Thursday, July 10, 2008

Success Tools: Idea Capture

I recently came across an article by Malcom Gladwell about Nathan Myhrvold's company Intellectual Ventures (thanks to fellow-Twitterite Angela Maiers ). The purpose of this company, Gladwell explains, is "to make insights—to come up with ideas, patent them,and then license them to interested companies." While this is not so very different from Thomas Edison's workshop over a century ago, I would argue that the scale of Myhrvold's undertaking is noteworthy. There are a number of reasons for this:

1. Every scientific discipline has branched and sub-branched , and the volume of actionable discoveries and research is of enormous magnitude.

2. The number of actionable problems , those amenable to profitable solutions, has also increased. A century ago we didn't need Universal Remotes, methods of syncing our address books, or even a reliable place to put our car keys. We only knew of a fraction of treatable diseases. In the pharmaceutical field, we didn't know what a receptor was so there was no impetus to do research on blocking them. In fact, separate discipline of just generating problems would probably be a profitable venture.

3. There are a lot of technologies that "work" now. A lot more than 100 years ago. There are infinite ways these working technologies can combine to produce beneficial and profitable outputs. One of the amazing takeaways from Gladwell's article is how much new inventions are feasible just from the combining of already successful technology or research from disparate fields.

Thus, today, we need a lot of ideas. And , as Gladwell's article demonstrates, a good collection of ideas, from various disciplines, can generate , not a few, but hundreds of profitable businesses.

And here is the best part: a lot of these ideas can be monetized without excessive capitalization, or even the creation of a business. Patents can be licensed without building factories. Algorithms can be written for cellphones without building a cellphone. E-books can be published without a printing plant. Songs can be mixed and distributed without building a million-dollar recording studio.

So, the first imperative is: capture those ideas. One of my favorite bloggers, Matthew Cornell has a superb post on idea capture and, in another post, discusses the vast amount of ideas he and others collect... numbers in the 10,000 idea range are discussed!

This is not unusual. Gladwell reports that at an informal dinner, the group from Intellectual Ventures generated eight single-spaced pages and thirty-six different inventions.

Idea capture is crucial. Large numbers of ideas are crucial. In the old model, a business was built from a single idea (Fedex, McDonald's, Starbucks, etc). But now, it is clear that ideas themselves are capital. Ideas themselves are currency. Creativity and knowledge capture is a source of profit apart from the execution of the idea. Exposure to ideas from multiple sources is crucial. Besides patents, other sources of direct profitability from ideas includes: writing, composing music, trading, real estate referrals, algorithm design ,marketing, consulting of all kinds, even Internet site names. I am sure there are many more. I am going to predict that, in the future there will be an ever-decreasing cost of monetizing our ideas.

So I suggest you collect a lot of them.

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Matthew Cornell said...

This is a fascinating post, Manny. Not only does it reinforce something I've believed since switching careers (pouring ideas into my head will pay off) but points to the greater trend you write about. Thanks a ton!

Dougist said...

One of the technologies that work is the technology of idea capture itself. I spent decades jotting down ideas as they came to me on paper, later on 3x5 cards and then little notebooks. What this created was a pile of unsynthesisable data points.

Now I'm (almost) fully electronic and my key tool is Journler. I think that Mark Twain would have used it if he had a Mac.

I wrote about my experience with Journler here: