Open Sourcing Your Creativity

Teamwork Ideas
Photo by macropolos

Creativity is something that’s not easily contained. In fact, it’s contagious. When creative people start putting their heads together, some amazing things happen. It’s a rare occasion when an incredible idea is solely created by one person.

Yet, it can be hard to let go of our ideas. Just as parents with children going away to college in the next few weeks, giving our ideas away is much like the same thing. There’s that little creativity myth that says that keeping our ideas to ourself is much better than sharing them. After all, what if someone steals them?!

Big idea man Seth Godin opened my eyes as to why “giving away” ideas is a great thing.

Padmanabhan wrote me a nice note today, asking why I so freely give away ideas. (It was nice because he thought some of the ideas were actually good ones).

I responded that ideas are easy, doing stuff is hard.

My feeling is that the more often you create and share ideas, the better you get at it. The process of manipulating and ultimately spreading ideas improves both the quality and the quantity of what you create, at least it does for me.

Seth made a beautiful point. 99% of the time the problem isn’t someone stealing your idea, it’s you not actually doing it. So what better way to put an idea into motion than having more people help?

There are many ideas that I’ve had that never would have come close to completing without the help of others. Sharing ideas is critical.

But you don’t have to take our word for it.

Real-world examples

Real World Collaboration
Photo by DavidBole

There are plenty of real-world examples of projects who have embraced the open source approach and are, ahem, kicking the tail of other closed projects.

Firefox – Firefox is an open source browser that is creeping up on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Right now Firefox owns 42% of the browser market share, and looks to keep gaining on Redmond’s browser. Why? Because Firefox has opened up its code base. IE is limited to only what Microsoft’s programmers add to it. Firefox is improving rapidly, thanks to a giant base of programmers who develop things like themes and extensions. For free.

Wikipedia – Dictionary salesmen have long been eating the lunch of Wikipedia. Instead of relying on print reference books, people can “wikipedia” (yes, used as a verb) just about anything and have instant access to knowledge. No paper cuts, no books.

Wikipedia depends on contributors who create pages for topics. To ensure that someone isn’t putting false entries on the site, the massive number of people reading the pages act as a checks and balances. If something looks fishy, it’s flagged by other readers or users. Ultimately, the site depends on open source to power the site.

Linux – Linux is an open source operating system. Because Linux is under an open source license, anyone can download the software for free and modify it to suit their needs. Consequently, there a lot of custom “distributions” of Linux that have been tailored for specific needs.

The community keeps growing at a rapid pace, and some computers are being sold with Linux as the operating system, instead of Windows.

Projects like these have seen a lot of growth because there were multiple people involved in the idea. More involvement means better community, better community means better results, better results = Better Products.

How to Open Source Your Ideas

Open Source Ideas
Photo by CapraRoyale

Now that we’ve covered why it’s a good idea to release your ideas, here are a few ways to do it.

Other people have different strengths and smarts than you

Creating Web Warrior Tools went really well for one main reason: I found a partner that had the strengths and smarts that I didn’t. Leo had many skills that I didn’t (and desperately needed). He kept me grounded, not wanting to accomplish too many things at one time, which is my biggest weaknes. He’s a much better marketer than I could ever hope to be. Leo and I had abilities that perfectly complemented each other.

I could have tried to put together WWT by myself, but it wouldn’t have been a fraction as cool as it is now, and might not have even left the ground. (The fact that it I think it’s cool is totally subjective, by the way.)

It makes sense to only share some ideas with a few trusted friends. The benefit of actually sharing ideas isn’t to get as many people to hear them. The benefit is that you’re actually sharing them with other people.

Many hands make light work

If you need something done, open sourcing an idea is possibly the quickest way. Because of the free-sharing spirit of open source, people give freely to an idea. Sharing ideas with people and allowing them to work on it gets them excited too. Now you’ve got an army of people (with different strengths and skills as you) working on your idea, giving it a life of its own. The idea is now something bigger than you.

How to Open Source your ideas

If you’re still wanting to share your ideas, it’s not always as easy as giving them away. There’s almost an art to effectively giving away ideas. It’s a mix of using the right tools and getting into the proper state of mind.

Online tools

The Internet is a great way to share information, and it’s becoming easier and easier. Instead of using traditional methods like emailing ideas back and forth, try using one of the many online collaboration apps that have sprung up over the years.

  • Google Docs – If you like writing word docs but wish you had a little more capability in terms of sharing, try Google Docs. Now you can edit in real-time, see changes by other collaborators, and even publish to the web.
  • Docstoc – If you’ve got your idea in pdf or .doc form, you can upload it to Docstoc and share it with the masses. You can then embed the pdf on a website or blog post, among many other things. Viral pdf viewers like Docstoc are perfect for spreading ideas.
  • Twitter – Twitter can be a great way to exchange ideas with many different groups of people at one time.
  • Blog post – If you’ve got a blog that you post in regularly, release the idea to the masses via a blog post.
  • Wikis – Wikis are another smart way to share information in a collaborative environment. You can use online wiki services like pbwiki to create a wiki that you can share and have other people edit.

There are many other methods for sharing ideas that we didn’t touch on. Instant messaging, Skype, and IRC to name a few. The important thing to remember is that the sharing of ideas is quick, is a low-barrier of entry for other collaborators, and is easy to share. Just stop emailing documents, for crying out loud!

Embrace collaboration

It’s important to start changing the way you think about your ideas if you’re going to start letting other people work on them. Pretty soon you’ll have people questioning every aspect of your idea. This is a necessary and healthy aspect of collaboration. If you’re really wanting to let other people (more than one, at least) start working on your ideas, you’ll have to be able to do three things.

  1. Realize you can’t do everything on your own – There’s a tendency as idea owners to want to control and do everything. People don’t want to just add input, they want to work on the idea too! Remember, these people have the same goal as you: they want the idea to get better and better. Give up some responsibility. You’ll find happier collaborators and more time for yourself to work on other ideas.
  2. Allow for the free exchange of ideas – Now that the idea is open to other people’s interpretation, there are obviously going to be new and different ideas spinning off of it. Some ideas may be so revolutionary and different that they completely change the scope of the original project. That’s totally normal. Remember: The idea is now bigger than just you. You have to be willing to be accept that someone else may have an even better idea than yours.
  3. Trust other people – Allowing other people to work on your idea ultimately requires more trust. By letting other people work on the idea, improve the idea and even rip the idea to shreds takes trust. Lots of it. You’ll have to accept that these people working on your idea want the idea to succeed too.

Everybody wins

If you’re able to successfully open source your ideas and watch them grow under the care of one or two other people, or even a large community, you’ll find that everybody involved wins. The community has something to work on, a project to finish. People need goals and a sense of belonging to a cause or project. A community working on an idea is a great way to achieve that.

The money still follows

If you’re looking to make money, you can do that as well under a myriad of other ways. You could publish a book about the project, sell ads on the website, create a “freemium” model plan where people can pay for specific services, and many other ways. You’re creative right? If you’ve got a great idea, odds are you’ll be able to think of a creative way to make money too.

I should note that not every great idea will make money at first, or maybe even ever. But there is a great chance you will. If the idea is solid, making money shouldn’t be that hard.

Something bigger than you

The best part about unleashing your idea and letting a community take hold of it is the fact that now the idea is bigger than you. You’ve created something that other people have worked on, talked about and added value to. That’s something special by itself.

It takes a smart person to come up with a great idea. It takes an even smarter person to develop that idea by sharing it with others.

This post was helped along by Leo of Zen Habits. In fact, Leo and I helped each other write our posts. We collaborated over IM and helped outline ideas for each other’s post. The result: Leo’s awesome post about rules for work and this post on open sourcing ideas.

Leave a Comment

{ 35 comments… add one }
  • Reza October 20, 2019, 4:07 am

    In my opinion, this attitude is beneficial for societies. But, in the short term, what benefit it has for its creators?

  • Farhang Babkayee February 16, 2019, 12:56 pm

    Truly amazing content by you and leo.

  • Riley Harrison March 3, 2011, 1:17 pm

    Well I think one way of giving away your ideas is to write comments that meaningfully contribute to the dialogue. I’ve decided to focus on quality rather than quantity when it comes to commenting. So here is an idea for better quality comment – use a split screen (or if you are a real technie create a dual monitor system system). It really helps to keep the blog visible when responding.

  • Peter Finnie August 5, 2010, 12:58 pm

    Great article!
    The notion of win-win collaboration is a huge one!
    Coincidentally…I just posted an article re: collaboration/creativity and you echoed some of the same thoughts!

    Your comment on ideas growing with the free exchange of ideas, and becoming better is right on the mark!


  • CrazyKrolik May 5, 2010, 10:39 am

    Form Creator help you to improve your web site and be more creative.

  • jeans accessories March 4, 2010, 11:42 am

    In the process of making the idea their own, your colleagues and teammates will “buy in” to it more. Of course, this is a scary process. What if they don't like your idea? Chances are, if they don't buy into it, your idea wasn't going to go anywhere anyway, because if people don't buy into an idea or support it, they will either ignore it, take a stance of passive resistance to it or actively oppose it.

  • pinkymaheshwari February 20, 2010, 2:21 am


  • Ben February 5, 2010, 9:22 am

    “99% of the time the problem isn’t someone stealing your idea, it’s you not actually doing it.” How true is that. I'm guilty of not wanting to share my ideas. But I think you're exactly right. It smothers them when you don't let the out.

  • tony September 15, 2008, 12:20 pm

    The big open source example is Google itself. I think they can earn millions if they implement some money per search but I can bet that they are earning the most on this planet. Moreover one person can't do such things, i think it can be an effort of group.

  • tony September 15, 2008, 8:20 am

    The big open source example is Google itself. I think they can earn millions if they implement some money per search but I can bet that they are earning the most on this planet. Moreover one person can't do such things, i think it can be an effort of group.

