Lipscomb Faculty Member was an HCC Influencer.

A match made in Heaven? Sometimes it happens.

Rob Touchstone and leaders of Heritage Christian College hit it off from the start. Touchstone is director for the Center for Business as Mission at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. His business vision and experience fit the philosophy of Dr. Samuel Twumasi-Ankrah (Dr. Sam), president of Heritage Christian College in Accra, Ghana. Both men are all about entrepreneurship. Dallas-based Deon Fair, board chairman for Heritage Christian College Foundation, also believes that the teaching of entrepreneurship is critical to the role of the college in Africa.

Dr. Sam and Fair first met Touchstone in Nashville early in 2017. In a recent phone interview, Touchstone recalled that first meeting and described how the relationship quickly developed.

“I was telling them about some of what we do,” Touchstone said, describing the Lipscomb brand of entrepreneurship training as a way to help people, both locally and globally – to help them through “breaking out of whatever, if they’re in poverty or if they’re needing work or whatever… a way of lifting up out of that.”

In his classes, Touchstone focuses on lean startup principles. HCC offers a similar curriculum but with different terminology. In Ghana, the term “capital light” describes fledgling businesses launched with little capital.

“That’s what I teach,” Touchstone said. “So they were really interested in that, and, of course, in the fact that it is missional business – teaching how to use lean startup principles… potentially to create a social impact. That’s what they were interested in.”

Touchstone teaches a class called “Entrepreneur’s Intro to Business” and he also teaches a social entrepreneurship class. That day in Nashville, he showed Deon and Dr. Sam some of the books and materials he uses in the classroom. In response they asked Touchstone if he would be willing to do a weeklong teleconference with HCC faculty.

“So that’s what we arranged, and in July of last year, that’s what we did,” Touchstone said. “What Deon invited me to do was to teach their faculty so that they could teach those principles back [to the students].”

And it all seems to be working for HCC and its Center for Entrepreneurship, Philanthropy, and Ethics (CEPE). Students put the principles to work to win an international competition this year, the Global Social Innovation Challenge in San Diego. The HCC team won with Project Charcoal – a concept to make charcoal from human waste.

It’s the sort of capital light / lean startup project Touchstone believes in and teaches how to take from concept to reality.

“You build a minimum viable product and then you test it on the market to see if there is a problem worth solving and if there are actually customers willing to pay money for it,” he said. “You build a solution, then you try to measure the viability of it. Then you learn from that, and then you keep building.”

And it doesn’t hurt to win a global competition early in the scheme of things.

Touchstone was asked to elaborate on the term “iteration,” a word that is sometimes heard in entrepreneurship circles, and one that generally applies to the process of developing the product.

“Iteration is basically a process of continuing to make something better, but it is also a process of learning before you start spending lots of time and money,” Touchstone said, warming to the subject of his expertise. “The reason why I like it so much, especially when I teach globally, is because most people are starting with limited resources.… I actually think this is a good business principle, whether you have a million dollars in your pocket or a few dollars. It really works either way.”

Not just an academic, Touchstone himself has been a successful entrepreneur – not only when he was collecting and reselling golf balls from a Georgia golf course in the days of his youth but also as the founder of The Well Coffee House – a chain with five locations in Nashville and one in Indiana.

The story of The Well parallels Touchstone’s transition from youth minister to business teacher. In his words:

“The first one opened in 2012.… I had been teaching Bible, while I was a youth minister, at Lipscomb. I had been teaching some Bible classes on the side and also working on a Master’s in Divinity at Lipscomb.… I wrote the vision for The Well in one of my classes. So I still was not really well versed in business.… While I was teaching this Bible class, I went back to talk about The Well, and the students always wanted to talk about that outside of class.… I won’t go into the whole story, but that led to Lipscomb’s College of Business inviting me into a position here to create a center for business as mission and then to become a full-fledged college and business faculty member, which I am now.”

The slogan of The Well Coffee House is “Where Coffee Changes Lives.”

Thumbnail explanations on The Well website explain how it happens – how buying a latte at The Well can help someone on the other side of the globe have a cup of clean water.

The Well started with a group of friends who wanted to make a difference in the world by putting our faith and love to action.…

… We were shocked as we discovered how many people around the world were dying every day because they didn’t have access to the basic necessity of clean water.

