“The most dangerous risk of all: the risk of spending your life not doing
what you want on the bet you can buy the freedom to do it later.” - Anonymous

Why would you ever start a business?

The first reasons are ones we’ve all heard before; be your own boss, get rich, have more freedom. These are valid reasons, but is there more?

Molly and Jeremy, recently married, found themselves at an interesting crossroad. Jeremy, was now a civilian, having just come off his second deployment to Iraq. Molly had finished seminary and was an ordained minister, but didn’t yet have a church to lead. They had no commitment to a community or anything else, other than each other. They were looking for a place to put down roots.

The world and all its possibilities were before them. Now, what to do with it?

Jeremy had long thought about owning his own business after his military service. He spent a lot of time studying business and business models during his downtime in Iraq, trying to figure out what kind of a business he could launch. He had loved teaching leadership at various military schools. Molly was looking for a congregation to teach, build up, and minister.

It was an epiphany -- an “aha” moment, and a big one -- that made all the difference in their lives. It set them in the right direction.

They both wanted to do something worthwhile with their lives, he with a business and she with a congregation. And they both wanted a community in which to grow and build. A minister naturally seeks a community to serve, and they both knew that finding the right community would be central to Molly’s ambitions. But, until their big “aha” they thought a business was simply a way to make money, and a good business would be a fun way to make money. Molly’s ministry would be a source of satisfaction; Jeremy’s business would be a source of money.

Then the “aha” hit them. Not all at once, but over the course of a lot of talking and planning. It started with a question.

How could they start a business that will not only allow them to be their own boss and to be rewarded financially as the business grows but to also design it with the idea of them making an impact in the world through changed lives?

To meet both those objectives would require some serious forethought and planning.

They knew that they wanted it to be a gathering place of people
  • Restaurant? - not really having any experience in restaurants and the complexity of running an independent restaurant - doesn’t seem like the best fit.
  • Bar or brewery - good gathering spot but it really wasn’t their scene or passion and would not attract the people they wanted - not even seriously considered.
  • Coffee shop - now this is closer, a meeting place for a wide spectrum of people, but the market is fairly mature and they would be trying to break into an existing market.
  • Ice cream store, hmm interesting, attracts that youth demographic but it’s also a fairly mature marketplace with lots of entrenched competition.
  • Frozen Yogurt (Froyo) attracts the right cross-section of people, rapidly growing niche, the small city of Holland that they wanted to live in didn’t currently have any froyo shops. 
They started looking and found some attractive franchise companies who had figured out a lot of the logistics and business model. They decided on buying an Orange Leaf Franchise and to take the plunge into business ownership.

Molly wanted a place that she could bring in groups of teen girls for bible studies and a place where they could hire young people and mentor them through working at the business. They found a location and launched.

They went through the usual business startup issues, early losses, competition moving in, figuring out how to run it, figuring out how to hire and train. The business worked and was profitable, not as much as they wanted it to be, but still profitable.

But the question is, did this business add to their life or take from it? There are many in our society who have accepted that their job will suck and will drain the life out of them but it pays the bills and so they grudgingly go to work each morning. But this should never be the case for a business owner, after all, a business owner has more invested, they have taken on a lot more risk and they put up with a lot of extra hassle. So a business should both reward them financially but also help to give them the life they want.

I often tell people that the purpose of your Life isn’t to serve your business but the purpose of your business is to serve your life, to give you more of it.

Molly and Jeremy are the rare entrepreneurs who sat down before they even decided on a business to start and determined what kind of a life they wanted to live. They thought about and talked about what made them tick, what kind of a dent they wanted to put into the universe, what kind of a ministry they wanted to have in the community.

They figured out their core purpose. What makes them tick as people.

Then they very intentionally launched a business that not only made money but also gave them this kind of a life. They made sure before it even opened that the strategic intent of the business matched up to the core purpose that they had identified for their lives.
Entrepreneurship is mentally and emotionally hard. It takes a great deal of self-reliance and deep internal endurance to continue when you want to quit. Being an entrepreneur is hard because it’s on you. Success is on you. Results are on you. Making the call, doing the things you don't like to do...all on you. Making it requires willingness to be uncomfortable yet still push forward. To know that you might be uncomfortable, you might be in pain, you might be embarrassed, and you’ll certainly be challenged, but you’ll still persevere. Any marathon runner will tell you that strong legs help, but what defines a marathoner is the ability to continue running when your body says stop. Your body will rebel and start screaming at you to stop--right now--but your mind tells your legs to keep going. One more step. And another. And another.

