Joni Newkirk is the founder and CEO of Integrated Insight, Inc., an analytics firm helping organizations strategically and operationally out-behave the competition. The company specializes in adding value through analytical support for new business development, business optimization, and research and consumer insights, and is a four-time recipient of the Inc. 5000 award for Fastest-Growing Private Companies in America.
Prior to founding Integrated Insight, Joni spent 20 years with Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. As senior vice president of business insight and improvement, she was responsible for managing and driving over $8 billion in revenue for worldwide theme parks and resorts, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Vacation Club and Adventures by Disney. She oversaw industry-leading decision analytics within market research and consumer insights, forecasting, pricing, revenue and profit management, and industrial engineering. During her tenure at Disney, Joni led key initiatives that resulted in step-change growth including “Magic Your Way”, a sweeping change in revenue strategy built on consumer wants and needs, and “Back to the Basics”, a refocus on guest service as a key differentiator.
Prior to joining Disney, Joni held management positions in planning and development at both Lockheed Martin and Orlando Regional Healthcare System. She holds a BA in Statistics from the University of Florida and a MS in Industrial Engineering from the University of Central Florida.
Tell me about your early career.
My first five years were spent at Orlando Regional Medical Center focused on long-range planning. I had a great mentor, Ann Ashmore, who taught me how to write. The analytics came easy, but telling a convincing story to gain approval for future medical services was just as much art as science. After the hospital, I joined the network planning team at Lockheed Martin (then Martin Marietta) and stayed there for almost five years while I chipped away at graduate school classes and finally earned my MS in Industrial Engineering.
Living in Orlando, I knew all about Disney parks as a guest, but never thought about joining the company until I read an advertisement for a manager of operations research position. It fit both my educational background and work expertise so well, it was as if the ad was written for me. And so began my twenty years with the mouse. To take full advantage of those Disney benefits, I immediately had three children.
How did the concept for Integrated Insight come about?
I love to invert problems to look for viable solutions from a different angle. Literally diving into the work with my team and bringing new strategies to life is what excites me most. For a long time, I was certain I would retire from Disney doing just that. But continuous, increasing responsibility pulled me farther away from what I loved most, and with worldwide responsibility, I was frequently away from my family. The thought occurred to me that I could add significant value to other organizations through consulting, so I took the plunge and Integrated Insight was born.
How was the first year in business?
Liberating, enlightening, scary as hell – everything I thought it would be. I wanted to go back to “doing the work” and clearly, I was, including everything my superb assistant Linda and the IT department did for me previously. Having a great business partner helped. Scott Sanders and I left Disney together and it has been a remarkable nine year partnership. It also helped having a business plan prepared – something I worked on for a couple years prior to leaving Disney – and our first client lined up before we took the leap.
What was your marketing strategy?
Networking was our primary marketing tool. We spent a good six months developing our story – who we were, what services we provided, and why a company would want to hire us. This not only fed our website, but it helped as we began networking. Our non-Disney contacts were minimal given our 20 year history each, but other Disney colleagues who had ventured out before us quickly connected. Our analytical horsepower was a perfect fit with their design and/or operational expertise. Today, we enjoy a great deal of business from repeat clients and referrals in addition to continued networking.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The first year we did a little over $200,000 in revenue, but by year three, realized over six times that much and have continued to grow at a great pace ever since. For the past four years, we’ve made the Inc. 5000 list of Fastest Growing Private Companies in America which is no small feat considering our product is intellectual capital and our growth is dependent on hiring even more, really smart people.
How do you define success?
Making a significant, positive difference. Whether it be for family, our clients, our team, or the communities to which I belong, I’m successful when I’m making a positive difference.
What is the key to success?
Do what you love and love what you do.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Take risks. Specifically, calculated risks. When I look back over my career, I can see where I’ve been willing to take risks that others have not. Fear will always be peering over your shoulder. How much you allow it to drive your decisions is really up to you.
What are some of the great quotes you live by?
“Make little decisions with your head, big decisions with your heart.”
“Time flies when you’re having fun.”
What are some of your favorite books?
As for books, I’m a Malcolm Gladwell fan, but Outliers is probably my favorite. I also like The Five Faces of Genius by Annette Moser-Wellman, and a couple of books by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton have resonated, particularly The Knowing-Doing Gap and Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur?
Are there easy ones? Pinch me. Seriously, the toughest days are the ones when it is next to impossible to see how you’ll get through the workload, meet your deadlines, and still produce exceptionally high quality results. That said, those days exist in corporate America as well. You just feel more of the burden personally, as an entrepreneur.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
First, faith. I truly believe God is with me in whatever I do. Second, confidence. It goes back to that calculated risk. If the plan is well thought out, it will work. That doesn’t mean ignoring new information or not addressing issues as they arise, but staying focused on the end goal is what makes it happen.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Have a rock-solid business plan. Test drive it with others who have expertise in your field. Know the risk and mitigate what you can without giving up on the vision. Be objective in your evaluation. Once you feel confident you have what it takes, tune out the naysayers and stay focused on your goal. Don’t let others chip away at your confidence. Work through the setbacks – not everything will work precisely as planned – but don’t give up. The risk is well worth the reward.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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