Great business ideas can come from anywhere—frustration and frugality, for instance. One such story began in a tiny monastery in the countryside of western Wisconsin.
Father Bernard, one of five Cistercian monks living in at the monastery, was perplexed by the high cost of printer ink. That may not be the sort of problem you’d think would concern a cloistered monk, but Father Bernard is a frugal man.
As he recalls, “All I wanted was a little bit of black dust for one of our monastery printers. In my search for a toner cartridge, I was suddenly struck with how incredibly expensive this black dust and a few squirts of ink were. ‘There must be a better way,’ I said to myself. And so began my foray into the world of imaging supplies. What I discovered was a revelation. Simply stated, the mark-up on ink supplies is sinfully high, reaching in some instances into the 1,000-2,000 % levels. I also discovered that there were many companies that manufactured either new compatible cartridges or remanufactured cartridges at a fraction of the cost of the big name brands. My thoughts starting racing.”
What started out in 2001 as a search for a better way grew into a multimillion dollar Internet success story. Not only did Father Bernard find a way to cut costs for their monastery imaging supplies, he thought that he could create some extra income for their mission by selling remanufactured cartridges. The first year, the monks brought in a whopping $2000 gross. As the media began telling their story, sales multiplied 700% in 2003. They conservatively project doubling or tripling this year.
What did these monks know about starting a business? They began by applying the Rule of St. Benedict, which emphasizes the concept of hospitality, kindness and charity. How could they be hospitable in dealing with their customers, their vendors and their growing staff? How could they extend themselves to the community? How could they use their profits for the greater good?
In addition to keeping their hospitality mission at the forefront, they also insisted that their business would be about these four things:
Bring joy and meaning to our work.
Involve the customer in our mission.
Position our company as socially conscious.
Grow financially and spiritually.
Ever since learning about them, I’ve been an enthusiastic LaserMonks customer and have been the recipient of their superb service. One of the bonuses of buying my ink from them is that I also am invited to leave a prayer request. Of course, I always do. Do you know any other business that offers to pray for yours?
That’s not all that makes LaserMonks a standout. Since five monks have modest financial needs, much of their profit is given to charities with an emphasis on helping disadvantaged children. Even though their business is global, their focus is local. As they grew, LaserMonks made an effort to employ single mothers in their area, for instance. They’re equally committed to passing along frugality to their customers, whom they estimate saved over $200,000 last year.
“Everyone wins with LaserMonks,” says Father Bernard. “Isn’t that the way business should be?”