: Well, we had a contract. We had a reputation. And we had people that needed to be paid. So what else can you do?  And I can remember thinking my financial adviser had told me several years before that one of the best things to do to be sure you had access to the equity in your home, was always to have a line of credit on it because you've never know when you would need the money and it was guaranteed that when you needed the money you would be able to get it. And so I followed that guidance and took out a line of credit on my home, had never used it. Had sufficient equity. I could write the check. And certainly the company has paid me back. Has certainly paid me back for that. But it was a little nail biting at the time.

Seth: Oh, I can imagine. And. But I think that what you're sharing here is also something that, it's the reality of being a business owner is, can be very serious commitment. And you have to be prepared structurally. Like you said you did the right thing and you had the infrastructure in place to do that. But even just the guts, the fortitude to be able to pull the trigger in a moment like that. I know you've been through other bumps in the early phases of the company. You told me before you had a difficult situation with your partner. Essentially told you he wanted to move on. What was that like?

Barbara: Well, he moved on and it was frightening because it ended up not being cordial in the end. Because to protect the business I did take steps that basically removed him since I was the majority owner. Removed him from the board, and removed him from the company. He was in charge of business development. He had in my mind been working towards his own company. Kind of behind our back and. I called my financial adviser. My financial adviser said, "look this is business. Lock with doors. Change the locks." And I thought, oh my God that's not like me. I can't do that. He said. "This is business. You have employees and staff you also have to have to protect. Who are dependent on you for their jobs and well-being.” It was probably the - I had more sleepless night. It was the most difficult thing that I've stepped through to protect the integrity of the company.

Seth: I mean, you use some pretty strong words in there is frightening. And this idea of sleepless nights. I don't think we want to scare away our perspective business owners and entrepreneurs out there listening. But I think it also tells the story the truth.  Trust is foundational in business and when that's broken with a partner, the impact is significant both professionally. But I think also personally.

Barbara: Right. I can remember sitting in my office several days later just thinking, "Oh no. What do we do now?" I was not - I had relocated here to the Orlando area. I didn't know the Orlando client's that well. We had a few government customers. I hadn't done BD and capture. I had to learn it. And I had to find someone that I needed to hire to take on that role. And luckily enough relationships that I had built had the network provided me some opportunities to interview a number of great people. We hired a great person. And by the next year we hired within two months of this change. And we doubled in size the first year, and have done so, more than doubled in size every year since then. So what looked like the darkest hour, the hardest time, the most sleepless nights produced a great result.

Seth: Yeah. Amazing. I mean, it just, t goes back to what you said in the beginning, kind of that word of resilience. So key to what it takes to get through something like this. Was there a moment that you can remember? I mean you just said you kind of work it through and just tried to figure out what am I going to do next and what do I need to learn. Do you remember a specific moment when you feel like you really broke through from that whole phase of the business?

Barbara: I think just in filling that position for business development. And watching the ramp up. Proposals going in and things moving, and awards. That first award afterwards that was absolutely capable. We can do this. And unbridled, enthusiasm, and belief that we're going to succeed.

Seth: Do you have that first contract in a frame somewhere that you can look at? [laughter]

Barbara: Actually not. Because you win the first one, the question is, where's the next one?

Seth: Yeah, right. No time to celebrate sometimes when there's so much pressure to keep moving forward. [laughter]

Barbara: Well, in a world that moves so quickly. There is no time to sit and put your feet up and pat yourself on the back. You're working on the next proposal or doing the next best and final. There's really no time for that. They're just - you've got to keep on getting on.

Seth: Do you enjoy that feeling? I mean, I ask that - you work hard, you’ve overcome these obstacles, you forged your own path with this business. And you talk about that kind of pressure that's constantly there. But what is it that so fulfilling about being a business owner? What really drives you every day you get up? You have all these things that need to be attended to constantly, all this responsibility. So, what is it that really drives you to push through that?

