It all started with Moxie Java, a small coffee shop in Nampa, Idaho. The state of Idaho is lightly populated, with little economic activity. The words ‘entrepreneur’, ‘start-up’ and ‘venture capital’ are not part of the vernacular. Instead, it’s ‘cows’, ‘alfalfa’ and ‘potatoes’. I was 17. My friend Heather owned Moxie.
She confided she was hardly staying afloat. To make matters worse, her credit card processor was smacking her with ridiculous fees she couldn’t afford. I was angry. She was doing so much for our community and getting so little back. How could this huge company treat her so poorly? In that moment, my life purpose became clear: to never make ‘screw you’ money like the rest of the financial services industry. From then on, I decided to fight against the huge companies taking advantage of the independent businesses I loved.
Without any outside funding, Gravity Payments was born, and it took tens of billions of dollars of credit card processing away from our competitors. In a cutthroat industry with sleazy sales tactics and evasive customer service, we became the largest credit card processor in our region. By staying true to our original cause, we plodded past those competitors focused on expediency and financial gain.
Scaling: passing the purpose to others
Fighting back against deceptive competitors became my obsession. I gave my mobile number to our first thousand clients, offering around-the-clock service. I soon realised I had a scalability problem. As my peers and mentors forewarned, I had hit a ceiling. I could no longer personally impact each of our clients. Fortunately, I found people who valued small business owners the way I did. The team on the front lines at Gravity took up the cause I had initiated.
As we grew to 15,000 clients, these people continued with the same level of care and dedication. To this day, if one of our clients has an emergency at 2am, someone at Gravity is springing out of bed to help.
But we have no hero complex. Whether it’s my fellow Young Presidents’ Organisation (YPO) members responsible for millions of dollars in revenue and payroll, or a coffee shop founder like Heather, independent business operators are our heroes. Helping them is our social cause.
Looking back: how we did it, and how you can too
Viewing credit card processing as a social cause is stupid and ridiculous. But we do. Paying entry-level employees US$70,000 per year, twice what the market demands, is stupid and ridiculous. But we do. Cutting my own pay by millions of dollars over several years could be considered crazy. But I did.
Working in the trenches to force incremental change of a terrible industry, when I could sell out and become a multimillionaire many times over, is stupid and ridiculous. But I do. We won’t sell out. There are many reasons why being singularly dedicated to a social cause, and only valuing money for its role in that cause, is stupid and ridiculous. But when we do, the market rewards us. Our social mission powered our growth.
Working in the trenches to force incremental change of a terrible industry, when I could sell out and become a multimillionaire many times over, is stupid and ridiculous. but I do. we won’t sell out.
As long as Gravity remains a purpose-driven company, breeding trust among our clients, partners and team members, then its growth will serve as an example for others. If we can up-end an industry characterised by manufactured complexity and greed, others will follow our lead. We will have helped create a chain reaction transforming not only our industry but also the way business is done across the entire economy.
I’m a proud member of YPO, a network of business leaders focused on lifelong learning, engaging and growing. This is an opportunity to shift your perspective and accomplish all three. If we can think of credit card processing as a social cause, then you can view your business this way. If we can hold our purpose above all else, so can you.
If you’re looking for short-term financial gain, this probably isn’t the right strategy for you. But if you’re looking to build a business that’s successful in the long term, consider what your cause could be. It’s not charity. It’s your unfair advantage to out-duel, outlast and out-muscle every one of your competitors. Stop following the status quo. Stop trying to be so damn smart and reasonable. Start being a little stupid and ridiculous.