What would you do to earn money if all you had was five dollars and two hours? I was in a meeting the other day and this topic came up. From what I understand, Tina Seelig, a professor at Stanford University, gave her class this assignment years ago, as part of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program…The students in the class were divided up into fourteen teams, each team received an envelope. They were told their task was to use what was in the envelope and create as much money as possible in a two hour time period. Once they opened the envelope the clock would start. After completing the exercise each team would then had three minutes to present the results of their project to the class. Each team found inside a single $5 bill. As head of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, Tina Seelig’s job is to guide her students as they make the difficult transition from the academic environment to the professional world—providing tangible skills and insights that will last a lifetime. The lesson mentioned above does just that. I love this type of teaching as it challenges the students to think differently. It’s real life! It defines how some immigrants show up in a strange land with only a few dollars in their pocket and are able turn it into millions. While on the flip side, some are born with all the opportunities in the world but still can’t figure it out. Unfortunately, most formal education deals with memorization as opposed to innovation. it presents problems with one right answer as opposed to real-life challenges with an endless number of viable solutions. In other words, most people are raised or conditioned in school to see the world as black and white, which unfortunately means you can miss a lot of the beauty and color or often times the areas where the biggest treasures are hidden (family, kids, friends, etc.). In my opinion, people become too focused on the obvious and miss all the real beauty and opportunities. In fact, professor Tina Seelig believes some people see the world in full Technicolor. Their eyes are wide open and the endless opportunities are always evident. When we look at their lives, we are amazed by all they accomplish, by the fascinating things they are doing; and we often wonder how we could make our lives as rich and stimulating? Seelig is not only a wildly popular and award-winning teacher but her book, “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World” became a best seller back in 2009 and is a fantastic read. To see the world more openly and with more color, Seelig believes we need to work daily on improving our imagination. People who see things as black or white seem to score much lower in the imagination category. Imagination simply being our ability to envision things that do not exist. If you can’t visualize it, then it becomes very hard to create it. The belief is that more imagination leads to greater creativity. Creativity simply being ones ability to apply imagination to address a challenge. Once you start to develop more creativity it leads to more innovation. Innovation simply being ones ability to apply creativity to generate unique solutions. In my opinion, this is why many applaud Elon Musk and at the same time others despise him. He obviously has a vivid imagination, is wildly creative, which leads to being extremely innovative. But this way of thinking is not always in-line with those who are more black and white or rigid in their thoughts. They see him as difficult and disorderly!
Lets jump back to the original challenge given to the students… $5 dollars and two hours to turn it into the most money you can. What would you do if you were given this challenge? Most people start thinking about gambling, betting someone, game of change, buying lottery tickets, etc… Again that’s the obvious, at the same time that’s what most people do in real life, and why most don’t have any money. They buy lottery tickets and go to casinos in hopes of making more money. The next most common suggestion is to set up a car wash or lemonade stand, using the five dollars to purchase the starting materials. This is a fine option for those interested in earning a few extra dollars of spending money in two hours. But what about those who find the way to move far beyond the standard responses? How did they do this? Here’s a clue: the teams that made the most money didn’t use the five dollars at all. They realized that focusing on the money actually framed the problem way too tightly. They understood that five dollars is essentially nothing and decided to reinterpret the problem more broadly: What can we do to make money if we start with absolutely nothing? They ramped up their observation skills, tapped into their talents, and unlocked their creativity to identify problems in their midst—problems they experienced or noticed others experiencing—problems they might have seen before but had never thought to solve. These problems were nagging but not necessarily at the forefront of anyone’s mind. By unearthing these problems and then working to solve them, the winning teams brought in over $600, and the average return on the five dollar investment was 4,000 percent!
So what did they do? Before you read the answers challenge yourself to think differently.
Reservation Service: One group identified a problem common in a lot of college towns—the frustratingly long lines at popular restaurants on Saturday night. The team decided to help those people who didn’t want to wait in line. They paired off and booked reservations at several restaurants. As the times for their reservations approached, they sold each reservation slot for up to twenty dollars to customers who were happy to avoid a long wait. As the evening wore on, they made several interesting observations. First, they realized that the female students were better at selling the reservations than the male students, probably because customers were more comfortable being approached by the young women. They adjusted their plan so that the male students ran around town making reservations at different restaurants while the female students sold those places in line. They also learned that the entire operation worked best at restaurants that use vibrating pagers to alert customers when their table is ready. Physically swapping pagers made customers feel as though they were receiving something tangible for their money. They were more comfortable handing over their money and pager in exchange for the new pager. This had an additional bonus—teams could then sell the newly acquired pager as the later reservation time grew nearer
- Checking Tire Pressure: Another team took an even simpler approach. They set up a stand in front of the student union where they offered to measure bicycle tire pressure for free. If the tires needed filling, they added air for one dollar. At first they thought they were taking advantage of their fellow students, who could easily go to a nearby gas station to have their tires filled. But after their first few customers, the students realized that the bicyclists were incredibly grateful. Even though the cyclists could get their tires filled for free nearby, and the task was easy for the students to perform, they soon realized that they were providing a convenient and valuable service. In fact, halfway through the two hour period, the team stopped asking for a specific payment and requested donations instead. Their income soared. They made much more when their customers were reciprocating for a free service than when asked to pay a fixed price. For this team, as well as for the team making restaurant reservations, experimenting along the way paid off. The iterative process, where small changes are made in response to customer feedback, allowed them to optimize their strategy on the fly.
- Really Getting Creative: The team that generated the greatest profit looked at the resources at their disposal through completely different lenses, and made $650. These students determined that the most valuable asset they had was neither the five dollars nor the two hours. Instead, their insight was that their most precious resource was their three-minute presentation time on Monday. They decided to sell it to a company that wanted to recruit the students in the class. The team created a three-minute “commercial” for that company and showed it to the students during the time they would have presented what they had done the prior week. This was brilliant. They recognized that they had a fabulously valuable asset—that others didn’t even notice—just waiting to be mined.
After the meeting where I first heard about this study and project, I decided I need to learn more. The details of the classroom results I found online, documented and reported directly by Professor Tina Seelig, Ph.D. on the Psychology Today website. I also wanted to make you aware that Seelig has also written a more recent and highly popular book called, “inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity”. I have ordered the book but I have not read it. Seelig says, contrary to common belief, creativity is not a gift some of us are born with. It is a skill that all of us can learn!
If you are looking to challenge your thoughts and perspectives as well as draw on Kevin’s 25 years of market and business experience, click HERE for a free — no obligation — trial of the Van Trump Report