Innovation Cannot Happen In Private

One of the most interesting things I have learned since getting into the early stage startup gig is that innovation cannot happen in private.  It’s counter intuitive.  Most people think if they have the next great thing they should quietly work on it so no one steals it.

As an entrepreneur with an idea, it is critically important for you to go out and press the flesh with other people.  You have to talk about your idea.  You have to solicit feedback.  This happens before you seek funding.  This is seminal stuff.  You will be surprised at what you hear.  Networking with people and talking about it will make your idea better.  It will also help you draw people to your idea so you can build a team around it.

Most great ideas are not singular.  There are others with the same idea.  Success comes from the ability to execute on the idea.  This is why seed investors really research the team, not just the idea.

I have some practical experience, and evidence from history as to why this works.

When I was trading and you had a creative idea about a trade, you kept it to yourself.   You didn’t tell anyone.  Traders inside firms might not even tell other traders about what they are doing.  It’s a social business, but not highly collaborative.

The interesting thing independent traders are learning about the trading business today is no one is bigger than the market.  It doesn’t matter if you share an idea or not, because the market is driven by machines.  It’s actually a strategic advantage to collaborate than be singular.

Traders are actually pretty creative people believe it or not.  It just manifests itself in different ways.  Ask me about “trading card spurs” sometime.

Throughout the ages, innovation has happened but it never happens in private.  Ideas must be validated by the mainstream in order to be innovative.  The wheel wasn’t kept a secret.  In the Renaissance, inventors had to bring ideas to the mainstream in cities.  Thoreau might have lived in obscurity out at Walden Pond, but his thoughts and ideas were not known, accepted or spread until he went to the city to share them.  Density is very important when it comes to innovation.

Mentorship is also key.  People that have successfully navigated the entrepreneurial waters can make a huge difference.  They can plug people into networks that they might not have thought of, or didn’t even know existed.  But, it’s up to the entrepreneur to execute and succeed.  Mentors just shine a light on the path.

The other thing cities bring is the potential for serendipity.  A random interaction can mean the difference between success and failure.  That is the primary reason innovators go to Silicon Valley.  The network is extremely deep there and there is access to resources other than money.  When the crowd sees a good idea, the money is right there and it finds the right ideas.  Call it an “innovation marketplace”.

Cities across the US are recognizing that even though what Silicon Valley has is unique, but it can be re-created in other places. The Renaissance didn’t just happen in Florence, Italy. It happened in several places all over Europe.  It was people driven, not government driven.  It was passionate, and it improved the lives of humanity.  We are in a new technological Renaissance today.

This article about Henry Victor Dyson, JRR Tolkein and CS Lewis shows how innovation cannot be kept a secret.  It shows how give before you get mentorship creates a better world for us all.  It also shows how the crowd can help you launch and validate your idea.  They took a random stroll.  Groundbreaking literature, a lifetime of friendship, and a conversion to Christianity were the result.

Few people remember Dyson now, while millions celebrate the names of his companions: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Yet the works that made their reputations — “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” for Tolkien, “The Chronicles of Narnia” for Lewis — were profoundly shaped by that night-long argument and the bond it cemented. It’s possible that Tolkien’s Middle-earth would have remained entirely a private obsession, and quite likely that Lewis would never have found the gateway to Narnia.

The process of creation that becomes entrepreneurship is fascinating to me. It’s not linear. It’s not controlled. It is random because it is human dependent.

  • Seph

    To your point that innovation never happens in private, it brings to mind that it’s as much a result of the times as of the innovator. When the conditions are right, the race is on.

    A long excerpt from a recent EconTalk interview with Matt Ridley:

    “…pretty well every invention and discovery you mention has occurred to two different people at possibly the same time. Possibly three. Possibly four. My favorite example of this is the light bulb, which in my part of the world a man named Joseph Swan gets the credit for inventing the light bulb and a terrible fraud called Thomas Edison came along and ripped him off. Well, if I live in Russia, I give the credit to Lodygin, and I’m equally cross with Edison. But actually if you drill down into history, in the 18th century there are 23 people in that decade alone who deserve independent credit for coming up with the idea of the incandescent light bulb. It was an idea ripe to be discovered. It was inevitable that it would be discovered in that decade. And that’s true of almost everything. And then of course famously evolution itself, the idea of natural selection occurs to Wallace and Darwin at the same time, and Darwin has to rush into print to prevent himself being preempted. Even relativity–we tend to think of Einstein as unique in coming up with this idea that nobody else, that it took the world by surprise and nobody believed him. Well, that’s true, but if you look at what Hendrik Lorentz was doing at the same time, he was well on the trail. He would have got there if Einstein had been run over by a tram… So, there’s a sort of complete dispensability of scientists and inventors that really surprises people when you think about it. Now, does that mean that we don’t admire them? No. In some ways we admire them more, because they were in a race: they had to get there first…”

    Perhaps the genius of an Edison, Darwin, or Einstein was as much in their ability to sell the innovation, and keep moving forward, as it was to simply conceive of the innovation.

    EconTalk link, to interview and transcript:

  • Even better, if idea comes from outside, from future customer.