by Seth Williams
October 3, 2014
"I’ve stood over Wesley and Ben, watching them sleeping, and thought to myself, 'This is how God feels about me.'"
I first met Casey many years ago at Miami University. I was a student at the time and Casey was visiting his sister, Ashley, who happens to be a friend of mine. I'll never forget sitting with him in the back of a smoky, grungy coffee shop called Buzz. We chatted about music and writing and dreams for the future. Buzz is no longer there, but that memory has stayed with me. Over the years, I've spent time with Casey and his wonderful family. We've eaten burgers together, shot hoops in his backyard, and even worked for the same church for a short time. I've always been blown away by Casey's gift to lead a group of people in worship. He is incredibly gifted musically. And now, he has laid his guitar down for a new season of life. Casey has found his love for business and entrepreneurship and has followed that passion through business school and into consulting. He started a book company called SlimBooks and is coming up with new ideas weekly. I love Casey's heart and the way he leads his family. It's an honor to share part of his story with you. Casey lives with his wife, Kayla, and their two boys, Wesley and Ben, in Wheaton, Illinois.
What's your favorite album of all time?
My favorite album of all time is Counting Crows' August and Everything After. The lyrics, the vocals, the simplicity of the instrumentation, and the emotion in that album are pretty great. Many road trips have had that album on repeat.
What's your favorite film of all time?
My favorite film of all time would be a tie between I Am Sam and Good Will Hunting. I Am Sam makes my heart swell every time I watch it because it reminds me of what is truly important in life – love – and it doesn’t have to be sophisticated love. Just simple, consistent, and honest. Good Will Hunting is up there because of the dialogue between Robin Williams and Matt Damon. I feel like there are a handful of scenes that you could just play over and over and learn a lot about life. And, the “it’s not your fault” scene gets me every time.
I know you're an entrepreneur at heart. What's one of the coolest ideas you've come across lately that's not your own?
There is a company in Chicago called UrbanTill (www.urbantill.com). Basically, they grow micro-greens (lettuces, cilantro, basil, etc.) in a huge indoor warehouse. Picture the biggest Lowe’s home garden section you’ve ever seen. But, they have invented a system that hydraulically raises and lowers plants into and out of the water (so there is no wasted water) and sealed the warehouse so that bugs cannot get in (don’t use pesticides). And, it’s located in the heart of Chicago, so, a chef can order basil that day, it’s cut off the vine that day, and driven straight to the chef. Talk about fresh. They are killing it. Super profitable and starting to grow fast.
What's the most important part of your life?
Kayla, my wife, and my two boys are a given. But, beyond that, I’d say my guy friends. I’ve come to realize that really good friends, the kind where you can share everything, are really rare and should be treasured. There are a lot of people that go through life without really good friends. And, it’s not necessarily something you can just “go get.” I truly feel that they are a blessing/gift from God and should be treated that way. I don’t do that perfectly, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate them more.
How does your faith in Jesus define who you are?
This has been in flux for me in the past couple years, to be honest. I was a full-time pastor for 10 years, and therefore, my faith in Jesus was a core part of my vocation. While it was still personal, it was so much of the theme of what I did every day that it was hard to separate it from my job. Now that I’m not a vocational pastor anymore, it’s been a period of re-definition for me. A period of re-discovery. I don’t have to go to church. I don’t have to be doing well spiritually. So, it has been a journey learning how to desire God even when I don’t have to. I’m getting there, but honestly, it’s been a journey.
How have your kids inspired you in new ways creatively?
I think my kids have attached much more of a “so what” to everything I do creatively. When it was just me in my little apartment, I could pursue creative endeavors just for the fun of it. I could stay up til 3am, and I could sleep in the next day. Now, when I’m working, I’m not with them. And, I feel guilty about that. Also, as the provider for my family, I feel much more responsible to think practically about ideas and decide whether or not they are worth the effort to chase them down. When I’m coming up with creative ideas, businesses, products, I go quickly to the question, “How do I turn this into action quickly and will it actually turn into something?” I literally have a business idea almost every week, so I’ve learned how to not waste my time pursuing every idea.
How have your kids helped you grow in your relationship with God?
I love them like crazy, even when they are naughty. I love them like crazy, even when they are sleeping. I’ve stood over Wesley and Ben, watching them sleeping, and thought to myself, “This is how God feels about me.” I feel such a temptation to perform for God, to make Him proud. But, I’ve realized that He is proud of me, even if I’m just laying there.
Tell me a bit about SlimBooks and how you came up with the idea.
In 2012, a traditional publisher gave me a book deal. Six months later, I turned in a painfully long manuscript. Thankfully, the publisher loved it and we started moving forward. 3 weeks later, the publisher called me and told me that they wanted to raise the price point of the book from $18 to $22, but in order to do that, I needed to add 10,000 more words to the manuscript. I asked which part of the book was incomplete, and they said "None of it. We just need the book to be thicker." Apparently, customer research has shown that people subconsciously value a book by how much it weighs and how big it is. Therefore, book publishers push authors to make the book as long as possible, resulting in watered down books that we never finish. Have you ever been halfway through a book and wondered, "Do I need to keep reading?" The answer: Probably not. We created SlimBooks as a better way to read and write books where the books are the length that writers want to write, and readers want to read.