Barbara: I think, if I can switch it just a little, my greatest joy is in going out to meet the men and women who work for the company who are incredibly passionate and excited about the work they do. And are excited to be a part of a company where they believe that work is appreciated. To go out the navy experimental dive unit and meet the CO's secretary who works for us. And to have everyone you meet in the hallway say, "This woman runs the place. We wouldn't succeed without her.”  She's just tremendous, and to watch her excitement as she introduces you to the people that she works with. It exemplifies two things. One, her passion and two the service that we're providing. It's just great. Or whether it's to go to the watercraft inspection branch of the army and visit one of the marine surveyors. We would spend all day taking you through every nook and cranny of that LCU that he or she and inspects daily with this wild enthusiasm about their work. I think that's what gives me the greatest joy and the greatest momentum. And the greatest sleepless night that results from that is the fear of not being able to continue to provide those jobs and those opportunities.

Seth: Okay. So. Well, so it's interesting as you're talking about that. Thinking about to what you told me earlier which was, one of the things that drove you that to want to do this in the first place, was being in an environment where you feel like there was no appreciation. And so, that value really is still at the heart of what you do, what does motivate you every day. Seeing people who you do appreciate or they know their hard work is appreciated. That's what's driving you to move forward. But I hear the other side of it, which is that pressure that comes with it. The scary part. Well. What if this goes away?

Barbara: Right. Because you're impacting lives. All of a sudden now. I have one hundred seventy lives. And livelihoods that I'm responsible for.

Seth: Yeah. Yeah.

Barbara: In terms of packaging and caring, and providing the best benefits I can for the dollar.  In letting them know what opportunities are there, and providing individual dollars for their individual development, and encouraging them to use it in sharing profit with them. So that they feel valued. All of those things create the culture. And I think creating that culture and watching it, and trying to make it what match division is a wonderful challenge.

Seth: That's a nice way to say it's a challenge, but it's, so at the heart of that, you valuing your people. Just sort of a follow up question. As the company grows. Going from smaller and progressively getting bigger getting up to one hundred seventy, how do you as a leader stay engaged even as you geographically diversify and just keep adding people?

Barbara: I'm on the road a lot.

Seth: Yeah, yeah.

Barbara: I travel a lot because the one thing I learned in the navy that's always stuck with me is you can't underestimate the impact that you have as a leader. And how important it is for people to have the opportunity to meet and spend time with you. And so I make it part of my responsibility to visit every site and to meet as many of the men and women who work for us as possible.  To have relationships with them. We have also done things to enhance the communications. We do a quarterly newsletter. We write thank you notes to folks to send our appreciation for a job well done. But anything we can to foster the communication. I know that in most cases, I don't control the work environment, where many of these people live and work. Whether they're supporting the government in CDC Atlanta or EPA Atlanta or FDA in Washington, or Department of Labor. I don't control the day to day environment. But what's most important is that they know that the people here in the Orlando office are here to have their back. To help them, to take care of any issues, to be sure that they're provided the best benefit package is, the best guidance. So that they can concentrate on giving their best to the customer.

Seth: So I want you know when I was listening to you, I wrote down a quote that may be a little tribute to you.  You just said something simple, "you can't underestimate the impact you have as a leader". So I just thought that was fantastic. Almost like a sales pitch for everything that much of the work that you try to do and some of the things that you and I have worked on together. Because I think what you see is, leaders do underestimate the impact and it shows up especially when you have a distributed organization. People don't feel supported. There's not visibility, there's not appreciation. So sometimes it doesn't feel like real work to get out and be visible, share your presence when back at the office you've got proposals and sales reports, and everything else under the sun calling your name. So I guess you said that was a value that you got early on starting with your naval career.

Barbara: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I'll often tell people even my lower level leaders. Never underestimate their impact, and that whether they choose to be or not, they are a role model for the men and women who work with them.

Seth: Yeah. Right. Leadership comes from everywhere. It not positional. It's a presence, it's a mindset, it's a choice. But I think people sometimes look around asking where is the leadership? And sometimes the answer is, well, if not you, then who?

