What Starting a Charity Taught These Hollywood Entrepreneurs About Business

Remember that line in It’s a Wonderful Life where Old Man Potter asks George Bailey if he's running a business or a charity?

Well as it turns out, the two aren’t so different.

There are payrolls to meet, bills to pay, products to get to market, competition literally in the field, and a hundred-and-one problems you never see coming.

Today, you'll hear from a reality TV producer and a music biz veteran who learned some key lessons about being entrepreneurs by starting their own African water charity.

In this TGIM short, you'll...

  • Learn the positives (and potential negatives) of a celebrity endorsement.
  • Hear what it's like to set up shop in a region like southern Sudan.
  • Find out why showing is always better than telling.

Check out the full short below:

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You're listening to a marching band made up of visually impaired Ugandan school children and when you see them, if it doesn't bring a tear to your eye you should really check yourself for a pulse. Having said that, you might quite rightly ask, "What does this have to do with running a business?" To answer that we need to travel a couple of thousand miles away to Hollywood where there's a music producer named John Travis. John's been in the music business for about 25 years. He even co-wrote that Kid Rock song called Cowboy. Not to brag here, but he's doing okay.

There was a little bit of a cushion there. There was the ability to start something that wasn't a profitable thing, or wasn't something that was making money.

John is married to Stacey Travis, a former reality TV producer. A little over 10 years ago she decided she needed to take a break, but also kind of make amends.

I was looking for something to cleanse myself from some of the shows I was producing, so that was part of my motivation.

On a trip to Africa they came across a village that needed a source of fresh drinking water. Not having clean water causes all sorts of diseases and forces kids to miss school because they're the ones who have to walk to the nearest water supply. That was their ah-ha moment, or as I like to call it, "Lesson 1 for anyone starting a new business: find something that inspires you." Anyway, when they got back they hit up their friends in the music industry to see if they would like to help them put a well in one of these villages. Let's call that lesson 2: market research. Will people actually pay for this product?

It turns out the answer was yes, it worked so well in fact that they bought another well and another. Today they have over 300 wells, latrines and schools across 2 different countries. Make no mistake, for all the good they do, this was still a relatively new business with all the headaches and learning curves that come with being your own boss. Just because you're on the side of the angels doesn't mean the devil still isn't in the details. Which leads us to lesson 3: know what you don't know.

In terms of actually getting projects done, there's nothing about getting drum sounds that applies to building wells, villages in Africa.

As such, they had to be flexible. What they soon found among other things, is you can't manage long distance. Now Stacey spends half her time on the ground in Africa working with their staff of 20 locals in South Sudan and Uganda. Also, because the employees all come from different tribes they needed a policy to make sure they all stay on the same page. Cultural sensitivity would have to take a back seat to communication.

We have someone, I think from almost all of the tribes in our office, and I insist that they only speak English and Arabic. They can't speak their tribal languages because those are the things that divide people. I think it's important for them all to work together.

That was business tip number 5, by the way if you're counting at home. Don't be afraid to be the boss. There wouldn't be anything for employees to talk about if the donations didn't keep flowing, and it's not always easy to break through the charity clutter and get and keep donor's attention. Lesson 6: in a crowded marketplace find a way to get noticed.

You're always trying to figure out something that you can say that other people aren't saying. There's many water charities.

Drop in the Bucket works all around this region of southern Sudan drilling for water and installing sanitation systems.

That's singer/actor/spoken word poet Henry Rollins, the charity celebrity spokesperson. You'll also find a picture of Russell Brand on their website. John says it's not as simple as just getting someone famous to shill for your cause. When it comes to endorsements you have to protect your reputation at all costs.

It's a double-edged sword on that one. You can absolutely get a lot of publicity fast out of a celebrity tweeting about you. They might have several million fans and they say something of yours and all these people go and watch your videos and maybe donate. Then that same celebrity gets caught doing some crazy scandal thing and it falls back on you a little bit.

Have you ever turned down a celebrity who wanted to help you?

Yes, but I'm not going to name names.

While that might seem like a Hollywood problem, okay, it kind of is. Other issues are far more dire. Lesson 7 then: John and Stacey say if you're opening a new market always be willing to listen to the people who know. Just because you have some money to throw around doesn't make you an expert, especially when it comes to things like local customs, foods, and oh yeah, avoiding getting blown up.

We were parking our vehicles under trees so that they couldn't see vehicles so they wouldn't drop bombs on your vehicle, which is scary enough, something you don't really want to be doing. Then we're sitting around a table trying to all act calm and do our work, and then the casual conversation is, "So you know, if the bomber does come don't run. You have to just go to the ditch and lay flat in the ditch. Don't run whatever you do."

Maybe we should call that rule, "You can't outrun shrapnel but maybe you can hide from it." Drop in the Bucket says it's been careful not to scale too fast. If they don't have the money they just don't build it. They've been willing to get into areas that weren't always sexy for donors, either. Like, supplying young women with menstrual products and building latrines. The rationale being if you show the locals you're willing to do work with what we'll call and ick factor, you get a reputation as someone there for the right reasons. Which is what brought them, and brings us, back to that school for the visually impaired.

These blind children were using a pit-less room, which is just an old outhouse, you know, where you have to crawl up and feel around and find the hole. We were able to build them a really amazing bathroom.

That's when they met the band.

Whenever you go there they play for you. It's really adorable.

It's a marching band, so it's blind children in a marching band. Essentially they follow a girl who plays 2 cymbals and she can see shadows, she can see a little bit. She leads and everyone follows the sound of her cymbals. It's pretty amazing to watch.

Obviously John has a soft spot for musicians, so when he saw these kids using twigs as drumsticks, he figured he had to do something. How do you sell companies that make instruments on donating to a blind marching band in Uganda?

I sent a video and Zildjian were the first ones to reply. I think they replied in maybe a minute, maybe less. They must have read the email and said immediately, they said, "I'm in. What do you need?"

Soon he was on his way back to Africa, equipment in hand. Let's call that our final lesson: you never know until you ask, and showing is always better than telling. Whether you're trying to source investor funding for the next newest best thing ever or just trying to get your hands on some music supplies for the best darn marching band you'll ever hear. I mean, ever.

Show notes:

About TGIM: TGIM is a podcast for people who can’t wait for the week to start. In each episode we’ll be bringing you inspirational stories about entrepreneurs who have overcome obstacles, built incredible businesses, and are now living the life they want.