Creativity is synonymous with business success. It’s the skill that sets an entrepreneur apart from other business wannabes. That’s why entrepreneurs can learn a lot from observing successful artists, no matter what material or medium either party might use to make their art.
I learned something game-changing about business and creativity, from the most bizarre source imaginable. It was a video of Jack White (of “The White Stripes” fame) playing with his old band The Raconteurs. He was rocking out, playing so hard that the tips of his fingers were smearing blood all over his guitar.
Actually, that alone wasn’t the business lesson. Watching the gig simply had me in awe of his rockstar abilities. The eureka moment happened when I watched Jack talk about his philosophy for making creative music, in the documentary film It Might Get Loud.
As entrepreneurs, we are often confronted with opportunities to exercise our creative mind. We get to dream up innovative solutions to unusual problems or create tangible products. Creativity is an essential part of doing game-changing business.
Most business owners have trained themselves to always look for easy solutions. There are good reasons for this.
… are all achingly hot buzzwords coined to describe the practice of making business easy and cheap. Easy and cheap go together like peas and carrots. Difficult and expensive (even if it’s only costing you precious time) are similarly paired.
When it comes to thinking creatively, the pursuit of “easy” is a mistake.
Last week I helped a client brainstorm ideas for a new product and asked them the ol’ “what would you do if you had a magic wand?” coaching question. Their first thought? They’d wave their magic wand and outsource – they’d get someone else to create the product. It’d be easier.
Many entrepreneurs get caught in this trap – asking themselves desperately: “How can this be easier?”
Easy is a good thing to focus on when you’re managing a business. It makes sense, but if you’re trying to innovate, be creative and build a business, easy is the wrong way to go.
Jack White deliberately plays an ancient guitar filled with cracks and holes. He’s owned it for years.
This guitar is so old and screwed up that it’s difficult to get a good sound out of, yet it’s his favorite guitar. He has this to say about the concept of “easy” creativity:
“Ease-of-use is the disease you have to fight, in any creative field.”
“I keep guitars where the neck is a little bent and it’s a little bit out of tune. I want to work and battle it and conquer it… and make it express what ever attitude I have at that moment. I want it to be a struggle.”
Jack believes that creativity should be a struggle and that producing something worthwhile is never going to be easy.
Knowing this, he embraces challenge openly and forces himself to work within the voluntary constraints of old, half-broken equipment. As an internationally recognized rockstar, he has access to the latest and greatest new gear… but he chooses to work hard to pull tortured blues music out of an ancient guitar.
In business, making things easy cuts cost. To innovate and do something truly worthwhile, we have to struggle.
We have to overcome challenges and operate within self imposed boundaries. Doing this is what makes a difference, since everyone else is focused on making a quick, easy buck.
Companies that limit meetings to 15 minutes, no exceptions, impose a limitation that forces creative problem solving. Solutions get found, fast.
Writing a haiku poem requires sophisticated, intelligent thought because of the 5/7/5 syllable limit. Writing freestyle, without rules, is easy. Good poetry is hard.
Tailors of bespoke suits have known this principal for years… They advertise “hand-stitched” even if machines do the job better, simply because the struggle of hand made, custom tailoring is their competitive advantage.
By seeking out challenge, looking for difficult problems to solve or deliberately creating limits and struggle (where there is none) we can build extraordinary businesses.
- 37Signals decided to build software with as few features as possible. They’ve gained a reputation for elegant, focused and user-friendly products and are miles ahead of the competition because of that decision.
- Saddleback Leather go to extraordinary lengths to create leather goods that’ll last for generations. They promote the abuse of their products (literally feeding them to crocodiles) and encourage customers to do the same.
- Chris Guillebeau publishes a blog post twice a week, every single week, without fail. While loads of bloggers publish regularly, few announce it as a rule. Imposed consistency is another form of forced “difficulty”.
- Twitter revolutionized social media by doing nothing but limiting users to 140 characters, making “micro blogging” a rule.
Avoiding rules or choosing the “easy way” would have been tempting.
Chris could cut his blog posts back to one a week and have more free time. 37Signals could include every feature their users ask for in their next software release. Saddleback could make stuff that lasts for 50 years, not 100.
It’d be easier and cheaper.
Nevertheless taking the easy-route would, at best, destroy some of the magic that these people and their businesses provide. At worst, customers would see it as a violation of the very principals the company stands for.
Jack White built an international career around his raw, untouched sound. In an era of over-produced, auto-tuned pop music, he keeps it real by releasing rock albums where you can hear the struggle that went into the music. His fans love him for it.
If we, as business owners, focus on doing things the easiest, fastest and cheapest way… we’ll build boring businesses that don’t have anything worthwhile to offer people. No one will pay attention because if it’s that easy, it’s probably been done before.
When an entrepreneur chooses to market themselves in only 140 characters or refuses to include requested (but superfluous) features in their product, they’re forcing themselves to be creative by embracing difficulty. They’re choosing a struggle, or a set of limitations, and are announcing “I will succeed within these boundaries!”
They’re making music with a busted guitar. They’re doing something that is so impressive that everyone wants to hear about it.