“I know God’s Word is true, and I believe that God’s Spirit is active and true, but that doesn’t mean that the way that you are implementing this technology is effective at helping people follow God’s will.” … Neil felt called to take the successful practices that he’d learned at Google and apply them to sensing how God could use technology specifically in the area of spiritual disciplines.
For the November 2016 issue of MinistryTech, my “Startup” column introduced Carpenters Code and their leader Neil Ahlston – a team taking the lessons they’ve learned at Silicon Valley’s top technology companies and applying those lessons to advancing God’s Kingdom.
“What if Google did Spiritual Formation?” That’s the title of an article that Neil Ahlsten wrote a couple of years ago for a Christian university. And it accurately reflects the opportunity that Neil and his team are pursuing in his startup, Carpenters Code. Neil spent several years at Google and he told me that, at any given time, the company would be running 5,000 live experiments on search. 90% of experiments fail and, until you have real proof, you don’t know if your idea will really work. Carpenters Code was formed to use that kind of applied research to develop technologies for people to draw closer to God.
Can You Save the World Through Economics?
Neil grew up as a real math geek – he loved to solve equations and he wanted everything to fit neatly together and make logical sense. He said that he wanted to save the world through economics. Neil earned an MA in Economics and Public Policy from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. While still in school, he felt called to overseas ministry, and after graduating, he spent a season of his life going to war zones around the world, working with limited resources to solve really hard problems. Neil was raised in the church and God used this time in amazing ways. Neil came to love pulling together diverse teams, helping people see and use their God-given talents to accomplish amazing things.
In time, Neil found himself about as far from resource-constrained war zones as you can imagine – working in Silicon Valley for Google. He spent seven years at the company, where he had the chance to work on some of the company’s biggest bets before they launched. He also was blessed to be able to see how Google’s leadership made decisions about what to nurture and what to kill. He learned much, in fact Neil described it to me as being “like going to Internet business school.”
God’s Will vs. Man’s Will
Neil saw some of the brightest minds in the world being applied to deliver solutions people would value and to solve Google’s biggest business problems. He was seeing how technology was impacting people’s lives in very deep ways, and he was seeing how Google was using applied research to get people to do what Google wanted.
At the same time, as a Christian, Neil was very aware of the faith-based technology industry and how well-intentioned believers were approaching incredibly important areas of our spiritual lives. Neil described what he was observing this way: “God’s Word says this about how He wants us to live and be in relationship with Him, so Christian developers were saying ‘I’ll apply this technology to accomplish it and He’ll bless it.’ I know God’s Word is true, and I believe that God’s Spirit is active and true, but that doesn’t mean that the way that you are implementing this technology is effective at helping people follow God’s will.”
James 1:17 tells us that “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Neil felt called to take the successful practices that he’d learned at Google and apply them to sensing how God could use technology specifically in the area of spiritual disciplines.
Abiding with Christ
Neil has pulled together an incredible team as Carpenters Code, including five full-time experts in software, data analytics, design, user experience, and ministry, as well as a community of contributors still working full time at leading technology companies including Google, Tesla, and NetApp.
They focused first on helping people with their prayer life. Neil described how they got started as “The Wizard of Oz approach”: prototype without really building anything, get it in people’s hands, and see what really helps them pray. Carpenters Code bought targeted audience through SurveyMonkey, took them through a specific 2 minute experience, and then had them rate the effectiveness. Based on what they learned, they started building a real app, called Abide, which is available in mobile app stores.
The experimentation hasn’t ended with the launch of the app. Neil said they continue to test out hypotheses as efficiently as possible. For example, they thought that Facebook Connect might be a way to make prayer more social, so to test it, they spent 10 minutes adding a button. When people clicked it, it told them “That feature is not available.” If lots of people clicked it, they knew it was worth building out. If not, they would just remove the button. They develop many of their features initially to 80-90% complete. If the feature proves to be of high value in how people use the app, then they invest for the last 10-20%. If not, 80-90% is good enough.
Providing for His People
It takes money to support full time workers and all the costs associated with running a startup in Silicon Valley. The team is making good progress in finding ways to monetize the Abide app without dishonoring God by making people pay for prayer. They hope to be self-funding in the next 12-18 months. In the meantime, they’ve had to go through the humbling exercise known as seeking investment.
Silicon Valley doesn’t embrace Christian startups. It’s not that they are persecuted, or even looked down on, it’s just that the motivations and priorities of a faith-based venture are out of sync with the culture of the technology startup community. Tech venture capital firms are looking for companies with a multi-billion dollar exit, and Carpenters Code’s financial ambitions are more humble than that. Neil has been able to raise funding from some California-based believers, but most of it has come from parts of the country with a higher appreciation for prayer. God has provided an amazing team of investors and strategic advisors who bring academic wisdom and real-world business experiences that are strong complements for Neil and his team.
As King David said in 1 Chronicles 16 “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”
In this article series, we’ve defined a Christian entrepreneur as: a person, driven to glorify God in all he or 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. Are there Christian startups I should know about? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org