6 Things I’ve Learned in 4 Years of Operating a Mission-Driven Business
April 9th was the 4 year anniversary of the first Ortus Academy event. An emotional anniversary to say the least, it sparked so many reflective lessons.
As our COO and my business partner Josh Massey says, “Experience means nothing. Reflection on that experience is where education exists.”
What a journey.
We now serve business owners to help them pivot and make better financial choices, their employees to help them become more financially stable, and schools and youth organizations to get them prepared for their financial future. We solve problems very differently than when we initially set out to solve them.
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s clear that we were too late to help many prepare. But we’re just in time to help business owners, employees and families make new choices while we pass these lessons to the next generation.
Below are some reflections and lessons learned from leading a mission-driven business, and why the experience has changed the lives of everyone in it and everyone involved with it - from staff, to interns, to our advisory board, to our customers and clients.
That space today has enabled us to live meaningful lives ourselves - to create things that make people better, to support young adults and those out of college, to step in and coach small businesses, to lead others to work that excites them. And while our work format has changed, and even who we serve most, we still live by the same vision of what the world could be.
And looking back at it all, no matter how hard it’s been, there are some wonderful lessons we can take away that I hope you’ll value as well:
1. A for-profit business can have a mission beyond profits
Mission driven businesses are not exclusively non profits. They just believe in using business as an impact vehicle, and providing value that can positively impact communities. It’s conscious capitalism - business growth that raises the tide, rather than hoisting a single boat upwards at the expense of everything else.
Ortus Academy started in the clouds; a 15th floor 4br apartment that was part of my job’s compensation package. At the time, I was a property manager, and people thought I was crazy for wanting to give up a sweet pad and a good salary for a ‘mission.’
My years and years of calculus, physics, engineering, geometry, algebra, all seemed to be as good as a trophy on the shelf - now and again I could brag about it, but it was collecting dust and taking up space for things more useful. But money…now that was useful. It might as well be saddled after the “breathing” class and filed under “you’re going to use this every day” in the rankings of significant life tools.
Why wasn’t money in schools? Why wasn’t personal finance in college? And why did a financial economics major (me) still have to figure it all out when he got a job?
It was this mission that sparked Ortus Academy. We felt that bringing practical education to the world was important if not critical, and as that mission took shape, we started to feel pulled into a space unoccupied. But why would anyone pay? Was that unethical? What would we become as a business if this was our service?
Thanks to the Conscious Venture Lab, we learned some valuable lessons about business.
Regardless of corporate structure, non profit or otherwise, we learned that running a mission business could be profitable. We could charge for services rather than rely on outdating grant awarding processes that favor service over innovation. We could build infrastructure and products that people valued. We could grow, expand and get profits in, which would in turn help us do more work for more people.
Profit became critical to more impact and therefore was not the villain we experienced in the non-profit rhetoric.
2. You won’t know where you’re going, and you shouldn’t
Josh Massey and I spent our nights imagining, dreaming, designing, outlining. We didn’t know what we needed to build yet, and we didn’t know where this would take us, but we knew that it was worth trying.
Mission work is never ending. It’s undefined. It’s silently observant of the world. So if you set out on a mission to change things, you’re going to get bruised and beaten unless you can dodge and duck, adapting to what’s happening and continuing to chart course.
The world changes, and more importantly, the real mission is a vision of the world - it’s a cause, not a result. It’s hard to even think of an ideal version of the world coming to fruition, but it’s important to try.
For anyone looking to start mission work, please, I implore you, just start. Stop with reasons it won’t work, and the testimony of why it’s hard. It is hard, and it probably won’t ‘happen.’ The world doesn’t need more dropshipping videos to sell an online course, it needs more people seeing what is possible for a better world. We’ve long sat idle on problems that need solutions (people not being taught about finances is only one of many), and it’s important that you and others around you look at the deep societal challenges as opportunities.
You don’t need to know how it will turn out. You start, and you keep trucking through the good and the bad days and commit to figuring it out. Otherwise, no one will figure it out. More importantly, you don’t have to have it all clear and planned.
