After writing several articles for Christian Computing magazine on the general concept of startups and what it means to be a Christian entrepreneur, I started to profile examples of Christian entrepreneurs and startups. That same month, Christian Computing was rebranded Ministry Tech magazine. Here’s my first profile from the July 2015 issue.
Over the past several months, we’ve discussed what it means to be a startup (in business or ministry) and defined a startup this way: a new venture working to solve a problem where the solution is not obvious and success is not guaranteed. We’ve also discussed what it means to be an entrepreneur, and specifically a Christian entrepreneur, which we defined as: a person, driven to glorify God in all he does, and ruled by the Word of God, who starts a new venture and is willing to risk a loss in order to achieve the success of the venture.
Over the coming months, I hope to introduce you to a number of Christian startups and entrepreneurs. Some of these ventures and people may be ones that can help your church, ministry, or business, but my main intent is to encourage, inspire, and educate you as I hope you too will be growing as a Christian entrepreneur.
World Help Solutions
The first startup I want to introduce is World Help Solutions, founded by Christian entrepreneur Landon Young. Landon is an expert in clean water solutions. He has a Masters in Ecological Science and Engineering and is pursuing a PhD in Interdisciplinary Engineering, Resiliency. He has been involved in a variety of academic research projects including serving as a Global Research Fellow on clean water, clean energy, and sustainable agriculture for the National Science Foundation, and he currently serves as Director of Creativity and Innovation at William Jewell College. He has also been involved in global outreach and building bridges between cultures.
His entrepreneurial journey began in earnest in 2009 while on a short term mission trip to Uganda, when he saw a young girl using a moldy oil can to collect water for her family. God used that moment to make painfully tangible the horrible reality facing the hundreds of millions of people around the world who lack access to clean water, and to develop deep compassion in Landon and a desire to help.
Landon first formed World Help Solutions as a non-profit providing consulting on clean water systems. This phase of WHS took Landon and his team around the world and helped them see life and death challenges and implement solutions that saved lives. But it also revealed the challenges in their approach. Each project was all consuming, limiting their ability to scale to address broader challenges, and they often found that the situation when they landed in-country was actually quite different from what they’d planned for.
At the end of 2012, Landon was one of thirteen young entrepreneurs from four countries selected for the Kauffman Foundation’s Global Scholars program, an immersive six-month experience that gave the participants unprecedented exposure to leading scholars, policy makers, and business founders to shape them into world changing entrepreneurs.
At a Kauffman event, Landon met Micah Canfield who had aligned passions, but who was more focused on the needs of short term missions teams. Together they decided to reshape WHS into a for-profit business focused on building scalable solutions to take as many people as possible from dying to surviving, including addressing clean water, medical, and agribusiness solutions in the hardest hit areas around the world.
In Lean Startup mode, they developed their hypotheses around the problems teams face when traveling to different parts of the world to work alongside locals in addressing life threatening situations. They believed that a scalable technology platform was essential, and that the technology wasn’t just for the perceived “white saviors” arriving from the developed world, but that the locals needed to be equally empowered with technology to ensure lasting impact. Still in Lean Startup mode, they began interacting with potential partners, reshaping their hypotheses and eventually building a Minimal Viable Product mobile app that they were able to take to Malawi with missions teams from Church of the Resurrection of Leawood, Kansas. They were able to learn, adjust, implement a new iteration, and send it with another missions team. Along the way they learned some painful lessons (e.g. a well-meaning American teenager, armed with an iPad, can reach wrong conclusions with significant social implications in a rural community in Africa), but they were able to learn, adapt, and iterate again.
Over time, as they interacted with more churches, they realized that, while many churches had similar challenges, each situation was unique and required more (and unique) iterations. To scale, they would need to lock down their product to a single flexible and scalable solution and focus all their resources on operating efficiently. In other words, they would need to shift from being a lean startup to being a growing business.
They also learned that working with churches could be a challenge. Churches have learned how to get things done on a minimal budget. They get many things for free, or perhaps by trading things that have been donated but they don’t need (e.g. tablet computers), for the things that they really could benefit from (such as WHS’ mobile app solutions). Many churches also make major decisions during an annual budget cycle. Miss the timing of that cycle, and you may have to wait nearly a year to close a sale.
Eventually, Landon, Micah, and the World Help Solutions team realized that they had the technology solution, but they were lacking other key resources required to scale to achieve their vision and objectives. One of their customers, Mercy Alliance, approached them with the desire to acquire the technology. The WHS team prayed about it and sought God’s will. They realized that this was the best way to have the impact they desired, which was ultimately to glorify God, but to tangibly do so by helping save as many lives as possible.
The transaction was not your typical corporate takeover. Instead, for-profit WHS donated its assets to not-for-profit Mercy Alliance. Based on an independent valuation, the WHS principals were able to enjoy tax benefits, while the WHS team has an opportunity to continue to participate in seeing the magnified long-term impact of their venture.
Titus 3:14 tells us “And let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful.” It is my hope and prayer that these articles will help you be fruitful to the glory of God.