  • Mark September 9, 2008, 11:03 am

    Fruits of open source can't be denied so we should be open minded and should have big aims to see our ideas and thoughts in reality. No doubt Linux and Firefox have already proved benefits and success of open source. I am agreed with each anfd every word in this post.

  • Ryan September 7, 2008, 10:14 pm

    We are not as open minded as we should be. We can't ignore importance of open source and open mind. I like to share my thoughts on twitter to share with all other folks who wold have similar intentions. I like all other tips which can convert our dream ideas into a ground reality.

  • Jason Simon September 4, 2008, 4:22 pm

    I feel that creativity is not an attribute realized among minds that think alike, but rather through conversation among collaborators presenting different views, approaches, and experiences – drawing upon human difference! Great post.

  • Bean Jones September 3, 2008, 8:45 am

    99% of the time the problem isn’t someone stealing your idea, it’s you not actually doing it.

    What a powerful concept and completely true. I don't know how many times I've had a “brilliant” idea but never acted on it, only to find some time later somebody else reaping the benefits all because I didn't act.

    What I like about this “open sourcing idea” concept is that it really underscores that 1 + 1 = 3 synergy model. Since no one person has cornered the market on ideas, talents, and skills, by adding more people into the mix of a project, they can only enhance the final output.

  • Richard X. Thripp August 31, 2008, 1:55 am

    The article cuts out at the end, but I think it would say “It takes a smarter person to develop that idea by sharing it with others.”

    The great point here is that anyone can have an idea, but actually doing something about the idea is the hard part. You can get others to help you, or you can go it alone. Sometimes, being the only artist is the best way to go, but usually it helps to develop the creativity through a federation of sources.

    • Glen Stansberry September 1, 2008, 12:29 pm

      Heh, you're exactly right! That's pretty close to what it was supposed to say. Thanks for pointing that out. I've fixed it ;)

      • Richard X. Thripp September 4, 2008, 7:22 am

        Awesome! See, I can just read minds like that.

        Keep up the good work; I've got LifeDev in my feed reader!

  • DanGTD August 29, 2008, 3:41 am

    Impressive article.

    The truch is that ideas are important, but execution and passion is the key.

    Even if someone steals your idea, he will probably not have your passion about it, and it will be hard to make it a reality.

  • Metroknow August 29, 2008, 1:53 am

    Glen – I really love this idea. I was just talking to my Father for some “sage” business advice – I've been struggling, as always, with a similar problem that you describe: Always trying to do WAY more than it is physically possible for me to do. He reminded me that it's my biggest weakness – that I always have really good ideas, but rarely the manpower to get them implemented. It was a nice compliment, but it didn't really give me a direction. I'm going to have to really think about this – maybe sharing my ideas in and of itself is an opportunity, and if I'm lucky, somebody will run with it, since I probably never will given how many things I've already got rolling. . .

    Thanks again for such a great, well written post.

  • Frank Calberg August 27, 2008, 2:51 am

    I find your posting interesting and valuable. I think you’re right about your point that everybody involved wins.

  • Andre_Kibbe August 26, 2008, 1:09 pm

    The point about hoarding ideas rather than implementing them is astute. There's definitely a tendency among people who'd rather not share an idea to overvalue it for its “potential.”

    Chuck makes a great point about hanging on to ideas out of a false sense of scarcity. It's usually the case that we have trouble getting more ideas because the conduit is backed up with the existing ones. We need to get them out of the pipeline.

  • Chuck Frey August 26, 2008, 12:29 pm

    Even if you're trying to implement an idea within your organization, you still have to “let go” of it in the process of selling it internally. Chances are, your colleagues will add more value to your original idea, and take it places where you couldn't have developed it on your own.

    In the process of making the idea their own, your colleagues and teammates will “buy in” to it more. Of course, this is a scary process. What if they don't like your idea? Chances are, if they don't buy into it, your idea wasn't going to go anywhere anyway, because if people don't buy into an idea or support it, they will either ignore it, take a stance of passive resistance to it or actively oppose it.

    One other thought: We tend to hang onto our ideas as if they're the only ones we've got. Perhaps that's why we're so reticent to “share” them with others. But, in fact, we're all born with inherently creative minds that can continue to generate more and better ideas over the course of our careers. So if your pet idea doesn't fly, don't give up on being creative. Keep on developing other ideas that may have a better chance at success. And don't forget to invite others – inside and outside of your organization – into the creative process. You'll end up with a much better idea in the end!

  • Glen Stansberry August 26, 2008, 10:10 am

    Thanks for the kind words Peter! Yeah, we're often our worst enemies. Why not let other people take the lead? :)

  • Peter August 26, 2008, 8:01 am

    Our entire New Media Production company is built on these concepts. I must say this is an AMAZING post. I could not agree more. Ideas are the easy part, but it is the action that is the hard part.

    Isn't it funny how we all are worried about everyone else, yet our biggest enemy is usually ourselves?