Growing a Business
by Brian Beise
Anyone can have a good idea, just like anyone can put a seed in the ground. It takes skill and devotion to nurture that idea out of the ground and into action. Entrepreneurs are noted for their risk-taking and creativity, and many come to Covenant to hone the critical thinking skills needed to turn problems into ideas, and ideas into action.
“Because Covenant is so focused on intellectual curiosity,” says Associate Professor of Management Scott Quatro, “we attract inherently curious students. Entrepreneurs are inherently curious, and driven to creatively meet un-met needs in the marketplace.”
Covenant’s business professors agree that entrepreneurs are largely born, and not made. Like their own seedling ideas, though, entrepreneurs benefit greatly from the right nourishment and care. “So while we can’t really teach students to become entrepreneurs,” says Quatro, “we have a broad-based core curriculum and a larger missional emphasis on ‘making all things new’ that fosters the entrepreneurial spirit among our community, and serves to empower the born entrepreneurs that are among us.”
Read on and get to know eight Covenant alumni entrepreneurs, including a musician and the creators of an emerging social media platform, all of whom saw a need and rose to the challenge, creating their own solutions and their own jobs.
Building a Business Like it Counts
When asked for an elevator pitch for their new company, David Nielson ’10 and Ben Wagner ’10 answer: “We’re all about action, and that should excite you.” That may not offer details of the business model, but it suits the attitude and passion of the LifeKraze founders. As they begin their second year out of school, David and Ben enjoy the pressure and pleasure of building something from the ground up.
“I’d say it started around February of 2010,” says David, “when Ben and I were both seniors at Covenant, playing soccer together, living in the same house. Ben is kind of the guy who comes up with creative ideas a lot, and I’m more the guy who is skeptical and challenges how we’re going to do something. One night we were sitting around and Ben had this idea and told me about it, and we started getting excited about it.”
“We actually had other jobs lined up for when we graduated,” says Ben, “but it was really when we got into the mechanics and some of the fun stuff behind what we were doing for a project at Covenant that we really got passionate about this idea and decided that now was as good a time as any to go for it.” David and Ben opted out of the jobs they had secured, and set about making something new.
The resulting company is LifeKraze, a goal-oriented social website for users to keep each other accountable as they set and achieve goals: anything from jogging with the dog to painting the house. Rather than the “like” button of Facebook, LifeKraze users periodically receive points, which they award to other users for their accomplishments. Those points can be turned in for rewards, such as discounts at local and national retailers. LifeKraze’s motto: “Live like it counts.”
A beta version of the site is currently live. Tyler Smith ’12, a business major, was among the initial testers. “It’s definitely cool to see Covenant alumni graduate and already have the tools to start a business,” he says. “It gives me hope and gives business majors hope that it is possible in this economy.”
For David and Ben, the struggles of bringing an idea into reality far outweigh the convenience of a ready and waiting cubicle. “As most people graduate from school and get jobs at established companies, they step into a company culture, established rules, processes,” says David. “One of the things I’ve enjoyed most is being able to kind of create that, getting to decide what kind of feel we want in our office, what kind of core values we want to establish, defining our team, hiring the right people. It’s a unique thing people who start a business get to do.”
“My favorite thing is the team we get to work with,” says Ben. “We’re really focusing on a project that can make a difference.” Just as the idea of LifeKraze was conceived and developed at Covenant, many of the people David and Ben have chosen to work with in building LifeKraze come from their alma mater. “They were a great help and aid in getting our feet on the ground, and now that we’re off and running, a lot of the principles that we were taught there have already come into play. It was a great training ground, and David and I are excited to have been a part of it.”
“I think we were well equipped at Covenant to pursue this business model as a way to serve God’s kingdom and purposes in the world,” says David. “Our professors and advisors framed their teaching and advice in Christ and the words of Scripture, so it was a natural progression for us to think about LikeKraze that way. As Christian individuals, we are building a secular business, and the main purpose of this business is to make money. That is LifeKraze’s ultimate goal. However, we are pursuing that goal in a way that glorifies Jesus, and our main purpose as individuals is to serve the Lord in all we do, and to use whatever success we have to support others doing the work of the kingdom of the Lord. That is our ultimate goal.”
