Having recently met as an IBEC leadership team to cast vision for the years ahead, we also took time to look back and reflect on the things we’ve learned over our 11-year history. We continue to be humbled to see God at work and share this retrospective from Larry Sharp and Gary Willett, reprinted from Business As Mission Review, July 11, 2016, as an encouragement and challenge to our fellow Business as Mission sojourners:
IBEC Ventures was incorporated in 2006 as a consulting group to provide consulting services primarily to Business as Mission startups in areas where there is high unemployment, great injustice and where there a few followers of Jesus.
IBEC’s Purpose: IBEC helps build sustainable businesses through consultative expertise that changes lives and transforms communities.
IBEC’s Vision: We envision an increasing number of small-medium sustainable Kingdom businesses with our special emphasis on areas that are both economically impoverished and spiritually unreached.
So what have we learned in these last ten (now eleven) years? We have made significant mistakes to be sure; and we have seen some successes, but recently three of us senior leaders considered the question of what we have learned. Here are some of those lessons:
1. Business as mission should be fully integrated
We have learned that this is not business as usual, and this is not missions as usual. BAM is a based in a theology of a ‘worker God’ who created man to be a worker and a creator (Genesis 1-2). He also created mankind with various ‘wirings’ and gifts and many are business people with abilities to create wealth (Deuteronomy 8:18), as an act of worship and as their unique ministry. Business is a high and holy calling and those gifted to serve the kingdom of God in this way are ministers, fulfilling their spiritual calling.
Because business is a spiritual activity, based in the theology of a worker God, it is important to recognize that fact at every level of the business. That is why IBEC from the beginning has required businesses to have a business plan and a ministry plan. Neal Johnson in his book Business as Mission: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice, calls it a Dual Mandate and provides a template for a Strategic Country Analysis (SAA), Strategic Business Plan (SBP), and a Strategic Mission Analysis (SMA). All of these are integrated into a master BAM Plan. By writing all of this down it helps the business owner to stay focused, evaluate and be accountable.
Tom has about 30 employees in a manufacturing plant in Asia. He treats workers fairly, pays taxes and lives ethically and with integrity in every area. Every product that goes out the door is created with excellence. The workers are mostly Muslim and Hindu but Tom starts each day with a Christian prayer. He writes a “wise saying” from the book of Proverbs on the office door each week and explains to the workers it is from his Holy Book. He started a Bible study after work when a Hindu worker’s relative died and all the workers were debating the question of what happens after death. Tom sees his business as a whole as a spiritual activity as business and mission are integrated together.
2. Business is not for everyone
We have learned that business is not something which just anyone can do; it is often not easy for those who have been called to traditional pastoral or missionary work. God has not always gifted them with the instinct for business, to work long hours in a business, to take risks, accept failure and have extraordinary grit. Business owners must have passion for their product or service while at the same time keeping a balance so as to not be blind to the needs of customers and financial viability for the business.
It is important that there is sufficient research and testing of the business concept. There is no shortcut to receiving good counsel on the business model, developing a sound value proposition and testing the hypothesis! The lean startup concept is something which can be taught and learned, but in practice not everyone can listen to sound advice, hypothesize fully, do customer development and pivot at the right time.
We have met many mission agency people who thought they could do all this part-time while carrying on mission leadership duties or “church planting” outside of the business context. The work of the BAMer should be in the business – and indeed in the context of the company in the marketplace, new believers may be discipled with a planted church the result.
A mission agency wanted two IBEC consultants to help a couple start a business in a limited-access country in Asia. After two days with the couple on site, we determined that this was not for them and so we told them why we felt that and reported to the agency. Everyone was unhappy. But three years later this couple was a happy and productive team, teaching English in a university in that country. They had found a good fit for their gifting and we helped save them from disaster.
3. Business as mission is a team effort
We have learned that no one person has all the skills for operating a business in his or her home country and certainly not in another culture. Entrepreneur Ernesto Sirolli in a highly watched TED talk affirms, “this world has never seen a person who can make it, sell it, and keep track of the money.” Entrepreneurs learn this before too long and surround themselves with managers, marketers, sales people, accountants, IT experts, legal advice and cultural understanding.