I was recently at the Grand Canyon with my family and naturally wanted to hike to Phantom Ranch at the bottom and then back up. But as I talked to the rangers about doing it in one day, they said, “No way. That’s a hike for really experienced hikers.” I mentioned that my 9-year-old son wanted to go with me and they said “absolutely not,” so, being a responsible parent and respecter of limitations that authority figures lay on me, I went right on planning our hike. We left our RV at 5:45 AM and caught a bus to the trailhead. At the rim of the canyon, when we started, the temperature was in the high teens, and at the bottom it was in the 70s, which makes clothing an interesting challenge, especially when you want to bring extra warm clothes for just in case situations. I wasn’t sure if there would be food or water available on the way so I brought enough of both for the entire day of hiking plus extra for safety.

An interesting thing about hiking the Grand Canyon is that you start out going downhill but you end the day climbing uphill. So as we started out Christian was loving it. He wanted to climb ever rock face and explore every little side pocket and trail as any boy naturally would.

So we started a conversation that spanned the entire day, about what it was going to take for him to make it all the way back up to the top. I talked to him about running marathons, how when you are at the starting line and feeling great, but you know that in a little while you will be in pain and beyond tired. At that point it’s up to you to draw down that mental toughness to keep going, taking that next step and the one after that. I talked to him about being prepared for that time so that when it comes he would be ready mentally.

Seriously biased dad here but he was amazing. He handled it like a champ. He was ahead of me for the 9 miles down, but the downhill section isn’t the time that tries men's souls. After Lunch at Phantom Ranch we started the trek up and after a long time came to the final 3 miles of steep switchback trails. This is where your feet feel like you have 10 lbs weights on them. He knew this was coming and knew it would be hard. But he never complained. Not once. We made it to the top with daylight to spare. He was one tired but happy boy. So was I.

Now you can read this and say, Yay Christian good for you! And yes he did great, but what’s interesting is what has happened since that time. It’s been over a year now, and he and I have jogged the stairs up and down the dunes, jogged through the sands, swam roughly ⅓ of a mile in the waves of Lake Michigan, and gone through some gruelling soccer practices. Never once has he said he couldn’t do it, or that he was too tired to go on. Once or twice he brought up the fact that this was tough, but not as tough as the Grand Canyon hike.

That hike did something inside of him. Something deep in him now knows that when the going gets tough he can keep going. He has a mental anchor. He knows he did something hard once and made it through. I think that, in a small but important way, that day hiking the Grand Canyon will stick with him forever.

This past Summer he expressed an interest in making some money. After we talked about what he could do, we made a plan, and I printed some business cards for him. Then came the hard part. We went door to door in our neighborhood and he knocked on every door and told them about his business, leaving each of them with a business card magnet for them to put on their fridge.

In case you’re not aware, going door to door selling your services is HARD.

He’s 9 years old so he still has a little bit of that cuteness factor going for him, but anyway you cut it, it’s hard to muster the courage to walk up to a stranger’s door, knock, and then tell them about your business. Don’t believe me, try it sometime.

I knew it would be hard and that he might not be able to make it on his own (just as he might not be able to make the Grand Canyon hike alone), so I went with him, talked him through it, and encouraged him along the way. I Played up the positive responses and downplayed the negative ones. I never went up to the door, but stayed on the sidewalk like a trick or treating dad, because he had to be the one to knock and give his talk. He didn’t want to do his first house, but that went well so he was ready to try some more. After about 20 he said he was kind of done for the night, so we walked home. We’ve gone out a few other nights and each time it’s easier because he did something hard the first time and lived to tell the tale.

Let your kids do hard things. Let them be uncomfortable. Don’t make it too easy on them. Their future selves need to know that they can do hard things and get through them, that being uncomfortable and in pain doesn’t mean to stop but to keep moving forward, one step. Then another. And another.
I have seen too many people, young people in particular talk about how inconvenient it is to vote.

It reminded me of some tweets by historian Kevin Kruse who while doing research for a book on the civil rights movement, shared these short stories and pictures.

