Jonathan Keller '05 and Spencer Howell '05 Find Their Calling In An Unlikely Space
It was Friday, February 18th, 2011. Minnesota was about to receive a record-breaking, weekend snowstorm and, unbeknownst to them, Minnehaha grads Jonathan Keller (’05) and Spencer Howell (’05) were on course for a collision with an idea that would shift the trajectory of their careers.
Earlier that day one of Keller’s mentors introduced him to a company the mentor invested in. “That night I came home and basically said, I think I found us a billion-dollar idea,” Keller says.
The Fateful Weekend
At that time, Keller lived in the basement of the house that Howell and his wife owned. A close friend and classmate from Princeton was visiting for the weekend when Keller shared his idea with Howell and his wife.
Over the following days, as visibility dropped to less than ¼ mile and the largest February snowstorm since 1891 pummeled the Twin Cities, Keller, Howell, and friend Sean Rubin set up whiteboards and drew out a business plan. Two months later, in April, they started the company that would become Life Floor. By August 15th they had left their previous jobs to pursue a career with Life Floor full time and had raised enough capital to purchase rights to the product.
“It was a natural outflowing of what we had been doing with each other for years,” Keller says, referring to the strategy games he and Howell started playing as freshmen at MA and kept up with into their adulthood. “There is no more complex strategy game…than starting a business.”
More Than a Start-Up
Today the company employs 27 people and works with markets in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Australia and of course North America. With around 1,500 installments to date across thirty countries, manufacturing happens in China and South Dakota. From cruise ships to waterparks, splash pads to fitness centers, that “billion-dollar idea” is an award-winning, slip-resistant, soft flooring material for aquatic industries.
To attempt both a start up and a manufacturing company at the same time (as 24-year-olds!) was no small venture. “When we were going through the initial investment raising, people told us that we were crazy,” Howell laughs. “They were absolutely right. I don’t think I would recommend it!”
While they thought they were purchasing a market-ready product, Howell says that they soon realized “it was very much a prototype.”
“We had to redo the manufacturing process, the installation process, the sales process, the marketing process…basically everything around it…really what we bought was an idea, and everything had to be redone. In some cases, we had to redo it multiple times.”
Climbing the steps of their early 1900’s brick office building in Northeast Minneapolis, it’s unlikely you would anticipate the reach of this company. What you would experience almost immediately, however, is the casual warmth exuded by their team members.
“We’ve done a lot to create a business where people want to come to work, where people love working, and…they can improve people’s lives and be proud of the work that they do,” explains Keller.
Business As Mission
Both men agree that Minnehaha Academy played a role in developing the mindset behind their corporate ethos; from their leadership experiences at MA to the impact of the overall culture:
“Some of the best examples of models of that were the teachers at Minnehaha: people who were passionate about their work and yet able to joke around about it,” says Keller.
Also consistent with their MA upbringing, they see their business as their ministry.
“One of our values as a company is people…it applies to how we treat our co-workers, how we treat our customers, our vendors. Ultimately, business for Jonathan and myself is about building the kingdom of heaven,” Howell explains. “It’s laid out very clearly in scripture: love God, love people. And we have an incredible opportunity to do that through business.”
Howell says that God called him into business his first day of economics at MA. At Wheaton, he learned how business can be a Christian calling, with an incredible opportunity to glorify God through work.
Every week the two pray for their employees, two by two. As members of C12 (a network of Christian CEOs and executives working together to increase company performance and integrate faith and business) they see themselves as stewards of a business God has entrusted into their hands.
“We’re not shy to share the gospel with people as it becomes obvious that [they] are looking to hear,” shares Keller, “but we also have the opportunity to minister to people in all stages of life: people who have kids, people who have divorces, people who have sicknesses, people who have relatives die…there’s opportunities for us to show up to weddings, to funerals, to hospital beds, to all of that kind of stuff.”
Nurturing the Passions of Others
Much more than a business venture, Keller and Howell hold an almost pastoral role at Life Floor as they look for opportunities to empower employees to excel.
“What we’ve enjoyed doing is finding ways where people can live out their passion through what they’re good at,” says Howell. “Most of the people we hire, before they work for us, have no idea that aquatic surfacing is exciting. We take a passion for problem solving or a passion for serving people or a passion for working with a high caliber group of people and we’re directing that towards making the best aquatic surfacing in the world.”