Some years ago, while leading a workshop at a conference in Arizona, a local business owner asked the question, “are there no failed startup enterprises in the BAM world?” While I readily agreed, I was stimulated to think about the question in a more profound way. There certainly are gigantic risk factors in starting and growing a Kingdom business in the cross-cultural milieu, which require God’s people to apply experience, wisdom, and hard work to one of the most risky and hardest tasks anyone can attempt. Yes, there are many mistakes and failures along this journey.
Fifteen years ago, I registered a BAM consulting group in Conshohocken, PA and before long, I received a license to operate and federal legal status. IBEC Ventures was independent from the start with a small board of directors and seed capital provided by the agency I was part of, which had a keen interest in the development of Kingdom businesses worldwide.
Immediately we began to make mistakes, and it is by God’s grace and the commitment of many people that we are still in business today – in fact, we have experienced steady growth in the past ten years. I am encouraged by champion coach, Rick Pitino’s comment, “Everything I’ve learned about coaching, I’ve learned from making mistakes.” While those mistakes are numerous, these five might be helpful to the reader.
Mistake #1: We assumed business is something anybody can do
The modern focus on Business as Mission began in 1999 with the Lausanne committee forging some basic terminologies and principles. The influence and freedom that missionaries had enjoyed worldwide since WWII was beginning to wane, and for many reasons. The concept of BAM was intriguing and considered by many to be solution to fears of expulsion and irrelevance in many countries.
Missionaries who had become established and at home in numerous countries were at risk, and many considered that starting a business was the way to be relevant and reach missional goals. Certainly, it seemed to be an easy task to repurpose professional missionaries into businesspeople. While it was possible in some cases, for the majority it was a mistake. Why?
Entire books have been written on the subject of talents, gifts, calling, and the sacred-secular divide, so a few short paragraphs here do not do justice to the true theology of it all. Os Guinness, in The Call, reminds us that our primary calling as followers of Christ is by Him, to Him and for Him. Our secondary calling is to understand our best talents, gifts and abilities and use them to reflect His image in a dark world. He asserts that God normally calls us along the line of our giftedness, which we are called to steward for his glory. Exodus 35:30-36:2 reminds us that whether our secondary callings are craftsmanship, shepherding, homemaking, teaching, or priestly service, all are equal in God’s sight. King David used his secondary calling of military and political leadership to “…serve God’s purpose in his own generation…” (Acts 13:36). Guinness goes on to suggest that “…the terms ‘calling’ and ‘vocation’ should be synonymous.”
The reformers were clear that “monastic vows rest on the false assumption that there is a special calling, a vocation, to which superior Christians are invited to observe the counsels of perfection, while ordinary Christians fulfill only the commands; but there is no special religious vocation since the call of God comes to each in the common task.” (Luther). Likewise, modern author Veith suggests, “The priesthood of believers did not make everyone into church workers, rather it turned every kind of work into a sacred calling.” Such accurate understanding of this theology propelled contemporary businessman, Michael Cardone, to state, “God did not call me to be a minister or a missionary; he called me to be a businessman – and I see no difference.” Similarly, Mats Tunehag stated to conference attendees, “If God has called you to be a businessperson, do not stoop to be a preacher.”
I have often wondered why it was we made the mistake of assuming missionaries could be businesspeople, when God has gifted them the talents and gifts of evangelism, teaching, and preaching. Conversely, why have businessmen and women who are gifted to make money, create jobs, and grow businesses been remiss in understanding the integration of faith and work and have been marginalized from starting Kingdom businesses cross culturally for the greater glory of God?
Two couples in central Asia seemed well suited to start a coffee business, and the mission agency considered them prepared theologically and missiologically. They even raised $200,000 in capital to start the business and settled in their country of “calling” for a two-year partnership in an established coffee business before launching out on their own. Coaches tried to help them with this startup in a country friendly to such business initiatives. I will never forget the shocking email from the leader of the group a year later, “I believe BAM is a great thing for businesspeople to be doing, but it is not for me.” He went on to talk about super stress, hard work, unhappiness, and lack of motivation. And then he said this, “…at no time was there ever an evaluation of us to see if we were actually a good fit for BAM.” A leader of their agency followed the announcement with this: “We have an opportunity to do this wisely – identifying those whose gifting and passion is entrepreneurship, living it out in a redeemed, transformative way…coming alongside those people. Encouraging people … to identify their gifting and find their niche…their place that He has for them…we should not be coming alongside those who aren’t made for this, trying to make them into something they’re not – wasting everyone’s time, energy, and resources…” Many people made mistakes in this case, but would we learn from our mistakes?
