Choose: Credit or Influence

When I started at Lockheed Research in 1985, my mentor was a veteran who explained his secret for getting funding from the other Lockheed divisions:

Find an idea for a project we could do for them, but don’t tell them the idea.  Instead break the idea into a few key parts, describe the parts to them, and let them put the parts together into the total idea.  They will be much more willing to fund a project that is their idea. 

Some advise academics not to post working papers, as others might steal your ideas.  Many fiction writers are afraid editors will steal their ideas.  Many are afraid that venture capitalists will steal their business idea instead of funding their team. 

Howard Aiken said "Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats."  I don’t think it is quite that simple – people can and do steal ideas.  But if what you want is influence, instead of credit, the choice should be easy: you should want people to steal your ideas.  So think about it: how much do you or should you care about credit, versus influence? 

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • http://gtziralis.googlepages.com George Tziralis

    A credible solution for erasing the risk of stealing your idea would be an institution that compensates you for just the idea.
    By breaking apart an idea from its implementation, and their compensation also, the innovation forces could be fully unlocked and the best of ideas, as long as the best implementers, would finally emerge and survive in a constantly improving ecosystem.
    To my knowledge there exists no such institution, however a market mechanism sounds as appropriate to support these functions.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    George, patent and copyright are intended to be such an institution, but often function poorly. Perhaps betting markets could be a useful addition to the mix.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Robin, a thought on betting markets. Have you pitched a comprehensive approach to betting markets to the corporate players in Las Vegas?

  • http://www.blog.greenideas.com botogol

    It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit. ~Harry S. Truman

  • Giant Step

    The credit vs. influence debate can be framed as evolutionary psychology vs. socially optimal psychology. Our base instinct is to engage in social-welfare-enhancing behavior if and only if it brings us prestige and, presumably, reproductive success. But in modern society we find many innovators who are content to craft their lovely creations in lonely anonymity, presumably for the satisfaction they gain from witnessing societal improvement. Some people become vastly more productive when subject to others’ scrutiny, while others seem to operate most efficiently on their own. (Try comparing your athletic performance at your home gym versus that at your local fitness studio.) My hunch is that genetics plays a role here, but “gut feelings” are often terribly biased and so I won’t rule out environmental factors.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/zenkat/ Zenkat

    I think the question really is: “Do you want control or influence?”

    Placing an idea in the public sphere will almost always assure it has more impact and influence. Spreading an idea (aka a meme) widely allows it to propagate freely, while an idea kept secret never has a chance to “reproduce”.

    But once an idea is widely spread, I may have lost my control over how that idea is implemented — someone else may take my idea and run with it. More importantly, if I lose control of an idea’s implementation, then I likely have lost my ability to profit from it.

    In this day and age, here are a few masters who have mangaged to profit from their ideas by spreading them wildly. That’s a real trick — I wish I understood how it was done.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/zenkat/ Zenkat

    Speaking of sharing ideas, have you heard of Spigit? (http://www.spigit.com/aboutus/) I came upon them at a Web 2.0 mixer in SF.

    They seem to be trying to set up an ecosystem for sharing ideas about startup businesses, and then using prediction markets to pick and fund then winners. While there are definite SEC issues that they have to work out (eg, their markets have to use funny money), I thought the biggest potential hole was the lack of secrecy. If I post my business plan online and then discuss it with thousands of strangers, what’s to prevent someone from grabbing the best idea themselves and hawking it to a VC?

    Interested in hearing what you think about this setup … it seems right up your alley.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Botogol, great quote.

    Hopefully, I’d make the pitch if allowed, but Nevada avoids non-sports betting to avoid a public “scandal” that might close down all betting.

    Zenkat, if by keeping control you prevent your idea from being used, then what is the point?

  • http://byrneseyeview.com Byrne

    I thought the biggest potential hole was the lack of secrecy. If I post my business plan online and then discuss it with thousands of strangers, what’s to prevent someone from grabbing the best idea themselves and hawking it to a VC?

    That concern is academic — in the sense that it’s pretty theoretical, and in the sense that it’s the kind of concern that is really only relevant when the idea is the important part and the execution is incidental. As a much smarter guy than I once said:

    Actually, startup ideas are not million dollar ideas, and here’s an experiment you can try to prove it: just try to sell one. Nothing evolves faster than markets. The fact that there’s no market for startup ideas suggests there’s no demand. Which means, in the narrow sense of the word, that startup ideas are worthless.

