When you walk through a store like Target or Sam’s Club, how often do you wonder what it took to make that product you are about to buy? Do you ever wonder who is benefiting from the $14.99 you are about to spend? I believe this is the future of the conscious consumer and the conscious employee. I am so excited to have you learn from our guests about how he’s created a company whose mission statement is, “We exist to give generously,” where not only 10% of their profits go to charity but every day, they are also creating value.
Mike Beckham is the CEO and Cofounder of a consumer products company called Simple Modern. I feel almost disingenuous or wrong to say that what they do is make neat aluminum drinkware because what they do with the money is what’s so amazing. That’s what we are going to talk about in this episode.
Mike has a philosophy of generosity. He believes that his employees, the people who consume products, as well as the charities they donate to, all of these entities are part of the chain and everyone deserves generosity. Generosity also goes beyond money. It’s their time and even more of what they do with their employees. They create an environment where people feel appreciated. Appreciation and affirmation are free, and that’s what their culture is like.
Mike is also a serial entrepreneur who has collectively, with all the businesses he’s run over the years, generated over $1 billion in revenue. We are also going to see how he’s done this while also making money. I feel so lucky to chat with him about how he thinks about his employees, how he has turned the corner, and what he does now for his employees to create an environment where they feel appreciated and cared for. Mike Beckham, welcome to the show.
Kendra, thanks for having me on the show.
Tell us more about your background. Where did you begin as an entrepreneur?
I don’t think any entrepreneur has a “typical story,” but mine is very atypical. I went to school as a Finance major and had a pretty major amount of life changed in college, and a lot of people do, where I was wrestling with the bigger questions of, “What do I want to be doing with my life and career?” I met my wife and got married a weekend after I graduated from college. Originally, I thought about doing a couple of different things like going and getting a PhD, so I could teach, or maybe going into the business world and the marketplace with finance. Through an unexpected series of events, I said yes to a one-year internship with a nonprofit ministry group.
Part of the reason was that my wife had another year of her Master’s degree that she was going to be finishing up at OU, where we had gone to school. I thought, “This will allow me to stay close to campus. We will be newlyweds. This would be great.” I thought after a year of that, I would be going in and doing something in finance. What ended up happening was that 1 year turned into 2 and turned into 10.
I spent my entire twenties working on people, developing people, and pouring into people, and not a lot of time working on spreadsheets. It was a transformational experience for me. One of the things I was caught off guard by was how much I enjoyed it and how I felt it drew out some of the parts of me that I liked the most.You can't lead people very well if you're constantly at the mercy of wanting to be liked by everybody. Click To Tweet
By the time I got to 30, it was like, “I guess I’m not going to do anything in the business world. That’s fine. I’m comfortable in my own skin.” Right around that time, a series of events led to me helping my brother start a company that did and, for about six months, took off. It did way better than anybody could have ever guessed. I was helping on a part-time basis with this company. In thirteen months, it went from founding to $1 million in daily revenue. I was the oldest person associated with the company. I was not full-time. I was 30, and it was crazy. The whole situation was almost like a Hollywood movie.
I’m working on two full-time jobs in the nonprofit world and this for-profit company that’s going crazy. We then got pregnant with our first child, my son Carter, and realized, “I can’t be excellent at all of these things simultaneously. I need to make some choices.” That’s when my wife and I, after a series of months, decided, “It seems like the path is for me to go full-time into the business world.”
For a few years, I was an entrepreneur with my brother. We started a series of businesses. Some of them were amazing, and some of them weren’t but I learned a ton. By about 2015, I felt like I either wanted to go back into the nonprofit world or I probably wanted to start another business where I was leading it and setting the culture.
A couple of guys I had worked with approached me and said, “Would you be interested in starting something with us on the side?” I thought, “Sure.” I didn’t think it was going to be some big organization. It seemed like these are great people that I would love to do a project with. That were the humble beginnings of Simple Modern.
If you look at the arc of my career, if you said, “At 43 or 42, you want to be the CEO of a company that’s at a significant scale, what’s the path you should take as a 22-year-old?” no one would have ever told you to take the path that I took. For me, that has been part of the secret recipe of why it’s worked. I spent the first 8 or 9 years after college understanding myself, what I felt was important, understanding other people, and how to develop, pour into, and care for other people.
