I started my first business when I was 11 years old. It was a combination neighborhood newspaper and bank. From a small closet converted to a world-headquarters, I planned to dominate the business world through Lukaszewski Enterprises.
I had a sharpie-drawn logo, a monthly newsletter sent mostly to neighbors, and investment nickels from my younger sister. I was determined to be a business person, because it seemed a lot easier than mowing lawns for money. Lukaszewski Enterprises went the way of a 1996 dot com business when I hit junior high school.
But my desire to sell stuff didn’t.
One year in summer school – I could never get past Algebra because letters don’t belong in math – I’d stop by the neighborhood convenient store each morning and load up on candy. Not to eat, but to sell. I sold it in the lunchroom at 100% markup. Officially, I would learn about supply and demand during micro-economics at Florida State University, but I put principles into practice with 10 cent Jolly Ranchers and Mrs. McDade’s math class.
Around the year 2000, small stuffed animals called Beanie Babies were all the rage. They were hard to get and the collectible market was hot. We would call around to stores and get new ones as they would arrive. We sold toys bought for $7 for as much as $150 from the side of the road. We went to conventions and even made wooden display houses. Who knew a flea-market style table on an empty lot could be so much fun.
After I graduated from college, I started working as a youth pastor at a local church. When I couldn’t find an affordable and quality summer camp for our kids, I teamed up with a buddy and we started our own. Within a few years, we were running a couple of camps each summer and a couple of ski trips each winter. My wife would handle all the registration details, I’d speak and we hired bands to come in and sing. We used direct mail and a booth at a conference to get the word out, and it was pretty successful as a side business.
In 2006, my family and I started another adventure. With $10,000 in the bank, a three-week old little girl, and one Uhaul full of everything we owned, we moved to Atlanta to start a church. For those who might not understand what’s involved in something like that, it’s best compared to starting a business where you’re not allowed to sell anything. You might not think of church like a business, but it was during this five-year journey when I learned how to lead a team, raise money, advertise online, advertise offline, engage people via social media and read financial reports. Of course, it’s much more than starting a business, but it’s at least starting one.
While working as a pastor of this church, I realized what our church needed, others probably needed to. So I took a collection of documents and forms and packaged them for other pastors. More than 1,000 people have purchased and downloaded this product, creatively called “Docs and Forms.” What helped me, helped them.
I’m think of a talk I heard from Ben Arment, when he talked about how your childhood desires shape you more than you realize and your failures and hurts can propel you further than you know. For as long as I remember, I’ve been starting stuff. I don’t build with bricks or tools; I build with ideas. I don’t create with pencils or paintbrushes, I create with plans.
As I think back through all the things I’ve started and even the things I do today, there are common threads and lessons learned.
1. Helping people is a good business plan.
There’s nothing wrong with making money, I just think it’s a shallow reason to start a business. I love the sense of satisfaction I feel from helping someone get what they want. Most of the things I’ve done had a deeper purpose, because deep down, I know making money won’t truly satisfy. I want to do something good with my time and energy. So with 412 Students, I wanted to truly provide an affordable camp experience for groups of students who were looking for something fresh. In starting a church, there was an obvious spiritual mission to lead people from where they were to where God wanted them to be.
Today, my role as COO of The Rocket Company gives me the opportunity to help thousands of churches and organizations. We believe if we help them get what they want, we’ll always have a viable business. For us, it’s giving back. Whether it’s profit sharing for our team (we share part of the profits with our team every quarter), or fully funding a Compassion Child Survival Project, we know we are the most satisfied when we are helping people.
Organizing to meet a real need is a great business plan. I have a hunch if you’ll discover a grander purpose, your business will be more successful and more fulfilling.
2. Starters struggle to implement.
I value details, but I’ll drown in them. I love creating systems and place a high value on their existence, but I’m no the person to run them. To this day, I can’t accomplish much by myself.
I’m good at thinking of solutions to problems and helping people get to where they want to go, but I’m not the best with details. My ADD personality doesn’t lend itself to long periods of focused work, studying spreadsheets or 5-year plans. When it comes to business, I’m more guts than science.
Starting stuff and running stuff are two different animals. You might find you’re great at one and average at the other. Or if you’re like me, you can manage things but it’s far more draining than being a visionary. Instead of feeling guilty, address the problem.
3. Side projects can become projects.
No matter where I was or what I was doing, there was always a side business – the perfect combination of a need, my skill, and some extra income.
It’s the same thing Henry Ford did when he created Kingsford charcoal with waste from his factories. A byproduct became a brand, and Kingsford gets 80% market share today.
With some creativity and planning, you might be able to take a byproduct and turn it into a product. That’s how Docs and Forms came into be. That’s how my next book is taking shape; it’s byproduct learning from my last couple of years.
If you look around, you mind find that there are income-producing opportunities that lie adjacent to what you’re currently doing. Pursuing them isn’t taking your eye off of the ball; it’s making your game even better.