About fifty percent of new businesses in the United States fail within five years. And, only a couple of months ago, I thought that two of my students’ social businesses were going to fail in their first five days. I had anticipated that many students would freeze up or become anxious when assigned to trade up from a paperclip toward a long-lasting positive impact on others. Figuring that I would be confronted with the typical questions that students usually ask at the start of any project—How are we supposed to…? Can you give some examples of…? How would you…? and so on—I hadn’t adequately prepared myself for situations in which they may have traded a bit too hastily.
Project Play’s itemized trades for Week One reads as follows:
If you’ve been reading my previous reflections, then you’ll know that the opportunity cost of producing the PDS logo paperclips was very high for me. So, even while I had already overvalued them at $1.50, I needed my students to assuage my guilt and perhaps to help me rationalize those costs by trading for something that far exceeded expectations. Of course, this means that I was relying on the ability of inexperienced ninth-grade students to take responsibility for my emotions and sense of accomplishment. As with any risky venture, when I look back on launching this project, it’s hard to imagine what I was thinking.
You’ll have noticed that Project Play traded their paperclip for a “Santa Torso Mug,” whose fair market value (FMV) they estimated at $8.00. You may have also noticed that they traded rather quickly, having made their trade on January 27th, only four days after the start of this adventure. While four days is not all that quick of a turnaround, it’s somewhat faster than I had expected it to be for the first trade, since most individual students are great procrastinators and groups of students have an especially difficult time making decisions efficiently together.
The following day, Crackerbox, Inc. traded their paperclip for a “Sticky Note kit,” which they valued at $4.99:
The word “kit” makes this thing sound much cooler than it actually was. It was a variety pack of sticky notes that, at a school like ours, people just have lying around. In fact, even at a time when sticky notes seem to be consumed more rapidly than any other resource, I may have enough to last for the rest of my life.
So, here we have it. Two trades that made me nervous. One paperclip traded for a “Santa Torso Mug,” another one traded for a “Sticky Note kit.” I wasn’t disappointed about the fact that these paperclips had been traded away or about the estimated FMV of either of these companies’ new items. What scared me was that I thought that each might have been their last trade of the semester, and we still had over 13 weeks to go! I mean, how many sticky notes are just lying around schools? Who could possibly want to trade anything for them? These are not the sort of coveted resources that teachers label with their names and room numbers as they do with staplers and tape dispensers. And, who in the world wants a used Santa mug in late January?!
I was pretty sure that this huge risk that I decided to take on a bartering project was about to be sunk—just the first casualty in what would soon become the death of my teaching career. I’d be relegated to that vague memory that preempts or fills in awkward pauses, “Hey, do you guys remember Jesse that used to teach here? What ever happened to that guy?” Then all of my future-former colleagues would reinforce why risk-free teaching is best and have fun at my expense, one-upping each other with descriptions of absurd and denigrating scenarios in which I might now likely be found. I had to do something, if only to preserve the ability to be present for jokes made at my expense. More importantly, though, I believed too deeply in the possibilities that my students could create, and I wanted to see how this story might end.
So, I did what I always do. I bet even more heavily on my students. In eighteen years of coaching and teaching, it’s the one thing that never fails, but it’s a lesson that is either lost or ignored by well-intentioned teachers across the country. Whenever an issue arises, our “teacher instinct” tells us that we—the teachers—must do more, which often translates into making things too easy and bailing students out of difficult situations. Trusting in students to work their way through problems seems counter-intuitive in the teaching profession, but there are fewer better lessons and almost no more untapped potential. I just needed to trust in what I already knew: When in doubt, double-down on the students.
Fortunately for me, it was around this time that the members of FEI came to me to ask whether they could store their books in my classroom. Their experience helped me to make some valuable realizations. First, it was possible to trade up for Good. Second, the fact that other companies were finding more rapid success reaffirmed that this was a project worth pursuing. The third, most important, and scariest realization, though, was that this thing was already out of my hands, beyond my control, and rolling fast, whether I was able to keep up or not. Pick your metaphor—a fast-moving train, a boulder rolling down a hill, an avalanche, or whatever—I wasn’t going to get in front and try to halt progress. It was time to jump in and enjoy the ride.
So, when one of the members of Project Play asked me, “What happens if our group trades for something that nobody wants?” I was both confident and nervous about putting the question back to him.
“You mean that used Santa mug you traded for?” I asked. If you know me, you know that I can’t resist an opportunity to give my students (and pretty much anyone else) some grief before getting down to the real conversation.
“Yeah. What if nobody wants it? What are we supposed to do?” he asked.
