Week 1 is in the books, and my students took the leap of faith!
Let’s Get It On: Day 1
I had told the students before class started that on Monday to meet me in the little shopping district just off campus called Uptown Normal. Here are some pictures of their environment:
As students showed up, I gave the first one 10 $1 bills, and the next three I told were in a group with that first person. As each 5th student showed up, I began the process again. You can imagine their curiosity and anxiety when on the first day of class they have to meet away from campus, and their teacher is handing them cash with no explanation. Once all students arrived, I announced (some version of this):
“You have 35 minutes to make as much money as possible. Each group has 10 $1 bills [some actually had 15 bills and 5 members because a few stragglers showed up and I had to wing it]. Look around you – there is a CVS, there are plenty of stores, there are a wide variety of people walking around and sitting. There is a hotel and conference center. There is a hotel being constructed. There are cars everywhere. Whichever group LEGALLY makes the most money gets all the cash. I’ll see you back in the room at 2:45″
I saw mostly shock and confusion. Not a whole lot of excitement. But also not a whole lot of fear (likely because those with fear could lean on the group dynamic to cover it up and/or hide it). I walked back to my car super excited to see what they would come up with.
I was impressed that all the groups seemed to accept the challenge and at least engage with some enthusiasm (after all, there was at least $80 in the pot, plus whatever profit they made). The group that won made $27 profit. Nothing earth shattering. But profit. In 35 minutes. All other groups except one made something; one group lost 76 cents [I’m still not quite sure how that happened]. The most common strategy seemed to be buying bottled water and reselling it. Nothing shocking there. The groups that made some profit headed back to campus and sold it to college students. The group that won headed over to the Hyatt Place hotel being built and sold it to the construction workers.
Quick Lessons Learned
- The money is a distraction. Most students will immediately think of what they can buy to resell. I purposely planted or reinforced this seed by pointing out the CVS only a block away.
- Selling anything to college students is difficult if you want to make a profit. They are usually on a budget. They are usually in a hurry.
We talked about the variety of approaches to this experience. I tried to hammer home the idea that money is a distraction and that it is a bad idea to spend first and then figure out how to dig out of that hole. Instead, I introduced the idea of focusing on the potential customers. Identifying a problem they might have and figuring out how to solve it. There were plenty of individuals and plenty of businesses these students could have approached to interview and identify problems they could solve. Opportunity overlooked.
A few days after this class session I spoke with a friend of mine who related this story. Turns out she was standing on an adjacent corner from where the students started when the exercise went off. She had a $20 bill in her hand. A couple groups passed her by, but when one group caught her eye, she asked them if they were in my class. They said yes, so she showed them the $20 bill, explained she had money and wanted to know what they could do for her. Apparently, they had a very difficult time answering that question. Eventually one young woman mentioned social media, and my friend asked how many likes they could get her on Facebook and Instagram. The students floundered and didn’t get the money. How much easier could it have been?
In the end it was a fantastic exercise to introduce them to my course and to what I would be asking them to do the rest of the semester. They resoundingly said it was a good exercise and I should do it again, so I will. I was proud of the students for engaging [uncertainty is scary] and for being able to see the opportunities they missed.
Let’s Get It On: Day 2
How do I follow up that first day? With Idea Sex and Idea Math. As with most things, I don’t come up with these things, I just borrow them from others much smarter than I. In this case, these come from James Altucher, who is a genius in so very many ways.
I had each student make a list of things they loved, were passionate about. I then had them pair up and combine one from each person’s list. [Three guys got together and used three lists – referring to it as a threesome – gotta love college humor!] Most of the ideas were silly and really bad. The one I remember most was something about people paying to ice skate with a walrus. I mentioned how that was a terrible idea in so many ways, but that people might pay to ice skate with penguins (they are safe and cute) so they could work with the original nugget of an idea to arrive at a much more viable alternative. I encouraged them to write lists all the time – of things they observed, of thoughts they had about any random topic, of ideas they had. Anything, just as long as they were making lists, then they could come back to those lists and have Idea Sex anytime to keep their brain firing and to keep coming up with better and better ideas.
Next I asked one student for a food, an article of clothing, and a country [my memory is horrible – I should have taken notes – I think it was homemade macaroni and cheese, knee-high socks and Australia]
I had the students, in groups, come up with an idea (product, process, concept) that involved those three things. I should have written the ideas down [my memory is horrendous] – they were all pretty bad. One was using the sock to hold candies with Australia shapes that tasted like homemade macaroni and cheese I think. None of them stood out as anything with much potential.
I explained the concept behind addition, subtraction, multiplication and division in this context, and that each member of the group should take one operation and come up with a new version of the original idea. The ideas didn’t get much better, but brains were working.
This first week was an adventure, for the students and for me. I exposed them to uncertainty, to anxiety, to selling, to customer development, to ideation, to creativity, to frustration, to profitability, to winning. I feel good that they are excited, that they seem eager to engage and are anxious to dive in. I hope I can sustain that and continue to keep that flame burning bright.