George was a great missionary with a physics background in college, so he was equipped to develop an innovative water purification product in an arid area of Asia. The product was successful in providing clean water and started to gain wide acceptance. It appeared that he was going to lose his visa, so we helped him gain a business visa with the plan to create a business for the product. However, despite repeated efforts we concluded that George was not “wired for business” even though he had so many relevant and related qualities like good language and technical skills, good rapport with the people, and a passion for Jesus. This and other stories led me to often think that missionaries are not likely candidates to start an operate businesses. After all, it is not something just anybody can do.
Mistake #2: We thought that if we build it, they will come!
There is a tendency to value people and encourage them to follow their dreams. Many times, I have heard, “I love coffee so let’s start a coffee shop,” or “I am an outdoors hiking guy, so I am going to start a trekking company,” or I am a pretty good photographer, so let’s get together and start a photography company”. Granted, those abilities are of value, but they are only one of many qualities or requirements for a successful BAM business.
My mentor in the consulting business, Ken, realized this common mistake and repeatedly drilled into my head, “Larry if you don’t have a customer, you don’t have a business.” At best, you will have a small profitless boutique, at worst the attempt will certainly fail. In the BAM world we believe that a business must be profitable to be sustainable, and in order to do that there must be a customer paying for the product or service. The customer makes the decision to give you money, it is they who decide if they want it or not. In the words of marketing guru, Seth Godin, “Don’t find customers for your product, find products for your customer.”
We had to learn what is obvious to anyone who has tried and failed in business; to anyone who has studied business or taken the college course, Economics 101. We began to ask our clients about the problem to be solved and to ask what the customer really wants, or what is their “pain point”. What it amounts to is that a minimum viable product must be prototyped, and then tested, – tested, – tested! Then be ready to pivot. It is not about the dreams of the entrepreneur, but the dreams of the buyer. Peter Drucker is quoted as saying, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
We spent a good amount of time helping a tour company get started in an African country which had good rock-climbing mountains. The guides were AMGA certified and had various qualifications to lead rock climbing expeditions. They understood principles of BAM and were committed to the bottom line of profitability, job creation, making disciples, and caring for creation. One of the things which we learned while debriefing after this company’s demise was that we did not understand a minimum viable product at the outset. In short, the marketed climbing mountains were too distant from the city and had no amenities available after the long hours traveling to the climbing site. They built a product assuming the customer would come. They did not. Thankfully, this company was sold and re-created with a more feasible destination in the same country. Eric Reis of “The Lean Startup” insists, “You have to test your ideas rigorously throughout the process.”
A good friend was an expert in the language and culture of a southeast Asia country. He was also a pretty good photographer and he loved Jesus, and desperately wanted to share the good news in his country. He registered his company in the country, set up a website and tried to drum up business, despite no proof of concept. It turned out that the market was saturated with outdoor photographers, all trying to impress the moderate number of tourists in the area. He worked hard and we tried to help him until we realized the mistake that if there is little or no capacity to purchase a product, a business has no likelihood of taking off. This one did not! Danae Ringlemann, one of the founders of Indiegogo said, “think about building something someone really needs.” CBInsights research determined that the #1 reason for business failure in the United States is that there was no market need.
Mistake #3: We acted as if business startups have only one “go to” Leader
When we think of the founding and growth of Facebook, we think Mark Zuckerberg, but we ignore the names of Saverin, McCollum, Hughes, Moskovitz, and Parker, who brought added skills of business, programming, graphic art, and capital investment. Zuckerberg did not do it alone; neither did Bill Gates at Microsoft, or Jeff Bezos at Amazon, or Steve Jobs at Apple, or Jack Dorsey at Twitter. In fact, Steve Jobs stated, “Great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.” But how many times in our early coaching did we try to improve one person, hoping it would be all the difference?
Italian Ernesto Sirolli has a great TED talk entitled “Shut up and Listen” where he states that God has not yet created someone in business who can “make it”, “sell it” and “keep track of the money.” Businesses start and grow to success because of a team of people, not just in operational function and responsibility, but with consideration of vision, capital acquisition, HR, and the soft side of the business. In short, in our early days, we failed to acknowledge the fact that no one starts a BAM company alone. We tried to coach companies with one strong hard-working couple with occasional others; we have also tried a sizable group but with no one with entrepreneurial skills. Both extremes are doomed.
