Embracing Your Creativity in Uncertain Times

Every entrepreneur with a new product or service has to navigate through uncertainty. It's truer now than ever.

learn more about Stephen Key

By Stephen Key

Klaus Vedfelt | Getty Images

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

With every product and every service, there are so many unknowns.

Will people purchase my product or service?

Is it the right time to launch?

Do I have the experience to take this to market?

Do I have enough money to launch this business?

Is the market ready for this product or service?

Every entrepreneur with a new product or service has to navigate through uncertainty. It's truer now than ever.

Timing is important, but no one ever truly knows when the right time is.

Will you have enough money? In most situations, no. Will you be able to find the financing you need? Many times, no.

With every product and every service, there are so many unknowns. Which is another way of saying, there's always risk.

Related: To Get Through COVID-19, Entrepreneurs Need to Embrace These 2 Truths

As a lifelong entrepreneur who has licensed products and built businesses in different industries, I know the feeling well. But one instance comes to mind in particular.

Many years ago, a good friend visited my office to ask me if I could design some new guitar picks.

I thought, Is he for real? I didn't know anything about guitar picks. Sure, yes, I liked products. But given the chance, why would anyone choose that business specifically? Guitar picks were pieces of plastic that sold for pennies. And I knew nothing about the music industry.

His timing was good, though. One of my inventions had recently stopped producing royalties for me, my wife wasn't working, and we had just moved into a new house. So truthfully, my back was up against the wall. I had some extra time on my hands, and it wasn't clear how I was going to pay our mortgage.

In times like these, you have to trust yourself. Your best creative work can happen in uncertainty.

Given the circumstances, my attitude was: "Sure, why not?" That's the right attitude to have when it's time to get creative.

So, I jumped right in and began designing our first line of guitar picks. Guitars made me think of rock 'n' roll, which was sexy. Bingo, I thought: Women in bikinis. Guitar picks were curvy, like bodies. (Looking back, I cringe.)

But, as it turns out, my initial instincts were completely off. These picks didn't sell at all. When I placed a display with samples in a few local music stores, no one bought them.

Every successful entrepreneur is familiar with failure, having received more than a few rejections. And sure enough, this was one of mine.

I realized that I hadn't studied the marketplace. At the time, I was 50 years old. What did I know about youth culture? I needed to study the social trends of a younger audience. So I went down to my local mall in Modesto, California, and walked into Hot Topic. I saw skulls everywhere! And that's when inspiration hit.

I was going to design a new guitar pick in the shape of a skull. I even came up with a great name: The Grave Picker.

When I looked into how guitar picks were packaged, I discovered they were often sold in jumble, stored behind the counter in a tackle box. I realized I could stand out by packaging my product differently too.

Basically, guitar picks weren't lifestyle. They were utilitarian.

If I could design uniquely shaped picks that appealed to the lifestyles of different consumers, my market would be much larger than just guitar players. I would be able to sell picks to music fans.

That hunch bore out. In less than four years, we grew Hot Picks, our company, into one of the largest sellers of guitar picks in the world. Walmart, 7-Eleven and music stores everywhere ended up selling our picks.

Related: Every Era Brings Challenges. If You Don't Forget Your 'Thing,' You Will Prevail.

To land retailers that didn't normally even sell picks, we had to overcome uncertainty. I remember walking into my local 7-Eleven and asking if I could try to sell my picks there by leaving a display on the counter over the weekend. The manager told me he didn't think they were going to sell, but he agreed to let me try. By Sunday, the picks were gone — they had sold out!

We marketed our picks in novel ways too. At the time, the social media platform Myspace was just becoming popular, and we took full advantage of it by sponsoring garage bands with free merch and free advertising. In time, their fans became our army of fans.

Taking a chance on yourself pays off, especially when your back is up against the wall. This is what I've learned about harnessing creativity through uncertainty.

1. There's power in observation. Learning from what you can observe around you is key. You may think you have a good idea, but you should never rely on an assumption. What are consumers actually doing?

2. To minimize risk, test your hunches on a small scale first. We were able to produce a small run of our first designs. When they failed to sell, we lost a little bit of money, but not much. That made going back to the drawing board to come up with a different set of designs easy.

3. Think differently. Simply changing how guitar picks were designed allowed us to sell to a much larger market. Stores that normally didn't carry picks sold multiple styles of our designs.

4. Pick the right partner. While I knew nothing about the music business the day my friend walked in the door, he was a musician who had owned two music stores. He knew distributors and the trade shows, which helped us tremendously. (Crucially, he knew how to collect money from accounts that were late.) Pick your partners carefully. If you don't have firsthand knowledge of an industry, find and partner with someone you trust who does.

5. Be unafraid to break the mold. You have to take a chance on your creativity. Not having firsthand experience was actually an asset for me in this situation. I was able to think about guitar picks differently because I didn't play guitar. I let myself be creative and have fun.

I've never forgotten the times when my back was up against the wall, rent was due and I had to try something new. That's why, through feast or famine, my work ethic never wavers. Every entrepreneur launches a product in an uncertain time. That's what makes us entrepreneurs.

Stephen Key

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Co-Founder of inventRight; Author of One Simple Idea Series

Stephen Key is an inventor, IP strategist, author, speaker and co-founder of inventRight, LLC, a Glenbrook, Nevada-based company that helps inventors design, patent and license their ideas for new products.

Related Topics

Editor's Pick

Everyone Wants to Get Close to Their Favorite Artist. Here's the Technology Making It a Reality — But Better.
The Highest-Paid, Highest-Profile People in Every Field Know This Communication Strategy
After Early Rejection From Publishers, This Author Self-Published Her Book and Sold More Than 500,000 Copies. Here's How She Did It.
Having Trouble Speaking Up in Meetings? Try This Strategy.
He Names Brands for Amazon, Meta and Forever 21, and Says This Is the Big Blank Space in the Naming Game
Business News

These Are the Most and Least Affordable Places to Retire in The U.S.

The Northeast and West Coast are the least affordable, while areas in the Mountain State region tend to be ideal for retirees on a budget.

Thought Leaders

The Collapse of Credit Suisse: A Cautionary Tale of Resistance to Hybrid Work

This cautionary tale serves as a reminder for business leaders to adapt to the changing world of work and prioritize their workforce's needs and preferences.

Data & Recovery

If You Have a Business, You Have Passwords to Manage

How a password management system is crucial for entrepreneurs.

Business Solutions

Learn to Build a ChatGPT Bot for Only $30

If you want to see what AI can do for your business, grab this course bundle today.

Business News

I Live on a Cruise Ship for Half of the Year. Look Inside My 336-Square-Foot Cabin with Wraparound Balcony.

I live on a cruise ship with my husband, who works on it, for six months out of the year. Life at "home" can be tight. Here's what it's really like living on a cruise ship.

Business News

Meta Employees Interrogate Mark Zuckerberg in Town Hall Meeting

The CEO fielded tough questions from rattled staffers at an all-hands meeting.