Read these and consider what Americans sacrificed to get full access to the ballot

Reverend George Lee in Belzoni, Mississippi, used his pulpit and his printing press to encourage African Americans to register to vote. For his troubles, he was assassinated by three men with shotguns in May 1955.

A few months later, Lamar Smith -- who had been busy trying to convince local blacks to vote -- was gunned down by three men on the lawn of the courthouse on a Saturday afternoon. A crowd watched it happen, but originally police could find no witnesses to it.

In 1961, voting rights activist Herbert Lee was murdered by a state legislator in front of a dozen witnesses. After a few years, one of the witnesses offered to testify about the murder. The night before he was going to testify, he was killed outside his home.

In Jackson, Mississippi, the family of the NAACP state field secretary, Medgar Evers, stayed up late to see what their father thought of the president's speech and all that had unfolded on June 11, 1963. 

Around midnight, Medgar Evers' children heard the familiar sound of their father's Oldsmobile pulling into the driveway. He got out of the car, picked up a stack of sweatshirts stenciled "JIM CROW MUST GO" and turned to enter his home.

Across the street, hidden among the honeysuckle vines, a white supremacist named Byron de la Beckwith squinted through the scope of a 30.06 Winchester rifle, squeezed the trigger, and ripped a bullet through the activist’s back.

At the crack of the gun, his kids inside threw themselves to the floor, precisely as their father, a veteran of the Normandy landing, had trained them. When no more shots came, they hurried outside to find their dad face down and bloodied in their driveway. In the early hours of June 12, 1963, Evers passed away. After the civil rights breakthroughs of the day before, in Tuscaloosa and Washington DC, and across the country, too, his assassination proved a powerful reminder of just how much further the nation still had to go.

In the summer of 1964, three voting rights activists -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner -- were detained by cops and then murdered by Klansmen in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

During the climactic voting rights protests in Selma, 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson was beaten and shot by Alabama state troopers in February 1965. He died soon after.

Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, was beaten by white supremacists who attacked him and two other clergymen who had come to Selma to support voting rights. Reeb died two days later.

Four Klansmen murdered Viola Liuzzo, a mother of five from Detroit who had been giving rides to voting rights marchers after the Selma-to-Montgomery march. They chased her in their own car and shot her twice in the head.

In August 1965, Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopalian seminary student from Boston, was arrested along with a Catholic priest for supporting a voting rights campaign in Lowndes County, Alabama. Almost immediately after their release, Daniels was shot to death by a deputy.

In January 1966, Vernon Dahmer, a well-off grocery store owner, announced on the radio in Hattiesburg that he would pay poll taxes for anyone who wanted to vote but couldn't afford it. The

Klan attacked his home that night.

The Klansmen threw jugs of gasoline into his home and set it on fire. As the fire spread, Dahmer fired his gun to scare the Klansmen off and got his wife and kids out of the house. He finally made it out, but soon died from the severe burns and smoke inhalation.

"I've been active in trying to get people to register to vote," Dahmer told a reporter. "People who don't vote are deadbeats on the state. I figure a man needs to do his own thinking. What happened to us last night can happen to anyone, white or black."

These stories are from one short period of just United State history, this leaves out the entire story of the women who fought and struggled to gain the vote or the wars we fought to gain our ability and others the ability to vote.

But, sure, I hear you.

Voting can be a real hassle.

Why bother.
Branch Rickey talking to Jackie Robinson before he took the field

Values Matter...

I recently watched a YouTube video about Jackie Robinson and his experience breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. He did it with a great deal of courage, and with patience for the extremely narrow-mindedness and intolerance of people venting their hatred at him.

Baseball is a sport of extreme mental concentration and focus. Players are easily thrown off their game by even minor distractions. Yet Jackie, in spite of all the off the field (and sometimes on the field) abuse he suffered, was able to play top-notch baseball. He did it with an intensity and aggressiveness that eventually gained him the grudging respect of a nation that, in those days, still harbored deep prejudices. Many hated him for his skin color, but came to respect his skills and the way he conducted his life and played the game of baseball. Eventually, Jackie was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. To this day, he is the only player to have his number retired by all of baseball. One day each year all major league players wear number 42 in his honor.