You used to be a worship leader and are now diving headlong into the business world after recently earning your MBA. How has this transition been for you and what was it in your heart that made you want to begin a new adventure?
If you would have asked me if I was a leader or liked business when I was 20, I would have said, “Absolutely not. I’m an artist.” Then, I decided to finish my degree on weeknights at a local school in my hometown and they only offered a business degree or an education degree. I didn’t want to be a teacher, so I said, “Well, I’ll try business.” I started taking classes (finance, marketing, etc.), and absolutely loved them. My brain just worked that way. Eventually, I felt that my worldview had been somewhat limited by living in one place my whole life and only working at a church. So, I took the GMAT, applied to business school in Chicago, and got in. Business school really gives you broader perspective on how the world works, and I felt my brain exploding with ideas. Grad school for a lot of people is a chore, but for me it was an experience I looked forward to every week and every class. During school, I’ve started SlimBooks and gotten involved in a variety of projects as a strategy consultant for new ventures. I’ve realized my sweet spot is designing, setting up, and launching new ventures, and, I would have never guessed it 10 years ago. So, who knows where I’m headed!
Do you still have a passion for playing music?
I know this sounds crazy. But, no. I really don’t. I haven’t played my guitar in over a year. It’s so weird. I’m learning that everything happens in seasons. I believe there will be a season in my future where music will become an important component of my life again. But, for now, I’m on a musical hiatus.
Do you have any new ventures you're currently pursuing, or are you mainly focusing on SlimBooks and consulting?
I’m sort of in the “new venture” space in general. So, I’ve got a few things that I’m helping with at a ground level, in a variety of industries. I may tap out of them once they are launched, but we’ll see. I’m also helping a friend of mine grow and scale her organization, Supply Hope (www.supplyhope.org), which I believe is an incredible model of inspiring entrepreneurship and economic empowerment for the poor. I’ve had a theme that has been consistent in all my work, and I’ve realized that I don’t have to be the leader or the founder to get excited about an idea. I get most excited about “moving good things forward.”
If you could go back in time and have a chat with your teenage self, what would you say?
I’d challenge myself to make the most of my disposable time and money. When you are single and in school, you have SO much time on your hands (even though most of them would say they are busy – which they aren’t). I’d tell myself to be a tenacious learner. I would learn more about God, I’d learn more about philosophy and theology, I’d learn how to write code, I’d learn another language(s), I’d learn about industries I’m interested in, and I’d learn as much as I could about everything. And, for money, I’d tell myself to save as much as possible, and don’t spend money on anything that doesn’t build your future. But, not for retirement. It’d be for cash savings. I’ve learned as an entrepreneur that your financial “safety net” has a huge impact on the opportunities you are able to pursue. If I could have all the money I spent on burritos back in the day, I’d be launching three new ventures.
What's something that you used to be awful at that you've experienced a lot of growth in?
Patience. I used to be so naïve and impatient with my life. I’ve realized that you can’t force yourself into progress, it just happens naturally with time. You have to be intentional, but things happen on God’s timing and you have to trust that.
How do you see your faith play out in the work you do?
The professional path I’ve chosen comes with a lot of uncertainty about the future. Therefore, I’ve learned how to really rely and trust God in uncertainty. It’s given me peace in times where I have no logical reason to feel that way, and I think it has been used to ripple on other people in my life who are looking for the same thing.
What's your greatest fear as a father?
My greatest fear is that I’ll take a professional risk that will sink or embarrass my kids. I’m a pretty conservative person in general, so my wife would tell you that my fear is irrational and inconsistent with the way I live my life. But, I still fear it. I don’t want my boys to be embarrassed that I failed at something, and have to deal with kids at school who have opinions.
What's your greatest dream as a father?
In direct contrast to my fear, my greatest dream is that my kids would feel bold enough to do stuff that matters with their lives. Not take the conservative route. Life is short, and we spend a lot of it trying to avoid pain as opposed to pursuing adventure. I dedicated my recent book, B School to Ministry, to my boys, and I told them this: Get creative with your life. Jump out of the box. Push the edges of what is commonly accepted. There are wonderful things to discover if you look.
What in your life challenges and grows your faith the most?
Uncertainty. After spending the first 27 years of my life with a pretty stable, certain life, the last three years have been very chaotic, uncertain, and unstable. It has taught me that I’m not in control, I have limits, and I need God. I’ve also learned that uncertainty causes you to rely on what is certain, and prioritize what is important.
How do you find time to spend with God? What does that look like for you?
I spend a lot of time in my car or on the train to the city. And, recently, worship music has really been a spiritual pathway for me. Listening to worship music has brought about some pretty incredible moments with God. Running has also become a new discipline for me. I’ve started running late at night. We live on a college campus, and it’s really beautiful at night. Something about a late night run, no one around, and just shoes hitting the pavement has really connected me with God in fresh ways.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind for your children?
I want my kids to know that I was a man of integrity, loyalty, courage, and love. I’ve realized that what I do with my life will eventually fade, but who I am will last forever.
Read More Inspiring Stories