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Creating Creativity: A Q&A with ePrize's Josh Linkner

Creativity is an important word in Josh Linkner's world. The founder and chairman of ePrize has more than creativity on the brain. He is putting it on paper with Disciplined Dreaming, a new book to be released in February. Linkner sees creativity as a muscle and so he's created a work out routine. Or you might say he's created a creative process for creating creativity. If those last four derivatives of the word "create" sound like overkill, they won't after spending an hour with Linkner.

"Creativity is my passion," he says. "I started as a jazz musician. I have started and built four companies from scratch. To me creativity is what it's all about, especially now that we're entering a new age. We were in the Information Age, which pretty much ended with the financial meltdown. Now we're entering a new age, which I truly believe is the Age of Creativity. Where original ideas, imagination, and new thinking are the currency of success."
It's not hard to see that ePrize and its 300-some employees are painting with Linkner's brush after walking into the company's offices in Pleasant Ridge, a mid-rise just south of I-696 near Royal Oak's Main Street exit. Linkner found the rat-infested, circa-1929 brewery a few years ago and transformed it into a Willy Wonka-ish space filled with wood floors recycled from bowling alley lanes, spiral staircases, coffee house-like break rooms, and the occasional Chewbacca poster.

Linkner describes it as "a vortex of energy where people could come and use this as a palette for creative expression." ePrize aims to properly value its starboard side, because from Linkner's point of view society is too left-brained in its orientation, elevating rocket science, brain surgery, and finance over creative inspiration and expression.

"I would argue that putting an original oil painting on canvas is just as complicated or more so," says Linkner. "It requires just as much skill, mind power, and insight as brain surgery."

Linkner recently agreed to sit down with Metromode's Jon Zemke and talk about entrepreneurs, Metro Detroit's mind set, and why it needs to change.

Your blog bio talks about "dislodging the old guard and dominating the industry through disruptive innovation and creativity." Why is this necessary in Metro Detroit?

For our region to rebound and to gain traction again --and by the way I am hugely optimistic we will-- we're going to need that entrepreneurial spark we had in the early 1900s. That's looking forward, not looking backward - being pioneers and a force of disruptive change. Take a look at the status quo and see how we can dislodge the complacent incumbents and put a thumb in the eye of conventional wisdom.
That entails a large cultural shift. The idea of finding a life-long job at a big company is very ingrained here.

It's a myth. People have to wake up and see that. Today's global marketplace is very fast and fluid. Competitive advantages of the past have largely become commoditized. We, as companies and individuals, need to focus on creativity. We need to focus on our ability to invent as we go and challenge that status quo and conventional wisdom.

You recently wrote about "Pike Syndrome". What's one imaginary barrier that we struggle with?

One invisible barrier we have overcome is [the notion] that we can't start a high-tech company in Detroit. People often think, 'I have an idea for an Internet company, but I can't start it here because I live in Warren.' That's false. Our biggest challenge as a region and as a company is overcoming the non-stop negativity that permeates this region. The sky is only falling if we allow it to fall.

You have written that "creativity, innovation, and original thought have become the currency of success in the new generation of business (and life)." However, in lean times art programs are the first cuts from educational institutions while math and science...even sports... are held sacrosanct. Is this the right course?

My son is working on long division. I have never used long division once in my career. However, the skills I learned from jazz absolutely translate into the business world. The ability to improvise, to take responsible risks, to work as a team. Fear is driving the wrong choices in school. Because we get scared during budget cuts, we think art is meaningless and math isn't. That couldn't be further from the truth.
You talk about fear driving decisions, which seems to happen a lot in this region. Do you agree?

Fear drives all kinds of decisions. Its the biggest inhibitor of creativity. I could have a great idea but I might say, 'If I tell someone about my idea am I going to look foolish? What if they don't like my idea?' That fear is disabling. One of the things we need to do as business leaders is build and nurture cultures that encourage responsible risk taking so making mistakes is OK.

But it seems like we punish that sort of leadership all the time around here?

It's true, but look at the biggest success stories. Apple. There is no bigger rule breaker than Steve Jobs. Go down the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest people in America. Unless they inherited it, those people did something new, fresh, different, and remarkable. They didn't play it safe. They took risks. They changed the world. But our schools and bureaucracies tell us to do exactly the opposite.

Why is it so hard for our culture to appreciate the economic and innovative value of instruction that fosters creativity?

It's difficult to measure because creativity is a nonlinear thing. It's like hitting a rock with a hammer. You can hit it 100 times before it busts open. It didn't break because of that last blow to it. It was a cumulative effect. By hit No. 95 it looks like you're banging on a rock and making no progress, but you are. We need to allow that process to unfold in a nonlinear way.

Is entrepreneurship a skill that is inherited, learned, or some combination of the two?

I really believe it's learned. There is a great Harvard study that asks the same question about creativity. Is it born or developed? It turns out creativity is 85 percent learned behavior. That means the least-creative person in the world is 85 percent as creative as Leonardo da Vinci or Paul McCartney. Just because they have that much potential doesn't mean they bring it to the surface. Entrepreneurship is probably something similar.
It's often said we spend too much time dwelling on why we can't do something rather than how we can. Do you agree?

For sure. This region is wallowing in self pity. We spend all day thinking about the negative things, but it's pointless. Regret is the most useless human emotion. You can't do anything about the past. What do champions do when they get knocked down? They get back up and keep fighting. That's what we need to do.

So, how do we encourage a solutions-based approach?

Two answers. Take immediate action. We can't be sitting around deer-in-headlights frozen. Celebrate the wins. That's what changes the momentum of an area. Taking action and celebrate the wins will lead us to taking more action and celebrating more wins. It's a positive cycle of improvement.

Which is more important to developing Metro Detroit's entrepreneurial ecosystem, grass roots events like E2 Detroit or big hits like ePrize?

They're both really important, but the companies are more important because the spin-off of the company like an ePrize or a Quicken Loans is dramatic. It creates jobs. There have been several people who have come from ePrize or Quicken Loans and started their own companies. If we can have more connected companies in this region that are creating more high-paying, creative-class jobs, that is going to more quickly rebuild the region.

Which musical instrument is easier to start a company around, drums or a trumpet?

Drums. People can pick that up more quickly, so you would have a faster customer adaptation. There are a lot more bands that have drums than trumpet players. A drum might be more ripe for innovation because its easier to radically change than the trumpet.

The new Wall Street movie just opened. Does Metro Detroit have anything to learn from the Gordon Geckos of the world?

You can say that Gordon Gecko was driven. Committed. He had a huge sense of urgency. He was a hard-charging guy who was focused on results and made a difference. All of those things would be helpful to Metro Detroit. There are good things and bad things to learn from everybody. You can take the most pious person in the universe and there are things you don't want to emulate.

Jon Zemke is the News Editor at Metromode. He conducted this interview at ePrize's offices and condensed it in his home office, where he wondered how could he make his work space half as cool as ePrize's. His last feature was Becoming The Boss: A Q&A with Paul Bartlett.

All Photos Taken at ePrize by Dave Lewinski
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