“The key is the who…how has God used my background to advance the Gospel. I look back on those eclectic experiences and realize they’ve all been part of a strategic journey God has had me on. He doesn’t waste any of our past—he’ll leverage every bit of it. Church Online, YouVersion, and other initiatives were inspired by ideas and connections from my past entrepreneurial experiences.  Even the speed at which I got used to operating in those startups has influenced the way I approach projects here at the church. I take no credit for it—it’s all the way God has used me.”

For the March 2016 issue of MinistryTech, my interview of Life.Church’sBobby Gruenewald was featured on the cover of the magazine.

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.  

One of the most successful church-based entrepreneurial efforts has been the YouVersion Bible App developed by Life.Church, which recently celebrated having been installed 200 million times!  I recently caught up with Bobby Gruenewald, Innovation Leader at Life.Church, and I hope you’ll find our discussion informative and inspiring.

MinistryTech: Bobby, before you joined the Life.Church team, you already were an entrepreneur.  Tell me briefly about those previous startups.  Do you think your faith had an impact on how you built and ran those companies or how you interacted with other entrepreneurs?

Bobby Gruenewald: My first startup was a web hosting company I started in college. With customers in 33 countries, it provided a huge learning curve of what it meant to be an international company, all while operating from a dorm room. After selling that company, a business partner and I acquired the largest professional wrestling website. It was during a time when Wall Street and others were valuing niche content. Our goal was to grow it rapidly and sell it, which we did in late 1999.

I probably could have done more to bring my faith into those companies, but I was very young and didn’t have a good sense for how to make that connection. I did do my best to lead with integrity and honor Christ.

But those companies definitely had an impact on my faith. God used those experiences to grow and develop me as a leader, and also helped me see firsthand the power of online community.

Later on, as I started getting more involved in leading at our church, I wondered how we could leverage that same technology to help people build online relationships with Christ at the center. That was the seed for what eventually became Church Online. I’m thankful I get to spend my days applying what I learned in the business world to what we do here in the church.

MT: Why would you walk away from the exciting world of technology startups to become part of a church leadership team?

BG: When I started studying business in college, no one thought I would end up in ministry, including me. But I was serving at Life.Church during my startup years, and eventually began helping with our technology needs. After a while, I realized my passion for the Church had eclipsed my passion for business. I knew God was calling me into ministry and I was blessed to have a chance to join the staff in 2001. And as much as I find the work of the Church even more exciting than technology startups, what it really comes down to isn’t about being where the most fun or excitement is. It’s about being where God has called you. I know with confidence this is where God has placed me.

MT: Tell me how innovation at the church evolved after you joined.  What were the first technology innovation ideas that you introduced to the church leadership team and how did they respond?

BG: There was actually quite a bit of innovation already happening, just not much in the way of technology. We like to say that we’ll do anything short of sin to reach people who don’t know Christ. And to reach people no one is reaching, we’ll have to do things no one is doing. That evangelistic passion and willingness to try new things has been in place from our earliest days as a church.

When I joined the team, my initial responsibilities covered the technology basics. From there, my role pretty quickly broadened to include our web presence. It was the early 2000s, and churches were still figuring out what to do online. We decided to make all of our message content available via video streaming. Then we began to experiment with adding interactive elements—giving people a way to follow along with notes and fill in blanks, similar to what you’d do in a physical environment.

Around that same time, I was helping with our efforts to go multi-site. Much of my focus was on how we leveraged technology to make it work, things like getting a satellite established and distributing our video feed over a network.

MT: How do you think God has specifically used your entrepreneurial nature and startup experiences to advance the Gospel and impact the world for His glory?

BG: The key is the who…how has God used my background to advance the Gospel. I look back on those eclectic experiences and realize they’ve all been part of a strategic journey God has had me on. He doesn’t waste any of our past—he’ll leverage every bit of it. Church Online, YouVersion, and other initiatives were inspired by ideas and connections from my past entrepreneurial experiences.  Even the speed at which I got used to operating in those startups has influenced the way I approach projects here at the church. I take no credit for it—it’s all the way God has used me.

MT: What is different between launching a technology startup outside the church and launching innovative startup ministries inside the church?

