By Mark Schaefer
Early in my career, I learned an extraordinary lesson about creativity: Money kills it.
Here’s my story.
We were all out of a job
As a young man I worked in PR for a Fortune 100 company and was shipped out to become the communications manager at a massive manufacturing facility in Texas. The plant was old and through no fault of their own (an unfavorable power contract) the management team was told it would no longer be receiving investment money from the home office.
Essentially, the plant had been put on “death row.” Without money for modernization it would spiral into obsolescence month by month and eventually shut down for good.
But there were thousands of hard-working people who needed this plant to feed their families and those good jobs were hard to come by.
So they got to work. Everyone at that plant became obsessed with a mission to survive and find a way to compete against the bigger and more modern plants. Every employee became involved in saving the plant by finding ways to get more out of less.
Some creative engineers made a radical proposal: Permanently shut down the oldest part of the plant (it was going to be shut down eventually any way) and harvest parts from those facilities to increase the output and energy efficiency of the remaining production lines.
In essence, they proposed scrapping half of a 50-year-old plant to allow the facility to survive in a smaller new form. And … it worked! By the end of the second year, new investment money was pouring into the plant, securing jobs for decades to come.
Money is the bane of creativity
I was eventually promoted and transferred to another location to become the PR manager for the “queen of the fleet” — my company’s largest and most profitable plant. The management team there was swimming in cash and I felt sick over the tremendous waste I observed. They just threw money at every problem and the excess was disgusting.
I was so grateful for that early experience in Texas that showed me the close connection between desperation and creativity. Today, I suppose the fashionable term for this is “growth hacking,” but the fact is, bootstrapping a business for growth — even an existing business — has always required determination and resourcefulness over money.
Do yourself a favor and cut your budget
I’ve never met a marketing manager who said “I have too much money. My budget is far too high!”
No matter what the budget, we always find a way to spend it all. But instead of dreaming of more money, what if you dreamed of less?
What would you do differently if you had to accomplish the same goals with even less money? What if you had a “Texas Scenario” — your company and livelihood was threatened if you didn’t find radical new solutions?
I have a personal reason for bringing this up now. I have become complacent with my own business. When the money is coming in strong, I tend to take the easy way out and throw money at solutions.
But then I started exploring some free or low-cost online alternatives for certain work problems and I felt embarrassed that I had fallen into the money trap. An influx of money had literally shut down my creative juices.
Increase creativity with this exercise
Here is a thought process that can help you get back into a healthier “bootstrap mode” for your business, no matter what the size.
- Look at your cost of goods sold and pick one major line item. An example of a problem statement might be: “We want to improve the productivity of our Facebook ad spend.”
- Break the problem into components. In this case, it might be the cost of ads, the performance of the ads, the labor and testing that goes into the ads, the ad creative treatment.
- Don’t try to solve world hunger. Focus on just one of these components for improvement. Maybe the one you believe has the most potential for cost-savings?
- In preparation for a brainstorming meeting, look for articles online that might provide some inspiration or low-hanging fruit.
- Brainstorm solutions, but what you really need is “brainstorming plus.” Don’t just surround yourself with employees who are close to the problem. Bring in industry experts, outsiders, people who can look at something with childlike wonder and question everything. (Here is an amazing creativity technique I use).
A note on this last point … when I worked in new product development, I would bring in as many diverse thinkers as I could for our brainstorming sessions. One breakthrough idea for a new technology came from a very non-technical “soccer mom.” It resulted in a patent for the company!
A starvation mindset
I think it’s important to adopt this “starvation” mindset when approaching the problem. What if we had no money? What if I would lose my job if I didn’t figure this out? Describe this scenario to those helping you with the problem. You’ll develop more stretch goals and solutions if there is no safety net.
Also, this doesn’t have to be just about money. Google recently challenged filmmakers to tell a story in six-seconds. In this case the constraint was time, not money.
Any way, this has been on my mind and I thought perhaps you and your business could benefit from my story. Have you had a similar experience with money and creativity?
Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.
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