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Coworking spaces like Seattle's Impact Hub build public thinking by default. (Image: Impact Hub)
Coworking spaces like Seattle’s Impact Hub build public thinking by default. (Image: Impact Hub)

Sometimes it’s smart to share an idea, and sometimes it’s smarter to keep it quiet.

Know the difference?

Commanding the toggle between public and private thinking is a big deal for anyone who wants to make the most of the tools we’ve got. Namely, these digital networks that make large-scale sharing so simple and effective that never jumping in feels like the worst option.

But it’s entrepreneurs who might have the most to gain. Or lose.

I just finished reading “Hackers,” Steven Levy’s classic chronicle of computer culture from the 1950s to the 80s, and it includes a fascinating, albeit analog example of how public idea sharing can go from mission-critical to mission risk.

It’s about what became of the legendary Homebrew Computer Club.

Invitation to the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club (Wikimedia Commons)
Invitation to the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club (Wikimedia Commons)

The club started as a casual gathering of Silicon Valley hardware geeks, tinkerers who wanted to share their motherboards with the few people who’d appreciate them before home computers were a thing.

“Exchange information, swap ideas, help work on a project, whatever…” read the billboard flier announcing the first meeting on March 5, 1975.

Visionaries like Steve Wozniak, Steve Dompier and Bob Marsh saw their hacks grow into projects and then products, as companies like Processor Tech, Cromemco and Apple spun off from members’ shared ideas.

If you were into computing and you weren’t there, you missed out. Big.

But then, little by little, members stopped showing up. As Chris Espinosa, Apple employee no. 8, put it to Levy:

When we started getting involved with Apple, we found what we wanted to work on … and we wanted to go into one subject deeper rather than covering the field and finding out what everybody was doing. And that’s how you make a company.

Today, communities as powerful as Homebrew can form without members meeting in person or even knowing each other’s names. Inspiration goes further than ever, making it smart for groups bent on innovation to maintain an open breeding ground of new ideas.

Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 9.18.35 AM

No wonder the startup world prizes a sustained level of public thinking. Developers network. CEOs build brands. Everyone wants to write that viral blog post. The conversation about how best to run a company is one of the busiest on the Internet. And a city’s tech “hub” is judged not just by its companies, but by the idea-sharing glue that holds it together.

Then there are resources. Startups have come to model the loose connections of open networks, coming together piece by piece. A founder here, an investor there. Isolation kills.

But there are times to gab, and times to hush. And risks to making the worse choice, whichever it is.

Tech author Clive Thompson is the first I’ve heard call having command of our public/private toggle a “crucial new skill.” It’s all about optimizing your thinking, he explains in his latest book, “Smarter Than You Think.”

How do you make the most of collaborative networks without compromising your ability to develop an idea?

“My contention in my book was that in situations where you worry about competition, most people choose, correctly, to keep quiet about things,” he told me on Facebook.

But I’ve had other business people tell me the opposite. Depending on the type of business, talking out loud and regularly about what you’re aiming to do can be a terrific way to shake the trees for potential collaborators, investors, customers, etc.

The problem comes when you have an idea that doesn’t require a lot of resources to develop and is *really* easy to copy. In that situation, keeping quiet about things is probably best for competition.

I’ve got nothing solid to back this up, but it seems to me that entrepreneurs who’ve developed a strong sense of what to share and what to let bake do a lot of both. They flow from project to blog post to team building to crowdsourcing, soaking up the benefits along the way.

Those without a strong sense get anxious. I’d say that’s most of us. Stay too private and you miss key resources. Be too public and you lose your way before you’ve even found it. Some sit and wait for the path to clear. Others ask mentors and colleagues for help.

Is your public/private toggle helping or hurting you?

Talk amongst yourselves. Or not.

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