“Many entrepreneurs are not Christians, but all are under intense pressure – most startups fail. On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with being a champion for your business, if you believe that it is doing good and serving others. On the other hand, your identity is in Christ, and it’s not about making yourself the center of every discussion. Sometimes, loving your neighbor involves nothing more than just being present for a fellow entrepreneur, maybe when they’re feeling down, or maybe when they are celebrating some great milestone. Unfortunately, given our human nature, that love and grace is often really hard.”
For the September 2016 issue of MinistryTech, I featured Paul Prins of Fresh Vine.
In this article series, we’ve defined a Christian entrepreneur as: a person, driven to glorify God in all she 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’s entrepreneur has moved his family to Paris, France to help plant a new church while continuing to operate and grow Fresh Vine, the software company he started while in seminary. That’s not the typical startup journey for a high tech entrepreneur, but Paul Prins isn’t your typical software company founder.
Getting an Early Start
Paul formed his first start-up in 1999, while in the 8th grade. At the core of the business was a website, MidwestSkier.com, but, not having a lot of life obligations at that point, Paul had fun with it and branched into other areas, including organizing competitive events and producing sports action films. At one point, he even competed as a semi-pro freestyle skier. MidwestSkier.com was never going to be big enough to support all of his dreams, but it did provide a great education in technology and business. He sold the website in 2005 while in college, clearing the runway for the next calling on his life.
During those undergraduate years at the University of Wisconsin, Paul had the opportunity to spend a year in France with Campus Crusade. As college graduation approached, Paul began praying and considering what was next. He and his wife knew there was a ministerial calling on their lives and specifically they felt called to return to France as church planters.
Anyone who has traveled or lived in Europe knows that France is not an inexpensive place to live. And those of us in ministry know that church planting typically isn’t the fastest path to earthly riches. Paul realized that theirs would be a bi-vocational life.
From Vision to Reality
At this point, Paul and his wife were getting clear glimpses of their future calling – bi-vocational ministry, church planting, in France – but many pieces had to come together for that puzzle picture to be complete. In April 2008, Paul began working on his MDiv at Bethel Seminary. Starting in the Spring of 2009, he had the chance to serve as a pastoral intern at Substance church where he helped establish a new church location. In 2012, on completion of his MDiv, Paul and his wife joined with Communitas International as church planters.
But, it was actually before any of those critical ministry steps began that life as a bi-vocational entrepreneur became a reality. In the fall of 2007, as Paul was wrapping up his undergrad degree, he took on a technology project for Substance church. That was his first encounter with church management software, and it wasn’t pleasant. At Substance, they say that church really begins after the worship service, and is centered in community and relationships. But all the church management systems available at the time seemed to be accounting packages with social networking features bolted on.
The Substance leadership asked Paul if he could write the software they really wanted. Wisely, he said he’d only do it if there was a market for it beyond one church. Before long, a handful of churches with similar needs had joined the request, and Paul realized that maybe this was the other half of his bi-vocational calling.
I asked Paul why he would choose to enter such a crowded, competitive space, filled with well-entrenched competitors. He said that there were two main factors that convinced him that it was worth taking a shot. First was the group of churches that were telling him their needs weren’t being met by the existing products. Second was the reality that the cost of starting a software business is pretty minimal. Simply signing up the churches encouraging him to build it would immediately provide enough revenue to cover his operational costs.
Paul and his wife chose to bootstrap Fresh Vine, meaning they wouldn’t need to raise outside funding, but they also wouldn’t be paying themselves until the business was generating enough profits. I guess you could say that Paul became tri-vocational for the next couple of years as he built the Fresh Vine business (writing software, servicing customers, and selling to new prospects), pursued his seminary degree, and took on outside contract work to pay the bills.
But he survived, and Fresh Vine began to grow. He got the first Minimally Viable Product (MVP) into customers hands in March of 2008 (the month before starting seminary) and continued to iterate, but it wasn’t until the Spring of 2011 that they felt they had true Product/Market Fit (PMF) and began a much more public push for sales and customers.
Fresh Vine doesn’t see themselves the same as other church management software. Many of the features that are core to the existing market leaders haven’t been high on Paul’s priority list. From the beginning, Fresh Vine’s focus has been on fostering engagement and involvement in and through the community. They see the same needs beyond the church, so Fresh Vine is positioned as a software-based solution for non-profits, including churches. Paul wants to help organizations create great relationships between the organization and people in their community, and between the people themselves. Fresh Vine uses three main touchpoints: events, contributions, and e-mail as levers to accomplish this.
But Fresh Vine is also different from most software companies. Sure, there’s lots of technology pieces, and hundreds of thousands of lines of code, and the collection of relevant data. But the goal isn’t to drive automation to minimize the necessary human interactions. If the data indicates that Max hasn’t been to any church events in a few weeks, Fresh Vine won’t generate an automated e-mail to Max. Instead, Fresh Vine will make it easy for someone to call Max and engage with him.
Jesus taught “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37b-40 ESV)
I asked Paul about the challenges of being a Christian entrepreneur and, not surprisingly, he pointed to grace in community. “Minneapolis has a fantastic startup community. Many entrepreneurs are not Christians, but all are under intense pressure – most startups fail. On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with being a champion for your business, if you believe that it is doing good and serving others. On the other hand, your identity is in Christ, and it’s not about making yourself the center of every discussion. Sometimes, loving your neighbor involves nothing more than just being present for a fellow entrepreneur, maybe when they’re feeling down, or maybe when they are celebrating some great milestone. Unfortunately, given our human nature, that love and grace is often really hard.”
May the love and grace of Christ encourage all of us as we love God and love our neighbor in whatever way He has called us.