Retrospective on a Business As Mission Venture

Global Cross has been supporting ministry and missions in Nicaragua and its surrounding communities for several years.  During the summer of 2015, we felt led to create a Business As Mission (BAM) application in Diriamba. BAM has been around for many years but it seems to have grown in popularity recently.  The purpose of this blog post is to share our experience with one of our Business As Mission projects so others considering BAM for their own ministries will get a realistic idea of what it is and the challenges and benefits that come out of it.

Phase I - Concept

Church services were commonly held outdoors on the property of one of the members.

One of our team members did his first short-term mission trip to Nicaragua in November 2014.  It was during that trip he saw the poverty of the people of Nicaragua and how our local ministry partner struggled to help the community while supporting themselves. It became clear American donations were not a sustainable solution. We had to figure out how to create revenue. The purpose of our BAM project was to provide employment to unemployed followers of Christ and, through their labor, support local ministry and outreach. The project was code named Ascensor which is a Spanish variation of “to lift” or “uplift”.

During our time there, we discovered agriculture was not the answer. While the land was fertile and able to grow crops, the surrounding community could not support a business dedicated to selling produce to neighbors. It was possible to ship goods to the capital of Managua, but the high transportation costs would cut out the profit margin (there are few things as costly as owning and operating a vehicle in Nicaragua).

Then we looked to our next available resource, the Pacific. Our ministry partners were also doing discipleship and evangelism in Tepano which is just a few minutes from the coast. While we could have fished, the coast had not developed any tourism yet so there was not a significant consumer market nearby. The same cost-prohibitive transportation issues were a non-starter here as well.

In the end, we were led to remote working. The idea was to enable them to do computer labor for outside companies and use their low cost of living to create a cost advantage.  We considered transcription and translation but getting some initial jobs proved to be too difficult.  We eventually landed on kitchen design and taught them how to use software to design kitchens for American companies who can use the resulting 3D renderings to sell new cabinets to home owners and builders.  We also had two other BAM companies that could provide work immediately.

Phase II - Discovery

Clock tower in Diriamba, Nicaragua.

We had a reasonable idea and needed to find out if it was viable. The internet was a critical link in the chain so we started there. Our Nicaraguan team could not get internet at their home so we looked for an office in Diriamba.  We settled on one close to their home which cost $150/month. The fastest internet speed available was 5 Mbps down and the cost was $53/month.  Then, we determined we could donate two very modest laptops. We decided against laptops with more hardware horsepower because this was a trial run. We needed to confirm this was going to work before a significant investment was made. Next, we found we could do a payment plan for the ProKitchen design software which was $448/month for two licenses. It would have been cheaper to pay for it in full, but once again we needed to prove the concept before making a large investment. With the 12-month payment plan, we could terminate it at any time while also working towards eventual ownership of the ProKitchen design software.

We had donors take on the cost of the two laptops and two ProKitchen licenses. While this was not ideal, we were OK with this one-time donation because our goal was to create a self-sustaining business venture. To this point, the Ascensor team was responsible for recurring monthly overhead like the office rent and internet which totaled $203.  This meant Ascensor only had to do three kitchen designs to cover their overhead.

At this point, our initial math was confirmed and it was time to tackle the next big question: Can we teach Nicaraguans how to do kitchen design using software they have never seen for products they had no experience with. They knew what cabinets were and there were four wall cabinets in the pastor's home. However, acquiring those cabinets was much different than what we are used to in the United States. Our Nicaraguan friends provided wood to a local carpenter who hand crafted some simple cabinets and then they just nailed them to the kitchen wall. There was never a decision on the style or color of the cabinets and they were not constructed with the rest of the kitchen in mind.

Phase III - Execution

The first Ascensor team in the first office.

The first two phases were satisfied and now it was time for a return trip to Nicaragua.  In July of 2015, we went back to Nicaragua with our two laptops and installed software.  We had been communicating frequently with our missionary, Pastor Luis, and his family. We selected four people that were unemployed but were also serving in Pastor Luis' ministry. All but one were part of Pastor Luis' family.  The first day we set up the wireless network in the open air office and then begin helping the 4-person Ascensor team get familiar with the laptops and their software.