So far, LifeKraze has stayed consistendly ahead of its projected user growth and is receiving recognition from the national business community, appearing on Time Magazine online and ranking among Entreprenur Magazine’s 100 Brilliant Companies of 2011. Large advertisers have included brands such as Men’s Health Magazine, Rock/Creek Outfitters, and Coca-Cola’s PowerAde Zero. While many entrepreneurs feel the urge to move on to another startup once a company is up and running, it seems David and Ben plan to stay with LifeKraze and help it grow far beyond its initial years.
“We’re just doing what we can and hustling to build a long-term, successful business,” says Ben. “That’s the process, and that’s ultimately the end goal as well. So our focus has been on keeping the team awesome, improving the chemistry, and making the product better. Honestly I don’t think our focus is ever going to get off that.”
Carlee Hilger ’95 told herself and God she would never teach. “I think because I knew how grueling a field it is,” she says. After graduating from Covenant she was accepted to physical therapy school and had made her deposit, when those plans were interrupted by a job offer from Landmark Christian School in Atlanta. “I really wrestled with the Lord and just felt like he was saying: ‘This is what I have for you.’”
She took the job and taught high school science. As she forgot her hesitations and devoted herself to the work, she came to question common education methods. “I think one of the main things I realized is that we have a tendency to teach children what they’re supposed to know, and they’re supposed to memorize that and spit it back to get the grade. What I try to stress is getting rid of that grade mentality, and learn for the sake of learning. We’re created in the image of God as learners, active learners, and we should be doing that in all areas, not just in a classroom setting.”
After three years in Atlanta, Carlee returned to Chattanooga and married Eddy Hilger ’95, one of her best friends from Covenant. Carlee was offered another teaching position, but had it on her heart to teach science to homeschoolers. Parents who homeschool often struggle to teach science, considering the equipment and preparation it takes to make a science class hands-on and interesting. She began presenting the idea to homeschooling mothers. “It was surprisingly exciting to them,” says Carlee. “Honestly it wasn’t about what I was offering as much as relationships. We just clicked, even though we didn’t have kids at the time.”
With Eddy’s help, Carlee brought the idea into action and began teaching science to her first group of homeschoolers, as a supplement to the work the parents did at home. Before long, families expressed interest in supplemental math classes, and the Hilgers decided to hire another teacher. Looking through their list of faculty, it is easy to see where they turn for many of their hires.
“I just don’t have to take a long time to interview a person who has their education degree from Covenant, because I know what I’m getting,” says Eddy. Carlee agrees, adding: “It’s so much more than what we’re getting academically. We’re getting these real relational people that love Jesus and want to work with the ebbs and flows of life in whatever it brings.” Thirteen years later, Hilger Higher Learning serves more than 250 families, with 17 teachers offering over forty classes and workshops for elementary, middle and high school students.
With Eddy serving as the full-time head administrator of Hilger Higher Learning, and as she continued to teach science, Carlee felt another calling on her heart. Watching her friends Troy ’93 and Sarah Duble ’95 go through the process of adopting a little boy, Carlee saw another good work families often struggle through alone. “I had to come face to face with the reality that I’d never even thought twice about an orphan,” says Carlee. “I realized I could not name a single orphan. The Bible specifically says to visit them and to care for them and if I was doing that I would at least know one orphan’s name.
“Sarah and I started dreaming together about raising some money, because we realized through her situation that finances are what keep lots of Christian families from adopting. So we got a vision of raising $100,000 and giving $10,000 each to ten families and let them pursue an adoption. So from there the Lord started rallying troops around us and then a donor came along and gave us $30,000 in seed money.”