BG: Not a lot. Some of the variables are different: how you measure the ROI [Return On Investment] and your business model for what economic sustainability looks like. But for the most part, a lot of principles you’d see in a tech startup apply in the church as well. You still have to create a great experience for your audience and they still have to connect with what you’re offering. Moving quickly, applying strategy, being responsive…those concepts apply inside or outside of the church.

MT: Many of our readers are technology leaders at their church, but very few have had startup experiences.  What advice would you have for them if they have an innovative idea that they want to implement within the typical constraints of a church – limited resources (including funding), well established traditions, and often risk averse church leadership?

BG: My advice is if someone is trying to start something…

  1. Depending on their role and position of leadership, it’s important that the idea fits within the vision of the church. If it’s outside the vision and passion of their leaders, it’ll be a challenge. It has to be consistent with the vision, or at least has to have the blessing of leadership. That’s been our approach with innovation efforts at Life.Church, and that’s why it’s been sustainable and healthy for us to pursue them.
  2. Constraints can drive great innovation. God will bring His resource to His vision. You have to step into it in faith. You might not be able to see how you’ll get from point A to point Z, but if you have enough resources to get to point B, you have to trust that God will provide the right ideas to continue when you get there.
  3. Don’t hold it tightly. If God’s given you this idea, it’s His, not yours. If it doesn’t work or connect, that’s okay. Sometimes that will lead you to a place God hasn’t shown you yet and sometimes it will fail. You have to be willing to fail and be willing for it to not work out.

MT: YouVersion has been an amazing success.  When you first started working on it, did you imagine that it could have the kind of global impact that it has?

BG: God has done infinitely more with YouVersion than we could have ever imagined.

Most people think of YouVersion as an app, and what most people don’t realize is that it started as a website. And the reason no one knows that is because hardly anyone used that website…so much so that we were about ready to shut it down. It didn’t seem like it was worth keeping it going. But as a last ditch effort, we decided to make a few changes to the site so we could view it on our phones. And when we did, we noticed we were engaging in the Bible more because it was on a device we had with us everywhere we went. We naturally began to read and engage in the Bible so much more. At that same time, Apple announced that they were opening up the App Store. We wondered, “What if we could have the Bible be among the very first apps in the App Store?” And that’s exactly what happened in July 2008.

The Bible App was one of the first 200 apps in the App Store, and what we saw after that was amazing. In three short days, we saw 83,000 people install the app on their iPhone. And as much as our jaws dropped then, we had no idea what God had in store. The Bible App has now been installed on over 200 million devices in every single country on the planet.

MT: Did it take much in terms of resources to launch and was it a tough internal sale?

BG: We had scraped together a small amount of money to hire contractors to build the initial website. At best, it was enough to get a proof of concept together. We started with a fixed, very small amount.

When we started YouVersion, we had a track record of creating some technology tools that had worked, so we had a reasonable amount of equity. It was all done with the blessing of our leadership team

MT: Did you use LEAN methods in launching YouVersion?  If so, can you share some of the key elements of that?  (Getting out of the building, MVP, hypotheses in business model canvas boxes that went through significant iterations/pivots, etc.)

BG: Not on purpose :-) Yes, some of those methods were used, but not because we read about them or studied them. It was more a matter of necessity and experience as we figured out what worked and what didn’t work. For example, we probably used an MVP approach, not because we knew what we were doing, but because it was all we could do at the time. Today we have a more experienced team and more sophisticated processes, but back then we were flying by the seat of our pants and didn’t have the opportunity to set up formal processes.

MT: Other than YouVersion, are there any “startups” within Life.Church of which you are particularly proud?

BG: I’m proud of all of our teams. Of those with a tech nature, Church Online is one. It’s amazing to see the reach we’re able to have as we minister to people across the globe. Another one is what we call our Church to Church team, which creates multiple products to serve other churches, all for free. They operate much like a startup. Their products tend to have less visibility than some of our other efforts because they serve a smaller market. But they’re incredibly significant because of their impact and what they do to serve the Kingdom.

MT: Thanks Bobby for giving us a great example of innovation and entrepreneurship within a church.  It’s my hope and prayer that God will use your example to inspire our readers to impact the world for the glory of God, just as Life.Church continues to do.

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