“Entrepreneurship is an endeavor to lose your soul.  Entrepreneurs take huge risks motivated by money, power, and control.  They suffer through incredible highs and devastating lows.  And at the end of the day, their business is their identity.  But our faith informs us that much greater things matter and my true identity is as a son of the Most High.”

The February 2016 issue of MinistryTech included my feature of Eric Knopf and John Russell of Webconnex.

In this article series, we’ve defined a Christian entrepreneur 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.  Each month I’ve been introducing you to specific Christian startups and entrepreneurs, some of which may be helpful to your church, ministry, business, or family, but my main intent is to encourage and inspire you to be entrepreneurial in your ministry and career.  

This month I’m pleased to introduce you to Eric Knopf and John Russell.  These two serial entrepreneurs have had common connections their whole lives, but their startup journeys took them on separate paths.  When those paths crossed in 2008, the unsolved “problems” John brought from his previous startup, the technology “solutions” that Eric brought from his previous startups, and some recession-enhanced free time collided.  Clearly it was time for them to do a startup together.

Looking for a Simple Solution

John had most recently been doing a lot of work around events and ticketing.  All the web-based tools available were cookie-cutter generic and more expensive than many small organizations could afford.  Both John and Eric had also experienced similar challenges with collecting donations online.  As they talked about it, Eric knew that some of the tools and techniques he’d been using in some of his recent startups could totally change the game.

What they set out to deliver was simplicity and control.  For users, how could they make it as simple and painless as possible to register for an event, or buy a ticket, or make a donation?  Don’t make them register.  Don’t force them to remember yet another password.  Just get it done.  For the event organizers, how could they make it easy and affordable to completely customize the interface so that the technology stays in the background and the event remains the focus?

Just Go

When I asked them if they had advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, John said “If you’re thinking about it, just go. What’s the worst thing that can happen?  Get something out in the hands of your potential customers and see how they respond.  Let your customers tell you what they need that you haven’t delivered yet.”

That’s exactly what John and Eric did.  They threw together a simple solution and gave it to some organizations who they knew needed it.  There were many features missing in that first iteration – such as the ability for Webconnex to get paid by their customers – but they immediately started getting feedback.  Although the term wasn’t common yet, this effectively was the Webconnex “MVP” – minimal viable product.  The smallest effort that would deliver the value proposition and start to generate learning towards making a great product.

Small Growth.  Big Growth.

Over the next several years, Webconnex continued to grow.  Customers gave feedback.  New events sparked new requirements.  Over time different types of events and different types of transactions led to splitting out the capabilities into multiple different brands (TicketSpice, RegFox, RedPodium, GroupRev, GivingFuel).  They did very little advertising but grew rapidly among smaller organizations and events through word of mouth recommendations.  By 2013, they had grown to a team of 10 and had processed $200 million in transactions.  They were blessed.

Then one day Focus on the Family called about using Webconnex.  The team believed the platform could support big organizations, but it had never been tested.  The Focus on the Family project was a big success and Eric, John, and the Webconnex team saw the door being opened to more and more large opportunities.

Growing in Grace

As the business started to take off, John and Eric realized they needed to strengthen their foundations.  They knew some of the Board members at Praxis Labs and applied to the Praxis business accelerator program.  They knew it would be a fantastic experience and they were not disappointed.  

The mentors, experts in their business fields, challenged them with laser-focused questions they’d never considered.  While helping them with the business fundamentals, the mentors were even more focused on the kingdom-impact potential of the business.  They asked questions about how the Webconnex value proposition reflects their faith and their Christian worldview.  And they asked how Eric and John’s relationships, not only with employees and customers but also with family and friends, reflect the gospel.

Christian Entrepreneurs

I asked them what it meant to them to be Christian entrepreneurs.  John answered rightly that it gives you a bigger purpose and impacts every decision you make and how you treat everyone.  

But Eric’s answer was almost chilling.  “Entrepreneurship is an endeavor to lose your soul.  Entrepreneurs take huge risks motivated by money, power, and control.  They suffer through incredible highs and devastating lows.  And at the end of the day, their business is their identity.  But our faith informs us that much greater things matter and my true identity is as a son of the Most High.”

Webconnex doesn’t want to be branded as a Christian company, but they do want to reflect Christ.  They referenced 1 Peter 3:15 (“but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect”) hoping that they give those around them a reason to ask why they’re different.

Eric said that being a Christian entrepreneur means choosing to honor God with their business, even when the world views it as not “smart.”  I asked what that looked like and John said “It’s easy to cut corners, and it’s tempting to make decisions that benefit our company, but might not be the right choice.  But, we have an unwavering commitment to do what is right, even if it costs us in the short run.”

I asked if they’ve had to turn down any business because of their faith and they emphasized that they enjoy the opportunity to serve people coming from many different places and to reflect Christ’s love.  Although their terms of service document has a surprisingly long list of prohibited uses, ranging from the obvious (adult content, drugs, alcohol, gambling, tobacco, physician assisted suicide, abortion, hate, racial intolerance, and weapons, among others) to the subtle (computer repair services, cruise lines, credit repair, debt collection, digital currency, medical equipment, timeshares, and weight loss programs, among others), they haven’t had to invoke it except in a very few cases.
Proverbs 3:21-22 counsels us “My son, do not lose sight of these—keep sound wisdom and discretion, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck.”  John and Eric are demonstrating sound wisdom and discretion.  May God continue to bless their business.

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