Watching the YouTube video again reminded me of my admiration for Jackie, but this time my attention was drawn to two key players in the Jackie Robinson story. Branch Rickey was the President and General manager of the Dodgers, and the team owner was Bill Veeck. It was they who decided that something needed to be done to break the color barrier in baseball. They knew it would be futile to try to convince people to change their prejudices, or attempt to legislate change through the baseball commissioners office, so they made a courageous decision.

They just did it. They put a black man on their baseball team.

They didn’t do any market testing. They didn’t mount a publicity campaign to try to convince fans that “colored” people could and should play baseball at the highest level. They didn’t wait until it was an acceptable, normal practice. They put a black man on their team knowing full well that it would create a shock wave in the world of baseball, and that the man they selected would be subjected to extreme insult and abuse.

Why did these two businessmen, already successful and respected, want to disrupt the status quo of the baseball world? Why did they take on such a huge risk that would potentially threaten their already successful business?

They had the conventional goals of baseball team owners -- to own a successful, profitable business, and to prove themselves to be the best baseball club in the world by winning the World Series. But they shared another goal. Really more than a goal -- a sense of mission. They wanted, somehow, to make the world a better place. I don’t know that they ever thought of it as a mission or made any kind of “mission statement.” But that’s what it was. A mission.
It’s commonly understood in the business world that a business is all about making money and that’s it. Standard business wisdom is that businesses should be focused on the bottom line. Maximize profits. Grow the business. Increase value for the shareholders. When management loses its focus on the bottom line, stakeholders become angry, and industry/business experts criticise the business and its leadership.

Is that right? Is that all there is?

Let’s ask a few questions about this basic belief and see if we can find a deeper truth about the world of business.

1. Who are the stakeholders of a business?

It’s common to take a narrow view of stakeholders, defining them as those who have a direct financial interest in the business, such as owners, suppliers, lenders, and, of course, customers. But this narrow definition really limits our thinking about those who want to see the business succeed.

What about employees? Their income depends directly on the business. The majority of their day to day energy is spent in the business, Much of their fulfillment in life comes from the successes they experience in the business, as do many of their disappointments.

In the case of Bill Veeck’s and Branch Rickey’s “noble experiment” with Jackie Robinson, their employees -- baseball players, teammates -- were striving for the glory of November baseball, trying to win it all in the World series. Jackie Robinson increased that possibility dramatically. He led the Dodgers to six World Series.

What about the community? There is a symbiotic relationship between a business and its community. The community is much more than simply a customer base for the business. In many ways businesses are the face of the community for people local and afar. Ask any economic developer and he will tell you that the growth, stability and wealth of a community is directly tied to the businesses in that community.

In the case of the Brooklyn Dodgers, they were part of the face of that community. So much so that civic pride was tied up in their success. The community, not just the diehard fans, wanted to see them win.

2. What do stakeholders want?

I was recently at a conference for entrepreneurs, listening to a panel talking about sustainable business practices. One of the panelists interrupted the flow of thought by stating that when we are talking about sustainable businesses we must never forget that sustainable means profitable. Without profit there is no way that a business can sustain itself no matter what other practices they put in place. Profit isn’t the only motive, but if you lose sight of it the business won’t survive. So, it’s basic that all stakeholders want the business to be profitable. But do they want more than that?

Of course they do. And entrepreneurs need to know what their stakeholders want.

For entrepreneurs, their businesses are extensions of themselves...their baby... their way of making a mark on the world. Much of the impact they have on the world is made either directly or indirectly through their businesses.

As an entrepreneur what do you want? What kind of a mark do you want to leave on the world once you’re gone? How do you want to make the world a better place? Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck had a sense of mission. What is yours? Is the business getting you any closer to that goal? If not, are you in the right business? Are you operating in a way that will take you there, rather than the way conventional wisdom tells you to operate? You’re in the driver’s seat, but if you’re not taking your stakeholders into account, you may be driving on the wrong road.

What do your employees want? You might think they want better salaries, but look a little deeper, ask some deeper questions. They may not be able to articulate exactly what they want because they have probably never been asked this kind of question before, But ask anyway, and look for little clues that they give in the conversation. See how their wants and needs might match up with yours.

What about the community? This one can be a little confusing. Henry Ford once said that if he had asked the market what it wanted, it would have said “a faster horse.” Steve Jobs said that sometimes you just need to show the market what you have come up with and see the reaction. Sometimes the market might not be ready for what you are creating, and you may have to go back and reevaluate.

