Faith, and a Value Proposition

Ink for an HP color printer is, by volume, more expensive than vintage 1985 Dom Perignon, according to last week’s issue of The Economist.

“Sinfully high,” is the way Fr. Bernard McCoy puts it.

Fr. Bernard is steward of temporal affairs at the Cistercian Abbey in Sparta, WI. He is, in other words, in charge of coming up with ways to support the abbey, its seven monks, and their charitable works.

His eureka moment came when he needed a new printer cartridge and realized the markup can run as high as 2,000 percent. Fr. Bernard spoke with some manufacturers and LaserMonks.com was born. The business grossed $2,000 its first year, and $2.5 million two years later.

Customer retention rate: 90 percent.

The monks estimate they saved customers about $200,000 last year. Meanwhile, they’ve fixed up the abbey, are plotting an expanded marketing strategy, and donate up to $10,000 to charities each month. “To be honest, that’s kind of the fun part,” chuckles Fr. Bernard.

Laser Focus

Fr. Bernard and I chatted this week and let me tell you, he is one laser-focused monk. His understanding and execution of all those terms you read and hear so often — mission statement, customer care, core values, viral marketing, value add, voice, positioning, and, above all, brand — are hyperacute.

He also talks the talk.

“What we had going for us wasn’t our products — it’s a really competitive market,” he freely admits. “What really distinguished ourselves was who we are and what we do with the money. I can see us becoming an Amazon.com of the social entrepreneur model.

“We make a necessary purchase of a mundane thing into a feel-good purchase. We’re making a necessary expenditure of your time a fulfilling experience.”

LaserMonks is not only a successful business, it’s a burgeoning one. It’s expanded into selling a large line of office supplies. “We’re looking to add a product line every second quarter,” says Fr. Bernard of his strategy. “Next, we’ll add office electronics and then expand from there.”

A Brand Is a Promise

LaserMonks’ tagline is: “Real Savings. Real Monks. Supporting Real People.” Every aspect of the Web site and the other customer touch points reflect these values and the 900-year-old monastic tradition of hospitality. The monks pray for all their customers (the site also accepts prayer requests from non-buyers). Handwritten thank-you notes are sometimes slipped into shipments. When callers must be put on hold, they hear the abbey’s own Cistercian Gregorian chant.

The Web site is full of content that reflects those values, more often than not told as stories. There’s the LaserMonks own story; a section on TorchLight, LaserMonks’ charitable foundation; and an enumeration of other charitable works the monks undertake. And because “laughter is good for the soul,” Luxor and Ludwig, the monastery’s dogs, are not only profiled, but the subjects of an ongoing comic penned by Fr. Robert Keffer.

The effect is compelling, very genuine, resoundingly feel-good, and not at all uncalculated. “We tried to make it a very hospitable experience,” explains Fr. Bernard. Of the dog section he says, “The whole motif behind that is also friendship, which is a thing that’s sorely lacking in society.

We’re going to do two or three children’s books with them this year,” he adds.

The point, both of the business and the Web site, he says, is, “You can really feel good. Not in a hedonistic sense, but feel good inside.”

Outsource Everything

The monks spend five hours a day in prayer, so they require outside help to run the business. Early on, they bought an online inkjet business from two women who came to the abbey for a week to show them the ropes… and never left. The women now operate the monk-owned corporation, MonkHelper Marketing Inc.

“Customer service is the one thing, I’ll be honest, we cannot and never will outsource,” says Fr. Bernard. Instead, the monks train local folks to handle customer relations. The monks do some graphic and Web work themselves, but outsource many marketing functions.

“The outsourcing really gave us the freedom as monks to be monks,” he told me. Fr. Bernard has had media training but speaks publicly no more than twice per month to promote the business and encourage people to take on some of the order’s ethos. Yet he stresses, “We still drive cars that are given to us — it’s not the high-end CEO lifestyle here! The more we make, the more we have to give away. I’ll be in chapel tomorrow at 4:30 in the morning, just like I always am.”

While the monks pray, Karen Walker of Walker & Associates Strategic Communications, plots marketing strategy with Sinan Kanatsiz’s K-Comm in Orange County, CA. Kanatsiz’s clients tend to run more toward eBay, Sony, and IBM. He credits LaserMonks with growing his business even as he helped grow theirs. “They’ve helped my company significantly get on the map,” Kanatsiz said.

“We did PR combined with opt-in email to consumers and SMBs [small and midsized businesses],” he told me. “People started signing up. We did refer-a-friend, started a newsletter and a Webinar.” Print and broadcast media attention, meanwhile, snowballed on a national level. LaserMonk’s strength, after all, is its story.

Next step?

“We’re talking with larger corporations, like Wal-Mart and Boeing, and trying to get them to purchase from LaserMonks,” Kanatsiz says.

Capitalize on Charm

Fr. Bernard will meet with MonkHelpers this week to chart an SEO (define) strategy. “We want to exploit all the channels possible,” he said.

Thanks to the jaw-dropping 90 percent retention rate, “we don’t have to resell to them, though that will certainly be a part of it down the line. The monk ethos out there is just charming. That’s exactly what we’re going to capitalize on,” Fr. Bernard continued. “[People] get curious and more excited, and they tell their friends. The media has created viral marketing for us. [People] go and tell everybody. Which has shocked me — and I give thanks for up above. The kind of products we sell, you buy them every two months, max. Yet we have been consistent in monthly income because people tell people. It gets bigger, and a little bigger, and a littler bigger.

“I’ll be very honest. We want LaserMonks to be a household word. It’s going to take some marketing bucks to do it, and some strategic things like writing books and giving talks. But if we get one customer, we’ll probably get 5 or 10. If I can do it with a click-through, awesome. A white paper? Great. Even through our good works. We do something for [a charity], and they’ll spread the word.”

I asked Father Bernard, who’s currently writing a book on his brand of social entrepreneurship, how the monks were making ends meet before LaserMonks. He confessed to some day-trading, averaging an 8 percent monthly return.

“People have this image of monks of living in cold, dusty buildings. We’re very much on the edge! We’re thinking outside the box! We love new ideas!”

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