Chris Miller – Founder of The Mission Center L3C

Treat relationships as the most valuable asset your company “owns,” and constantly work to keep those relationships alive and strong, whether they have a clear and immediate ROI to your financial bottom line or not.

Chris Miller started his professional life as a community organizer in Illinois before going on to a career in entrepreneurship and academia. He launched his first startup, Yurbuds, a St. Louis-based commercial venture that was named 9th Most Promising Company in America by Forbes in 2009. He then went on to launch the internationally renowned social entrepreneurship incubator and accelerator, The Mission Center L3C, before becoming the faculty chair of the social entrepreneurship program at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to running The Mission Center L3C and its associated enterprises in the community, he now serves as the co-founder of the WashU Startup Training Lab and senior lecturer of Entrepreneurship at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

Where did the idea for The Mission Center L3C come from?

The bi-state region around St. Louis has invested heavily in an “ecosystem” of support for commercial entrepreneurs over the past decade. However, those of us who identify as social entrepreneurs — that is, innovators who not only want to do well personally, but who also want to do good in the world professionally — have largely been left out. The Mission Center L3C was created in 2010 as a support organization for the growing number of us who think capitalism is the best tool for sustainable social change.

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

I split my time among The Mission Center L3C’s offices in the CORTEX Innovation District, my hometown across the river in Illinois, and the campuses of Washington University in St. Louis and University of Missouri-St. Louis. I’m able to support as many brilliant social entrepreneurs as possible in a 90-hour workweek and have the privilege of working with committed change agents across all generations as a result.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I was fortunate enough to have “failed” my way into a community organizing gig right out of college and as a result of that incredible experience, I’ve been just as interested in supporting other people’s great ideas as I do my own. While I’ve certainly championed my fair share of ventures like The Mission Center L3C and the Missouri Community Healthcare Co-Op, I operate on the theory of change that I can have considerably more impact in the world by leading from behind and using my experiences and network to further other entrepreneurs’ visions.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The rapid rise of my own Millennial generation which, in 2015, became the largest and most diverse generation in history, the largest portion of the electorate, and the largest percentage of the workforce. This gives me great hope for the future. As long as we can continue to earn the support of the generations upon whose shoulders we stand, I think we’re well positioned as a nation to deal with the structural issues of racism and poverty, as well as the existential threat of climate change, among many others. My hope is that we’ve arrived on the global stage just in the nick of time to provide the human capital and new ideas that will be required to sustainably impact the critical economic, social, and environmental concerns of our time.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

The reliance on collaboration across sectors and generations to achieve the changes I want to see in the world.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

The worst job I ever had was my very first one out of college when I went to work for the lieutenant governor of Illinois. It was short-lived, thankfully, and I got canned for being “too aggressive” a little more than a month after moving my whole life to the state capitol. While it was far from clear at the time, in retrospect, I’ve come to the realization that this early failure was the best thing that could have happened to me. Beyond that, what was perceived as aggression by my bosses at the time was what we now describe as Millennial “passion.”

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Not a damn thing. More than anything else in my career, I value the mistakes I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned from my vast collection of personal case studies on what not to do. And while it may seem trite, I also wouldn’t do anything differently because I genuinely believe that “whether or not it’s clear to you, undoubtedly the universe is unfolding as it should.” Remember that the next time you drop yourself off the payroll for another month.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do repeatedly and recommend others do, too?

Treat relationships as the most valuable asset your company “owns,” and constantly work to keep those relationships alive and strong, whether they have a clear and immediate ROI to your financial bottom line or not.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

See No 8. More specifically, though, is that my most significant and overarching strategy in everything I do is to treat all relationships as equally valuable, even when there’s no obvious path to monetizing the connection. Even without the word limit, I cannot tell you how many times a contact I made three, four, or five years prior suddenly turns into a new client or opportunity. So there’s that, and then it’s also just what people who aren’t assholes do.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

One of the core areas of The Mission Center’s work has been in the arena of health insurance for nonprofits and the individuals they serve. As part of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, my team and I launched a new tax-exempt health insurance carrier under the assumption that the federal government would honor its commitment to provide low-interest loans to capitalize one or more per state.

Unfortunately, the only thing to actually go over the “fiscal cliff” of Jan. 1, 2013 was this funding, and we lost a number of huge contracts overnight. Hell, I even had to fire one of my best friends, so it felt like a pretty epic failure at the time. By the second quarter of that year, however, we were back on track for our highest grossing year ever. It quickly became clear that we had to overcome that valley of death by operating with the highest degree of transparency and authenticity from the outset of the new venture’s launch. I truly believe that because we placed as much importance on the means as we did the ends, the other stakeholders of that effort stood by us and continued to support us even more than they had before.

What is one business idea you’re willing to give away to our readers?

A Professional Employer Organization, or PEO, should be created. It would be designed exclusively for the 1.6 million nonprofits in the country.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What, and why?

It’s slightly more than $100, but my Amazon Echo is by far the best purchase I’ve made in the past year. While it does all kinds of amazing things and represents the future of home automation that is getting ready to explode across the country in the coming years, it’s honestly the alarm clock functionality that has most changed my life. I can set and stop alarms in the morning and during my daily nap(s) by simply yelling at “her.”

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Even though it was still the early days of the cloud revolution back here in the Midwest, we had no viable alternative as a startup without any bricks and mortar or IT infrastructure “way back” in 2009 when we were launching The Mission Center L3C, and so every aspect of our business is operated in the cloud. Dropbox, Google Apps, Cloud9 servers, QuickBooks — every part of our operations has been cloud-based since day one, and the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of this strategy has proven to be an incredible asset to the company time and time again.

What is one book you recommend our community read, and why?

Thinking in Systems” by Donella Meadows, specifically the chapter on leverage points. The issues facing my generation — whether economic, social, or environmental — require us to think big and in terms of true systemic change. While somewhat academic, Meadows provides the most brilliant overview of systems thinking that I know of and should be required reading for entrepreneurs in any industry.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

• Marc J. Lane: @marcjlane

• Ash Maurya: @ashmaurya

• Dan Pollatta: @danpollatta

• Dr. Lucy Burnholtz: @p2173

• Dr. Robert Reich: @robreich


LinkedIn: Chris Miller )
Twitter: @MissionCenter
The Mission Center L3C Website: