My company, Church Fuel, is almost 2 years old.
We have 500 members in our flagship program and we’ve served more than 1,300 pastors and church leaders with paid training and thousands more with free resources.
If you want a quick review of where we’ve been, check out this series of posts called “Behind the Startup.”
- Choosing and name (harder than you think) and building a brand.
- Setting the mission, vision and values.
- Building our first product and then making the first pivot.
It hasn’t been easy, and I’ve messed a lot of things up along the way. We’ve had our share of low-lights, but we’ve also learned so much in the process.
In fact, learning is one of our company core values. We don’t call it failure – we call it tuition. Because every mistake we make provides an education we will use in the future.
Here are seven things I’ve learned as the CEO of a young, growing, primarily online organization.
#1 – Recurring revenue is the key to sustainable growth.
In the early months, our revenue primarily came from consulting. I actually still do this on a small scale because I want to stay connected to the tribe we serve. There’s nothing wrong with helping people one-on-one and nobody says you HAVE to scale your business.
But we knew in order to serve more people we had to adopt a broader business model. We created a few digital resources and began selling them online.
The final pivot was to a membership site model.
Around the time I’d mostly settled on the new direction, I read The Automatic Customer by Paul Warrilow. This book solidified our team around the new membership program and we launched Church Fuel One.
I’m bullish on membership programs. They are hard, but they are worth it for two reasons.
First, they give us the best opportunity to develop a relationship with our client. It’s really hard to help someone if they just download something and go on their way. Problems are usually too deep and situations are usually too complex for a short ebook or a digital download to solve. For us to truly make a difference, we need to walk with our customers for a longer period of time.
Second, they provide recurring revenue. This is the holy grail of business because it allows us to sell something one time and get paid every month. I’d much rather sell a membership to Church Fuel One than a digital download of Church Docs.
Both products are helpful, but when someone joins the membership, we put revenue on the books for three months from now. This really helps us hire staff and do business with the end in mind. The pressure to hit a revenue number, create 75% off sales, and come up with the next great product is small because there’s a consistent user-base.
We still sell a few single-purchase resources, but now we use them as a lead-in to our membership program. And I’m happy to say that we’ve passed 500 monthly subscribers and we’re on the way to the goal of serving 5,000 pastors.
#2 – Our best customer is a pastor with a staff.
Before we built Church Fuel One, we did a ton of research. We asked people what they wanted to know, how they wanted to digest content, and what their goals and fears were for the next few years.
We built a perfect customer profile that allowed us to tailor our message to the ideal client. There’s no point spending money trying to attract the wrong customer!
Part of this analysis led us to this simple truth: our best customers have a staff they struggle to lead. It could be a few full-time people or a handful of part-time people, but pastors who have a small team are dealing with some of the most complex leadership issues in the church. They are bigger than one-man-shows, but not big enough to have people in all the boxes on their org chart.
This is why The Senior Pastor Guide to Leading a Staff is not only our most downloaded eBook in the series…it also leads to the most revenue.
Our team isn’t trying to become experts in church leadership, we’re trying to become experts in church leaders. It’s the people who make the decisions. It’s the leaders who execute the strategy.
We can have all the helpful stuff we want, but if we miss out on understanding the client, we’ll miss it.
You can’t build a product or service for everyone, so who are you trying to serve? Your description should be as narrow as possible. Almost to the point of making you uncomfortable. Taking the time to create a buyer persona is well worth it. This Hubspot article will give you a step-by-step guide.
#3 – In order to grow, we need specialists not generalists.
When Rob and I started Church Fuel, we both did everything. We created the products, set up the Infusionsoft campaigns and ran the marketing ads. Every project was a two person project and we had little outside help.
We were like the mom and pop store where pop stocked the shelves and mom ran the register.
After a few months, we realized that if our hands were in everything, we would never be able to break through and have a real business. We didn’t need generalists who cared about everything; we needed specialists who were experts in one thing.
The last few people we’ve hired have been specialists. Yes, they care about the whole company, but their expertise is limited and far more focused.
If you want to have a business, you really need three people.
- Someone to make it.
- Someone to sell it.
- Someone to fulfill it.
It took us a while to get there, but we have those three people on our team.
Karen is our content director. She helps me make resources that address people’s problems. She project manages the content and makes sure it’s great. I want Karen to think the secret to growing our company is to produce the best product possible.
Kurian is our marketer. His job is to move the membership needle. Yes, he cares about the product and of course he cares about customer satisfaction, but his goals are tied to sales. He wakes up thinking about how to sell. I need Kurian to think the secret to growing our company is a systematic approach to marketing.
