Working Smart and Working Hard Is Not Enough. You Need To Be Creative

I used to think that creating a good income outside of getting a traditional job was easy. And that anyone who put in enough time and effort would make it.

All of my friends who have quit (or never got) jobs and decided to do their own thing have succeeded. Every single one. And I personally have managed to create profitable businesses in a few completely unrelated fields: sporting goods, blogging, gambling, coffee, finance.

It’s one of the reasons I started this blog. If only all these people who are much more intelligent than me but are stuck working in some horrendous cubicle could see how easy it is they’d jump ship too.

But for the last year I have been traveling the world and actively seeking out people who have made that move. I expected to bump into lots of millionaires, making a killing from their internet-era businesses. But the reality was very different. Most people were working insane hours ‘hustling’ and are barely scraping by.

I’m still trying to get my head round it. It’s not that they don’t have enough information – they all follow the same blogs and podcasts as me. And it’s not that they aren’t working hard enough – almost without exception they are working harder than me.

We’ve all heard the quote:

Work smart not hard

Well these people are working both hard and smart.

I have been thinking about this for a while, and I think I’ve finally worked out where they are going wrong.

They are treating starting their own business like it’s a regular job.

Let me explain. Everyone who I know who has started their own successful business didn’t follow any set rules. They had an idea, had more ideas on how to implement it. Gave it a go, failed at certain things, innovated at others and generally thrashed around until they worked it out.

But what a lot of the people I meet are doing is treating business like there is a right or wrong way to do it. And treating gurus, mentors, and coaches like a boss. Someone to tell them the rules and how to start and run their business. Which means that thousands of people are building the exact same carbon copy businesses and using the exact same techniques to promote them.

They are neglecting the creative out-of-the-box thinking that is needed for their business to be different enough to succeed.

It’s a problem I am starting to get into myself. I am so plugged into the online business community that I am finding myself copying what other people are doing rather than coming up with my own ideas and following my own path. I originally started listening to podcasts and reading blogs to help learn the mechanics of how particular things work. How do you import, what are the options for warehousing, how do Facebook ads work. But ended up staying for the ideas and the ‘secrets’.

I think my businesses have suffered as a result. They are becoming more narrow and more cliche. Something I really don’t want. I know the solution for me – spend less time listening to ‘experts’ and more time listening to myself. But where does that leave this blog?

My writing has become more and more guruy over time. I started off just talking about random ideas and telling you about my businesses. But my most popular articles by far are the ones where I lay out in a step-by-step way how I started a certain business. The easier the process is to replicate the more popular the article is. So I have been writing more and more of them.

I still think they are useful. My post on starting an Amazon FBA business gets the most views out of any of my articles. And I believe rightfully so. It is in-depth and includes a lot of complicated mechanics – finding a factory, product development, importing, warehousing and marketing. But when reading it you need to keep in mind that it isn’t a recipe.

To create a good Amazon FBA business, you need to take those mechanics, throw out the stuff you have better ideas for, and heap on top a generous dollop of your own creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

In my future posts, I am going to try and highlight that as much as possible. Here is how I did it. You should take the best parts and do it differently and better. But if you catch me being too guruy or preachy, please call me out!

  • This is a great post and one I really empathise with. As you say, the best businesses were not started by ‘following a recipe’. Likewise, great techniques for marketing that people try to follow in retrospect, where probably good in the first place because no one else (or at least far fewer people) were doing them.

    Given the nod to creativity, do you have any practices to cultivate creativity on a regular basis?

    • Thanks! I actually do. It’s pretty much the only regular habit I have. I sit down, choose a subject and try and come up with ten ideas on it.
      I used to write them all here for about a year:

      But it took almost as much time to format them and explain out the ideas than it took to come up with them in the first place. So I stopped.

      I also got a lot of my inspiration on how I look at creativity from the director Robert Rodriguez. Definitely recommend listening to his interview on the Tim Ferris show:

      • Interesting. That method reminds me of a practice James Altucher recommends too.

        Thanks for the podcast recommendation – I love the Tim Ferriss podcast but haven’t heard that one, so I’ll check it out.

        p.s. Fred Wilson just posted something today that is quite relevant to this post – “Learning from others vs Figuring it out yourself”

        • Yeah that is where I heard it from. The only difference is that he throws away his ideas. I tend to try and make them about something relevant to my business or life and use them.

          Cheers! That’s a good post. I haven’t read any of his stuff before. Thanks for putting me onto it.

          • Ah thought so. On a recent podcast (with Matt Mullenweg I beleive) he actually mentioned that maybe he should collect them all and save them in an idea bank (which is what I do. It’s possible ‘bad idea’ become good ideas later).

            Definitely recommend Fred’s blog – it’s one of the few I read daily.

  • Luqmaan Rawat

    sorry for being off topic: any business ideas that one can exploit by having 2 people in 2 different countries that can work together towards a common goal? Hong Kong & UK for example?

    • Yeah loads! Anything where there is an item or service that is cheap in one country and expensive in the other.

      The obvious one for Hong Kong and UK is any sort of physical product based brand or importation business. Get widgets built cheap in China and sell them for a lot in UK.

      Or if you have one place where skilled workers are cheap to hire and somewhere else where there is a lot of demand for skilled workers you can build an outsourcing business. A classic is a programming team. UK (or wherever) fronting sales and able to visit the client. While majority of developers are managed in the cheaper location. I have a friend doing just that in Vietnam and UK.

      I used to have a business where I was based in the UK and my partner was in Malta. We would buy used cars here and ship them to Malta where they were worth a lot more. He would then sell them.

      • Luqmaan Rawat

        I’m actually based in Cape Town, South Africa with a family member in Hong Kong who also wants to do something entrepreneurial.

        Will need to do a market analysis and see how both sides can be leveraged.

        Love your blog and will be sending my pitch for the grant soon.

  • James

    I am actually very impressed that you noticed yourself that the blog was going in that direction. It hadn’t got to the point that I felt I had to actually say anything to you about it but I could definitely feel a slight change in the direction from your posts. I originally started reading it because I loved the uniqueness about what you do. I loved reading the stories of what you do and how you did them. It definitely feels like the website is going a bit in the direction of other well known affiliate bloggers and I agree that you should maintain your own identity and show off your own natural talents. I know you’re definitely more than capable.

    I don’t want my post to sound too dramatic. I wouldn’t have made a comment unless you’d written this post so nothing to worry about. This is still one of my favourite websites and I get excited when a new article comes out! I’m looking forward to reading some interesting stuff in the future!

    • Hi James, thanks for the feedback. I don’t get much and can only really tell which articles people like by which are most share… which unfortunately tends to favour specific types of posts. I think I should probably try not to overthink it and just write about whatever interests me – which was my original strategy when noone was reading!

  • Charles Grant

    Great post Sam and really appreciate your insight. As someone who is considering making the move to a more entrepreneurial and independent path, your blog has provided lots of food for thought; balancing first-hand experience with lots of step-by-step guidance. For what it’s worth, I feel you strike a good balance between the two for someone like me who has yet to strike out on their own. Your writing demystifies a lot of the details but doesn’t ever pretend that there is a sure-fire blueprint to success. Please keep writing and I shall certainly keep reading!

  • Arnold

    You know, Sam, you were the first one to change my mind, to show the way. I’m enjoying the journey. I look at my work differently, no matter what I do. Due to this I started waking up earlier, I started looking after myself, I started my blog, I started talking to people, I started public speaking course and everything in-between. It’s one big and fat THANK YOU from myself to YOU!

    I’m looking at starting my podcast and, hopefully, one day – I will have you on my show.

    By the way – I do very enjoy your entrepreneurial posts, because they inspire and teach everyone. Thanks again and good luck! And I will keep reading.

  • Nick

    Great article Sam.

    As a recent graduate (2016) my one and only goal was to settle down with a 9-5 and live the ‘corporate’ lifestyle. The more I work, the further I research on how to have a similar lifestyle that you promote.

    By the way, in this post you mention “…they all follow the same blogs and podcasts as me.”

    Can you name a few podcasts and blogs that you follow?

    One podcast I am absolutely in love with is StartUp by Gimlet Media. Let me know what you think!

    • StartUp is great, especially the first season. I got a bit bored in the second season and didn’t continue further.

      I dip in and out of a lot of podcasts. On starting a business: Tim Ferris, James Altucher (last year has gone downhill but earlier episodes are great), Smart Passive Income, This Week In Startups. I also listen to a bunch of history, economics and sports ones.

      The only blogs I read every article of is Mr Money Mustache (frugal living and early retirement) and Monevator (UK investments).

      Any other podcasts you recommend? I’m always looking for new ones!

      • Sam Browne

        Check out Tropical MBA Sam – they are awesome dudes and I think you’ll get a ton of value from their whole approach. Very un-guru-ish – they have a certain authenticity that I find lacking in several of the above you mention (which I listen to as well, but take with a grain of salt). Often those that go on about how they’re doing it to help people the loudest tend to ultimately prove to be the most cynical. Also completely not on the business side of things, “They Walk Among Us”, the UK true crime podcast, has been my surprise favourite for this year.