Together, Carlee and Sarah started Lookout for Orphans, gathering the community on Lookout Mountain to support Christian families considering adoption. “It’s an emotional, spiritual ministry,” says Eddy, “having a couple over for lunch or going over to their house for dinner, just to talk with them as they’re praying through the question, should we adopt?”
“The cool thing about it,” says Carlee, “is they have to go choose an agency, choose a country, a race . . . they get to go choose all that, and once they’ve completed their home study they can apply for funds through Lookout for Orphans.” Carlee explains that Lookout for Orphans offers to match grants given by that family’s community. “You’ve got this hub of Lookout for Orphans, but then every spoke of the wheel is that family’s community, so you’re not always pulling from the Lookout community to fund each adoption.” To date, eight orphans have come home or are on their way through the support of Lookout for Orphans. Carlee and Eddy themselves are also nearly through adopting a young boy from Haiti named Kervens.
Neither Eddy nor Carlee was homeschooled, nor did they have children to homeschool when they started Hilger Higher Learning. Neither was adopted, nor did they plan to adopt when Carlee partnered with a friend to start Lookout for Orphans. Though they now homeschool and are adopting young Kervens, the Hilgers’ work has been born out of recognizing the needs of other families. Thirteen years into the life of Hilger Higher Learning, Eddy and Carlee continue to nurture community and support around challenges that families typically go through alone.
Fancy Rhino & the Seed Project
Drew Belz ’10 has always been close with his cousin, Isaiah Smallman ’11, but it wasn’t until they were both at Covenant that they began making films together. They first collaborated on a classmate’s project, and soon started their own video production company, Fancy Rhino. As their ideas and plans developed, they received guidance, mentorship and, ultimately, $10,000 in seed money through Covenant’s Seed Project.
Managed by the College’s Center for Calling & Career, the Seed Project is an annual event that encourages students to develop ideas amongst their peers under the guidance and mentorship of professors, church members and people of business. The first Seed Project culminated in April 2011 when two sets of finalists, Fancy Rhino and Covenant Connection, created by Ben Baldwin ’12, pitched their business plans to a panel of experienced entrepreneurs.
While the panel eventually awarded the seed money to Fancy Rhino, each finalist agreed that the connections and mentorship gained through the process equal or even surpass the monetary prize in value. “The Seed Project helped us legitimize a brand,” says Drew. “It garnered recognition for our Rhino in circles that can help speed it forward into sustainable, even successful, business in the city.”
Through those connections made through the Seed Project, Fancy Rhino has established premises in downtown Chattanooga and continues to develop its business, working to emphasize people over any product. “I really like this scene from Jesus of Nazareth as a model for what we want to do,” says Drew. “Jesus is telling the prodigal son parable, and it’s really well executed—a great narrative with dramatic pacing—a great piece of art all on its own. But then it gathers all this dimension around it when we notice that his audience is part of the story. The sinners and tax collectors are prodigals; Peter is the jealous son; Christ is calling them all back through a story. The form and content are intimately connected with the audience.”
Rather than exploiting people and their stories to make films, Drew explains, Fancy Rhino seeks to use film to honor the people they work with and the people whose stories they tell. A potential client, hoping to produce any kind of video, might read this on Fancy Rhino’s website: “Right now your story is a buried dinosaur, a lost symphony. We’ll dig it up.”
Initiate by Faith
The idea for the Hitch-N-Post came to Chris Hitchcock ’95 in 2004, when he visited a local second-hand shoe store and bought a high-end pair of dress shoes for a fraction of their retail price. The store’s business model interested Chris, with its inventory made up of worn shoes, overstock, and pairs once used for display at name-brand stores. It was the entrepreneur in Chris that held on to that interest. “I went back to the store a couple of weeks later,” he says, “and found the exact same pair of shoes I had purchased on the last visit, and purchased them because it was too good of a deal to pass up.” That same day he put the second pair for sale on eBay, at three times the price he had paid.
