No matter the line of work, Christians are called to be the light of the world in all they do. For those in entrepreneurship, walking in faith comes with its own opportunities as well as hardships. Joining us today are Mike and Michelle who successfully live out their faith through running the business that they started here in Beijing.
Let’s start with the basics. Tell us about yourselves and why you moved to China.
Mike: I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I love adventure and creating new things that help people. While studying entrepreneurship in university in the States, I also studied some Chinese. This Chinese program brought me to China for a summer to work and learn Chinese. When I returned to the US, I actually never wanted to come back to China. After graduation, I worked in insurance, but it wasn’t for me. I wanted clarity on what to do, so I quit my job and asked God what to do. “Go to China. Study Chinese.” So I did. I moved to Beijing in early 2010, passed HSK 6 in early 2012, and have been here ever since starting companies.
Michelle: For me, this is also an interesting story. I’m from Canada and I’ve had a love of adventure and risk-taking for as long as I can remember. My parents played an enormous part in this. Passionate about travelling themselves, they didn’t let having 2 young daughters stop them from exploring the world. This adventurous upbringing led me to study International Business and I’ve now lived in 7 countries and have travelled to over 35 nations. After learning Spanish and Portuguese fluently from living in Chile and Brazil, my passion was definitely in South America, not China.
Interesting! So what made you move to China in the end, Michelle?
Michelle: How I got to China and stayed here is where our love story begins. Mike and I met online on a Christian dating website. I was in Canada and he was here in Beijing. After 2 months of non-stop emails and Skype calls (for 7, 8, or 9 hours at a time!), we knew we needed to meet in person. I suggested moving to Beijing, and less than a month later we were standing beside each other at the Beijing airport, in total shock that the other person actually existed. We got married a quick 6 months later in Canada, then came straight back to Beijing to start our next big endeavour together: starting our company, Lead with Words.
What an amazing love story! Can you tell us a little about your company?
At Lead with Words, we are a presentation training firm. We work with Fortune 500 companies to help their employees present more clearly and persuasively. When employees communicate better, they bring more value to their organization. Our recent clients include: Mercedes-Benz, BMW, the United Nations, State Grid (国家电网) and more!
A good entrepreneur will see a need and respond accordingly. Why did you see a need for this in China?
Presentation training is needed all around the world, but there are 3 specific reasons why we started in China:
1. We believe this is where God wants us and where we can have the biggest impact
2. The Chinese educational system is strongly biased towards hard skills (such as math and science), so there is a big need for soft skills training
3. There is a large presence of Fortune 500 companies in China who value the type of services we deliver and realize the strategic importance of training their Chinese employees well
Wow, that’s a bold move for both of you to be involved in this company and neither of you to have a stable job! What were some of the obstacles or struggles you faced? What have been some of the high points?
In any successful business, there are going to be low lows and high highs. For us, the lows have been when our bank accounts are nearly empty and there have been a couple months where we didn’t know if we’d be able to make our rent payment. There’s this constant uncertainty of not knowing when we’re going to get another project.
On the other hand, there are great highs as well. We remember very vividly the day we signed our first major contract with a large multinational company, Mercedes-Benz. The manager was so happy with the results that our training spread from manager to manager and we ended up with a lot of repeat business. This was 8 months into starting our company, which is extremely fast to get this type of client!
Interestingly enough, the lesson we’ve learned from the highs and lows is the same. Be aggressively patient. Put in the work, and be patient for the results.
We live in a wonderfully designed world of cause and effect. We know 100% that if we do the right things over a long enough period of time, we will be successful – it’s how the world was made.
That is so encouraging no matter what career path we are on. What is it like working on a daily basis with your spouse?
We love it and wouldn’t have it any other way! As a small company, you put in extremely long hours. Who better to spend all that time with than your best friend?
That being said, it isn’t always easy. Lines between work and personal life are always a blur, so we need to be intentional to separate the two every now and again.
We’re all for husbands and wives being business partners, but we would strongly warn against starting a business with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Doing business as a couple takes a high level of commitment. For our business to work we have to put our marriage first. Clear expectations help us keep a clear course. When there isn’t that life-long commitment, the question of which gets priority – business or significant other – becomes a major issue that can wreck both the business and the relationship.
Business, to some, may not look like an especially spiritual calling (unlike pastoring or counseling, for example). How can Christians entrepreneurs see their business as their calling or ministry?
Ministry can happen anywhere there are people. In most countries, 60-70%+ of the population are employed. To minister to people, we have to go to where they are. As entrepreneurs, that’s exactly what we get to do. We reach people where they spend the majority of their waking hours: their job.