Barbara: Right.

Seth: So. Earlier. One of the things I've admired about you. You told your story. You had to work hard for years to get things going. You had to go through setbacks and we talked about this idea of persistence. I know for you, you've been dealing with sales cycles. You've had opportunities that have dragged out for literally years. When you think about being patient and resilient in the face of those types of challenges. I mean, how do you do that? How do you pull that off when there is so much urgency around you on a daily basis?

Barbara: I guess lots of practice. Because I think about when I retired from the Navy and my change of command speech. I said three things that I have learn in the Navy. "Patience, because things always take longer than you think they should. Persistence, because you've got to keep pushing to get those things moved forward because they always take longer. So patience and persistent. And if you're working on something that you're passionate about it can help you generate the stamina and maintain the persistence and the patience that makes sense".

Seth: Yeah. Yeah. And those are, I think those are values that sometimes in the business world or even just culturally today aren't quite as emphasized. Maybe as they have been in the past. People are kind of looking for the “what have you done for me lately” and immediate results. So I took a notes as you said that because I need to work on those. [laughter] And they don't come overnight.

Barbara: And I truly love what I do. I could certainly be retired sitting at a beach, but I can choose to be here. Because I love what I do. I love the people that I work with. And I absolutely enjoy getting to solve problems and learn something new every day.

Seth: I think that's amazing. That's awesome. So here you are. So the company is really reached a new level of achievement. And yet there's still more ahead. So as you think about what's next, what gets you the most excited? Or what do you think might actually be the next thing that really takes off for you?

Barbara: Well. Continuing to grow. The next big step for us is planning and strategizing our successful exit from the government 8A program. Where we will no longer be subject to being able to win sole source contracts or where we want competitive contracts for our customer to come back and say – we’re just going to give this to you for the next five years because we love you. Which is always very nice. But you graduate out of that program, and you're growing. So you're competing with larger and larger companies. It's really planning that path to figure out what do you do when you're no longer small?  How do you compete in that environment? And, how do you prepare? And so we've been working on our strategy and our plan, and capturing data, and our scoreboard to measure our progress to help ensure that we are a successful graduate of the 8A program. And not a failure as so many 8As are when they graduate, and are not successful after several years without the support of that program.

Seth: So this is a big challenge when you think about that challenge, what's the emotion that goes along with it?

Barbara: Fear again. Fear is a great driver [laughter]

Seth: Well, it's an honest answer. I think it's an honest answer. You're right. Fear can motivate us in different ways. So it's scary. But I also kind of hear in your voice a confidence. You've been preparing for this for a long time. You know what you're going to try. You can lean on your successes and what you've learned from the past.

Barbara: And we talk about it. It's not me sitting in the office contemplating this. I've got a great team of people and we get together on a regular basis to talk strategies and direction. And each one of the four areas, I have a very key people and I try and treat them as if they are running their own small businesses as well. And growing in that capacity so that whatever happens to AMTIS they will have had the experience, and developed their own plate of business that maybe they can go out and start their own company. We also support a variety of small companies, and a lot of people who are trying to start a small business, or grow their small business.

Seth: So, obviously another value clearly that you have is giving your leadership team the freedom. Giving them the opportunity to run with their own style and decisions. I think that's important because as you know, a lot of our clients will often see leadership as having to have all the answers. So that opportunity to rely on your team not only does it benefit you, but it also gives them the capacity to think about what's possible for me. What can I do?

Barbara: And I frequently tell them, I don't have all the answers. I've never built a twenty million dollar your company before. I've never built a company before. So this is all new to me just as it is to you and we've tried to put our best heads together to figure out the way ahead.

Seth: Sure. Well, that's an honest way of looking at it. Another thing we see in leadership is, when a leader is not authentic, people see that. So you're willingness to tell the truth about what you perceive I think that's one of the many reasons why your team has so much respect for you.  Now, you just talked about helping other companies. We have people listening here who are thinking about jumping into business or maybe again they're a new entrepreneur. You already covered a lot of great things that you want to share with them. But if you were going to tell them one thing, what would you say to encourage them?