“I also added a ‘Buy It Now’ price of about $20 over that starting price,” says Chris, “and within three hours of listing the shoes, someone clicked the ‘Buy It Now’ button, and a light bulb went off.” Back at that same shop the next day, Chris bought the ten nicest pairs, no longer caring if they were his size. “Over the next few months I became more knowledgeable about eBay, shipping, the necessary supplies, and, of course, shoes. As sales grew, I knew that I needed a good supply of inventory, and I also knew that I wanted to buy the shoes at the lowest possible price.”
Chris did not take that plunge without hesitation. “Purchasing 51% of a distributorship certainly wasn’t the easiest thing I have ever done,” he says. “Just being a small business in the current economic climate poses many risks . . . However, ‘initiate by faith’ is something my dad has said to me since I can remember.” Partnering with Rob Woods, a close friend, Chris purchased a distributorship and created the Hitch-N-Post.
Matthew Bryant ’00 has known Chris for some time and admires his willingness to take risk for an idea. “I’ve always been impressed with Chris’ fearlessness when it comes to building value,” he says. “Risk-taking and entrepreneurship go hand in hand, and Chris’ drive to succeed serves him well in such endeavors.”
More than five years into its existence, the Hitch- N-Post gets most of its merchandise by buying returns, manufacture defects, and overstock. Some shoes that they do not sell themselves are offered to second-hand stores at a slight markup. “The Hitch-N-Post today looks a bit different from when I started,” says Chris. “There is a 10,000-square-foot warehouse, employees, and a wholesale side to the business.”
Chris built the business in such a way that it would accommodate the exploration of other opportunities, keeping the soil turned for new ideas. “Over the last few years we have branched out from just men’s shoes to now carrying women’s shoes, men’s and women’s boots, luggage, accessories, and occasionally handbags for women,” says Chris. “We have even worked with a local vehicle company to retail their older model vehicles online. We have a system of selling and shipping in place that is able to be duplicated if there is an opportunity that fits the model. Recently thehnp.com was created to sell new-in-the-box items as well, and that stand-alone site has the ability to grow into many different markets.”
It might be surprising to some that Chris majored in biblical studies with a minor in youth ministry. In many ways, however, this makes Chris a prime example of the flexibility of a liberal arts degree. “It is clear that God used Chris’ time at Covenant to inspire in him a will to think creatively, be curious, and press forward in building a God-honoring business,” says Bryant. At Covenant, Chris was not preparing for a particular job, but for a career spanning any number of ventures. “I am thankful for what I studied,” says Chris. “The core classes and major classes gave me a foundation for entering the working world after college.”
As his company continues to grow, Chris recognizes the challenges graduating entrepreneurs face. “Students face an increasingly difficult financial scenario than I did when the Hitch-N-Post started,” he says. “Many may have to find creative ways to secure capital for starting their own business, as most banks are taking less and less risk.” Despite those challenges, Chris speaks highly of creating a job for yourself. “With a wife and four boys, I am so fortunate to be able to structure my workday around not missing them grow up. My wife also appreciates the fact that her closet is full of some really nice shoes at a price that is impossible to beat.”
Isaac Wardell ’01 would not have put himself on a list of entrepreneurs with the likes of Chris Hitchcock ’95 and Eddy ’95 and Carlee Hilger ’95, but like those other Covenant alumni, Isaac saw a problem and created something new to address it. The problem he identified was division in many church congregations over the issue of music and worship style—and the common assumption that to be effective, worship must be separated along generational lines. To address that problem, he created Bifrost Arts.
After studying Bible and music at Covenant, Isaac planned to go into urban music ministry. “I was excited about what was happening with Redeemer in New York and that kind of thing,” he says, “so that’s what I planned on doing.” The year he graduated, though, Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church planted Rock Creek Fellowship, and he was asked to be their music director. He took the job, intending to stay a year, and stayed for five, while the congregation grew from roughly a dozen members to over two hundred.
It was toward the end of that experience that Isaac began considering the shortage of useful resources for church musicians. “I say that fully aware that there’s a billion-dollar Christian music industry out there,” says Isaac. “I read so many books on worship over those years, and only one in every five tended to be really enlightening.” He moved to New York in 2005 and continued leading worship, learning from other musicians, and “looking for an underlying theology of worship.”