We might be the ‘little boss’ of our company, but we have a ‘Big Boss’ who has a more important job description for us. A Christian entrepreneur’s job description is as follows:
1. Work with excellence – a way that is commendable, worthy of admiration, reflects on the character of God
2. Work with integrity – doing business God’s way from beginning to end
3. Work with others – build other servant leaders in our business and in client organizations we work with to further the Kingdom impact in the workplace
That is a strong biblical way for a Christian entrepreneur to approach their business. But what about our interactions with those we work with? How can a Christian entrepreneur share the gospel at work?
Our work situation is different from the norm. We don’t have colleagues we see daily with whom we can share many times. Sometimes we only get one or a few opportunities.
We build relationships with our contacts at client companies and share with those individuals. Also, we share with training participants when we get the opportunity on breaks and at lunch. This is why we are always looking to build likeminded servant leaders in our client organizations to be the ‘boots on the ground.’
What can the church learn from entrepreneurs? How can entrepreneurs use their giftings to bless the church?
Take risks. Innovate. Use systems, but keep them simple… There are lots of principles in entrepreneurship that apply to any team or organization.
Entrepreneurs in the church should start or be a part of the workplace ministry. See point 3: ‘Work with others’ above. This means growing and making impact as a community.
Often, we face trials and temptations at our workplace. What spiritual struggles are Christians up against when running their own business?
They are various and wide-ranging depending on how much of the company you control, who your clients and partners are, and what industry you are in.
The most typical struggles would be:
• Burnout – not taking a Sabbath or enough rest
• Discouragement – not believing the business will grow and that God will help do it
• Stress/worry – whether it’s finances, growth, changes in the market, regulations, etc., there’s always a new challenge or unknown
• Self-sufficiency – believing yourself to be totally in control or that you are the #1 reason the business is doing well
I think we can all relate to at least one of those! What have been some rewarding moments for you both?
Landing Mercedes-Benz as our first big client was an extremely rewarding moment; in fact, every new client or project we land is extremely rewarding. It’s also been a huge blessing to hear stories from people about how the free professional development videos we create have personally helped them.
What advice do you have for those looking to start a business in China? Or anywhere for that matter?
There are a number of ingredients needed to have a successful company, but we’ll highlight a few of the most important ones:
1. Long-term Strategy vs. Short-term Gain
Don’t lose focus of why you started and why you do what you do. Many companies have asked us if we could do training for them that is not exactly what we do (i.e. Business English, personal branding, etc.) Even though we have the ability to lead trainings on those topics, we decided against it because in the long run it would dilute our brand identity. It takes a lot of faith to turn down big deals (especially at the beginning!) and to believe that better, more relevant opportunities will come.
No cutting corners. Always be honest, always issue an invoice, always pay your taxes, always have a lawyer review your contracts, always treat your employees well. If your gut says someone isn’t reliable, trust your gut and avoid it – regardless of the size of the deal. The path of integrity means you’ll lose out on a number of opportunities, but in the long run you’ll also avoid LOTS of pain.
3. Passion & Persistence
The word passion comes from the latin “enter the pain.” It’s where we get the word patience. You have to love the venture so much that you’re willing to endure lots of setbacks, frustrations, and failures. Progress is never a straight line. Things might seem flat for months, then BAM! – you land a major client and things start to take off.
This is unique to starting a company in China, but as a WFOE (Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprise), it’s 100% necessary to have someone who speaks Chinese. Mike’s fluency in Chinese allows us to be successful here without having a Chinese business partner.
5. Believe in yourself!
The biggest thing that holds back entrepreneurs is a lack of belief. You can start a business and use it to change your community, country, and even the world. Don’t listen to the lies in your head that you can’t do it or that the world is against you. Commit to your passion, find a great need, and go make it happen!
Lastly, you mentioned you create free professional development videos. Where can people go to watch these?
You can watch them on our WeChat official account (LeadWithWords) and at YouTube.com/LeadWithWords
Well thanks again for sharing today, Mike and Michelle. Your experiences and advice will surely bless people no matter what line of work they are in.
If you would like to hear more about entrepreneurship in Beijing, we have a Middle Kingdom podcast episode just for you here: Faith and Entrepreneurship
Readers let’s be in prayer for Christian entrepreneurs and businesses in China. Let’s look for opportunities to share the gospel with those we work with and ways in which we can walk out our faith at work.
If you missed last week’s post on Helen’s experience as a Pastor’s wife, you can read it here
If you have a question or comment, please write in the comments section below.