LaserMonks: The Business Story Nine Hundred Years in the Making
By Sarah Caniglia and Cindy Griffith
New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008
Review by Carl McColman
Some years ago, the management world discovered Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War. This sixth-century Chinese treatise on military strategy considers not only the logistics of conflict, but also the psychology of winning; as such, it has transcended its soldierly origins to become a classic source of inspiration for the corporate boardroom as well as the battlefield. After all, if any metaphor can describe what business is all about, it’s that of warfare.
But maybe there’s more to working than winning — and this thought leads to a remarkable new way of envisioning and achieving success, as detailed by Sarah Caniglia and Cindy Griffith in their insightful new book, LaserMonks. I never thought I’d be reviewing a business book here on my oh-so-spiritual blog, but I guess I didn’t see this one coming, either. I should have, though — I’ve known about and admired the LaserMonks web-based business for some time now. This new book not only tells the story of a uniquely successful business, but reveals how another ancient text — The Rule of Saint Benedict — can be applied to any business model, with truly impressive results.
The next time you need ink or toner, be sure to visit LaserMonks.com, a website with the wonderful tagline “Commerce with Compassion.” Owned by a Cistercian monastery in Wisconsin, this online business not only sells both new and refurbished printer supplies but also promotes products made by monks and nuns at communities across the United States and beyond; and perhaps most noteworthy of all, the business is built around a simple idea that, once the employees have been paid and the needs of the monastery met, all surplus profit is given away — to charitable organizations, to local families in need, as seed money for groups trying to do good works of their own. Both the monks who own LaserMonks, and the laypeople who work there, are serious about giving. And this, combined with good old fashioned business savvy and top-notch customer service, has made LaserMonks a significant niche player in a fiercely competitive industry.
So how did they do it? LaserMonks (the book) tells the story. The authors have a background in e-commerce and marketing, and came on board with LaserMonks in 2003, when it was a small web-based business, struggling to find its identity and its niche. Simply by learning about the values and priorities of monastic life, these two consultants helped the community to focus the business, hone their message and build on their natural strengths. Like most western monastic communities, the Cistercians follow the Rule of St. Benedict, which emphasizes hospitality, charity, and a life balanced by devotion to prayer and to work. Translate this into twenty-first century terms, and you have a business which emphasizes a no-compromise commitment to customer service, putting people first (which includes employees and vendors as well as customers) and giving back to the community. The monks who started LaserMonks were already doing these things when the consultants came on board; Caniglia and Griffith simply helped them to see that what came naturally to them as followers of Benedict also made good business sense (and was worth telling others about, as well).
The results have been impressive: LaserMonks is now a ten million dollar a year business, and continues to grow through ancillary websites like Monk e-Gifts (okay, the name makes me wince, but I guess these guys love a bad pun, and hey, it’s a lovely site). Meanwhile, the book details the story of the business’s growth over the last four years, how the Rule of St. Benedict is applied to its daily operations and overall marketing strategy, and why the core value of giving back to the community is seen as so essential to the current and future health of the enterprise. It’s a short book with a simple message, not much more complex than The One-Minute Manager or Who Moved My Cheese? And although by the end of the book I felt that it suffered from a bit too much repetition, and I wish the authors had provided more insight into their current and future marketing strategy, overall I think it’s the most remarkable and unique management book I’ve ever read.
Incidentally, the “nine hundred years” in the book’s subtitle refers to the age of the Cistercian order (founded in 1098 CE). But I think it should have been “fifteen hundred” years, since that is the age of the actual text of the Rule. Consider this: Benedict describes monastic life as a school of charity (read: love). Maybe it’s time for the business world to “make love, not war” by giving up on the old Chinese master and injecting Benedictine values like hospitality, compassion and charitable giving into management models and marketing strategies. I think Sun-Tzu had better watch his back.
Finally, a disclaimer: I read this book with more than a passing interest, since I, like Caniglia and Griffith, work for a monastery-owned business. In my case, I work for The Abbey Store, a click-and-mortar Catholic/monastic retail store. I decided not to go into the many things I personally learned from this book that I can apply directly to my own work, since that would shift the focus of this review onto me and away from the book. But let’s just say that I did, in fact, learn a lot. Which only makes me the more convinced that if I, working in a similar business environment, can take a lot from this book, those who work in non-monastic settings should find it even more helpful. St. Benedict would be proud.