The best $240 an employer ever spent on me.

My first job in advertising paid me $21,000 a year. I wasn’t sure how I was going to eat. But I was thrilled to be a professional copywriter. I was rolling in that thin dough for three months before I surged to $22,000. I was making it drizzle. Six months later I got another bump to $24,000. I bought a used Toyota 4-Runner with 175,000 miles on it.  Then, 18 months after I started my first job, my salary climbed to $30,000. Ever since then I have felt rich. Seriously.

However, none of those salary adjustments made me any more valuable to my employer.  They spent more money on me because I was good at my job. And because they underpaid for my value from the start.

The Best Investment

But as I look back at my career, there was one investment that an employer made in me that truly made me a more valuable asset to them. In April of 2000 Cramer Krasselt sent me to a seminar in Chicago on presenting creative.  It was led by Toni Louw.  It cost $240. And it made the agency more money than the salary they paid me.

At this one day seminar I learned how to see creative work from the client’s perspective. I learned about persuasion, about pre-selling and demonstration.  I learned about storytelling, about building a case and developing logical conclusions  I learned about showmanship and being a good host to clients. I learned about how to turn a passive audience into an actively engaged audience. I was hooked.  (I also learned that I could sew a rip in my pants, in a bathroom stall, in less than 5 minutes with the sewing kit I kept in my work bag.)

The timing could not have been better.  I had three years of experience. Which was enough time to know a few things and enough experience to recognize what I had previously been doing wrong. Yet I still had the majority of my career to get it right.  I soaked up the ideas and techniques like a Shop-Vac. Presenting was already one of my favorite parts of the job. But now I had a great base of theory and technique to build on.

When I got home I typed up everything I had learned, and added 2 scoops of my own personal style. Suddenly I had a game plan and a process for evaluating client-worthy creative ideas. I now knew how to present them in an effective and entertaining way. Altough the entertainment may be more Branson than Broadway.

Within two months I had the perfect opportunity to put my new skills to use. The Ski-Doo snowmobile account went up for review. Because of my passion for snowmobiling and enthusiasm for the opportunity, I was allowed to lead the creative charge for the pitch, despite the fact that I was only 26 years old.

I poured myself into the Ski-Doo pitch. Through a combination of my personal drive, my new learnings from the seminar and great teammates, we put on quite a show. Not only did we win the account, we proceeded to pitch and win the other Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) brands too. Those included Sea Doo, Evinrude and Johnson outboard motors, CanAm ATVs and the CanAm Spyder.

Pitching and business development became core strengths of mine.  And despite my early concerns, I continued to eat regularly.

Today I own my own ad agency called The Weaponry. As I think about investments to be made in my fast growing business I am reflecting on the ROI of that $240 that were invested in me.  It grew my skills and abilities. It help win new business and grow the agency substantially. It made the agency money, which made me a much more valuable resource.

It may be more fun to spend money on cappuccino machines, murals and foosball tables.  But if you want to invest your money and enjoy a huge return, invest in growing your people (this includes yourself). Make their strengths stronger. Make their breadth broader. Give them the tools to help them realize their potential.  Because money spent growing good employees will yield a greater return than any other investment you will ever make.

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An easy way to have a game-changing creative idea tonight.

There is nothing more valuable than a great idea. Powerful ideas can make you rich. They can make you famous. They can separate you from your competitors. Heck, they can convince people to buy a pet rock. But our lives are so freakin busy that it can feel impossible to dedicate enough time to the kind of focused thinking that will land you on TechCrunch, the cover of Forbes, or the prime slot on The Home Shopping Network.

When thinking time becomes scarce there is a technique I use for nighttime ideation. The solution is so simple it is almost laughable. I can confidently say that you’re going to enjoy it more than diet and exercise combined. My ancient-Chinese-secret ideation technique is…

Go to bed 30 minutes early.

Most of us push bed time to the very last-minute. Or beyond. We either have tasks we want to accomplish before we throw in the towel on the night. Or we work so hard the rest of the day that we finally want a little time to binge watch all the shows everyone else is talking about. Suddenly, the latest surprise on The Story of Us, Stranger Things or The Real Housewives of Sandusky robs us of our sleep. Thanks a lot Andy Cohen.

But when I really need more thinking time, I go to bed early. It’s counterintuitive, I know.  But an amazing thing happens when you get your personal go-to-bed timing right. You will find that you are not so tired that you fall asleep immediately. You’ll also find that it isn’t so late that you stress about falling asleep before the alarm pounces on your head early the next morning. Instead, you are able to relax and enjoy the peace, calm and comfort of your bed. And in that state, once you get good and quiet, the ideas come out to play.

To guide your creative thinking in that relaxed, pre-sleep state, gently grab the topic you want to think on, and softly place it at the center of your mind. Then follow the inklings. They are the faint pathways that connect your central topic to new ideas, plans and partnerships.

Remarkable solutions and innovations are birthed in that quiet time if we listen.  To avoid distraction it is important to leave your phone or other digital distractions in another room. An ill-timed push notification from Groupon about a sweet deal on Naked Skydiving And Go-Karting For Four! can interrupt your flow and kill an idea in the embryonic state. Instead, keep a notebook and pen on your nightstand to capture your ideas before they escape into the darkness.

Of course it would be great if I could share an example of a real world, bed-born idea that made a major financial impact. So here it comes.

Ski-Doo snowmobiles was one of my favorite clients of all time. A problem that plagued the snowmobile industry for many years was the reverse mechanism that enables a snowmobile to go backwards. The additional feature added cost and weight to the sled. But one night, while lying in bed, one of the Ski-Doo engineers had the thought that if you simply reversed the wiring on the engine, the engine would run in reverse, as would the rest of the machine. When he rushed in to work the next day to see if that actually worked, he was delighted to find it worked exactly as he had envisioned, and thus Rotax Electronic Reverse (RER) was born. Suddenly Ski-Doo could offer a reverse feature on all of their snowmobiles without adding any additional weight or expense to the machine. This was a clear differentiator and competitive advantage that came from the bedroom. Not the boardroom.

The challenges of life and work can seem relentless. They come at us like chocolates to Lucille Ball. But game-changing ideas are out there waiting for you. To catch them tonight, you may just have to lay down, be quiet, and let them come to you.

(featured image by Andri Iskander:)