3. The best part of this is watching what happens when you lean in, but it’s really scary
When you decide to take on work that you believe in, you’ll find that you’re forced to lean into it a lot. For example, you might be short funding and have to cover those initial expenses yourself. You might be contacted about an opportunity and have to take off work to do it.
But the real scary stuff happens when you don’t have a clear next step, and you have to decide to take it anyway. It’s like walking out on a cliff and hoping there’s an invisible bridge.
There have been 7 distinct moments in these last four years when I thought it was over.
Either I wasn’t enough or the world doesn’t want this. Six of them have all landed us in better positions, because we held out and stayed true to the mission, sometimes even saying yes to work we didn’t think would win us any funding or get us paid. Our very first event was cancelled because of a Blizzard after MONTHS of planning. It could have been the sign to stop, but for us it was the sign to lean in and go again. Another happened just months before we got a $13,500 gig in PA. We had $40 in the bank and I was sure it was over.
The seventh is now, in the midst of the COVID days.
We’re as faithful as ever. If anything, we’re resilient, gritty entrepreneurs. It's time we all embodied those traits.
4. The best asset of a business is its’ people - so invest in them
This work has attracted so many amazing people. Interns have left paying gigs to work with us at no cost. People have volunteered to come to our events and help out, skipping out on work to join us in educating others, totalling over several hundred volunteer hours.
But it also brought together a team of people that wants a change in the world and is willing to fight for it. Brothers and sisters, who normally would maybe cross paths recreationally to chat about life and existential topics, became a part of our fabric. We were all called to something bigger than ourselves, and it crafted such a powerful bond between us all. It was like the business was a house, and all those who were wandering looking for work that motivated, inspired and provided for them were welcome.
If you’re feeling like you want to build a conscious business, that positively impacts the world, it doesn’t have to be a non-profit, but it does have to have people that profit (benefit).
What we learned was that money was only one way people feel “profitable” in their work.
5. It’s hard to teach Financial Intelligence (FI) and run a business with FI at the core
Being that we help entrepreneurs and small businesses make choices, and help their teams develop financial intelligence of their own, it’s ironic that this is a lesson. But part of running a business, and learning as you go, is error. You don’t start human life walking, and you generally don’t start business life mastering. Still, it’s been important we live on mission as we go around sharing it. Easier said than done. Probably true for many mission oriented, conscious companies.
It’s challenged us to think about our operations, our needs, our wants, and even our celebrations differently. Does it make financial sense to have an office space that’s decked out and expensive, just so we can impress clients? No - that’s not financially intelligent and hopefully many more businesses will realize this - you can impress a client in way more meaningful ways than a cool office space in a co-working hub.
It meant that we invested that money where it mattered - into the team, into team events (to help with synergy and chemistry), into supplies for programming. But we’re not immune to emotional spending either. We bought equipment, tech and gear that we thought we’d use - but never did. And while we learned from it, we recognized the value of things like mentors and coaches. They could see this without the emotion. It’s a big part of our mission now - to coach businesses as a co-pilot and help them stay financially intelligent when emotions are at an all time high.
Bottom line: It’s hard to run businesses that are financially intelligent. We’re here to help others, because we know it’s hard. Especially right now.
6. Clarity in Purpose is better than clarity in Operation
If you don’t have it figured out, and you don’t have the plan or the path or the funding, what’s the better weapon: A strong set of operating guidelines or a powerful purpose?
Maybe the headline gave it away, but my gut has always felt calm and at ease knowing our purpose is clear. Even more importantly, I’ve never been afraid to run through the operational wall, the challenges or barriers to us successfully living out our mission, when we know why we started this in the first place.
One of my favorite movie lines sums it up, though the context is quite different in the film. “The question isn’t how far do you take it, but do you possess the constitution to take it as far as necessary.”
When you know why you are doing the hard work, and it’s clear, it doesn’t feel like work. That “Why” will pull you through.
I hope these lessons help you during this time, when mission oriented companies seem to be shining brightest.
Thanks for reading.
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