Barbara: Persistence. It takes time. And you can't be impatient, and learn from every mistake or every misstep, and just continue on. Adjust your direction as appropriate from what you learn.

Seth: When you were going through that - just a side question. Did you have support network for yourself? Did you have people there who you could, you mentioned you had a financial adviser who gave you good advice. I mean, who was there to help you when things did get difficult? And you were saying, "Okay, I want to be persistent, but gosh. I feel like I'm out here on my own."

Barbara: I think one I clearly had a long term relationship with my two financial advisers who I talk with frequently. I also joined a CEO group when AMTIS was selected as a sort of company to watch in 2012. I got a scholarship out of that program to join a CEO nexus group here in the Orlando area. We meet once a month, that collaboration has been very helpful. And I certainly spent time talking with other business owners who are a little further along than I am in the journey.

Seth: That's great. I know you've had some resources like that and I know for a lot of folks when you're feel like you're out on your own it can be a lonely place. So having a, whatever it is, some support coach, mentors out there can make a big difference for someone who's especially kind of new in the game.

Barbara: Right. And I will also say there are within each area whether, I do a lot of speaking at conferences for the small business development centers that are part of the SBA.  Colleges have the ptacs that are available to provide the guidance and assistance. A lot of the colleges have entrepreneurial centers to help encourage small businesses. All of them are great resources. And I just recommend that individuals reach out to their local area to see what's available, and use everything you can.

Seth: So Barbara we're coming to an end here. I don't want to take up too much your time, but I do want to ask you one last question here. And it's related to this theme we're talking about getting support for yourself. But also this philosophy that you have in terms of - I've got a company, I want my people to be empowered. I want to invest in their professional development. That's your mindset, I already know that from you that you do take the time and you put energy, and resources, into providing training, providing coaching to your staff. Why is that so important? I know that's something you've always valued. Why do you feel like it's worth your energy and time, and resources to provide that for the people in the AMTIS?

Barbara: I think it's part of my deal with them. I can't always, in government contracting, I can't promise an employee forever employment. What I can offer them is good work. With a good salary with good benefits, and an opportunity to learn and grow. So they can always be adding bullets to their resume, so they're always employable. So to me that's my commitment to each and every member of the team.

Seth: And I mean, it's fantastic. So many business leaders that we work with who, professional development, again, it doesn't seem to be on the list of work to do. It's a nice to have if you can fit it in. And yet what I'm hearing from you is it's literally part of the core agreement you have with everybody who works with you there.

Barbara: And I find it amazing Seth of how few people take advantage of it.

Seth: Yeah. Yeah.

Barbara: And so we are really rolling out this year an aggressive initiatives for individual development plans that are responsibility of each employee. And re-emphasizing the fact that we have dollars there for them to help support them if they want to get it. I don't care what profession they choose, or that they're working in. The goal is for them to be the best at what they do. And whatever certifications or education will help them to be the best. We want to help them whether get the PMP or records management certification or a mail room operation certification. We'd like to help them get that. It helps them and it helps the reputation of AMTIS in terms of having a highly qualified capable staff.

Seth: Absolutely. Well. Barbara this has been fantastic. I always learn a lot when I talk with you and I can't thank you enough for taking the time to do this. I'm going to - I think I'm going to make a little plaque here, and again give you attribution. “You can't underestimate the impact you have as a leader.” I don't know why that's standing out to me so much, but I think it's meaningful and, what we're going to do is we'll post a little page to go with the interview, so anybody who'd like to see your information, learn more about AMTIS, contact you if there's ways that they think you can help them. We'll put that up. And otherwise I want to thank you again and look forward to staying in touch and working with you hopefully for many years to come.

Barbara: Absolutely. It's been always a pleasure to work with you Seth. So thank you very much for this opportunity.

Seth: All right. Thanks Barbara. And thanks everybody for listening.