Chester Carlson worked on his idea for years. It was tough, messy work and when his wife tired of the putrid smells, sulfur fires and occasional explosions emanating from the kitchen, his experiments were exiled to a second floor apartment in a house his mother-in-law owned. It took years, but he came finally up with a working prototype.
He tried to sell his machine to the great corporations of the day, including GE, RCA and IBM, but to no avail. Eventually, he teamed up with the Haloid Corporation, which eventually changed its name to Xerox and in 1959, more than 20 years after Carlson began his quest, it launched the 914 copier and became one of America’s leading corporations.
“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas,” said the computing pioneer Howard Aiken. “If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” The truth is that innovation needs combination and few ideas can make much of an impact alone. So if you want your ideas to amount to anything, you’re usually better off sharing them.
A Great Idea Is Never Enough
Chester Carlson’s situation wasn’t all that unusual. Consider the case of Ignaz Semmelweis. By instituting hand washing at Vienna General hospital, he nearly eradicated the incidence of childbed fever and saved countless lives. Yet he wasn’t lauded as a hero. He was dismissed as a crank and it took another decade for the germ theory of disease became widely accepted.
A more recent example is Jim Allison, who developed cancer immunotherapy and saved tens of thousands of lives. Today, many consider him to be on the short list to win the Nobel Prize, but when he first tried to sell his idea to pharmaceutical companies, he had no takers. “It was depressing,” he told me. “I knew this discovery could make a difference, but nobody wanted to invest in it.”
There are a lot of reasons why people don’t recognize a great idea when they see it. In the case of Chester Carlson, the corporate giants couldn’t identify a business model for his machine. Semmelweis’s discovery upended centuries of conventional wisdom in medicine. Big pharma had spent billions on failed immunotherapies before Jim Allison came along.
No idea ever exists in a vacuum, but enters a swirling marketplace where it must compete with other ideas, all of which have their own fierce advocates. So if you want your idea to succeed, don’t worry about protecting it, go out and start selling it!
The Long Road From Idea To Impact
Another misconception is that innovation is a single event. It never is. In fact, it is a long process of discovery, engineering and transformation and usually takes decades and involves hundreds if not thousands of people.
Consider the case of electricity. The basic principles were discovered by Faraday and Maxwellin the mid 1800’s and engineered into practical solutions by Edison and Tesla in the late part of that century. By the beginning of the 20th century, the technology came into wide use in factories, but strangely, it provided little tangible benefit at first.
The problem, as it turned out, wasn’t with electricity, but the factories themselves. In a steam driven plant, machines had to be organized around the power source and the first factories powered by electricity were designed the same way. Work processes changed little and productivity barely budged.
It took about thirty years for a new generation of managers, who had little memory of steam plants, to realize that factories could become much more efficient if they were designed around workflow. Once that happened, productivity soared and industry, along with quality of life, was transformed.
Why Companies Give Ideas Away
Take a look around and you’ll find that some of the smartest companies are actually giving their ideas away. In 2014, Tesla announced it was open sourcing its patents. More recently, Google announced it was opening up Tensor Flow, its library of machine learning tools. IBM has been donating patents for decades.
When I asked Bernie Meyerson, Chief Innovation Officer at IBM, why his company does this, he told me, “We use open source when we want to create a community around a technology. What drives our decision making about open source is that we ask, ‘is this the most effective use of finite resources to advance a technology or are we better off helping to build a community.’”
Rajat Monga, who leads the TensorFlow team at Google, had similar thoughts. “Having this system open-sourced we’re able to collaborate with many other researchers at universities and startups, which gives us new ideas about how we can advance our technology. Since we made the decision to open-source, the code runs faster, it can do more things and it’s more flexible and convenient,” he told me.
Simply put, these companies share their ideas because it helps them innovate better. It allows others to add to their ideas and make them better. It also helps them spread and builds a market. It other words, they are not sharing out of pure altruism. They are doing it because it makes them money.
Generosity Can Be A Competitive Advantage
In writing my book, Mapping Innovation, I talked to dozens of exceptional innovators, from world class scientists and engineers, to executives at major corporations to entrepreneurs who created something from nothing. I was, to be honest, a bit intimidated, but found that almost all of them were happy to be helpful, generous with their time and interested in my project.
In fact, I was so struck by how incredibly — and consistently — nice they were that I began to research the matter further and found that generosity is often a competitive advantage. By sharing your ideas and listening to others share theirs, you increase your access to knowledge and insights. You also build up valuable networks you can access later on.
Chester Carlson’s idea only became powerful when it was combined with a new business model that Haloid devised. The germ theory of disease became powerful when it was combined with new methods for collecting and reporting data. Jim Allison’s idea about cancer immunotherapy arose when he combined his research with insights from another scientist in his lab.
So if you think you have an important idea don’t worry so much about protecting it. Encourage others to build on it so that it can grow and reach its true potential. Chances are nobody is looking to steal it. In fact, you’ll have a hard enough time getting anyone to take it seriously. So you’ll need all the help you can get.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com