How a humble midwestern monastery launched a multi-million dollar printer ink business, and what they can teach us all about work.
A little more than 900 years ago, an order of monks branched off from the Benedictines, in an attempt to return to a simpler life. These Roman Catholic monks, known as Cistercians, differed from their Catholic brethren in a few ways; namely, they believed in self-sufficiency as a virtue and worked to support themselves in addition to their quiet life of solitude and prayer.
So it came to be that at the dawn of the new millennium, a bunch of monks in an abbey in Sparta, Wisconsin started a multi-million dollar printer ink business.
Their rise during the tail-end of the tech bubble offers an excellent case for finding work that works for you, no matter how weird or unexpected it might be. Their subsequent slow decline reminds us of the necessity to constantly innovate at work. Survival depends on it.
But let’s back up — way back, over a thousand years, to the 11th century, specifically 1098 A.D. What a wild time it was. A fun new economic system called capitalism was on the rise, printed money had recently been invented, and the Law of Sines was blowing everyone’s minds.
A French Benedictine monk named Robert Molesme fled his monastery in Burgundy, claiming that it had strayed from the Rules of St. Benedict, becoming materialistic and greedy. Molesme and twenty others started their own in Cîteaux (or “Cistercium” in Latin, hence the name of the order). Philosophically, they were attempting to return to the roots of Benedictine mores, stuff like manual labor, charity, simplicity, self-sufficiency — you know, all the fun stuff. This usually meant making and selling stuff to maintain their abbeys, like Trappist ales. The most glaring difference was replacing the trademark black robes of the Benedictines for white ones. Presumably they were a pain to keep clean.
Okay, with that possibly tedious history out of the way, let’s jump forward — way forward, a thousand years, to the 21st century, specifically the year 2000, the height of the dot-com bubble. Nu metal was blaring out of P.T. Cruiser radios everywhere. The Y2K bug had recently reduced most of the country to rubble. Pets dot com’s IPO raised $82 million in what was sure to be a long-running and resilient business. What a wild time it was. Amazon’s first quarterly profit was still one rotation around the sun away. E-commerce was then still in its early stages. Suddenly, random people could easily create a business with national reach from anywhere — like a small abbey in Sparta, WI.
“I decided, hey, maybe we could sell these,” McCoy says, “be middlemonks.”
It started almost by accident. Out in Sparta, Father Bernard “Vann” McCoy — 42-years-old, bald, prone to wearing novelty T-shirts that say things like “Ask me about my Vow of Silence” — was experimenting with a couple different business ideas. Stuff like growing shiitake mushrooms, developing real estate, and even trying to build a luxury golf course. None of them really worked out.
But in the early 2000s, while printing stuff out to try to get the golf course up and running, his printer ran out of ink. Searching online for ink to replace it, he was shocked when he started looking at prices. “It just struck me... just how expensive [it was], you know, this is just a bunch of black dust,“ McCoy tells us over the phone. “There’s got to be a better way.”
A light bulb went on above his head. Actually, since he’s a monk, it was likely a lit candle. “I decided, hey, maybe we could sell these,” McCoy says, “be middlemonks.”
Turns out, it was pretty easy to buy a bunch of ink and toner for dirt-cheap by cutting out the, er, middleman. He began selling this ink and toner, first to other abbeys. As they got attention, it expanded rapidly. The monks began selling their wares online, under the name LaserMonks.
Their website (lasermonks.com, natch), launched in the summer of 2002. It’s a great relic of a different era of the internet. It vaguely resembled an old GeoCities page — it’s packed with unnecessary html frames and has a weird Rasta color combo. Their logo, presumably created in MS Paint, featured a cartoon monk emerging from a red/white lightning bolt, with glowing eyes resembling the X-Men’s Cyclops. His super power was, presumably, saving you money.
The website featured a press release, dated 9/17/2001 — notably, very shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, on the very same day the New York Stock Exchange reopened and collapsed 684 points. This was probably a weird time to start a business venture, which likely explains the long delay before the site actually went live. Anyway, the release begins (all sic):
LaserMonks…. Who are they? Robed friends of Flash Gordon or a new Star Trek episode? No, they are real monks who pray for the world and sing Gregorian Chant several hours a day. But they can save institutions, businesses, and families everywhere money – lots of money, money that can be put to much better uses.
People started calling them the Millionaire Monks.
The monks had entered the new millennium.