  • Skype:  We knew we would not be able to answer every question for every situation during that week so we set up Skype for video conferencing after we returned to the US.  Skype was also used to encourage the team and for prayer time.
  • GoToMyPC:  Our Nicaraguan team was just getting accustomed to the laptops so we could not expect them to maintain them as well. We set up GoToMyPC to allow us to remotely log into the laptops from the US to handle software updates, problems, and questions from the Ascensor team.
  • Trello:  We created a basic Trello board to help them manage the jobs they received. It had 4 columns to keep it simple: Not Ready, To Do, Ready for Review, and Done. The team was tasked with emptying the To Do column by completing each job that landed there and moving it to the Ready for Review column.
  • WhatsApp: We needed to be able to communicate with the team when they were not in the office. In the beginning, they didn't have much work so they only needed to be in the office when new jobs were available.

These tools enabled us to connect the teams in Nicaragua and the United States. Communication is key when you have groups in different locations, different time zones, and speaking different languages.  The team leader in Nicaragua could translate while the rest of the Ascensor team was learning English.

We spent the week doing example kitchen designs.  The team even took the laptops back to their homes to continue learning.  This led to a fifth member joining the team.  He taught himself at night and eventually became of the best designers.  At the end of the week, we felt confident the team was capable of doing kitchen design at a basic level and returned home knowing we could continue to help them using the tools in place.

Phase IV - Ups & Downs

Like all small businesses, life can be a roller coaster.  It's hard work and not always due to outside factors.  Here are a few of the highs and lows the Ascensor project experienced.

Current Ascensor team in the new office.

  • July 2015 - The team completes their first jobs and gets the satisfaction of receiving their first pay check. All were previously unemployed so we encouraged them to celebrate and they all went out for pizza.
  • September 2015 - Any time you introduce money into a situation, there can be difficulties. In this case, the team had an uncomfortable issue with one member regarding money.
  • October 2015 - After 3 months, it became clear Ascensor was not receiving enough work to support 5 team members. We had to let 2 people go which is never easy.
  • January 2016 - The team shrinks again. This time the team leader asks to leave. She struggled with the hardships that come with this type of situation and didn't want to do it any longer. At this point, Ascensor is down to 2 people and no longer has a translator.
  • February 2016 - One of the team members had a family of 5 and he needed $240/month in order to support his family. February was the first month Ascensor provided enough income for his family.
  • March - May 2016 - Business really slows down in the US which means there is very little work for Ascensor.
  • May 2016 - Final payment on the very expensive kitchen design software. This reduces overhead quite a bit and greatly increases the sustainability of this BAM project.
  • June - July 2016 - Business jumps and these 2 months nearly exceed the total for the previous 4 months.
  • September 2016 - During the down months, donors had helped out the Ascensor team when they didn't have enough work to pay their bills. After a year in business, this had to come to an end so the payment structure was reworked so all initial revenue went to overhead first.
  • October 2016 - Ascensor moves to a new office which decreases their rent from $150/month to $75/month. Less overhead helps in several ways.
  • November 2016 - First outside customer! Up to this point, all of the work Ascensor received was from sister BAM companies. Additional customers help smooth out the cash flow and confirm the team can serve other US companies.
  • December 2016 - In what had historically been the slowest month, Ascensor had their best month ever in December.

The Ultimate Goal

Pastor Luis and his wife Massiel with Global Cross missionary Sarah Broome and her husband Andy.

Ascensor set out with an eternal goal. We wanted to support the local ministry in Diriamba and employ those actively working in that ministry. Prior to July 2015, the ministry was completely dependent on donations. Pastor Luis and his family would often go without essentials in order to serve their community. In the 18 months since then, the Ascensor project provided gainful employment and paid out $6,405 to team members who were previously unemployed. Ascensor also donated $2,691 (18.7%) of their revenue to Pastor Luis and the local ministry. Lastly, we are proud to say that Global Cross received no donations from Ascensor and none of our BAM companies collected any of the revenue produced by Ascensor.

What's next? Business is trending up, but we don't know what will come. We thank God for how He has guided and provided throughout. It's amazing when we look back to see how the Lord was there at each step. We're excited to see what He has in store. Thank you Jesus.