That foundation translated exceptionally well to entrepreneurship. We can overestimate the tactics and strategy side of the business and underestimate how much of it is cooperating, working, motivating, organizing, and leading other people. That’s what business is at its core. When you learn to care, develop, and lead other people, the strategy and the tactic stuff is a lot easier to pick up than the other way around. You will hear people say this all the time, “I thought I was starting a business to work on business problems. What I really was doing was I was starting a business to work on people problems all the time,” because it is.
It’s so much of running a company. It isn’t, “What is our price need to be here? What is our go-to-market strategy you need to be over here?” but can you build a team of people that are pulling together in the same direction and are motivated by a common vision? That’s my story. I came from the nonprofit world and felt a little bit thrust into the for-profit world. Even now, sometimes, I will tell people that I feel a little bit like a nonprofit refugee in a for-profit world. There are certainly times when I will communicate thought processes that will get me weird looks in the room.
I wear that as a badge of honor that I try to think differently about what it looks like to lead this company and what a for-profit company can look like. It has been one of our secrets to recruiting and retaining an exceptional team. There’s a real hunger and appetite out there for organizations that are thinking a lot more holistically than just, “How do we make money?” It’s how we positively impact our community and the lives of the people in the business, our customers, and all these other things in the process. That’s a little bit of how I got here.
When you were in the nonprofit world, how would you have described yourself as a leader in those days? I have this philosophy, “If I’m not embarrassed by who I was years ago, then I’m not growing.” When you think back on those early days of your leadership life, what were you like as a leader? How have you changed?
I had a lot of leadership experiences at the end of high school and into college. One of the first formative ones for me was I was the President of my fraternity. That is a difficult leadership position. Especially if you are trying to lead with integrity in that world, there are always people angry with you because they want to do what they want to do.You can't impart what you don't possess. Click To Tweet
That leadership experience taught me that you couldn’t lead people very well if you were constantly at the mercy of wanting to be liked by everybody. It’s interesting. Sometimes people can lean on that as a crutch like, “It doesn’t matter what people think about me. Who cares?” What they mean by that is, “I’m not receptive to valid feedback where I need to get better.”
There is a reality that anytime you step into leadership, there are going to be people that are going to disagree with the way you lead. One of the first fundamental steps as a leader is having enough conviction in what you stand for that you are okay with people disagreeing with that. You can’t cast any compelling vision unless it’s in some ways different from what most people are doing or the general consensus of society.
Being in the nonprofit world, there are a couple of things that have impacted my leadership style. One is that leadership is service. It’s a concept I took strongly from my time there. There’s this great analogy that Jesus gives in the Bible that the world thinks like a triangle and that you start at the bottom of the pyramid or the triangle. You try and work your way up so that when you get to the top of the pyramid, everybody below serves you, and you are trying to climb the ladder.
That’s the way that most of the world thinks but there’s an alternative way to think about it, which is an upside-down pyramid where the leader is the person that serves the most people and has the most responsibility on their shoulders. It’s the exact inversion. I take that seriously. As the organization expands, my role is I feel more responsibility. I feel like I have more families and people that are looking to me to lead with integrity and make good decisions. I feel that responsibility in a good way. Another thing is that being in the nonprofit world helped me align my internal compass of what matters. It’s very difficult to be an effective leader if you don’t have a compelling vision of what life is about and what your purpose is.
When you have that, people are naturally attracted to that and gravitate towards that but you can’t impart what you don’t possess. For me, it was this cultivating period where I solidified, “This is what matters in life.” It’s relationships like people. Here are things that don’t matter, how much stuff I have and all that stuff. When I went into leading in a business context, although it’s a little bit different, a lot of those principles set me up to be a much more effective leader. The other thing is this is a little bit more of a skill that I developed but so much of leading in business sales. Even organizationally, leadership is about selling other people on and persuading other people towards a vision.
Working in the ministry world and nonprofit world is a lot about casting a vision for something and persuading people. I would never have guessed how much that translates where that same skillset can help you be effective when you are explaining to Walmart or Target why they want to carry your product or when you are talking to a potential team member about why joining your team is the best decision for them and their family. Those were some of the takeaways. It’s probably a much longer list. Ironically, I would specifically call out that becoming pretty dispassionate about money was a big milestone for me and has helped me to be a much better business person.
