I was chatting recently with a startup founder who wanted to grow his writing team.
We talked through what to look for in a team lead, including which skills that hire should bring to the role and what he should expect to teach them.
“They will likely come in with a scarcity mindset,” I told him. “You need to get them out of that. You need to get them thinking big.”
A scarcity mindset is an assumption that there’s a shortage of resources, rather than an abundance. Even if it’s not acknowledged or discussed, this underlying belief hums in the background and guides decisions.
For some companies, it’s true: there’s not a lot of money to go around, so employees have to be strategic and creative to get things done without much financial support. Having this experience can grow your skill set in a positive way, because it helps you learn to think scrappy. And no matter how much money you have to spend, scrappiness is an asset; it leads to creative problem-solving.
But when your company has money to spend, a scarcity mindset can hold you back. It can keep you from thinking big and cause you to miss or dismiss strategic moves that could get the company from A to B — or A to Z — faster.
Most people who work in content — not all, but most — have been trained for their entire career to think about how to get a lot done with a tiny budget.
Take a reporter whose editor approves an investigative piece, but without the budget to do it well. The reporter has to figure out how to do the best job she can without spending much money at all. Or an editor who oversees his company’s blog. He has just enough funds to pay freelance writers for a set number of posts each month, nothing more. The focus is on doing a pretty good job while keeping expenses down, not on doing the absolute best or the fastest work even if it costs money.
This is partly because some types of content organizations, like news media, for example, tend to be short on money. The reason why news organizations have trouble making money in the modern era is complicated and multi-faceted, but one contributing factor is a pervasive scarcity mindset. The idea that resources aren’t available to support growth saturates the entire organization; everyone has worked with that assumption for so long that it’s difficult to imagine things any other way, even for leaders who have the power to rethink how the business is run.
Yet even in organizations that are flush with resources, leaders sometimes don’t want to spend money on content. We see this even when content is the lifeblood of the organization. Content tends to be under-valued, and as a result, there’s a misconception that it should be cheap to create. In fact, it’s the opposite: creating high-quality content that truly positions a company to reach its goals costs real money. Under-valuing content results in content creators with scarcity mindsets even at flourishing companies.
So imagine going your entire career being praised for keeping costs down. Then you join a fast-growth startup with money. (Most startups don’t have a ton of money, but the ones I work with typically do, so that’s what we’re focusing on here.)
How do you escape the scarcity mindset that’s so ingrained?
For startup leaders with money and aspirations to grow quickly, how do you help your content team practice flexing this muscle?
I went through this transition myself. I was business-minded when I joined The Penny Hoarder in 2015 to grow the content team because I’d run a boutique content agency for the previous five years. But I had to push myself to think bigger once I joined the media company because we had more resources and wanted to grow quickly.
Our founder asked me lots of questions I now use to help others break through their scarcity mindset. Some examples:
I learned to apply this to everything. For example…
For content: What would it take to produce twice as many stories? Four times as many? (Rather than, here’s how much money you have, what can you do with it?)
For people: Asking first, who’s the best talent? And second, how much do they cost to hire? (Rather than setting a budget and looking for the best person we could afford.)
Yes, the budget conversations still happen, and they’re still important. But starting with the goal and pushing it sky-high and only then discussing where money fits in can open up new possibilities and remove barriers you didn’t even know were there.