Build a napkin sketch culture because the cost of failure at your start-up is paid in lost creativity

First a story/humblebrag that provides some context:
Wednesday I spent the day with the group of designers that lead global innovation for NIKE. As you can imagine, my sneakerhead self was in heaven. Very meta to wear the AirMax ’95 and talk to a designer about how that iconic shoe inspired design direction at AND 1 — and then realize that I am talking to the guy who designed the AirMax ’95. This was a life moment for me, but is not the point of this post.

We visited Betaworks, Birchbox, Warby Parker and Makerbot and also spent some time with the Techstars NYC team. Thanks to everyone, it was a great day.
Now to the point: Do you think in terms of minimums or in terms of demand of at least one? At your start-up, do you evaluate ideas at the idea stage or is one person believing a new feature or message will resonate enough to generate a test?

At Makerbot, Bre asked the NIKE team what their minimums are for a shoe to go into production. They could not reveal an exact number but at AND 1 our minimum was 15,000 pairs — at this quantity we could spread the cost of production across all the shoes and keep unit prices reasonable. His point was this minimum quantity forced everyone to edit their ideas. It meant we could not “try stuff” very easily and we would only spend effort on products that would appeal to at least 15,000 people rather than at least one person.

The costs of production had a real impact on our creative process.
Bre believes that by lowering the cost of testing a creative effort to zero people will try more things — and discover the brilliance that comes when you solve for one, not a minimum. I agree with him and think it extends beyond the world of physical objects and into the culture of your company.

The costs of thinking in terms of minimums are not just measured in dollars, but also in your cultural approach to experimentation and failure.
If you design physical products and you have a Makerbot on your desk, you can print the objects you design, look at them and throw them away without showing anyone for a total cost of about twenty five cents. This removes a ton of friction in the creative process and lets people try the crazy stuff that usually doesn’t work, but when it hits, hits homeruns.

In any creative process I love to see a napkin sketch culture where anyone can easily create an example of their idea, test it and make changes based on what they learned – or throw it away.

In a culture where ideas take shape as a “napkin sketch” or quick test, the creator is less emotionally attached, there is very little ego and collaboration is more welcome/effective. There are lots of tools out there to help reduce the tangible costs of trying crazy stuff in terms of time and money — and in the digital world you can build your own testing frameworks etc.

No matter what world you operate in and what shape your product takes, the creative output of your team will go way up if the leadership of the company maniacally focuses on fostering the napkin sketch culture and reducing the cultural costs of trying things to zero.

if you don’t know, here is the AirMAX ’95