Creative Content Recycling:
Are You Wasting Your Garbage?

image of trash can

You see it done all the time, and it’s just so wasteful.

People take a bunch of perfectly good trash, and they just toss it in the garbage can.


The thing is, any time you create something, you’re going to end up with a lot of odds and ends, scraps that end up on the metaphorical cutting room floor.

What if you could sell your product . . . but then find a way to repurpose and sell the by-products of your product too?

Welcome to waste management 2.0

For our new Question the Rules course, Lee interviewed Jason Fried, founder of the software company 37signals. (That’s the company that makes a bunch of amazing products including Basecamp and Highrise.)

We were fascinated by something Jason had to say — a topic that he and partner David Heinemeier Hansson devoted a section to in their great new book Rework:

Sell Your By-Products.

For instance, here’s an excerpt about Henry Ford:

Ford learned of a process for turning wood scraps from the production of Model Ts into charcoal briquets. He built a charcoal plant and Ford Charcoal was created (later renamed Kingsford Charcoal.)

Ford could have just tossed all of that extra stuff that was thrown off while his factories were creating their product. After all, it was garbage, and the production of the Model T was all that mattered.

But he didn’t, and created a revolutionary new product — one that became a substantial profit center.

Creative recycling for creative types

If your first thought is that the by-product concept doesn’t apply to creative work, just look at the movie industry.

Every time they make a film, they shoot a lot more footage than ends up in the actual flick. Most of the footage used to end up on the cutting room floor, or maybe in the outtakes that they’d run over the credits of Smokey and the Bandit.

But today? The by-products of filmmaking are everywhere. Cut scenes and alternative endings help sell DVDs, or end up on YouTube as a way to promote a theatrical release.

Adding this formerly wasted material even allows the movie studios to create an easy upsell. They create two tiers of pricing for a DVD:

  1. Customers can get the basic version. They can buy just the movie.
  2. Or, for just a few dollars more, customers can get their hands on a more in-depth version, chock full of by-products — which is the stuff that used to be called “trash.”

The “waste not, want not” attitude is a choice you can make about any business. And once you decide to start looking at the “waste” you’re producing, you’ll find useful by-products everywhere.

Where to look for by-products in your own business

  • If you’re doing creative work like writing or graphic design, how about recycling rejected client pitches?
  • Can you take the effort you put into your cool custom web design and turn it into a more generic template that you can sell over and over?
  • Can you take the interviews you do on a writing project and post the raw versions on your blog?

Keep looking and you’ll start finding useful waste everywhere. Even your vacations can end up having useful by-products.

Think about it: You go someplace cool, interesting, or beautiful. You eat some great meals and talk to interesting people. You take photos or shoot video of the things you see, and the people you meet. You do this because you’re into it. Because it’s part of what you do on vacation.

But once you’re in the recycling mindset, it’s easy to think of a dozen ways to use that stuff — the “leftover media” from your experiences. You could write travel articles, sell video clips, create “microstock” photo services, publish an e-book guide, or post a YouTube video that pulls customers back into your business. You could write posts on Yelp! Or Foursquare.

Maybe that sounds ridiculous. But smart, creative entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau does something very similar. He takes remnants and artifacts of what he loves to do (travel) and uses them to strengthen his business.

Take an inventory of your own creative residue, and you may find you’re sitting on a little gold mine. As Jason Fried points out, the book Rework is actually a by-product of running the business of 37signals. And that bit of “runoff” made the New York Times bestseller list.

Not bad for yesterday’s trash.

About the Author: This article is a by-product of the interview Lee did with Rework author Jason Fried as part of Lee & Johnny’s brand-new Question The Rules course. Did we mention it was going to be 75% off until Saturday? Click here to check it out.

(Editor’s note: We were so excited about Johnny’s new course, and proud of the great work done by one of our own regular writers, that we snagged an affiliate link for it. :) We’ve taken a sneak peek at the course and we think it’s a great resource for entrepreneurs who want to play a sharper, smarter game. Sonia will share more of her thoughts on Questioning the Rules tomorrow.)

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Reader Comments (42)

  1. says

    This is sure does make you rethink about all of the work I have done in the past. Now, I’m going to have a different perspective with content, pictures, or designs.

    Thanks for putting this out!

  2. says

    I love it! I try to use everything I do, watch on television or movies, people I see in a grocery store, lessons I’ve learned from jobs I hate – all of it helps me create new posts. Now if I can just apply your knowledge and start creating ebooks – I’ll be well on my way.
    Thanks for sharing these highly insightful tips!

  3. says

    If you do some field research, you always end up with a lot more material than just what you need for your project. Be it snippets from newspapers, pictures, URL’s etc. Collect these things in a archive. Sometimes you can use these to write an article on some history on a topic, timelines, good in depth insights which are sometimes timeless and so further. For good reporting this is essential to build a knowledge base about your topics. Key is, to make it searchable or make a system around it so you can reach into it much easier.

  4. says

    That’s exactly what Rich Dad Poor Dad, Robert Kiyosaki, did as a kid. He noticed convenience stores would rip the covers off comic books that didn’t sell, send them back to the distributor for a refund, and throw away the coverless comics. He took those books from the trash and started a library in his basement, charging kids to read them. He “recycled” his little sister as the librarian so he didn’t have to do the actual work, too. :)

  5. says

    Blog posts easily can come from recycled material. When I write, my first draft will often be a long and rambling free-form thought fest. I allow myself this just to get the ideas down and out of my head. Then when editing comes, I might find that there are actually two or three different posts that can come from this one train of thought. So I cut it up into bite size chunks, refine one chunk for use now, and put the rest away for use later.

  6. says

    I love the Henry Ford analogy. This just goes to show that we can be more “green” even with our virtual refuse.

