'Open source' your ideas!

If you’re not going to put your idea into action maybe someone else will be interested in doing so, says Will Grant

This article first appeared in issue 228 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

Ideas. They’re what millionaires, even billionaires, are made of, right? Imagine you could go back in time and tell your 2004-self to build and launch Facebook – you’d be a billionaire now for sure.

Except it doesn’t work like that at all. Ideas are only about one per cent of the recipe. The remaining 99 per cent is hard work, careful planning, flawless execution; with some pure luck thrown in for good measure.

In searching for ideas for a new business last year I found myself coming up with plenty. Workable, useful ideas that could be turned into something people would pay to use. The only problem was that (to quote a self-help phrase) I just wasn’t that into them.

You have to really love your idea. You have to believe in it even when friends tell you it’s terrible, when bank managers and venture capitalists say “I don’t get it” and when you’re trying to convince that first hire to leave their stable, salaried job and work on your crazy scheme for a mix of subsistence wages and equity.

It’s not that you’re deaf to criticism. Often a fresh pair of eyes on your work-in-progress will deliver an insight of lightning-bolt intensity. More that, whatever the doubters may say, you believe that your idea is the right one – the only one – for you. It’s likely that this idea, all being well, will consume the next five to 10 years of your life: you’d better be in love with it.

That wasn’t the case for these. So I decided to ‘open source’ the ideas: putting them on my site as a series of short blog posts. I’m not sufficiently excited by them, so maybe I’m not the right person to take them forward. Besides, there’s not enough hours in the day to do all this stuff. Publish and be damned, I thought.

Shared ideas

It turns out people really like ideas. The response was amazing, with 10,000 unique users hitting the first post, and numbers doubling each time I posted a new ‘Idea Dump’. Here’s an example from a recent post …

Grocery shopping is a pain. Do it in real life and it’s a nightmare. Doing your shopping online is way more convenient, but once you’re using one supermarket website there’s a large ‘cost of switching’ to set everything up again on a rival site. AutoMarket would be a managed, clever household grocery service – a layer on top of all the supermarket sites.

From learning your basket and learning the similarities between types of products, it could aggregate your shop over multiple retailers, taking advantage of special offers and delivery discounts, to give you the best possible price.

You could tap items on a tablet to say they’re used and AutoMarket would learn the general frequency of purchases and plan ahead for you. ‘Fire and forget’ shopping.

Revenue could come from retailers vying to be listed and offering promotions. Someone could run with it and make a viable business. But not me.

“But wait”, people have said when I tell them of my project, “You’re giving the ideas away? Doesn’t that bother you?” And I see their point; after all – we’re told all along that the ideas are the magical part, the bit that makes you rich and successful.

How would I feel if someone took one of the ideas, ran with it and made millions? I’d feel fine. After all, they’ve put in the 99 per cent: they deserve it. Selfishly hoard your ideas and they simply fester and decay in your mind, where they’re no use to anyone.

Sharing stuff makes you feel good, and it helps us all to get better at what we do by collaborating on ideas.

And there’s still one benefit left for you. Giving away your best ideas does something really unexpected, even magical: it forces you to come up with new, better ideas.