Sliding windows of opportunity

Sliding windows of opportunity

Author , who wrote “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” published an article an Internet eon ago (roughly 10 days), titled, “What to Do When Someone ‘Steals’ Your Amazing Idea.” I came across it in my newsfeed from Observer.com.

Now that, thought I, as a self-identified (paranoid) entrepreneur and occasionally penitent bad sharer, looks like something I should read. Because while a mere idea is the 1% inspiration to the 99% perspiration required to breathe life into a new venture, that flash  of what often feels like original genius is the inciting element that starts every entrepreneurial snowball rolling down Mount Disruption. That lightning-like “Eureka!” moment strikes rarely and without warning, so it’s natural to adopt a Gollum-like protectionism over your conceptual Precious, less some sneaksy Bilbo-analog snatch away your visions of changing the world.

The hard truth, of course, as Nir writes, is that that attitude is the “Sign of a Novice.” He explains,

“People tend to believe ideas are rare things, gems to be collected and hoarded. But in fact the nature of creative work, be it corporate innovation, academic research, or artistic endeavor, tells us quite the opposite—that if a useful insight pops into your head, it’s most likely in other people’s minds as well.”

Well, that stings. I’m a serial entrepreneur and I still want to behave that way when I get speared by inspiration out of the blue.

Nir continues,

“It’s called the ‘multiple discovery theory,’ which, contrary to the ‘heroic theory of invention,’ posits that discoveries are most often made by multiple people, not by lone ‘geniuses.’ History is littered with examples: the formulation of calculus, the discovery of vitamin A, the development of the telephone, the light bulb, the jet engine, the atom bomb.

‘When the time is ripe for certain things,’ the mathematician Farkas Bolyai said, ‘these things appear in different places in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring.'”

Of course, most people who think they’ve stumbled onto some novel idea discover truly original insights are as rare as Astatine shortly after rushing off to uspto.gov (or Google) to execute a quickie patent search.

Mr. Eyal and Mr. Bolyai are inarguably correct. One’s idea is almost certainly not unique or novel to the world. But that doesn’t suggest that dismissing such shower thoughts, or approaching their development with slow deliberation, is the sane course of action. On the contrary, embracing the slavering enthusiasm that such ideas fire is what separates entrepreneurs from those preferring the path most trodden. The thing to recognize about such ideas is that they fuel the furnace that creates the steam it takes to start an entrepreneurial locomotive up Disruption Mountain.

But here’s the thing I would add to Nir’s article: That those flashes of inspiration are almost always shared by others does not mean they are not scarce. Nor does it imply that birthing an idea simultaneously with (or after!) some other inventor(s) dilutes one’s chances of fanning that baby into the kind of conflagration that burns yesterday’s paradigms down.

It’s an adage that while many people get ideas; few do anything with them. But that’s not entirely true and it’s a worldview that can be dangerous for the erstwhile entrepreneur. There are a lot more people that, once shown the path, can figure out the execution than there are those who can see the path to begin with.

Each of those ‘Amazing ideas’ (assuming you’re not delusional) may represent what I think of as a sliding window of opportunity. Once opened, they’re only going to remain that way for a short period before someone else will slam it shut. The risk that makes inventors averse to sharing should not stem from fear of theft. The greater danger is that sharing an idea beyond a select few known and trusted fellow visionaries wastes time that could be spent in research, refinement, and development. In the early stages of business conception, after commitment to the unicorn-like Golden Idea, sharing and the doubt that can introduce from people who don’t have time or interest in your vision can slow one enough that they never get out of the starting blocks.

Sometimes, that instinct to guard one’s embryonic inspiration with at least some level of discretion is the best way to convert innovative adrenaline into the most precious of all entrepreneurial elements: The will to begin the work of building a product. That protecting your Precious reduces the chance of theft and exploitation by a pent-up competitor is merely a bonus.