Today, I am much more inclined to determine talents and abilities of each team member and work toward the appropriate use of those skills and gifts in the startup endeavor. Oftentimes, that can be accomplished with a coach or consultant. I am a believer in Bill Gates statement that “everyone needs a coach” because it aligns with biblical counsel, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed.” (Proverbs 15:22). There is great value in the input of someone who can view the business from outside and ask good questions.
One of our most storied initial success stories was a tour company in south Asia. They read the market well, had developed a product and value proposition which met a customer need, so they achieved profitability in their third year of operation. They had been willing to pivot and the result was an innovative approach in their tour market segment. However, we failed to recognize the fragility of it due to the owner’s difficulty in bringing others into top leadership. When they became under political attack, the company faltered due to lack of others to take over. The company failed and I felt some responsibility for that.
Entrepreneurs by nature are self-starters, risk tolerant, and idealogues. They are positive thinkers and tend to believe the best about themselves and the results of their efforts. Consequently, it is not uncommon for an entrepreneur to think he can do it all and he or she can solve any problem. Lee started a consulting company in central Asia and partnered with an attorney who was a citizen of the country, without any other like-minded Kingdom partners and without a coach. Things were going well, when one day he went to the bank and discovered all the money was gone. He had trusted a corrupt individual and in the absence of diversity and others in the company, he lost it all. It is a mistake for an entrepreneur to think he or she can “go it alone”. The world is too complex and the task too complicated not to assemble a team with complementary skills. There was no team, and because I had been one of his coaches, I learned that I must do all I can to never let that happen again.
Mistake #4: We thought that Christians don’t fail
This assumption comes from the tradition about missionaries who are supported by donors, who want to hear success stories and expect optimum results from their contributions. Have you ever read a missionary letter to donors with stories of their mistakes or failures? In addition to this issue related to missionary aversion to failing, it is common for all of us to want to succeed and even put a spin on a story line, which in reality is exaggeration, or downplaying a less than optimum result.
What happens is the tendency to take a less robust view of what BAM really is and must be. For example, businesses must drive toward profitability and sustainability, but when that was not happening, we would tolerate a donation stream from donors or churches, which hindered the drive toward profitability or worse yet, mitigated the likelihood it would ever happen. So, a typical business might have 75% of its income from donation, and 25% from sales, and that was considered acceptable because other bottom lines like job creation and disciple-making were on track.
We now try to coach using the lean startup method, which recognizes failure as common as the market is tested with the inevitable pivot. We try to drive toward success by listening to the market, creating a Minimum Viable Product by starting small and pivoting toward change, all in the spirit of “a person who never makes a mistake never tried anything new” (Albert Einstein). Patrick Lai affirms the importance of failure, “Everyone fails at something. Entrepreneurs know that failure is actually an excellent teacher. Most of us learn more from our failures than our successes.”
Lee, in the story cited above, knew things had failed and I felt sorry for him, so I called him to try to encourage him. But he had had business failures in the US and told me all that he had learned in the course of starting and driving that business forward. And then he shocked me when he said he had already gone down the street, rented another office and already was in business with some new clients. Unlike many missionary business owners who fled the country when things failed, Lee pushed on to greater success the second time around.
A business in Eastern Europe was able to purchase several acres to establish a vegetable business with tomatoes and other crops. They worked hard, gained some customer contracts for sales in the capital city, and did their best to follow agricultural principles and the laws of the country. Despite seemingly doing all the right things, they experienced tomato disease, market glut from elsewhere, and broken contracts. The result was that tons of tomatoes and other vegetables either rotted from disease or remained unharvested because of a collapsed market. They lost thousands of dollars and felt like total failures, thinking that Christians should not fail like this. However, they are still in the agricultural business with another product and renewed excitement. They would be the first to agree that they learned a lot about products, agricultural pest control, contract law, etc. from the “failed” experience.
