In March of 2014, I stepped down as the CEO of The Rocket Company, a company I did not start from scratch but helped build. During my tenure there, we grew about 5x in revenue and made the Inc 5000 list. We also helped a lot of churches raise money, recruit volunteers and have better services. I’m really proud of what we did. And The Rocket Company is still a great organization doing great things.
People sometimes ask if there was tension between me and Casey. Of course there was tension. A business partnership is like a marriage, and I don’t know of a marriage that doesn’t have tension. But the standard for health is not a tension-free relationship. In our situation, Casey and I had different strengths, and I strongly believe that was one of the biggest reasons for early success. Casey, the founder of the Rocket Company is a brilliant marketer and a great leader. I’d like to think I was great at content and leading a team. As we worked together, we learned a lot from each other.
Marshall Goldsmith says the factors that lead to early success can easily become the factors that hold you back later. In our business partnership, it was just time for something new.
When most people leave a job, it’s because they got another job. This wasn’t the case here. I didn’t leave for greener grass and I didn’t have another opportunity waiting in the shadows. When I stepped down, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something on my own, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
Change, it seems, likes to attach itself to other change. During this time of transition, our family moved to a new city. We would have to find a new church. Our kids would have to learn a new school. My wife and I would have to forge a new path. In 2014, we basically started over.
Naming a Startup was Harder Than I Thought
In the process of launching a new business, I’ve learned a lot. But in this first post in the series, I want to start at the beginning. I want to walk you through the process of choosing a name. It’s something that happens thousands of times a day, but it proved to be much harder than I thought.
Lesson #1: You can build your startup fast or slow.
When I stepped down from The Rocket Company, I sold my stake. Everyone told me my experience was normal, but selling your part in something you helped build just feels weird. Not bad, but weird. “I may look back on this and say this was the second dumbest decision I ever made,” I thought many times. But the sale provided a cushion for our family and some much-needed time to figure things out. We had some money in the bank which put some time on the clock.
Normally, when I start things, I move very fast. When we decided to broker Beanie Babies (yes, really), we had a road side stand in a week. When we moved to Atlanta to start a brand new church, we went from idea to name to organization in less than a month. There’s nothing wrong with starting fast. In fact, if you’ve got a side project you want to turn into a real project, I recommend you stop waiting for perfect conditions and put something out there. “Just ship it,” as Seth Godin would say. I’m naturally a 7-day startup guy, so starting slow is a new experience.
Every January, I purchase a new Moleskin notebook and carry it with me throughout the year. In 2005, my notebook was filled with ideas and notes on church planting. Two years ago, it were filled with lists and notes for a book. But in 2014, my notebook held the written drafts of my dreams for this new business. Fifty years from now, when my grandchildren find these notebooks in a box, they will likely come to the conclusion that I was crazy.
While dreaming up the business, I needed to earn a living. So I spent the next three or four months coaching and consulting with people I had worked with in the past. I selected a handful of clients and committed to six months of retainer-based work. I did some coaching online and took on some writing projects. These are enjoyable endeavors, but they provided something else I also needed: time.
I needed time to talk to potential partners. And I needed time to decide if this was really something I wanted to do. And I needed time to figure out what to name this new venture.
When I get an idea, I register a domain. If you were to hack into my Bluehost account, you’d find all kinds of domain names for all kinds of projects. My wife and I still own backyardcamping.com (and we have a pretty sweet logo for it as well). I’m holding on to brooklynchurch.com and christmaseveeve.com. And about 40 others.
Maybe I should start a marketing company to help businesses or non-profits learn how to get their services out there. After all, that’s one of the things we did really well at The Rocket Company. Heck, our software provider even named us “Ultimate Marketer’s of the Year” as we perfected a version of the customer life cycle. Besides, I owned a suitable domain name.
Or maybe I should start a publishing company. People say that business is dying, but I think there are considerable opportunities. People have been reading books for hundreds of years and while things may change, this industry isn’t going anywhere. Having self-published a few titles, I knew a little bit about the industry and learning more would be a lot of fun. And I owned the domain caufieldandfinch.com, a brand named after characters from The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m actually doing this, but this project deserves its own series of posts.
But there’s an “industry” I just can’t escape.
When I coach people on how to start something, I often walk them through a series of questions.
- What do you do now? Henry Ford started Kingsford Charcoal because he had leftover material from his primary business.
- What can you do? Most people want to do the big stuff, but it’s the little things that get you started.
- What do you have? Selling stuff on eBay or Amazon won’t lead you to the Inc5000 list, but it’s a start.
- What knowledge do you possess? What can you write? What can you teach? What can you explain? Who can you interview?
- What do you like? No niche is too small…in fact, you might find the smaller the niche, the bigger the opportunity.
- What do people ask you? If people continually ask you how you get your kids to eat vegetables or you do so much travel, there’s potentially a business there.
- What will your friends pay you for right now? Go ahead and ask them. There’s no better way than a sale to validate your idea. You don’t need an LLC, website or business cards.
- What are people looking for? Helping people is a great business plan, so if people are searching for solutions and you can provide them, you’ll have a great business.
