Fences and flagpoles

Director of the Student Innovation Centre offers his thoughts on collaboration in the world of innovation.

Chris Fetterly - 25 November 2019

There it is. Your idea, coming into existence in your head. You can feel the excitement build as your mind plays out different scenarios about how it will be successful. This one, you believe, is a good one.

How close will you hold your idea? Are you afraid that if you start talking about your idea someone might steal it and execute on it? Up goes the fence and the weary ideator begins to spend endless hours on the pursuit of shielding their yet-to-be-created IP (intellectual property). How many plausible ideas die in the fence-building process before receiving critical feedback?

Where does this fear of sharing your big idea come from? I blame the out-dated notion that there's such a thing as a million-dollar idea. With abundant sources of "glamourized entrepreneurship" celebrating the fundraise it's easy to develop the notion that ideas alone are high in value. With this mindset, it's possible to become distracted from doing the work. How much time are you comfortable spending by guarding your idea?

What is the actual value of just the idea? There's an interesting thought experiment from Paul Graham, co-founder of YCombinator, the most successful seed-stage business accelerator in the world: if ideas are worth a million dollars, try to sell one. You'll find there's no market for startup ideas-which means there's no demand, which in turn means ideas are worthless.

Michael Seibel, co-founder of live streaming platform Twitch, goes a step further and says that even the leanest useful version of your idea, the minimum viable product (MVP), is not special. The majority of people do not remember Airbnb's first website or how the launch of Twitter looked. Yours is also not special-so get it out there and get learning!

These are harsh realities, but the point is, the idea is a beginning, not a blueprint. It is the uncarved block, full of potential. When you're starting out, assessing potential, try asking yourself: what conversation might move my idea along right now? Will you fence it off or plant a flag in it?

A fence may keep people out (warning: this can include investors if your gate looks like a cumbersome non-disclosure agreement), but what's the bigger risk? Talking about your idea and getting scooped by a mysterious opportunity-stealing organization that swoops in on every idea it can get its hands on? Or not telling anyone what you're doing and receiving little to no help to propel you and your idea forward?

So who's raising the flag of innovative, open thinking in the Student Innovation Centre? These are just a few of the UAlberta student groups that are using the space-and accessing and producing open source information as they work on their next big ideas:

See uab.ca/innov8 for more.

A flagpole, on the other hand, draws people in. It's a symbol in the community, a source of inspiration, and a meeting point. The flag has your message and enables the community to rally around you. "I need help with A, B, and C. I'm looking to make connections. I need to find a customer."

We have lots of metaphorical flagpoles in the Student Innovation Centre. Some indicate "We're here to help." Others say "open source" or "teammates wanted." Flagpoles like these enable conversations with students who are thinking about their next (or first) big thing. How do you help someone standing behind a fence when their fear of idea-thieving is running high?

By engaging each other, we can open up fences and rally the troops. With help comes feedback, and feedback is a path to validation. The execution, you'll find, is up to you. And nobody is going to steal that.

In the end, what matters more to you? Seeing your idea into reality, or protecting it at all costs? I think you'll find your community is ready to help when you make that decision.