How did Dallas' Fellowship church become America's fifth largest church in less than 15 years?
CTO Terry Storch has the answer: information technology investments designed to attract a new kind of churchgoer that other churches were ignoring.
Who said IT doesn't matter? Certainly not the people running this church.
Every weekend 18,000 to 19,000 people walk through the doors. Thousands more watch on the church's TV or radio shows.
Brian Bailey, Internet technology manager, heard I was in town and invited me over to see the secrets behind this church's massive success. Hey, I'm a technology evangelist and I wanted to see how the professionals do it
Even before I got in, I could see this church was something different. The only thing visible on the side of one of their two huge buildings, from the freeway, is the church's URL. Even in Silicon Valley I haven't seen that approach taken on a church sign. Lesson one: make it easy for everyone to learn about you -- on their terms.
Coming in the doors I noticed something else: plasma screens everywhere. I felt like I was in a rock concert, or a sports event.
That's on purpose, Bailey told me. The church knows it's competing against video games, rock concerts, mass media like ESPN, and sporting events, he said.
When the church started, they decided to appeal to a new generation of chuch goers who feel uncomfortable in the traditional churches most of us attend. So, they invested in video, audio, computers, multimedia, and making the end-to-end church experience better than their competitors. "Our services are a lot like attending a concert," Bailey told me -- he handed me some DVDs so I could check it out for myself. Lesson two: make it easy to experience your product's special attributes.
You'll see this investment in all areas, from the time you walk into the church and are registered by one of the volunteers manning 50 computer stations. Plus, massive investments in audio, lighting, video technology -- this church has an all-digital sound system that is better than many rock shows have. Lesson three: to get word-of-mouth advertising you need to be remarkable.
If you are bringing kids, the volunteer will guide you to the right room (and, will print out a name tag and a receipt that guarantees that only you will be able to take a child out of the classroom).
They custom designed the system (yes, it's a multi-tier .NET app written in C# and backed by SQL Server) to be extremely efficient, even in a noisy attrium with thousands of people talking "we only need the last four digits of your phone number," Storch said. Why a phone number? They found that was easier to understand than asking someone to spell their name. The screens are touch-screen and a volunteer can be taught the basics in minutes. Funny enough, though it sounds like it treats visitors like a number, the end result is that each person gets paid attention to and has individual attention that they couldn't get in such a large church without IT investments. Lesson four: use IT to efficiently get close to your customers and take care of their needs.
The atrium, by the way, doesn't look like your traditional church. A baseball or football fan would feel right at home here. In the middle is circular information desk surrounded by eight plasma screens. "The minute the service starts we switch four of them to the service," Storch said. The rest of the time there's a set of information screens that play (different ones on each screen). All high-definition. Lesson five: if you want to be better, make sure you're better from the first minutes of someone's experience.
Speaking of HD, this church was the first in the world to film all of its services in high-definition TV format. They worked with Sony on their HDTV system and, Storch says they learned so much that now the church is consulted on HDTV projects around the world. Lesson six: if you want to be seen as bleeding edge, invest to be bleeding edge and do so throughout your company.
The church's store also uses plasma screens throughout the store to display information and to set the mood. Of course there's WiFi available in the attrium and other parts of the church (not in the main worship hall, though. "We haven't yet pushed the edge there," Storch admits, but says they are looking into it). He said they invested in WiFi because they wanted to give church members a way to hang out at the church during the week and be able to stay in touch with work and family. Lesson seven: extend the usefulness of your plant.
Other IT investments they've made? A sizeable fiber-optic network that was designed to take the HDTV video load, not to mention the church's Web traffic, and other needs (there's computers in nearly every room I toured, including the children's play areas). Plus, they designed the network for future growth -- the church is now working on building satellite campuses that will share video feeds. To do that, they needed to make sure their network would never go down and have a good backbone to allow for future growth. Every system has redundancy, too (there are two digital sound boards, for instance, in case one goes down). Imagine what would happen if the computer system went down on a Sunday with 5,000 people arriving for the next service and trying to get their kids into the right classroom. Lesson eight: design your systems so they never go down and can expand for future growth.
Several years ago, the church almost went with a database back end from Oracle, but switched to Microsoft several years ago because of Microsoft's special non-profit pricing, which saved the church tens of thousands of dollars, Storch said. Plus, they liked the quality, performance, and productivity that they got with Visual Studio and .NET. "We're extremely happy with Microsoft and .NET," Bailey said. How happy? Well, one of their staff members is 15-year-old James Reggio -- he's been programming for more than five years and is working on multimedia applications for the church's TV studio. Amazing kid. I asked him "so, are you the next Bill Gates?" Answer: he has bigger goals. He says that .NET lets him get a lot more done for the church than other programming environments.