“You’ve got to figure something out,” I said. “The good thing is, you’ve got another week or so before your next trade is due. But, you do have to make a trade each week, so there are three potential consequences for not trading, each of which is pretty disappointing. First, you’ll get a zero for the week. Second, you’ll lose the opportunity to move closer to your company’s goals. Most importantly, though, you’ll be letting down those people whose lives you’ve set out to positively impact. Momentary failure we can deal with, but you can’t give up on trying to do good for others, no matter what you have in your hands right now.”
“But, what if we can’t make a trade?”
“Listen,” I said, “you just traded a paperclip for a Santa mug, right?”
“Yeah, but who’s going to want a Santa mug?” he said.
“It doesn’t matter. Who wants a paperclip? I mean, you can get a paperclip anywhere, can’t you? I have a bucket full of them right now. I may never need to buy another paperclip again, and I’ll bet that whoever gave you that Santa mug for yours didn’t need one either,” I said. “So why did this person trade with you?”
“I don’t know. Because we asked him to?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Asking always helps. But, what did you talk about when you finally got him to agree?”
“Well, we just talked about this project and how we have to trade up for a sustainable good for other people. That’s when he said he’d see what he had to trade with us,” he said.
“Did he say anything else?” I said.
“No. He just asked a bunch of questions about what we were trying to ultimately trade for and how it would benefit other people. But we haven’t really figured that out yet. We gave him a few ideas that we’re thinking about, and he said to let him know when we knew what we were doing and maybe he’d trade with us again.”
“So, why did he trade with you even though he doesn’t know what you’re doing?” I asked.
“I guess because he liked our ideas?”
“What about your ideas?”
“That we’re trying to do something good?” he said.
“I think you’re right,” I said. “People like to feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. But they also don’t like to give up too much in order to have that feeling. Think about it. People get asked for money all the time. We do it here at school. We ask for money for the Annual Fund, hold bake sales for clubs—which means that parents have to shell out money for the ingredients or store-bought baked goods, and all too often, we’re left with a table full of wasted cookies and brownies that no one bought, and all for a modest return—and many other fundraisers. What you’re asking people to do is very different.”
“How so?” he asked.
“Well, you’re not asking anyone for money or even an in-kind donation. What you’re doing is offering people something that they might like better than some other thing. So, they walk away not only with something that they see as more valuable than what they gave you, but they also get to feel good about having contributed to something that’s bigger than themselves,” I said.
“Think about it,” I said. “In a normal economic transaction, each person gives up something that they’re willing and able to give up in exchange for something else that they would rather have than the thing they gave up. If they’re using money, one is usually the buyer and the other is the seller. The buyer gives up money, the seller gives up some good or service, and both feel like they’ve gained as a result of that transaction. This is a typical ‘win-win’ scenario. The same thing is happening when you make a trade. It’s just that you and your trading partners are both buyer and seller. You were willing to give up your paperclip for a Santa mug and Señor Barron was willing to give up his Santa mug for your paperclip. You both came away with something that is ‘better’ for you than what you had before.
“But, there’s something even bigger happening,” I said, “and that’s where you want to focus your attention. In addition to your typical ‘win-win’ scenario, you each get to feel good about the intentions behind the transaction. And, even bigger than that, you’re going to create a long-lasting positive impact for others 13 weeks from now. That’s three more ‘wins’ that happen each time you make a trade—the normal ‘win-win,’ the good feeling you get from working for others, the good feeling your trading partners get from their ‘contribution,’ and the sustainable good that you create at the end. Everyone wins along the way.”
“Okay, but how do I get rid of this Santa mug?” he asked, bringing me back around to the point.
“You can’t think of it as ‘getting rid’ of anything,” I said. “You have to think of it as bringing people in to your story. It’s not your assets that matter. It’s the story that compels people to become a part of it. If you can give your potential trading partners a sense of where you’re headed, how you’re going to get there, and let them know how easy it is to join in, people will find a way to become a part of it. Think of it as an invitation: There’s a great story here. It’s easy to join. Come with us.”
Project Play went on to trade their Santa mug for a pair of used Nike Free 5.0 sneakers, which I was also convinced they would never trade away. By the end of Week 14, they had traded up for assets worth approximately $560, which will benefit Freedom School scholars not only this summer, but for the rest of their lives.
Crackerbox, Inc. traded their sticky notes for a $6.00 notebook, and ultimately accumulated nearly $150 in assets for the Red Hill School in South Africa, which one of Providence Day School’s clubs has been partnering with for a few years now.
Along the way, I believe that each of these student businesses discovered the power of a Good story.