What Would You Do With $5 And 2 Hours To Maximize ROI?

Tina Seelig, PhD. has a famous $5 challenge she gave to her students at Stanford. 

Read her writeup here, but I’m going to tell you the premise (and who won and why):

The class was broken up into 14 groups. Each group was given $5 and told to go out and find the highest possible ROI (return on investment) on their $5, within a 2-hour time frame. At their next class, each group would give a 3-minute presentation on what they did and why.  

Stop for a second and think about what you would do. Or don’t, you already know the answer is below, but it is kind of cool to think how you’d approach it. 

Go ahead, I’ll wait. 



So, some of the students joked about buying lottery tickets or going to Vegas. This was amusing, but not much of a repeatable (aka “real”) business idea. 

The first level idea was to take the $5 and buy materials to sell/flip something at a profitable enough level to cover additional reinvestments. Think lemonade stands or car washes. This is a good idea, but has some real constraints given the time frames. Just how many times cups of lemonade or car washes can you cram into 2 hours? 

The next level (and really, never several levels) don’t open up unless the students realize the $5 is a distraction, and their time is really the constraint. 

Some students booked tables at restaurants with notorious wait times, and then sold the booked tables to waiting patrons. Smart. 

Others offered to measure bicycle tire pressure, for free, outside of the student union, and then charge a buck to fill the tires up (which was otherwise free air). People gladly paid for the courtesy and convenience. Useful. 

These are all great ideas in that they focus on painfully obvious problems that can be readily relieved by an anticipatory business. You aren’t starting a billion dollar company with these schemes, but they are proof of how you can get cash flowing in 2 short hours. 

But the winners, oh the winners, they did something really wild. 

Instead of being constrained by the $5 or their time, they thought even broader. They were in a class of really smart business kids, soon to be grads, that companies would probably be pretty interested in reaching out to. 

The winning group took their 3-minute presentation time and…

Sold it. 

For $650, they offered a 3-minute commercial to a company that wanted to get in front of the students. They had the highest ROI, and solved a problem nobody else even had seen. 

I love stories like this because they force us to think about what problems are out there, and what ways we might solve them. They don’t require reinventing a wheel, climbing a corporate ladder, or selling our souls – they just require we apply ourselves to creating/curating something valuable for someone else.