But people across the world weren’t the only ones hurting. The more we opened our eyes, the more we realized that people in our own neighborhoods were longing for community, hope, and love.

The Well is our way to love the world and meet those needs.

… When you a buy cup of coffee from us, you are contributing more than just a few dollars; you’re writing a chapter of hope into the story of the world. Ultimately, you’re filling The Well, so that we can pour hope and love into the lives of people in desperate need.

Mixing business with philanthropy is Touchstone’s style. The Well is an example of social entrepreneurship – the name of the course he teaches at Lipscomb. In fact, the word “social” has a deeper and broader meaning for him when lean startups come into play in places where poverty and other social ills prevail. It’s a complex subject.

“Because we’re all doing this with a Christian worldview, I don’t think you ever totally separate out any spirituality from it. But from a design standpoint, from a business design standpoint, lean thinking can apply to just traditional business, but it’s a very good process or approach for social entrepreneurship. So creating a business is going to have an impact, and the reason for that is, well, again it assumes that you are starting with basic limitation, like limited resources, but in the same way that entrepreneurship is customer-centric, lean entrepreneurship is customer-centric. The same principle applies when you’re trying to solve a problem with that business. So now it’s problem-centric. … It just adds another layer so now you are not only solving the needs of a potential customer, you are solving a problem, a social issue or poverty issue or something. So you are creating multiple solutions. You are creating a solution to a problem, and then you are also trying to build a solution to a social problem. It adds a layer.”

Project Charcoal, still under development, fits the scenario. “Brilliant” is Touchstone’s word for the concept.

“I didn’t get to work with the students,” Touchstone said. “I got to work with the faculty, and I can’t say definitively what principles from what I taught trickled down to those students. I really don’t want to take any credit for that at all. But I’d love to think that some of what was taught might’ve directly influenced that.”

The Well is a good example of a many-layered undertaking that proves the value of more than one business principle, including “genchi gembutsu,” an approach that’s popular in Japan, thanks especially to Toyota. “Get out of the building” is what it means, Touchstone said. “Or ‘Go see for yourself.’”

Touchstone likes genchi gembutsu because it is a customer-centric approach. “You’re not building a product or service in a vacuum but really listening to your target market, and the only way to actually listen to them is going out and talking to them,” he said.

It’s a term that has a double meaning for Touchstone when he thinks about how The Well began:

“I wrote the vision for The Well as a way to create space, you know, pastorally … to create space to get out of the church building. I had no idea what ‘genchi gembutsu’ was back then, but I had this vision to get out of the church building and integrate more fully with people who were never going to walk into a church building. Anyway, I created this coffee shop.”

A mistake that many entrepreneurs make is not “getting out of the building” and not following a customer-centric plan, Touchstone said. “Aspiring entrepreneurs tend to fall too in love with their ideas:  ‘I’ve come up with something great, I’m gonna go and build it.’ They spend a lot of money and time on it, and then it’s possible that their idea is not as great as they thought it was, or it’s possible that it might be a good idea but people aren’t going to pay money for it. What iteration does, it starts with a problem, an issue, or a need or even a trend. We usually call that ‘PINT’ for short … problem, issue, need, or trend.”

The next step is to look at the segment of the population facing the problem, experiencing the need or caught in the trend.

“You try to build a solution,” Touchstone said. “And then from there, you test that solution.”

Nothing can be assumed.

“You do a series of customer interviews,” Touchstone explained. “You’re trying to achieve a product market fit, but the only way to do that is to listen to your potential customers and try to build something that suits them and then try to figure out, are they willing to pay money for it? Again, the only way to know that is to go out, conduct customer interviews.”

Touchstone would like to add one more layer of meaning to “genchi gembutsu” – not to add a chapter to his entrepreneurship syllabus at Lipscomb or to launch one more business idea. His made-in-Heaven relationship with HCC has been a long-distance romance so far. He hopes to “get out of the building” to travel to Ghana to see HCC and the Center for Entrepreneurship, Philanthropy, and Ethics in Accra for himself.

“That’s my hope, to be able to make the trip,” Touchstone said.

Maybe someday soon. Touchstone has a way of making things happen.

by Hanaba Munn Welch