    Something that may seem elementary to the person owning the business may be a big pile of valuable-ness to the person just starting out.

    Refuse from products that are sold can also be turned into free e-books and blog posts as well. You can even collect up all of your blog posts for a given time period and Pdf them together to form a giant how-to manual that you can give away or sell.

    People like EASY. Sure they can go through your blog and re-print each post, but if they can spend a few bucks to have the information on a silver platter, most will go for the easy route.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  7. says

    Another angle on this is to not just recycle scrap content, but also to repackage activity that you were “just doing” for another purpose.

    Here’s what I mean: In addition to creating the Question the Rules course, Lee and I created the Question the Rules Mastermind — a separate mentorship program. One of the things we’re going to do for members of the Mastermind is to explain the process of how QTR (the course itself) was created and launched — because it was a very unconventional process, but one that even in pre-launch was VERY successful, and which generated a ton of great responses from people who joined early.

    We were going to create and launch QTR either way… but using the story and lessons learned in doing so (along with a lot of do’s and don’ts that would help ANY launch) as a way of repurposing that “we were going to do it anyway” activity is another good way to not waste your waste.

  8. says

    By the standard definition, I’m not a pack rat. I don’t keep anything around, ever, that I don’t see a use for later which keeps my house clean… and my desk clean… and my car clean… etc.

    I only make one exception to that rule. I always keep whatever I do for projects organized into folders, including the stuff I didn’t use, with the intent of coming back to them later for ideas or as a resource for future projects.

    What I really took from this article is not just recycling stuff like I’ve been doing to continue with the same old thing, but to find a new use for the stuff I have set aside, to find something new that adds value to my current offerings and products.

    Great post, thanks.

  9. says

    I call it my “compost heap,” I’ve got clips and snippets that didn’t get used, tangents that weren’t quite on for the main deal. But this takes that idea further and gives me some new stuff to chew on, it’s very cool. Thanks guys. :)

  10. says

    Talking to a business analyst friend the other day provoked a discussion about a similar thing.

    He said that any resources put into development are too much, and if you aren’t selling things that you already have then your investment is too high to recoup within an acceptable timeframe.

    While I think there is something to be said for long term development projects for the sake of development (i.e. without funding/investors) I agree and see the recycling efforts of this blog to support a very similar philosophy.

  11. says

    The “bonus” DVD – ha! Great point about repackaging the leftovers.

    I’d love to recycle my blog extras, but sometimes swimming through yesterday’s trash feels more like DOUBLE work.

    What’s the best way to store leftovers ’til you’re ready to cook again?

  12. says

    It never ceases to amaze me how often you write or read something and then find a post that applies to the topic-cue the Twilight Zone music, please. :-)

    I wrote an article a year ago that never got published as the site lost funding (don’t you just hate that?)

    I literally just sent that same article in response to an ad. It was a perfect fit and I thought, “Note to self-see what other “old” stuff you have.”

    But, alas, Copyblogger thought of it 1st-again! Great ideas here. Keep ’em coming.

  13. says

    I love Sonia’s use of compost heap. I live in a big city and don’t have a yard but really wanted to compost. A local guy started a business where he gives us composting buckets, picks them up weekly, and then sells the compost to a farm. He’s started a great side business with our food waste.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ways to re-use content and this article was perfect timing for me.

  14. says

    Look who’s all grown up.

    Rework is an amazing book. Speed up your time to market, etc.

    The funny thing is that Rework convinced me that I didn’t need basecamp/projectpath. That software is cumbersome and it keeps me from being in touch with my clients.

    Anyway, good times, thanks.

  15. Ron says

    Hey you guys,
    since subscribing to this blog i have learnt so much about so many aspects of writing and online marketing in general that really,you don’t need to go anywhere else,its all here.
    Keep sharing the goldmine.
    From one appreciative business owner,
    regards Ron

  16. Lisa says

    I really like this idea. As a songwriter, I often recycle lyric lines I scrap from one song to inspire a new song. But I never thought of applying the same recycling strategy as content for blogging! Thanks for opening up new ideas :)

  17. says

    You won’t read this Johnny, because I know you don’t follow the rules…but love the idea of keeping the scraps around.

    Might start pasting them into evernote from here on out.

  18. says

    This a great concept, in my business one the biggest barriers people come up against is creating content, But I always teach them them someones waist is another inspiration!

    Great Piece

  19. says

    HAHAHA Nathan, I’m totally calling you on saying I wouldn’t read it.

    You’ve confused my irresponsibility with my need for written praise. Following comments is one of those things that happens when the second one wins.

  20. says

    Yes- ‘Rework’ is a Must read for ANY Imer- and those slackers that always try to think of ways to be creatively lazy! ( Not me..I’m just sayin’…!!)

    Ironic to see comments re not using Basecamp (the authors project management tool) after reading the book.
    Certainly,’Rebels Without A Pause’ will love this.. ( Lee & Johnny know who you are).
    Another great Post Copybloggers- Thank you!

  21. says

    I typically “recycle” by posting odds and ends to various other platforms.

    That super duper paragraph exactly irrelevant to my thesis? Cut, email to Posterous.

    The screenshot that just wouldn’t fit? Tumblr.

    And so on.

  22. says

    I wish these comments were threaded… adding to my previous… pushing out content for recycling is half of it. The other half is when it comes back reassembled and repackaged.

  23. says

    I have found this especially true for my blog posts. Some days, I end up with the beginnings of at least 2 more blog posts that stem from the “cast offs” from other posts I’ve written.

  24. says

    It makes sense recycling articles as new angles to the same issues could be made available for readers. Business comes with new lessons each day so what was written yesterday could be made more illuminating today.

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