The $5 challenge


In 2009, Stanford Business professor Teena Seeling split students into 14 teams and gave them a challenge.

Each team received $5 in ‘seed funding’. They had 5 days to plan and were encouraged to “be entrepreneurial by identifying opportunities, challenging assumptions, leveraging the limited resources they had, and by being creative.”. However, once they opened the envelope containing their $5, they only had 2 hours to maximise their return on investment.

Then, the following week, each team was to give a presentation on the project.

Here’s how it went down and what you can learn from it.

First, let’s look at the teams who lost the challenge.

Most of them tried to flip products. They bought something for $5 in a shop, sold it for $10 and repeated that ad nauseum.

Their ROI was pretty crap.

Two teams got a little more creative.

They realised the $5 was mostly a distraction, so they discarded it and came up with ways to make money in 2 hours.

The first ended up making reservations at a restaurant and selling them to people who wanted to jump the queue.

The second set up a stand in front of the student union and pumped up bicycle tires for $1.

Both teams had a better ROI.

The winning team, however, got even more creative.

They didn’t just realise the $5 was a distraction.

They also realised that there was a valuable asset hidden in the challenge:

The presentation.

This realisation led to them reaching out to local companies offering the 3-minute slot as ad space.

After some negotiation, they closed a deal for $650 with a local company hoping to recruit students in the class.

That’s an ROI of 12,900%.


So what are the lessons?


Entrepreneur and investor Sahil Bloom writes, “non-linear outcomes are only made possible by creative, non-linear thinking.”

Thinking outside the box doesn’t have to be a process of addition though. In fact, the inverse is often more effective: reduce an idea to its fundamental truths and reason up from there.

To help this process, ask yourself:

  • What are my assumptions?
  • Could they be wrong?
  • Is there something I’m not seeing?

Maybe the assets you have aren’t as valuable as you think they are.

Maybe you have assets you don’t even know you have.

Look beyond the obvious and you might chance upon an idea that changes your company’s future. As author and advertising guru, Rory Sutherland suggests, “sometimes the most illogical ideas are the best ones”.


We’re pretty biased but when it comes to creative thinking, we reckon we know a thing or two. If you want a coffee and a natter, drop us an email

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