Ever since I played Michael the Archangel in First Baptist Church’s production of Angels Aware, the local church has been a part of my life. It’s shaped me and impacted me, not just in elementary school, but through high school and college. And it has been my area of expertise for a couple of decades. My skills, experience and passion all converged here.
This new venture would serve the church. And while it took months and months to arrive back at the original location, this would be the direction of this new company.
Lesson #2: You can live in the past or learn from it.
Once I settled on a direction, I was faced with an important question.
How would we be different? When I surveyed the landscape, there are already so many people providing coaching and resources and help to the local church. Nelson Searcy has been providing resources for quite some time. Tony Morgan is a good friend of mine and is the best consultant in the industry. Bob has Church Ninja. There are books and podcasts better than the ones I could create. And of course, there was The Rocket Company.
“We provide the best coaching and resources for church leaders,” it says right there on the website. Preaching Rocket is an incredible tool to help pastors preach better sermons. Giving Rocket is a powerful program to help churches raise more money. Volunteer Rocket contained everything I knew about volunteers. And when I left, Worship Rocket was about to be released to the world. These are some powerful and effective resources.
If I were to be honest about the struggle, this was more about a search for identity than it is about a sustainable business model. Because significance is my top strength according to Strengthfinders, I want people to think I’m useful. If it goes unchecked, my desire to provide practical help to people degrades into simple people pleasing. So a big part of this is just pride. That’s why I ultimately had to wrestle with this question:
Do I want to be original or do I want to be effective?
Maybe it’s just me, but I wonder if other leaders struggle with this, too. Are there creative people that feel like they can’t get their art to the world because it’s not original enough? Are there writers who want to start writing who feel like their idea is already taken? Are there people who want to start non-profits who sit on the sidelines because someone else is effectively doing something already?
I realized my desire to be original was more about me, not about the business model or the people who needed help. The need to be different was keeping me from the ability to be helpful. This soul-searching led to clarity on this new business. And I kept asking questions.
- What did I learn during my time there that could help me be effective?
- If I could go back and do it again, what would I do differently?
- What do pastors and church leaders truly need?
- Why do people come to ME for help and advice?
- If a new CEO and board took over, what would they do? (This question, asked by Andy Grove at Intel, is my favorite leadership question of all time. It led the board to get out of the memory chip business and to focus on microprocessors.)
Since time was on my side, I actually had some time to think through how this would be different than some of the other people I know and love in this industry.
Instead of focusing on year long training courses, we could shrink the topic and shrink the timeline. We could adopt more of a semester-based strategy based on one aspect of the larger subject. So instead of a massive course on small groups, let’s create a course on How to Start Small Groups in Your Church. instead of a course on leadership, let’s focus on a resource to help people lead team meetings. I’ll share more about the product model later, because these short-term focused courses are just a part of it.
With this new company, I would not set out to recreate a better or slightly different version of The Rocket Company. That’s my past – a very grateful part of my past. It’s time to take everything I’ve learned and build something new.
I wonder if this is true for you. Maybe your past experiences have perfectly positioned you to pull the trigger on your passion. Maybe those years of questions were really the education you needed all along. I like to think about Moses and his time as a shepherd – that waiting period between his Egyptian upbringing and his Hebrew leadership – as a training ground. It wasn’t just a time of waiting; it was a time of forming.
So, back to the name of this company. And the third lesson learned.
Lesson #3: You can be creative or you can be clear when naming your company.
The reason I got into this business was probably a downloadable resource called “Docs and Forms.” When I was pastoring a growing church, I realized we didn’t have any systems. We didn’t have a clear strategy or processes for doing the things we did every week. And it was really hurting us.
So we went to work and created job descriptions, flow charts, spreadsheets and about sixty documents. I realized other churches also needed these things, so “Docs and Forms” became a product. The name wasn’t terribly creative, but it was clear. People LOVED this product. Church planters and mega-churches purchased it and used these documents in their ministries. When I became a part of The Rocket Company, this product became a part of that family.
I’ve never been that good at naming things, because I just opt for calling it what it is. It’s like the old days in the Wild West when the businesses were just named what they did. The Saloon. The Hotel. General Store.
When it came time to name this new company, I wanted something that was clear. When people heard it, I didn’t want to leave any doubt as to what we did. I love creativity, but I don’t want creativity to keep us away from clarity.
- We’re going to serve churches so I wanted the word “church” in the name. We’re not going to be a marketing company that serves churches, we’re going to be a church company that utilizes marketing.
- We were going to help them with growth and health, not one or the other. So I wanted a name and logo that communicated both.
I visited sites like panabee.com – a fun way to combine words and see what domains might be available. I scrolled through sites like brandbucket.com and logoturn.com and namerific.com to see if anything caught my eye. Startup, a storytelling podcast I discovered during this time, devoted an episode to this same topic and I listened to every word.
So after brainstorming, searching domains and talking to designers, I stuck with something familiar. It was the name I had in mind all along. What it lacks in originality, I hope it makes up for in clarity.
The new business is named Church Fuel.
In the next post, I will pull back the curtain on the fairly-frustrating-but-in-the-end-I’m-proud-of-it brand-building experience.