Partially because of their inadvertently catchy marketing gimmick, great name, and cheap prices, the business did impressively well. This came with some difficulties. Not surprisingly, monks don’t make the best business moguls. Mostly, their atypical schedules made running and growing the business difficult.
While not technically busy in a modern sense, it was quite rigid. They’d usually wake up at 4 a.m. for a long, exciting four hours of singing Gregorian chants. Add to that seven prayer sessions, doing the stations of the cross, and taking care of their Spanish hot blood horses Alejandro and Tanako. (Regarding the latter, as McCoy told PBS while petting them, “They’re a very contemplative presence in our life.”) That’s an awful lot of monking, and doesn’t leave a lot of time to run a huge corporation.
One day, two women randomly called. They were closing their own ink/toner business, and wanted to see if the LaserMonks wanted to purchase their database. Instead, the monks charmed them into traveling out and visiting their abbey. They ended up staying, and the LaserMonks added two employees. They worked from a small office on the property, with bland big box store office furniture, and decorative wall text reading Live (Simply) - Give (More) - Expect (Less). It’s hard to tell if that’s the slogan for the monk’s abbey or their business.
The business expanded further, and began to sell chocolates and their own brand of coffee (“Benevolent Blends”). They later added a barbecue sauce to their lineup, called “Burnt Sacrifice” (apparently still available), in what ironically just sounds like an awesome name for a death metal band.
Okay, here are some numbers: In its first year, LaserMonks netted $2,000; by 2008, they were raking in $4.5 million in sales. They were essentially running everything as a non-profit — 80% of their income covered expenses, while the remaining 20% was split evenly between funding the abbey and donating to charity.
People started calling them the Millionaire Monks. Imagine a Scarface-style montage, set to “Push It To The Limit,” as they count stacks of money, ship out printer ink, fly off to conferences in the small airplane that someone donated to their cause, and as McCoy accepts Fast Company’s “Champions of Innovation” award. [Aggressive whip crack.]
Out of the ashes of one weird business rose another.
Unfortunately, their business faced a series of problems, starting with the financial crisis of 2008. That, plus people gradually stopped printing stuff. By the end of the ‘00s, nobody really needed hard copies of MapQuest directions and online forms became the norm. Demand for ink and toner steadily dropped, while competition from bigger companies became fierce. So the LaserMonks and their ilk were ultimately challenged by the very technology that made it possible for them to exist in the first place. The internet giveth and taketh away.
McCoy took a sabbatical. “I was very young, with a lot of responsibility at the time,” McCoy says. “I think I kind of burned out, to use a modern term on that.” He visited Ireland to study Celtic spirituality, and returned to his hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina — aka Mayberry, as it was the inspiration for the fictional town from The Andy Griffith Show — to care for his mother. As her health declined, McCoy chose to stay, and left the monastic life.
Around 2011, the abbey closed. They sold everything they owned — furniture, farm equipment, religious paraphernalia. They put their property on the market too, including their 100-seat chapel and their 16 bedroom (!), 18k square foot (!!) MonkMansion, all for $2.6 million. The monks went their separate ways.
Out of the ashes of one weird business rose another, however briefly. Their other employees left the LaserMonks for Tucson, where they started managing a popcorn business with an order of Benedictine Nuns, called Prayerfully Popped. Despite its solid Yelp reviews (e.g.: “This is without a doubt the best popcorn I've ever had. Ever.”), it closed in 2016 due to an “unfortunate accident.” Around that same time, the Benedictine Sisters closed their monastery, and sold it to a developer.
McCoy, meanwhile, decided to open up a whiskey distillery with a friend. It’s called Mayberry Spirit Co., and has a five-star rating on TripAdvisor. He doesn’t plan on returning to the monastic life, though retains the spirituality that led him to it. “Me and the Big G have always been pretty close, prior to monastery and post-monastery.”
The LaserMonks experience taught him a number of lessons about running a business, which he’s applied to his new venture. Mostly, this means keeping things relatively small. “[I’m] trying to be much more careful and focused with expenses and not getting overwhelmed with so many details, finding help when I needed it,” McCoy explains. “That kind of thing that I had struggled with at the end of my monastic career.”
As with LaserMonks, he tries to imbue his new business venture(s) with certain positive elements from the monastic tradition. “I was doing this as something good to do, a way to help my home town, bring people in and quite literally lift their spirits while they were lifting my spirits,” McCoy says. “To create something [with] a spirit of celebration.”
Which, honestly, are pretty solid lessons, whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or you’re hawking printer ink from the back of a church.