Visionaries and operational people are seldom the same people. Everyone from Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates to the smallest startup operators have learned that. So building a team is mandatory and the sooner it is done the better. Such a team includes an advisory board for accountability and advice from experienced business people.
Brittany joined a team in Azerbaijan and brought significant skills in coffee roasting and retail. However, she realized that she needed capital developers, managers, operational people, marketers, HR experts, accountants and legal advice. Before long a team emerged and the result after the application of varied skills and much hard work – a roasting company with two successful stores.
4. It takes longer than you think
We have learned through several consulting contracts that it takes several years for most BAM operations to achieve the quadruple bottom line of profitability/sustainability; job creation; disciples of Jesus; and stewardship of creation. It takes capital and it takes time. We have researched and visited many companies who are making significant community impact and they all give evidence of the time it takes.
We have learned to advise at least a time frame of 5-8 years for stable profitability. That of course requires much capital to sustain the operation until that time. It requires much patience to weather the ups and downs during that time. So it is best to begin with a long-term mentality. From a spiritual perspective, BAMers need to stay until God makes it clear it is time to depart.
Ryan and Jana started ABC English school and stayed long enough to see profitability and the creation of 65 regular full-time jobs, as well as lives changed as teachers and students came to follow Jesus. Without the commitment of fifteen years, it is doubtful that measurable success would have been evident.
5. Language and culture learning is critical
We have seen many mistakes that have been due to a lack of cultural understanding. Likewise, we have seen the value of being a respecter of culture, being constantly curious, and being a student of it for a lifetime. One must learn to love the people and their culture and have friends in both the national and the expat community.
Culture is complex and includes the likes of epistemology, beliefs, art, morals, law and all the customs and habits of a people group. One does not learn that overnight or even in a year or two. Every expat abroad needs to be constantly studying culture and we recommend that every business team have someone at advanced levels of cultural understanding.
We helped Rob and his family buy a boat-building business in Indonesia. The entire family loves the country and the people and they speak the language well, respect the culture and the employees love working for Rob. Using a translator, I asked many of the workers why they loved working for Rob. They said things like: he understands us and relates to our situation; he values us and is fair; he takes us on camping trips to talk about life issues; he pays a fair wage within cultural guidelines. Rob is a student of culture and knows the critical importance of language and cultural understanding.
6. BAM workers must have GRIT
Business startups require owners with GRIT – Guts, Resilience, Initiative and Tenacity. One cannot give up but must work hard to accomplish the vision and realize the potential of God-given abilities and opportunities for business.
“You can’t have any quit in you!” – Pat Summitt (One of the most successful USA college basketball coaches)
There are so many things that can go wrong even with good counsel and great planning. Things happen that are outside of our control when working in a country where the “rule of law” is not the norm and economic and political changes can happen overnight. Expat business owners have little control over local laws, taxation irregularities, economic conditions, visa requirement changes and relationship-based decisions.
Lee started a business in a former Soviet republic but before long his partner from that country had stolen his assets and left him penniless. I called him and asked him what he was going to do and thought he may have had enough and leave the country. He readily responded by saying, “I have gone down the street and have opened a new office and started over.” Lee was not going home – Lee had GRIT! And the new business became successful.
7. Integration of faith and work can be learned but it is hard work
Bringing us back full-circle from lesson one, Business as Mission should be integrated, but this can require a change in mindset. Western Christians have been conditioned to believe and act like there is a sacred-secular dichotomy. Our worldview teaches us that what we do on Sunday and in our private lives seems unrelated to our 9-5 work day world. Such a modern-day gnosticism demonstrates itself in 21st century politics, business education and in the church.
However biblical values are meant to be integrated with every aspect of the Christian’s life including the marketplace and business. This does not come naturally because of the cultural factors which mitigate against it, therefore it must be learned in businesses all over the world. It is hard work but it is a must for the follower of Jesus in business.
Kirk Parette was mentored by Bill Job who defines BAM as “walking with God at work”. Bill does just that, as does Kirk, who states “every day on the factory floor is an opportunity for discipleship.” Both men see BAM as an integration of following Jesus, and his principles of life, with business decision-making. It is living out the Great Commandment of Jesus to love employees, vendors and the community, while seeking the fulfillment of the Great Commission as we go and make disciples.
Larry Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures
Gary Willett, Director of Consulting, IBEC Ventures