The way to run the most profitable business is, I don’t think, first and foremost, being all consumed and focused on profit, which that’s a counterintuitive take. For me, to be able to step into a company where I view it as, “I’m not trying to run this company to get resources so I can buy things because that will make me happy,” which I don’t. It’s because I have that perspective I’m able to, in a lot of ways, be a lot more objective about the resources that the company has, what are the best ways to invest, how we think about things like compensation, and how we think about things like giving as a company.
We are able to make better decisions. This is true, not just for me but the type of people that the company recruits where the goal is not like, “How do I get as much out of this piggy bank as I can for myself so I can go and spend it on these things over here?” Several of these are pretty counter-cultural ideas but they have also been attractive to people that are looking for something different. This is, from what you’ve told me, the heart of your show. It is this view of there is a better way to structure things. There’s a better way to think about our relationship with work and the cultures that we work in. The performance of our company, hopefully, is a testimony to that.
Many of the founders I speak to and coach primarily, not so many of them on this show but they have more of this mindset of almost an us versus them with their employees. Aside from what you’ve said already, what would be other sources to get them out of that mindset? You are clearly profitable. We could say that from one angle, you can do both. You can be about your employees and be profitable. What else? What are the other things that, for you and I, are the right thing to do?
Business is naturally pretty transactional. I don’t know that you can ever fully extract that element from the business. The antonym of that is relational. The more that we can lean towards relational as opposed to transactional in the way that we think about business, the more effective we will be at not having us versus them mentalities and not viewing things as zero-sum where, “For me to win my employees, that another competitor has to lose.”There's no way you can get what you want out of life without having a great team around you. Click To Tweet
My view of the company is that a lot of what I get compensated from the company is not the financial stuff. It’s the quality of life I get from working at the company. One of the things that I talk with people a lot about is that what everybody’s after is the quality of life. They might not use those words but that’s what they want. The reason why we tend to gravitate toward money is that it seems like, “If I had enough money, I could find a way to convert that into the quality of life.” The reality is you can, sometimes to some extent but the conversion rate is not as good as you think.
Even if you have a bunch of money, if other things aren’t present, you can’t convert it into a quality of life. What leads to quality of life is that you feel like you are learning and growing. You are entrusted and empowered to do your job. You are surrounded by people you are connected with relationally and that you matter to them, and they matter to you. You are working on something that has a positive impact on the larger world around you.
There are a number of these things. This isn’t me saying this. This research has proven that this is true about us. The way that I’ve approached the company is that we are trying to create an environment where all of those things are true. If the company knows well, everybody should financially be able to benefit from the company but if that’s the only way that I am creating a quality of life for the people that work here, then I’m not doing a very good job of creating a compelling culture to be a part of.
When you take this more holistic approach toward quality of life, what you do is create an environment where you realize, “For all of us to get what we want and get the quality of life, we’ve got to be bonded together, moving towards the same goal, and treating and challenging each other in certain ways.” It’s interesting because, as you said, I don’t ever feel that us versus them mentality.
If anything, I can feel it sometimes. I can feel it about my company versus the outside forces where it’s like, “I need to stand up for these people.” When we are having a discussion with an outside partner, and they are trying to ask for something unfair for the company, I am willing to go to that for the company, not just for myself but for everybody I represent. It’s a pretty unhealthy culture when you start to feel like you are at odds with the people you are working with. It should lead to questions like, “What needs to change on the team where that’s not the case?”
I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on how you fix all these things when they start to go off the rails but I’ve become at least decently versed in, “When it’s going right, what does it looks like.” It’s not a nice little wrap of the bow of an answer. In general, my view is there’s no way I can get out of life what I want without having a great team around me. Hopefully, what you do is you get into a situation where as you serve and lay down your rights for the people around you, they did the same thing, and everybody flourishes. That takes a tremendous amount of trust for that to happen. Low-trust environments are pretty toxic for us in our quality of life.
I’ve always had an existential crisis with profit in terms of what it does for business when it’s not me who’s making this business happen. It’s this whole team. Every time we have profitability aside from the savings account, I want to give it away and give it back to my employees. You have that same philosophy and have even gone beyond that. You have incredibly generous contributions that you make. Do you want to share a little bit of what you do both for your employees as well as for charities?
One of the things we do is that at a company level, we’ve said, “We are going to give 10% at least of our profit every year away.” In 2021, it was a little over $1 million. We are hopeful that it can grow into several million dollars a year over the next couple of years. We divide that into two ways. We have corporate giving. We have what we call a giving summit. We have a whole bunch of nonprofits come in and present, “Here’s what we are working on,” and the team votes.