Emily is on our team to make customers happy. She spends half of her time reacting to customer needs and the other half of her time proactively thinking about how to do what we do better. Yes, she cares about how many customers we have, but her primary concern is making every customer feel like family. I want Emily to think the only thing that matters is making people happy.
These three people are specialists. Of course they care about the whole organization, but they aren’t thinking about all parts of it at the same time (that’s my job). They bring extreme focus to where they add the most value.
#4 – Quality matters
I recently bought a very expensive online course from one of the internet gurus. I’d been tracking his stuff for years and have actually used some his philosophy. But I wasn’t an official customer yet. The product was really expensive.
Now the marketing videos were amazing. High production value, shot in multiple locations, with all kids of testimonials and graphics. It was fresh and modern and I could tell this guy spent a lot of money on the promotional materials.
The product videos (what I actually paid for) were considerably lower quality. One camera shot in front of a whiteboard. They looked like they hadn’t been updated in years. The content was great, but it didn’t look great. Clearly, the money was spent on the marketing.
In our business, there is a lot of competition.
There are a LOT of online courses, digital resources, and membership programs for pastors. Every network and denomination has available resources. There are lots of pastors who sell things on the side. It’s crowded.
One of the ways we’re looking to stand out is quality.
We want our videos to be insanely practical, but we also want our customers to like the way they look. It’s why our courses aren’t recycled webinars and expanded free ebooks. Our best stuff goes to our paying customers.
If you want to stand out in business, create great stuff.
#5 – Communication is so important when working remote.
Looking back on the last 18 months, the areas where we failed were marked by poor communication.
Either I didn’t properly communicate expectations. Or we didn’t have set times to talk honestly about progress. Or we got too busy doing the work to stop and talk about effectiveness.
With a remote team, communication is even more important. We still have a way to go here, but I’m happy we’ve made progress. Here are a two we do to stay on the same page.
We use Basecamp to keep all our projects in line and on time. We have one project for general communication and everyone in the company is a part of it. There are discussions, to-do lists and files shared here.
Every time we launch a new resource, we create a new basecamp and invite the appropriate people. If people aren’t involved in the project, they don’t need to be a part of the discussion.
Basecamp also lets me quickly run simple reports of what’s on someone’s plate, what’s been assigned to me, or what’s overdo. It’s my favorite collaboration and productivity.
The second thing we’ve done to streamline communication on our remote team is stay really clear about our meetings. Here are the four meetings that happen:
- We have a weekly meeting that lasts 30 minutes. This is where we celebrate wins and get quick updates on goals.
- We have a monthly meeting that lasts 1 hour. This is where each person on our team gives an update on their area of focus. We used a modified version of the Level 10 meeting system that Gino Wickman talks about in Traction.
- We have a quarterly meeting that lasts 2 hours. This is where we set goals for the next quarter.
- We have an annual, in-person meeting that lasts 2 days. This is where we set annual goals and build our annual calendar.
Each bigger meeting knocks the smaller meeting off the calendar. It’s not a perfect system, but it works well for us.
#6 – Short-term projects are a great way to keep focused.
The idea in Brian’s book is to take an entire year and shrink it to a quarter. In February, December feels like a long way off, which is why annual goals don’t often motivate us. Instead, set 12-week or quarterly goals and treat the end of each quarter like it’s the end of each year.
In Q2 of 2016, one of our three goals was to pass 400 monthly members in our membership program. Because we only had three months to do this, it was on the top of everyone’s mind and it kept coming up in meetings and phone calls.
12-week goals have been one of the keys to our productivity.
Another thing that has really worked well for us has been the weekly sprint. We take a project that involves everyone on the team and shrink it down to one week.
The first sprint was to launch an eBook called 101 Church Ideas.
On Monday, we discussed on Basecamp and made all key decisions (including the price). On Tuesday and Wednesday, we built everything from the sales page to the thank you page to the shopping cart description. On Thursday, we wrote and sent a sales email. On Friday, we followed up with people who purchased and measured the goal.
On day 4 and 5, we sold 141 books, just 9 short of our goal. But the real win was the teamwork and the focus it brought out team. Involving the entire team and working toward one specific goal really helped us come together.
#7 – Survive and advance.
Quality is one of the things that will help us stand out from the competition.
The other thing is patience.
I’ve shared with this our team on several occasions, but one of our goals is to outlast the competition. To be there years from now when others have moved on.
Seth Godin says a ten-year plan is absurd. It’s a ten-year commitment that’s required.
That’s the view we’re taking with Church Fuel.
Slow, steady and built for the long haul.