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.
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
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.
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!
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.