We have a committee that is giving committee. They make allocations. We will allocate about 70% of our giving that way, and then about 30% of our giving, every single employee gets an equal share of that 30% and is able to give it to an organization of their choice. Our only ask is, “Don’t pick something highly political. We are just trying to help people here and not draw attention to our political beliefs or whatever.” That’s one of the ways that we do it.
We have a value generosity. One of the things I talk about when I unpack this for the company or new hires is that we have this very broad and holistic view of generosity, where generosity should mean that you cut some checks. If you are not putting your money behind it, is it really generosity? If that’s your only view of generosity, that’s a pretty small view of generosity. There are so many different ways that we have an opportunity to be generous.Money alone can't fix anything. That money should empower the right people to speak into people's lives, develop relationships, and create structures. That's actually what makes a difference. Click To Tweet
We define it as being open-handed with everything we’ve got. For me, what does that look like? I have been entrusted with a pretty significant amount of resources. It’s being open-handed with that and being willing to give financially. Also, I have been fortunate. I’ve gotten to lead some companies that have done well. I have been privileged to be in some of the situations I have been in and learned a lot. What do I do with that knowledge? How can I be generous with that knowledge? A couple of ways that look like for me is I teach up at the University of Oklahoma. I teach Entrepreneurship. I try to spend a significant amount of time within the company teaching and mentoring.
Everybody at our company has things that they can teach to their coworkers. We are constantly asking that question, “How can you be generous with the skills and knowledge you have?” Another way we talk about generosity is, are we generous when it comes to affirmation, appreciation, and recognition? It doesn’t cost us anything, and yet it can be transformational to other people.
When we say, “I see you and this area that you’ve worked on and grown so much. I see that thing that you did that was special. I want you to know how much I appreciate you.” that’s a form of generosity. A lot of times, that’s more powerful than money. One of the counterintuitive secrets I learned from being in the nonprofit world is much of the time, the gap is not resources. The gap is the right people who deploy those resources into.
The reason why some of these issues that we have been fighting for decades haven’t been eradicated isn’t that there isn’t a lot more money than ever before flowing into these causes but because the money alone can’t fix anything. That money put in the hands of people empowering the right people to go and speak into people’s lives, develop relationships, and create structures is what makes a difference.
The way that I would summarize it is everybody has the opportunity to lead in generosity in some area of their life. It doesn’t matter how you are situated. You have the ability to do that. The challenge is how you can personally lead in generosity. Not everybody can write a nine-figure check, and that’s okay. With the way you are situated now, what does it look like to lead in generosity?
I try and challenge everybody at the company to do that. The way that I try and challenge myself is I need to not lean on my charitable giving as a crutch that says I’ve checked the box if I’m being generous. It’s easy for some people that are financially wealthy to do that and say, “If I write X amount of checks, then I’m a generous person. I can check that box.” You can have a pretty non-generous attitude and still write big checks. It doesn’t require very much of me emotionally to do that.
Whereas me getting involved in somebody else’s life and coaching them through a difficult period or taking the time to teach someone else something that I’ve learned without expecting anything in return, those things might be bigger asks. That’s probably the main thing that I would say to anybody reading this is that generosity is a general openhandedness with everything you have in your life. It’s your time, talent, money, position, experience, and how you can use those for the benefit of other people.
How does this benefit you? What is life like for you now? Is it stressful? Do you feel like you have that quality of life? I work hard and work 35 to 40 hours a week. I figure that if I’m working more than that, I’m not enabling my team. I’m pretty protective of that. What about you? What does it do for you?
It’s funny. I was at a gathering of some very successful businessmen. One of them was like, “Mike, you are always the most relaxed person in the group. How is this possible?” I said, “I have a heavy sedative in my water bottle.” The reality is that when you do the hard work of establishing a culture where these things are true and empowering other leaders pouring into people, it does get quite a bit less stressful.
