SIPA Member Profiles: A Double Feature

Karen Piontkowski, Founder and President, Direct Answer, Inc.
Katie Rogers, Vice President, Direct Answer, Inc.

Editor’s Note: We give you a pre-Labor Day special today of two-for-the-price-of-one.

SIPA: What was your first job out of college and how did you get into this business?
Karen Piontkowski: Printing broker…doesn’t everyone in direct marketing start in printing? Once the ink is in your blood and the feel of the different paper textures, you cannot get it out so it seems! Throughout the years, I find most of my colleagues who began with me in the late ’70s and early ’80s are connected to printing in some sort of fashion…however, I fear we may be losing those wonderful smells of a web press running at full speed!

Katie Rogers: I was being recruited to work for a certain three-letter government agency, but when I found out that I could and would be called at a moment’s notice to head overseas for an undetermined amount of time, I and my soon-to-be husband, decided it might not be the best environment to raise a family. As for how I got into this business, I don’t think I ever was NOT in this business. I started folding T-shirts for premiums and doing data entry before I was legally allowed to work: my friends are still impressed with my 100 wpm! Growing up surrounded by this industry, I swore I would never work in it when I “grew up”—I wanted to break the mold. Do something different! However, the passion must run in my blood as I kept being drawn back to it—it seemed to come naturally. After completing my EMBA, I realized this was what I was made to do and haven’t looked back since.

Has there been a defining moment in your career? Perhaps when you knew you were on the right road.
KP: Right track? Who is ever on the right track, at least for any length of time? The tracks are always changing with today’s ever-shifting environment. I look back and say probably with every new technological advance, there was another defining moment—I have humorous anecdotes about each “defining moment.” I knew I was on the right track when I realized that we will never be “comfortable” and recalled what a much older colleague told me when I was a newbie: “When you are ripe, you rot, so always stay green.” Who would have thought social networking would be what it is today and it is redefining our total industry.
Every day we must anticipate each change to be proactive with being prepared to offer the latest to our clients. They will need it to stay competitive. That’s our job. When I walked out of my “cushy” VP of sales job at the large fulfillment house, to begin DirectAnswer during the recession of 1991, there were no businesses like mine I could refer those clients we could not service. And so I saw an opportunity for providing highly specialized services that required a greater attention to detail and allowed the marketing team on the client side to realize their vision and not be controlled by the database manager or the fulfillment house. When I began hearing from our clients, this is what they appreciated most about DirectAnswer; and 20 years later, all our business still comes from referrals.

In brief, describe your business/company?
KP: DirectAnswer provides highly intelligent, personalized, client-focused customer database management and fulfillment services for three specific application needs: circulation management (integrated sales, customer service, accounting and fulfillment) for publishing serials; publication management (sales, inventory, cogs, customer services and fulfillment) for those selling single publications; and donation/membership processing, acknowledgement and free-mium fulfillment and control. We believe it is vitally important to provide these comprehensive services while functioning in a similar manner as if we were an actual department within our clients’ organizations; allowing them to focus on content creation, strategy and goal realization. It is not lost on our team, that every minute of the day, we are responsible for the success or failure of their most valuable asset, their subscribers and their data. One of the best compliments I received was from a current client who offered that “subscriber management was in our DNA.” In that one statement, it eternally shut the mouths of my colleagues who laughed when I walked out 20 years ago and said I would be back in a week.
KR: What makes our partnership even more unique is that Karen brings such a strong historical point of view of our industry—capitalizing on the successes and learning from the mistakes. She is a true visionary and thought leader. As a Gen-Xer, I not only make her visions a reality but keep my finger on the latest grassroots trends, technologies and stewardship standards and researching how they not only affect our industry but if they are viable enough to integrate them into the tailored services we provide our clients. It’s a dynamic enterprise that in the end really benefits our clients and our team!

What are two or three important concepts or rules that have helped you to succeed in business?
1) Our clients are our boss, and their bosses are their customers. It’s a full circle of responsibility and stewardship. We never forget who pays our bills.
2) Ethics, honor, honesty, integrity and mutual respect in every dealing with prospects, clients, staff, vendors.
3) Give back and share financially with clients and staff. Stay out of debt and only borrow to expand…never to meet payroll or overhead.
1) We are our best customers…so ask yourself—what would I want? What would I expect?
2) Referrals are easy when you do an exceptional job.

What is the single-most successful thing that your company is doing right now?
KP: Thriving during another recession! In every industry there are those who are successful and flourishing and those who aren’t. (Think Southwest vs. US Airways.) What has worked for us is sticking true to our mission, continually approaching each opportunity (and crisis) with an open eye (not every fad or technology will work for us or our clients, but we are open to all), being ready to change course at a moment’s notice and retaining the diversification of our service elements.

Do you see a trend or path in 2010 that you know you have to lock onto? Any key business models?
KR: Customer service and stewardship! This isn’t a new concept to us, in fact, it has always been one of our core competencies; but what we are seeing now is that while technology has allowed us to process data and complete functions more efficiently, we cannot forget there are humans still buying the product or requiring assistance. It’s a delicate marriage of the right amount of hands on personalization with the efficiency and ease of technology that will result in increased brand loyalty; and a successful marriage will, more than likely, result in abundant offspring!

What are the key benefits of SIPA membership for you and your team?
KP: It’s an invaluable and necessary forum for keeping an eye on the changes and trends affecting our industry so that we may stay on the right track of providing what our clients and the market needs—giving back by sharing what we have learned through our 50+ cumulative years with other members, clients, prospects and even our competitors. Keeping one from reinventing the wheel keeps our independent publishing industry vital and ongoing.
KR: It’s a shame, but I feel that my generation has lost the realization of how valuable trade associations like SIPA are. It was social networking before Facebook, people! And as organizations cut back on membership dues, I really hope individuals continue to make the personal investment—it’s like having a set of on-call consultants at the ready. Fabulous.

Where did you grow up?
KP: Born and raised in Southern California. If I wasn’t doing what I was doing, I would have opened up a Beach Umbrella Rental Kiosk. Ever the entrepreneur.
KR: I am a native Northern Virginian…there aren’t many of us around—so at times I feel I should be in a glass case.

What college did you attend? Is there a moment from that time that stands out?
KP: George Mason University: personnel management class: The first day we were told we would be the friend, the shoulder to cry on, the company sociologist, the psychologist, the problem solver, the counselor…couldn’t have been more accurate.
KR: Boston College: 50 degrees: I was in a sweater, they were in flip-flops.

Are you married? Do you have children?
KP: Yes! I had a child every decade; 1979 on Columbus Day, 1990 on Labor Day and twins in 2000 on President’s Day. I guess I was the model employee, having children on Federal Holidays.
KR: I have been with my high school sweetheart since we were 14 years old. At the end of this month we will have been married for 7 years. No children—a gaggle of rescued pets.

What is your favorite hobby and how did it develop in your life?
KP: My children. Having one every 10 years gives me three decades of experience and changes in rearing styles. My vocation was always my hobby…I love this work, I love my business, I love the staff, and I am so blessed to have been such a part of the last 30+ years and all the exciting changes that have taken place as well as what is to come!
KR: Learning. I never stop—the greatest advice I was given: “Knowledge is power.”

What was the last book you read and movie you saw?
KP: My summer reading and entertainment was the Twilight Saga—I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
KR: I always wanted to see two theatre movies in one day. A couple weeks ago, my husband and I did just that: Inception in IMAX in the morning and Dinner for Schmucks in the afternoon. It was interesting to be transported to two different places so quickly.

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