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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Seattle 2.0, and imported to GeekWire as part of our acquisition of Seattle 2.0 and its archival content. For more background, see this post.

By Matt Paulin

Since last week, several people have asked me “Who owns the ideas that are generated through SeattleThinkTank?”.  Our philosophy is that if you want to keep an idea secret, then do not talk about it.  Any ideas contributed at an Idea Night are considered public domain and these are fair game for anyone who wants to build it.  In this article I am going to discuss this philosophy and propose an experiment.

The Discussion

Ownership is at the heart of why people don’t talk about ideas loosely.  I have to admit that I too am conflicted about this.  On one hand I want to retain control and ownership.  On the other hand, I have had enough experiences that I am sure by sharing the idea it becomes stronger and if the idea is good, more people will be drawn to help out on it.  Thus I know that by taking a leap of faith the idea is more likely to survive.


In talking about an idea I fear that I will loose control of it.  This fear isn’t without justification.  I’m sure everyone can rattle off a story or two of someone who talked about an idea and then lost control of it.  My best story for that would be a professor I once worked for who invented a special sap probe for analyzing plants.  Lets call him Dr. Plant.  He invented this while working on his PHD.  Somehow Dr. Plant’s major professor’s son ended up with the patent.  Its pretty much unfair, and he did loose control of what he had invented.  But, I don’t know if that is a failure on his part or if that is simply a failure of the character of the person who stole it.  From there on out Dr. Plant would teach other people how to manufacture the probe on their own.  The son did create a version that could be bought commercially.  I think in the end the way to make this right would have been to give credit to the originator or to give him some share in the business.

So yeah, there are stories of bad people who take what isn’t theirs and get away with it.  Its also easy to rationalize it with, “well the consumer won in the end” or “that patent expires in 20 year” or “boys will be boys”.  All of these take the edge off the annoyance but, I think the real damage happens with how we want to adjust our behavior to deal with it.  Loose lips ruin dreams. Lets have an NDA fest.

Here is an alternate story that illustrates the opposite.  A few years back my team and I decided to build a check-in app.  Its is called Megosi.  We put about 2000 man hours into creating this app that lets you build a scavenger hunt to share.  This was about the time that foursquare, gowalla, and everyone else was creating a check-in app.  We got something together pretty fast, in the order of months.  But, ultimately it didn’t go anywhere.  The big question is this…  Why did Megosi fail?  There are several reasons but, the most likely reason was we didn’t get enough publicity behind it and we didn’t know how to develop that business.  I believe difference between success and failure for megosi was we needed to know “That person” with a rolodex or a book, or the most read blog, or something to help us drive people to our check-in app vs someone elses.  There could be hundreds of other reasons but, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because foursquare was faster at shipping their app.  

My point is that I needed more skills in my team, time-to-market was not the issue.  Keeping the idea to myself didn’t change time-to-market for anyone else.  I am sure there were hundreds of us that were thinking the same thing but, it was the team that made it a success.

The lesson I have been wrestling with is, the more you share idea the stronger it will become.  Also the more you share, the more people you will attract to the idea.  If it is a really good idea, a team will form around it.  If two teams form around it, consider joining them.  

I will be the first to admit that I have trouble opening up about my real ideas.  I feel like I have a special reserve that I still hold in secret.  But, the longer I hold them, the more I realize that I don’t have the time or energy to do any of these by myself.  At some point I will see my idea pop up on the internet.   

The Experiment

I’m a huge fan of the podcast Planet Money.  They make economics entertaining.  Sometimes they don’t just report on the story but, they get involved.  Like when they bought a toxic loan, named it “Toxie”, and proceed to report in on it every week to see how their investment was doing.   It was a very dynamic way to learn about a very difficult subject.

Lets do something similar.  I do have a set of ideas that I do not share.  I might actually get around to them and I value them highly.  For my own catharsis and to see what happens when you give up control, I am going to release one into the wild Internet.  It will be unprotected, it may be completely stolen, someone might beat me to the market. Maybe someone will patent it.  I don’t really know.  But, I will try to report in on how the idea is doing from time to time.

My theory is that one or all of the following will happen.
1. Someone will tell me that this has already been done and here is the link.
2. Someone will tell me a better name for it.
3. Someone will tell me that they like it and would use it.
4. Someone might want to build it with me
5. Someone might have the connections to make this happen

Here it goes…  The idea is for building a better way to donate, I call it the “non-profit hub” and you can read about it here. .  From time to time I will report in on how non-profit hub is doing.  In the least, it can be one data point for the realities of idea sharing.

In Conclusion

If you have discovered a good idea, or a source of ideas from a problem, then you are going to need a team to make it happen.  You can only find that team by talking.  If for some reason, it all comes down to time to market and someone actually did steal your idea and build the competitor.  You will at a minimum have that team.

Back to the Seattle Think Tank, the only way to do this is in the open.   I’m not against conducting one of these in private for other groups.  I think ultimately we have to just open up and get over it.  It will just take a while for that to feel right.

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