There is one basic fact about commerce – it’s all about making money. Success, in the business world, is typically linked to profit. The hard fact is that if a business spends more money than it takes in, the business closes.
But it’s the success element that muddies that clear commercial aim. The definition of success varies widely. It is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Where one business owner defines success by the length of his private yacht, another may define success by the amount of money he can contribute to a worthy cause.
It’s a rare breed that opens a business with the primary goal of contributing to the growth and success of a community or organization. But for those who take the headlong plunge into the community-oriented business world, the approach is the only approach that makes sense. In a culture in which business success has been increasingly belittled, marginalized and even demonized, some might lose sight of the fact that private industry created the treatments that combat breast cancer, the technology that empowers the disabled with opportunity and provides the tools most people use every day. Oklahoma has many entrepreneurs whose efforts, and definitions of success, have made the world a better place.
“The more people we can serve and the deeper we can serve them, the more we succeed,” says Jim Stovall, founder of Tulsa-based Narrative Television Network, or NTN. Despite his organization’s primary purpose of providing movie and television access to the visually impaired and their families, NTN programming has enjoyed a broad acceptance in the non-visually impaired community as well.
His motivation for establishing NTN came from personal experience. “My initial interest in narrative television came from losing my own sight and being frustrated with not being able to enjoy television and movies,” Stovall says. “The biggest challenge I faced in the early going was serving 13 million blind and visually impaired people who had never been served by the TV or movie industry. It took a lot of education both to our consumers as well as to the industry.”
A former national champion Olympic weightlifter and successful investment broker, Stovall took the lessons learned from his past successes and plugged them into his current business incarnation and believes that opportunity comes in the wake of any perceived tragedy. “I’m a big believer in the fact that the only thing you must do to have a great idea is to go through your daily routine, wait for something bad to happen and ask the magic question, ‘How could I have avoided that?’”
The willingness to ask questions for the benefit of oneself and for others plays a central role in Stovall’s business approach, as well. “The only thing you need to have a great business concept is to ask one more question: ‘How can I help other people avoid that?’”
Ultimately, Stovall says, true success in the business world is more about the giving than the receiving. “The only true long-term success in business comes from serving others. There is really very little difference between the two. Serving others equals success.”
Sometimes, the love of a geographical community and a yearning to see a formerly-glorious part of a city restored to its one-time majesty can be sufficient inspiration to dive head-long into the business world. Case in point: Amanda and Dylan Bradway of Oklahoma City’s DNA Galleries.
For Amanda Bradway, the romantic ideals of youth called her back to the scene of high school innocence. “The inspiration for the store was two-fold,” she says. “I worked downtown during my last two years of high school and thought it was sad to see the beautiful old buildings abandoned, or just used for storage. I pictured Oklahoma City as it could be and decided I wanted to stay here after high school and build something on the blank slate of our downtown area, if we could.”
Her love of Oklahoma City’s downtown, combined with a love of and eye for the best of Oklahoma City’s local art scene, has proven a harmonious combo. “We tired of hearing all the artists say there were no opportunities in our state,” Bradway says. “We decided we needed to stay and come up with something to generate opportunities for artists.”
So began an exercise in community stewardship and civic involvement. With the firm intent of having DNA Galleries serve as a strong stone in the Plaza District’s foundation, the Bradways understood the importance of individual contribution to an area’s leadership apparatus. “When we started out, we sat at endless meetings trying to figure out how we would shape the district into something. We just didn’t know what it would really turn into,” she says.
The civic-mindedness that defined DNA Galleries’ genesis has carried over into the present tense, with the Bradways’ venture playing a key role in the life of both the Plaza District and the Oklahoma City arts scene. “We sponsor and have volunteered at many Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition events, and the newly created Oklahoma Artist Network,” Bradway says.
But ultimately, DNA Galleries exists for the artists featured there. “I want to see artists quit their day jobs and pursue their dreams full time,” she says.
There are times when the realities of a pressure-cooker world are sufficient inspiration to take an already-intrinsic passion for making the world a better place, and putting a tangible element to it.
That’s where Audrey Falk comes in. Owner of Oklahoma City’s Shop Good, Falk, and her husband Justin, open their doors each day for the simple reason of doing the world at least a little bit of good. “We both feel passionate about living generously and responsibly, helping those in need, and being good citizens,” she says. “Our customer is someone who shares those values and who gets excited about partnering with us in giving back by making a purchase.”
Shop Good, Falk says, was born out of frustration with the constraints of managing budgets and business realities for outside interests. “As creative people, we were constantly frustrated by consistently tiny budgets, limited audiences and uncomfortably narrow vision. So we started talking between ourselves, and then with friends who were inspired about how we could integrate community development with commerce in a way that wouldn’t cheapen causes in the name of profit, but that would provide a sustainable means to educate, raise awareness and make a difference through supply and demand. And that’s how Shop Good was born.”
Following a tried and true path, Falk says Shop Good started modestly. “We started in 2009 with the concept of t-shirts, designing and printing them ourselves, in order to use them as a platform to communicate and inform. After a few months and lots of t-shirt sales, we opened for regular business hours in a small, shared space in the Plaza District.”
The new venue prompted an inventory expansion to include products made by nonprofit organizations, with the purpose of benefitting those organizations. “The community here in Oklahoma City responded with such enthusiasm to that,” Falk says.
With the move to a remodeled 1920s-era home in Automobile Alley in August 2010, Shop Good expanded its selection into a broader range of items while clinging to its social awareness. “Shop Good is now filled with a wide selection made either by hand or by socially responsible companies from Austin, Texas, to Ethiopia.”
Ultimately, Falk hopes Shop Good affords its clientele with an easy way to contribute to the world at large. “We want our customers to have the opportunity to create change in their community and around the world with their everyday purchases, so we’re working toward expanding our offerings without losing the personal touches and mom-and-pop experience that makes our customers feel at home.”
Given the unique nature of businesses designed to contribute to the greater good, fighting the battle between dollar and soul can be a daunting task. The two seemingly contradictory aspects of making money and making a difference are the key difference between social awareness and bank account bloating.
Stovall’s approach is sound advice to anyone considering making a business out of their devotion to social causes. “My advice to anyone trying to get started is to constantly remember, it’s not about you,” he says. “It’s about the people you serve. If you focus on yourself or on money, you will inevitably fail. If you focus on those you serve, you will get everything out of life – both personally and professionally – that you want.”