Pay attention to your stakeholders. Know them. And satisfy them -- make them happy. Your business will be more profitable, more satisfying, and it will create a better impact in the world if you do.

3. What does your business stand for?

Values matter. What you stand for matters. The way you conduct business and the way you treat people matters to customers, employees, owners, and the community in which you do business. Whether or not you have taken the time to think about it, values -- what you stand for -- matter, and they matter a lot.

You’ll find that your business stands for something, whether you plan it that way or not. So make it stand for something good. Something positive. Something satisfying.

How do you do that? Here are a few ideas.

In many ways your employees are your business. The question is, why do people want to work for your business? Pay? Of course, but there’s much more. Employees (surprise!) are people, and people are complex. Yes, they’ll trade time for money, but they need more than that. They need something to move them, something to talk about, something to get them excited about coming to work. Something to make them thank God it’s Monday so they can go back to doing what means something to them. I’m not saying they need to love every minute and every task. We all need to buckle down sometimes and do the hard things, but as Proverbs says “without vision, the people perish.” How can you inspire them and give them a worthwhile sense of mission?

You do it by sharing your own sense of mission. What do you stand for? What does your business stand for? Let your employees know. And if you haven’t figured it out for yourself, figure it out. Then share it with them. Most importantly, make sure that you and your business “talk the talk and walk the walk.” Words mean nothing without action. So make “right action” your motto. Do what’s right, what contributes to your sense of mission. And insist that your people do the same. They’ll love you for it, and your business will soar.

What about the community? Why should they buy from you rather than any of the other options available to them? And believe me, they have options. If you think that some combination of better, faster, cheaper is really going to attract long-term customers, think again. Yes, you will get business that way, but trust me when I say that someone will come along with a slightly better combination of better, faster, cheaper. If all you have to say to your market is that we are better, faster, and cheaper, then you’re simply joining the rat race. It’s time to rethink your approach to business.

Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck had a good baseball team, but they needed to make it better. The best way they could see doing that was to try something unconventional. They plucked a player from a pool that none of the other teams had tapped. They put someone on the field who didn’t look like everyone else. They had already decided that the color barrier was something that needed to be torn down and that doing so would make their community and their team a better place. They embarked on what they considered to be a noble experiment. Yes, it worked but they had no assurance in the beginning that it wouldn’t end in disaster. It was a calculated risk, a daring experiment. If Jackie hadn’t been good enough, the fan base would have rejected him and the team. But they were convinced that for the good of the team, for the good of the community they had to try. It was the right thing to do. Veeck and Rickey shared their sense of mission by walking the walk, by doing it. It took a while, but their team, and later their fans saw the light and wholeheartedly joined their sense of mission. They stood for equality and excellence, and the community joined them.

Values matter. What you stand for matters.

Recently business owners have been testing out different things

A little while ago I read about a tech company that took the drastic step of paying every single employee the same salary. That one didn’t end well. It created a lot of resentment from the employees. What Branch Rickey, and Ben and Jerry, and the tech company did weren’t without significant risks. So you have to be convinced that what you’re doing is the right thing to do.

A client of mine used to remind me of something he learned from the Davy Crockett show back in the 50s when he was a kid. “Make sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Being right doesn’t always mean you will be successful but it can still be right.

Another client of mine owned a very diner serving the typical American breakfast and lunch menu items, but he was dissatisfied. His restaurant stood for the wrong things. Its values didn’t reflect his own values. He knew that what he was selling, while tasty and popular, wasn’t really in the best interest of his customers, so he rebranded, reorganized the menu, retrained his staff and reinvented his restaurant. Instead of heating up frozen, prepackaged meals, his restaurant now serves almost everything made fresh, from scratch, on location, with no food colors or chemical additives. He made Gluten free and allergen free foods a priority. As he said, “what we eat matters.” He thought that there might be a market for this type of diner, but he wasn’t sure. He made the transformation based on the conviction that it was the best thing for his customers and the community. It would have been easy and safe to just continue selling what he was selling. But it wasn’t right for him. He wanted his business to stand for something better because he stood for something better.

You have a business. Your business gives you a place of influence in your corner of the world. What is it that you believe that most people around you either don’t believe or don’t have the courage to do? 

What do you stand for? 

Your business can be the instrument for making it real in your corner of the world. Walk the walk. Walk your walk