“It’s no secret that evangelical churches all around the country split along style lines,” says Isaac. “Churches do a huge amount of self-identifying based on what kind of music style they have. Is it pop style or something more connected to heritage? It seems to be deeply unfortunate for churches to split along these kinds of lines . . . What we’re really saying is: ‘The way we do music and the way we think about what happens in the worship service doesn’t really matter; it’s just about catering to the demands of a certain demographic.’ It’s the worst kind of consumer approach to the church, I think.”
While the production value of church services improved, Isaac noticed that congregational singing was happening less and less. Music had become divisive, rather than unifying. The implication seemed to be, he notes, that if a congregation couldn’t agree on worship style, it would be impossible to work together. As he continued playing in churches, Isaac began teaching on the subject of music and worship, leading a Sunday school class in Brooklyn and lecturing at conferences. In 2007, he was approached by a number of pastors who wanted to provide funds for him to create worship and liturgy resources for churches, including recorded music, corporate prayers and Sunday school materials. That same year, Bifrost Arts was incorporated. They named the company after the bridge that connects heaven and earth in Norse mythology, “because we think that’s what worship essentially is,” says Isaac.
Bifrost now works alongside churches from various denominations, guiding discussions of worship and what it means to worship together. They have since produced a twelve-week curriculum for small groups and classes, exploring the question: “What is worship? And how is it that worship is not just music?”
Isaac does not aspire to create other organizations or to grow Bifrost into other ventures. His hope for the company is that it would gather enough artists and believers and leaders that he would be able to give it only half his time, devoting the other half to his church, Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. “What we’re really talking about is trying to come alongside churches and institutions and denominations to think about how to help them with church music, as opposed to a pure entrepreneurial enterprise, which has that primary goal of growing into something bigger.” Their largest event to date was a conference on worship in St. Louis, attended by more than five hundred pastors in March 2011.
While at Covenant, Isaac benefitted from the mentorship and friendship of several professors, all of whom helped him grow away from the idea that every generation must worship in its own way. “I was prepared at Covenant to see that that’s not how the church works, as I saw spirituality and accountability and teaching and learning taking place in the multigenerational context of professors’ homes and in small groups and Sunday school classes. And in some ways that’s kind of the cornerstone assumption that makes Bifrost different than almost every other one of these projects out there.”
Bifrost works to bring congregations together through the common act of worship. Isaac believes a sanctuary should be less a concert hall, where the audience is passive, and more a banquet hall, where everyone shares in the feast. The goal is not to optimize cultural relativity in worship, but to use worship as a connection between God and all the people. “The most fundamental thing we’re trying to do is to get congregations speaking to one another,” says Isaac, “learning how to talk across generational lines, and I think Covenant prepared me very well for that.”
Jolly, Sharpe, & Little
If you happened to buy carpet made in Dalton, Georgia, you likely bought it from a company largely led by Jim Jolly, Norris Little, or Jack Sharpe. While technically these men were competitors in the business, in 1983 Jolly and Sharpe came together, soon joined by Little, worshipping in a small community that would become Grace Presbyterian Church. Their involvement in forming this new church led to an acquaintance with Covenant College that has lasted decades, greatly benefitting the school, its faculty and student body.
The seeds for Grace Presbyterian were planted when a small number of families from various churches began meeting for midweek Bible studies. “Some were Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian and so forth,” says Sharpe. “All of us at that time were somewhat disenchanted with the churches where we were. We didn’t seem to be getting the biblical teachings we needed.” Among the Methodists in the group was Jim Jolly, who knew Sharpe from their shared industry.
These Bible studies went on for several months, and soon they began meeting for early Sunday services. Rev. Howard Cross preached to them before returning to his own church in time for the later services. In due time, the group agreed to start a church. “We were toying with the idea of what kind of church we wanted to form,” says Sharpe. Possibilities ranged from nondenominational to joining the Presbyterian Church in America. “The Lord brought us together from various churches,” says Jolly, “and initially we weren’t too excited about going back into a denomination.”
