he last time you attempted to replace your toner at an office supply store, chances are you were first forced to negotiate a Fort Knox-like system involving glass cases, keys, and surly managers, as though you were purchasing Tiffany diamonds or a firearm. Consumers who require decent printouts for everyday tasks are at the mercy of a very narrow market with inflated prices.
The thing about mercy, though, is that it sometimes comes to the rescue from some very unpredictable places. Sparta, Wisconsin is the site of Our Lady of Springbank Cistercian Abbey and the home of six monks who have brought the 1500-year-old Benedictine tradition of prayer and work into the twenty first century through their website, LaserMonks.com. Their site sells ink cartridges that are compatible with most printers at prices that are 30-60% below what you’ll find stuck inside the locked cabinets at Staples or Office Max. But while selling at deep discounts to compete in the marketplace is a practice that actually stretches even further back than St. Benedict, these mid-western monks are digital pioneers in a form of non-profit, socially conscious entrepreneurism that helps fund numerous good works around the world.
Our Lady of Springbank entered the ink toner business in 2001 when Fr. Bernard McCoy, Steward of Temporal Affairs for the abbey and current CEO of LaserMonks.com nearly hit the floor when he encountered the “sinfully high” prices of toner products. He did a little research and learned that the cartridges were sometimes being sold at a mark-up of 1000-2000%. “I found that the ink toner business operates on a business model that is similar to men’s’ razors. They practically give away the shavers themselves but the price of replacement blades is ridiculously high, the same principle applies to printers and cartridges” says McCoy.
The thirty-something priest, who had been looking for an income-producing business for the abbey anyway, soon realized he had stumbled onto a great opportunity. “It just seemed to me that we could provide an office product like toner to consumers at better prices and with better customer service than other businesses were doing” he says. “But the real difference is that people would not just be saving money but helping to support worthy causes with their purchases.”
It is extremely difficult for monasteries to support themselves in this day and age with agriculture-based businesses. The cheese wheels, fruitcakes and other assorted products that fill holes in our holiday gift lists just can’t pay the bills anymore. “Among Cistertian communities we are definitely the avant garde of the tech field” says McCoy.
The rise of LaserMonks.com has been relatively swift, but it hasn’t been without some struggle. In their first year the site grossed just $2000.00, but in 2003, the second year in operation LaserMonks.com grossed $500,000. They expect to gross five times that amount in 2004. LaserMonks are able to keep their prices low by recycling their cartridges, negotiating directly with manufacturers, dodging the middleman, and? well? refusing to make the 1000-2000% markups that computer users have come to expect with gritted teeth. Even so, McCoy says, LaserMonks.com is able to make a tidy profit, netting somewhere in the area of 20-40% of their gross.
With their rapid growth, it became clear to McCoy that his small band of monks wouldn’t be able to keep pace with the business’ demand without sacrificing their real vocation, leading contemplative lives of prayer. “We do approximately four hours of Gregorian chant everyday” he says “so running the site and fulfilling the orders eventually became unfeasible. We knew we needed help.”
In 2003, the LaserMonks venture caught the eyes of Fort Collins, Colorado-based website marketers Sarah Caniglia and her business partner, Cindy Griffith.The pair was so intrigued by the what the monks were doing that they decided to spend the summer of 2003 volunteering at the website. Their unpaid adventure convinced them that this was a great opportunity to help grow a business and do charitable work at the same time. “Its a feel-good type of purchase,” Caniglia says of the business. “I know it might sound corny, but its actually a win, win, win proposition. Customers save money, charitable causes are supported and the recycling of these cartridges helps the environment.”
They left Colorado, moved into a guest house on the corner of the monastery property and expanded their role in the LaserMonks enterprise through MonkHelper Marketing, Inc. a separate entity established and owned by Caniglia and Griffith that is responsible for LaserMonks.com’s business development as well as the site’s day to day operation.
The experience has been deeply life-altering for Caniglia who, though she is Catholic, had never had even met a monk before becoming involved in LaserMonks.com. “Becoming involved here has given me a great inner peace. Its been an incredibly positive experience” she says.
LaserMonks success has attracted attention far beyond Wisconsin, ABC World News Tonight, USA Today, Forbes, Wired and MSNBC have all featured the site. “Because of the media coverage, we’ve probably been seen by more people than any monastery in history” says McCoy. The media buzz has also led to numerous offers of speaking engagements and interviews, but the CEO-monk is quick to point out that the work they do at LaserMonks.com is much more than a cute gimmick or just another human interest story. “I really believe that that this non-profit, social entrepreneurism is the new business model for the future” says McCoy. Every month, the abbey takes a portion of their earnings and uses it to donate to three different charities: one that cares for the body, another that cares for the mind and a third that cares for the soul.
Their donations have helped fund causes as disparate as a local volunteer Ski Patrol and the San Diego Zoo to a summer camp for children with AIDS and a shelter for abused kids. “We like to think of ourselves as the non-profit version of Amazon.com” says McCoy. “The only real difference is that, in addition to getting a good product at a great price, our customers are also helping people and organizations in need.”
Becoming a real threat to Amazon may still be a long way off but there are already ways in which LaserMonks is revolutionary. Customers who order by phone are welcomed by a serene voice that answers all calls with “Greetings and peace” and the hold music consists of Gregorian chant recorded at the abbey. “In our business, we follow the Benedictine rule that instructs us to ‘Treat all visitors as Christ himself'” McCoy says. “How many other business’ customer service departments would say that they are trying try to treat their callers like Jesus?”
The site’s prayer request link has also proven to be popular and has enabled the monks to receive many moving requests from people around the world. They print out the numerous online requests they receive and include them in their daily prayers. One woman, McCoy recalls, wrote ‘Fr. Bernard, I dont know why I’m even writing you this because I’m an atheist, but I just wanted to tell you that the work you do just makes me feel so good.”
LaserMonks.coms business depends on that very critical distinction. All things being equal, McCoy and his brother monks believe that if a consumer can get a product they need at the same price, they will ultimately choose to support the business that helps others as well.
The future looks promising for these industrious monks.They are currently setting up a distribution center in the former Czech republic and plan to expand into selling general office products in the next few months.
Their most ambitious project of all, however, is geared toward education rather than selling. Based in the belief that if you teach someone to fish you’ve fed them for a lifetime, the monks of Our Lady of Springbank Abbey have formed the Torchlight Foundation whose mission is to provide young people with the tools and guidance to learn the spirit of benevolence and promote that spirit to “help others help others.” The program can be used by schools, youth groups, the elderly and corporate teams and involves a donation from the monastery as well as guidelines the monks have developed that instructs groups how to open their eyes to the needs of others and make a business plan for how to use their time and talent to help meet those needs.
In essence the program allows the LaserMonks to pass on their unique knowledge and experience in combining business and philanthropy. In that way, these monastic pioneers of e-commerce hope they will have an effect long after the ink in their customer’s toner cartridges runs dry.