While most of the computers at this church are running Windows, there are a couple of Macs (their radio show engineer was editing on a Mac when I was given a tour), most of the video is running on a Windows front end, but the back end is an SGI set of computers, along with a stack of computers running Linux that do the hard-core video rendering. "Why did you use Linux for that?" I asked. Storch answered that most the bleeding-edge video rendering apps were designed for Linux. Lesson nine: don't be religious about technology, choose what gets the job done best for the least amount of money and staff time.
By the way, now the church is selling their software that they wrote to run their church. Named Fellowship One, it looks to become as successful in helping churches run themselves as the church itself is. Lesson 10: when you become successful, bottle up what got you there and sell it to others.
I asked why he went with Windows for their network architecture (Exchange runs their email, Active Directory keeps track of domain, .NET apps do nearly everything from logging their cash, to signing volunteers in. Microsoft Great Plains and SBS keep track of the business). He said they choose Windows because most of their congregants know Windows, and there's a good pool of Windows developers and IT support people to help out too and because there's one company to deal with for support needs.
The next time someone tells me that IT doesn't matter, I'm gonna take them to church. After all, isn't that what an evangelist should do?
Update: Brian blogged about my visit too.
Sharepoint team: This could be the feature that really lets you break out and take over the Enterprise Knowledge Management Space. Kunal Das is the guy who did it (and the technology that lets me do my experimental link blog).
I can't wait to get back to work and try this out. It's going to revolutionize how I share information with my team and co-workers.
CRN: Microsoft: the new IBM.
One thing that caught my eye in that article is that the author quoted someone saying that pushback on the marketing of our products isn't allowed anymore. That's TOTALLY untrue. At a recent offsite I stood up in front of hundreds of people -- including many executives and people who've been at Microsoft for more than 10 years -- and questioned our marketing. Harshly.
And I do so in front of all of you here too. How many teams have RSS feeds? Almost none. Unacceptable.
Everytime I meet normal people (translation: people who aren't in the computer business, but who still buy computers) I ask them "name one new feature in Windows XP or Office 2003." I haven't had a correct answer yet. Unacceptable.
You still can't get a good demo of a Tablet PC at most computer stores. Unacceptable.
Most people associate personal video recorders with Tivo and have never seen a Windows Media Center. Unacceptable.
Most people I ask about console gaming systems can't name one thing that makes the Xbox better than PS/2 (and I haven't had one yet that was able to explain what Xbox Live is -- unless they already own it). Unacceptable.
Look at all of our Enterprise Servers (Commerce Server, Live Communications Server, etc). How many IT guys have had a good demo of those recently? Heck, I work at Microsoft and don't know that much about that line. Unacceptable. (That reminds me that I need to do homework in this area, and get up to date on our 64-bit OS too).
Should I continue? I don't know of a single product we've done lately that's been a breakout marketing success (OneNote? Small Business Server?).
As to the other points: "there is a paranoia that if you haven't been with the company 10 years, you better prove you can play with the big boys."
That's easy: start a weblog. You can tell execs what they are doing wrong and, so far, they've listened to me and the other 600+ webloggers here at Microsoft (how many bloggers does IBM have? They have six times more employees).
"Microsoft execs spend an inordinate amount of time detailing their curriculum vitaes at events.
My wife and I used to plan events with tons of Microsoft speakers and I've never seen anyone spend more than five seconds detailing this. I'm not sure where this is coming from.
"They're bureaucratic, they're repeating themselves, and they all think they're geniuses,"
Arrogance, it'll be the downfall of all of us. Thanks for the reminder.
"Does he not remember this is exactly how SQL Server started out not all that long ago?"
You don't even need to go back that far. Just look at how Google got its start. Remember the arrogance of search engine executives? "The world doesn't need a better search engine." Yeah, right.
Big ideas start small. I keep coming back to instant messaging. That started with 40 users back in November of 1996. How many now use IM?
eBay started in 1995 and on its first day open didn't have a single visitor. Think about that one for a minute.
If Microsoft has forgotten that big ideas start small (heck, how much smaller could you get than "a computer for every person"), then we deserve to be called IBM.