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Turning good works into good business

Screen shot from home page of lasermonks.com

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

AMY SCOTT: It's been said . . . a few times . . . that necessity is the mother of invention. When your bank account runs low, you brainstorm. Some people even pray. One group of entrepreneurs did both. And they hit it big with two words. Laser . . . Monks.

No, it's not a Christian Star Wars spin off. It's a fairly successful Web business run by Cistercian monks in Wisconsin. The monks developed a business reselling ink and toner cartridges for printers at a discount. They pay off their bills and the rest goes to charitable causes around the world.

Sarah Caniglia wrote a book about her experiences helping the laser monks run their website. Sarah...how did this all get started?

SARAH CANIGLIA: About five years ago, Father Bernard McCoy, who is the prior of the abbey, needed a toner cartridge for his printer. And he went online to look for what he calls "black powder" because that's basically what it is. He realized at that point that, if a toner cartridge was expensive for his monastery, think of all the other nonprofit groups and churches and schools and businesses that were overpaying for these products. And he came up with this business -- LaserMonks -- and that's how it all began. It's actually sort of ... we call it divine printervention.

SCOTT: So, in your book you talk about the rule of St. Benedict. First of all, who was St. Benedict and how does this rule apply to business?

CANIGLIA: St. Benedict is a gentleman who came up with a rule for monastic living. He talks about ora et labora, balancing prayer and work. And we try to ... we try to use the rule in a business way, sort of in layman's terms. And we treat all of our customers with the utmost care and respect and hospitality.

SCOTT: Well, you tell one story in the book about a woman who called complaining that one of your ink cartridges was stuck in her printer. And, I guess it was unclear that this was even one of your cartridges, but you have to admit your response to his woman was pretty unusual.

CANIGLIA: You know, not that long ago -- about a year or so ago -- a woman called in. She was beside herself. She was very irate. She had purchased cartridges, I found by looking at her order history, about two years previously. And she was complaining that our cartridges totally ruined her printer. Well, number one, I had gleaned from the conversation that she had purchased other cartridges from other companies in that two years. But I also knew that, trying to think about what St. Benedict would do in this case, we wanted to solve the woman's problem. And so what I did while we were on the phone, I went online to a printer website. I found her printer. And I actually found an upgraded model of that printer. And at the same time we were talking, I purchased the printer for her. I had it shipped overnight at no charge.

SCOTT: So, how much did that printer cost you?

CANIGLIA: About $200. A very small price to pay to make someone happy and -- remember this, too ... It's not only a win-win for the people thato are in need and for our business, but it's also great marketing.

SCOTT: So, what kind of response have you had from customers?

CANIGLIA: We've had a wonderful, overwhelming response. And part of this, I think, is that, because we work for monks, innately people trust us. We've had people that have called in that have wanted to pray with us before they place the order. We have a customer -- and his name is God -- and that's what's on his credit card, and he's been ordering from us. And at first we didn't believe it, but that's truly his name. And what other companies get customers called God? So...

SCOTT: Well, I was going to ask... Are most of your customers religious? I assume God is.

CANIGLIA: I would think God is ... Um, you know, that I really don't know. We like to say we sell nondenominational ink. So that we're selling to all sorts of people. Not just Catholics. Not just Catholic schools. But we sell to all sorts of businesses, corporate businesses, small businesses, many nonprofits, many, many schools. So it's pretty much across the board.

SCOTT: Well, we've seen recently a proliferation of socially conscious businesses. Are customers the ones pushing for this?

CANIGLIA: I think people are ready to turn back to civic responsibility. But I also think you want to train -- what we have wanted to do is -- train our customer base so that they expect to purchase from companies where they're purchasing with a purpose. We're training our customers -- little by little -- to expect that in all the products and services that they buy.

SCOTT: Sarah Caniglia is a founder of Monk Helper Marketing and co-author of "Laser Monks: The Business Story 900 Years in the Making." Sarah, thanks for talking with us today.

CANIGLIA: Thank you, very much. Many blessings and happy holiday to you.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.
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