Thursday, January 28, 2010

Neil Johnson’s Business as Mission Book Hits the Stores while His Student Assists Denver Area Urban BAM.

I had a chance to quickly glance through Neil Johnson’s latest book Business as Mission this week. Wow! I am going to Amazon to order a copy.

Since the release of his 2003 book, Great Commission Companies, Johnson has been the leading scholar of the business as mission movement. His new book will add to his credentials in this growing academic area. I plan to review the book at some point in the future.

Over the last few weeks, I have had the pleasure to work with Chad Stewart, an MBA student currently enrolled in Johnson’s class at Bakke University. Belay has been able to partner Chad Stewart with one of our volunteers, Andy Magel, to assist a local Denver area chef developing a for-profit culinary school for young adult ex-offenders. I’m excited that Neil Johnson’s class is making a direct impact on the development of an exciting business as mission in the Denver area.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Overcoming the Tyranny of the Urgent with a Performance Dashboard

One of the great dangers of running a social enterprise or a business as mission organization is that on any given day you can get lost working in the business and forget about working on the business. The tyranny of the urgent overwhelms other more long-term tasks that have greater impact on the health of the business.

Over the last 10 years, I have found this to be certainly true at Bud’s Warehouse. Every day, urgent “problems” have a tendency to crowd out other more strategic tasks. And when your faith venture’s ultimate purpose is to hire and job-train individuals rebuilding lives from addiction, homelessness and prison, this reality grows with the addition of special situations arising from our clients’ particular lives. You have to be firm about setting time in your schedule to work on the business or else you risk becoming stuck in unproductive patterns.

This week, I had the opportunity to work with my leadership team on developing a dashboard of indicators for our Bud’s Warehouse home improvement thrift store operation. Like a dashboard on a car, the idea is to have one spreadsheet updated on a daily basis that helps management to take a quick temperature of the organization. This is something that is commonplace in the for-profit business world. But in the arena of faith ventures and social enterprises, I have found it to be rare.

At Belay, we’ve always had accessible accounting data that provides a valuable picture of the financial performance of the organization at any given moment. This has always been helpful in answering whether we are succeeding as a business. But I wanted to dive in deeper and identify key factors that lead to the success of the business and then include all the staff in the active measurement of those ingredients. And I don’t want to stop there. We want to also include measurements related to the performance of program mission so that we don’t forget to focus on both of our bottom-lines: profits and mission.

After several meetings, we have decided on the following as components of our dashboard:

  • Monthly sales- This is the one factor that we’ve always measured. Monthly sales are important to the financial success of our organization.
  • Web page hits- The number of people visiting our web site gives us a picture as to the effectiveness of our marketing strategy.
  • New Buddy Cards- Individuals signing up for our customer club identifies how many customers are visiting the store and how effective we are being at customer service.
  • Donation Call In’s- People calling us wanting to donate home improvement items gives us an idea on how much material we can expect in the future.
  • Corporate donor contacts- How many companies we are calling also helps predict future product donations.
  • Weekly program meetings- The number of meetings with program participants helps us to gauge whether we are accomplishing our job-training goals.
  • Being a place of grace- As a place that seeks to mirror God’s undeserved love towards us we want to measure our acts of grace towards customers and clients.
  • Program graduations- The number of participants graduating our program is a final indicator of our job-training performance.

It goes without saying that our dashboard items reflect the special characteristics of our organization. Other businesses and social enterprises would create dashboards that are very different. But I can’t overstate how excited my management team is to have this new tool. We have identified key ingredients to the success of our business and mission. And everyone now has a clearer idea how their individual tasks fit into the bigger picture.

As with any business analysis, this is a work in progress. Stay tuned for more on our dashboard as we see how it performs over the next year.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Recessions: Prime Time for Business as Mission and Faith Venture Creation?

I have been included in several meetings over the last few weeks with individuals interested in starting new faith venture social enterprise organizations. Inevitably, the discussion turns to the tough time many non-profits and for-profits are having in the current economy. Then, the question comes: Is now the right time to start a business as mission in the midst of what many people are calling the “great recession?” My thought is that several factors are aligning which make this a great time to start new urban business as mission ventures.

I’ve been telling people that starting a new faith venture business towards the end of a recession is similar to taking the family on vacation during the off season. Everything is on half-price sale: computers, commercial real estate and other start-up expenses. There is also an abundance of underutilized people talent ready and willing to help out as your organization starts implementing its business plan.

Some other factors favoring business creation during recessions:
  • Start-up competition is not as fierce with others sitting on the sidelines.
  • You can take advantage of the business cycle by positioning yourself for rapid expansion when the economy starts to rebound. Why not invest your start-up costs when everyone else is losing money and then be ready for the rapid profits during a recovery?
  • Difficulty in raising money forces you to focus on the basics, keeping costs low, and boot-strapping.
And most importantly, a recession lends urgency to the most vital question any new enterprise faces. Does the community truly need my goods or services? A recession helps you to be highly focused on what your organization is best at because if you lose focus, you will die.

Finally, it’s important to not overlook the “faith” part of a faith venture. If God is truly calling you to such a business as mission venture, any time is the perfect time. The safest place to be in any economic cycle is operating in the will of God.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Evolution of a Web Page

If you follow this blog, you may have noticed a decrease in the frequency of my posts. It's been a busy fall with lots of exciting developments at Belay Enterprises. We are cooking up some really innovative ideas to create businesses that hire individuals coming out of prison. I plan to resume a more regular publishing schedule in the near future. In the meantime, here is one of my posts from last year detailing my changing philosophy for a Belay and Bud's Warehouse web page. We are days away from introducing our new web site with a more interactive feel.

Seth Godin tells a humorous story about the dangers of applying for a nanny position in the era of Myspace. He makes the point that "Google never forgets." In his opinion, the best strategy is to "overload Google with a long tail of good stuff and to always act as if you're on Candid Camera, because you are." Good advice.

Last week, I had a long conversation with one of my board members at Belay Enterprises about this very idea. We need a new web site. But I think the rules have changed since the last time.

When I started at Belay ten years ago, our primary marketing activities involved public relations to obtain free media exposure, direct mail campaigns targeted at friends of Bud's, and newspaper classified ads. Today, most of our new customers arrive via the internet or from the recommendation of others. Encouraging a positive online reputation and a favorable in-house shopping experience are the most important organizational marketing activities we undertake.

The rise of customer review web sites like encourages this new world of transparency. On a weekly basis, customers are sharing with the world their experience with us...both the good and the bad. (Overwhelmingly good, I might add with the occasional negative review.) But this points to the very issue Seth Godin details in his blog post. Bud's and Belay need a "long tail" of good stuff on the web to provide perspective to the occasional bad review. I think this shows the need for a web site that is less of a traditional informational resource, but one that is more fluid with a blog like interface that evolves over time with lots of new content. Unfortunately, that is more difficult to accomplish. But I'm convinced that in this new marketing environment it will be an extremely successful strategy. I think faith venture and kingdom businesses that are seeking to rebuild lives offer a compelling story that naturally spreads across the internet.... especially when you give it a little push through strategic placement. Stay tuned as this develops.

Belay Venture Partners Program Selects First Founder

I’m excited to announce that Belay Enterprises has chosen Brittany Marlett as our first participant in the Venture Partners Program. B...