Mistake #5: We did not insist on Good Foundations
Many BAM businesses begin on faulty foundations. Many times, I heard comments like, “I love this country, am settled here with a visa, speak the language well, am trained in making disciples of Jesus, and I know a lot about coffee, what else do I need?” True, in a situation like this, many key elements are there, but the foundation is still lacking. The BAM Global Think Tank research determined that character and spiritual maturity is an important foundational factor. Representative traits which need to be understood, measured, and monitored are “perseverance, teachability, humility, integrity, calling of God, servant spirit, commitment to the task, among others.” Angela Duckworth calls this GRIT (Guts, Resilience, Initiative and Tenacity) which she maintains to be the primary predictor of success in just about anything. My friends Adam and Ashley started a business from scratch with no experience, training, or coaching. They are operating a profitable successful business today seventeen years later. Outside of the grace of God, the biggest factor has been that they both had GRIT. Check out this mini-TED talk:
The Think Tank report also noted that business experience is highly important to BAM success. We learned the hard way to require some business in the homeland or an apprenticeship in a similar business somewhere. I now often say, “Would you enter a hospital for heart surgery from a person who was not an experienced medical professional with the necessary certification?” Or, “would you fly on an airplane piloted by someone who had never flown before and had no credentials?” The answer is obvious, so I then ask why someone would expect a person with no business training to be successful in starting a business – especially in another culture?
We made the mistake of thinking that everyone knew what the purpose was and what the end in view was. But we discovered very mixed views. Some saw business as means to an end, such as Business For Mission; some saw it as a means to support traditional missionary efforts or to earn a personal living. The least integrous were those who just saw it as a means to get a visa so they could do something else. Every starting BAM entrepreneur needs to listen to Simon Sinek who affirms, “Start with the Why” More than 53 million viewers have watched his TED talk which has been translated into 45 languages (https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action)
I wish I knew fifteen years ago that the three robust guiding purposes which provide our raison d’être are: a). to create wealth (Deut. 8:18); b). to create jobs (Jesus’ Great Commandment); and to make followers of Jesus (Great Commission). And all of that takes place within the business itself which is a full-time job, and the GRIT quality provides passionate perseverance to hang in there for the years it takes to accomplish the goal.
The above-mentioned CBInsights study discovered that the second most common reason for business failure was lack of funds, resulting in bankruptcy or closure. Most entrepreneurs need coaching in whether to bootstrap, take loans, seek investors, or depend on friends with deep pockets. In the beginning, I regret to say too many of our clients rejected financial spread sheets while holding a “God will provide” mentality. While it is true that God is the giver of all, those businesses started with faulty foundations, and we let them get away with it. It is mandatory to be prepared in the area of finances.
Knowledge of the language and culture is also an important foundation. There are so many nuances of culture that can strike at the business. While I have always been an advocate of language learning, there is so much more that relates to cultural intelligence. CQ is something that can be learned but the business owner must want it and work at it.
A business was set up in an ex-Soviet dominated country for the teaching of English and western culture. There was a gigantic market for such a school after the demise of Communism and the profit margins were good. The owner was credentialed and experienced in teaching English as a Second Language, and he spoke several languages. He lacked business experience and did not seek counsel and coaching. He hired teachers who were from a mission agency whose primary goal was church planting (something deemed to be illegal in the country). One of the teachers who had acquired a business visa, when asked to take a normal teaching load, replied that he only wanted to teach three hours a week because he needed the rest of his time for evangelism and church planting. The foundations were weak. The teacher lacked integrity to follow through with his contract to teach English as a way to commercial success, economic viability, and an integration of mission with the business. The director lacked foundational understanding in the three purposes of a BAM business. The business collapsed, most teachers left the country, and the director went to a country farther east in Asia.
A successful executive left his job in the manufacturing sector in the USA Midwest, assembled a highly qualified business team of four couples and set off for a West Africa country that desperately needed his product which had been tested and proven to be cost effective and met a market need in poor countries. They came to us for advice and coaching on issues of culture, transition, and survival skills in a humid hot country. It soon became evident that the leader of the group had little time for “soft skills”, refused to listen to others in the team on issues of where to live and schooling for the children. Even though they had raised the capital, knew their product well and had established price points which would have made them successful, and were theoretically committed to BAM principles, within a year all four families had left the country for the homeland. They lacked foundational training and preparation for the harsh realities of west Africa and made bad decisions on how to cope with the situation – at a cost of more than one million dollars.
I wish I could have those years over again and I wish we could have learned from less costly mistakes. I would like to believe that we can help those who are starting Kingdom companies today to avoid those big mistakes and perhaps make other mistakes less costly in resources and human lives. It is all for the greater glory of God!
Larry W. Sharp, BAM Support Specialist, IBEC Ventures