As prayer and discussions continued, they got in touch with Dr. Kennedy Smartt, then serving the PCA as coordinator of evangelism for Mission to North America. He met with the group for several weeks, and in April 1983, the group agreed to organize and aspire to become part of the PCA. “Smartt was very skeptical about the diversity we had in the group, from all these different denominations,” says Sharpe. “It was always a concern whether we were going to be able to work together or not. I remember one of our last meetings, he was praying for us and said, ‘God, if it’s not meant to happen, let it stop right now.’ Well, it happened.”
In December 1983, with sixty-five members, Grace Presbyterian Church became a part of the PCA. During the search for a full-time pastor, Smartt put the leaders of Grace in touch with Covenant College, and several faculty members filled the pulpit for worship services. These professors included Ray Dameron, Chuck Anderson, Henry Krabbendam, Paul Gilchrist, Roger Lambert, and Ray Clark, whom Jolly and Sharpe note as being especially influential to Grace. Professors also came midweek to lead Bible studies. “Covenant had a really strong influence on Grace,” says Sharpe. “It got us off to a great start.”
Among the early members of Grace was Norris Little, a third competitor in the carpet industry. “I had become concerned with the direction my previous church’s denomination was headed,” he recalls, “and one of my sons was already attending Grace. I of course knew Jim Jolly and Jack Sharpe, and felt more comfortable worshipping there, with a Reformed theology.” Having found a church with which he could agree, Little joined Jolly and Sharpe in devoting himself to the ministry of Grace.
Even after Grace’s first pastor, Rev. Mark Cushman, was hired in 1985, the church maintained its relationship with Covenant. “We’ve always budgeted funds for Covenant College,” says Sharpe, “right from the first official budget in 1984.” Grace’s contribution to Covenant’s annual fund qualifies it for the Church Scholarship Promise program, which has financially benefitted a number of Covenant students coming from their congregation. For twenty-five years, the partnerships between Covenant, Grace, Jolly, Little and Sharpe have yielded wonderful fruit.
Jolly joined the Covenant College Foundation board and served three four-year terms on Covenant College’s board, including a term as chairman. “When I first got on the board,” he remembers, “I just noticed early on we had so many students graduate with a large amount of debt. What happens is you get kids who really want to go into full-time ministry or service, and those jobs don’t pay as well as some secular jobs, and often they have to go into secular jobs if they have debt. So that’s what my wife and I tailored our scholarships toward: to try to relieve and remove some of that debt.” The result of their efforts and generosity is the Jolly Scholarship.
Little served on the Covenant College Foundation board until his retirement in June 2011. Among his contributions to the school is the Norris and Billie Little Faculty Endowment, which allows Covenant professors to “take some time off, to study, further their writing and go through a renewal process. Among other things, that’s what we wanted to do for Covenant.”
Sharpe also retired from the Foundation board in June. He also served two four-year terms as chairman of the finance committee on Covenant’s board. Among his and his wife’s contributions to the school is the Sharpe Diversity Scholarship, which benefits Covenant students who are the children of Latin immigrants. Along with Jolly and Little, Sharpe has also served on Dalton’s committee for the Wilberforce Scholarship, which recognizes and supports students who demonstrate leadership in issues regarding biblical justice, particularly for the poor and oppressed.
“I’ve always been a very frugal person,” says Sharpe. “It’s God’s money and I had to be careful where I spent it. I found that Covenant is a place where I can get two things for one; you get a good education and a good grounding in the Bible.” For these men, Covenant represents an avenue by which they can contribute to the coming generations of thoughtful Christians. “Covenant is one of a few institutions of higher learning that have a Christ-centered focus,” says Little. “Its motto, ‘in all things Christ preeminent,’ just strikes a chord with us. It would be difficult to find a more deserving cause in terms of colleges.”