I don’t experience a lot of stress on a day-to-day basis. There are certain periods where I will but in general, I’m abnormal in terms of how little stress. I’m not holding onto the business too tightly. One of the concepts that I share with people is, “There’s a 100% chance that someday I won’t work for Simple Modern. There’s 100% chance that someday I won’t have the shares anymore.”Generosity is a general openhandedness with everything you have in your life. Your time, your talent, your money, position, experience – you use those for the benefit of other people. Click To Tweet
It is going away. It’s just a question of when. It may be that the company goes out of existence in five years. It may be that I die, and they go on to my kids or somebody else. It’s 100% that it will not be in my name in 50 years. There’s no doubt. The only question is, “What is the process of the time that I’m in the company? What’s that look like? What does the process of how I exit look like?” Those are the only unknowns. There’s something pretty freeing about that because once you realize that, you can stop holding on to things so tightly because you realize, “Inevitably, this won’t be something that I possess.”
That perspective helps my stress level where I want to lead well. I want the company to do well. I want to be ambitious and build something great. If the company were to go away, it would not destroy who I am as a person. Being able to live in that tension is incredibly healthy for doing great things. The more you get fearful, the harder it is to perform at your best. Fear tends to make us more zero-sum, and some of the things you were talking about, which is us versus them mentalities, and some of this other stuff. Fear is at the root of a lot of those negative behavioral loops that we can get into. For me, there’s not a lot of day-to-day stress.
The way that I think about work-life balance is interesting. I would not say I’m a hard and fast number of hours guy. It’s funny. I was reading historically in the United States about the number of hours people worked in a week. We are only about a couple of decades away from the average person who worked 90 or 100 hours in a week. It’s because it’s a farm, and that’s what you do. That’s how it goes. I will be honest. I bet that a lot of those people were quite a bit happier than people are in our society. There is this desire to find what the magic number is. What I have found is it’s less about the number of hours I’m working and more about hours and principles being true.
Some principles that keep my quality of life high are my priorities in order. If I’m a better CEO than I am a father or a dad, or even a friend, then something has gone wrong. That doesn’t mean every week I spend more time with my kids and wife than I do at work. In fact, for a lot of weeks, that probably won’t be the case but it means in terms of priorities that are being expressed in my daily and weekly life, I understand what my priorities are, and that’s expressed over time.
There are weeks where I will have, “I’ve got a big sales meeting. This is going to be a week where I probably work a good number of hours.” What I try to be is I try to take a high-intensity interval training perspective, where there are periods where I ramp way up on the work side or the family side. I then have to cycle down the next week so that I can cycle up on something else.
It’s less about the total number of hours worked are my priorities in order with the cycles I’m going through. The other principles are helpful for me and my meaningful connecting with people in all the different spheres of my life, like at work, at home, or in meaningful relationships happening, “Am I growing? Am I challenged? Am I learning? Am I empowering and equipping others to lead?” Another word you could use for this is multiplying.
Every week, my hope is that I’m multiplying myself. There were a lot of things when we started the company. I was probably 1 of the best 2 or 3 people in the company being able to do this or that particular function. The goal over time is that I’m coaching, equipping, and empowering other people so that there is this growing bench of elite, capable leaders and that I’m increasingly expendable in many areas of the business.
The more expendable I become in the day-to-day operations of the business, the more I’m able to lean into coaching and empowering other people. As you said, that leaves room for other leaders. It leaves room for me to pioneer new areas of the business. These are some of the things that I try and focus on that help keep my stress level down and my level of satisfaction and quality of life high.
Thank you so much, Mike. What a fantastic conversation. I’m so grateful for what you are doing. I will be on the lookout now for your products everywhere I go and be very active in supporting you because I love it. I hope all of our readers do that as well. Thank you again for your time. I will check back in with you in a couple of months and see how you are doing and keep in touch with you. Thank you for joining me on How I Turned the Corner. Best of luck to you for the rest of the year.
Thanks, Kendra. Thanks for having me.
About Mike Beckham
Mike Beckham is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Simple Modern, a leading producer of premium drinkware and lifestyle products. Founded in 2015 and based in Oklahoma, Simple Modern currently generates a nine-figure annual revenue and is committed to generosity, donating at least 10% of annual profits to nonprofit organizations. Under Mike’s leadership, the company has grown into a category leader for Amazon, Target, and Sam’s Club. In addition, Simple Modern will be launching in Walmart stores nationwide in spring 2022.
Prior to founding Simple Modern, Mike spent over a decade working for the worldwide Christian ministry CRU. Equipped with a deep understanding of the nonprofit sector, Mike transitioned into the business world and helped found and operate several e-commerce businesses, which cumulatively generated more than $1 billion in revenue. Mike graduated with a degree from the University of Oklahoma Price College of Business, where he currently serves as the senior entrepreneur-in-residence.