    I can think of a few “idea” companies, but the main one (Google) has an idea that is incredibly hard to actually implement: how the hell do you such a massive matrix without melting all your servers?

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Byrne, I’m skeptical of the trend of thought “because such doesn’t exist, there isn’t a demand for it [or one wouldn’t materialize]”. The world of ideas and of implementation of those ideas is finite, and for all sorts of innovations it seems rather arbitrary the date of introduction as a viable social phenomenon. For example, James Miller’s suggestion of an information market for personal persistence maximizing strategies. It would have been a great idea if implemented in 1992, it would be a great idea if implemented today, it would be a great idea if implemented in 2020. Was there no creatable demand for gui prior to the mac? Similarly, I think a startup idea market, if done well, and with the right buzz, could create sustained demand, and verify that, in the narrow sense of the word, startup ideas are worth something. Perhaps we can create an information market on whether a startup idea market will be viable prior to investing in creating a startup idea market. =D

  • http://byrneseyeview.com Byrne

    It’s good to be skeptical of that assumption, but it’s not very sporting to pretend that I said anything like it. An idea is obviously a necessary part of a startup, but it’s not the most important part. It’s not just a question of “How do you get Google if you never dream of a Google?” It’s “When you combine lots of Googlers and have them do whatever software project they think really needs to get done, how do you not end up with Google?” Nobody implements their first idea: Paypal was supposed to do cryptography; Flickr was an RPG; Microsoft sold languages; IBM punched cards; Google’s first product is still their flagship product, but as a business plan it sucks since the built-in revenue stream is $0.

    It would have been a great idea if implemented in 1992, it would be a great idea if implemented today, it would be a great idea if implemented in 2020.

    Mhm. You notice the unemployment rate among founder types is low, but there’s a huge surplus of foundable ideas. And yet you claim a tight market for the ideas?

    Was there no creatable demand for gui prior to the mac?

    I’ll assume you meant to type “Xerox Star” instead of ‘mac’. You’ll note that the Star was invented by researchers at a large institution; the GUI was then ‘borrowed’ by a brilliant engineer named Steve and an incredible salesman named Steve. If the idea was more important than the Steves, why did the idea languish until the Steves showed up?

    Perhaps we can create an information market on whether a startup idea market will be viable prior to investing in creating a startup idea market.

    I know it was in jest, but this is creepily similar to the RIAA model. Since IP would only offer a competitive advantage if it were kept secret, your pitch would be, essentially, “Give us money for the right not to talk about what you gave us money for! Then you’ll get money if our secret ideas work out all right!”

    If you wanted to start a market like that, you’d probably want to start it within a company (so everyone is already covered by nondisclosure, and so their cost of getting information is lower). For your idea to be effective, it needs to reinvent the internal prediction market — and while it’s never too late for an idea to turn into a startup, you’ve got to admit that other people have a head start.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Byrne, I’m aware that XEROX was working on GUI prior to Apple (in the circle of commenters in this blog, who isn’t?) -that was my point. That demand for something seems to me to be more complex than as described in your 10:23am post. It’s quite possible for creatable demand to exist for something that is already technologically possible, and yet the product and the market doesn’t materialize until some other event (such as the arrival of a brilliant marketer of that thing). Hence the market for GUI not taking off when XEROX was working on it, but when Jobs began marketing it. The quote in you 10:23am post seemed to me to ignore the role that factor may play in why there may not currently be a market for start up ideas as described by George Tziralis’ June 12, 2007 06:31 AM post.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    I think that in academia there is a much higher correlation between influence and credit than there is in business or politics.

  • http://byrneseyeview.com Byrne

    It’s a shell game to pretend that the existence of a good marketer and a good hacker is independent of the existence of a large market for a cheap product: since markets are the sum of individual actions, and since entrepreneurs are the ones with the highest stake in persuading individuals to consider a product.

    The GUI idea was just an idea until Jobs and Woz turned it into the GUI business. They didn’t start with computers (they did phone phreaking beforehand — high gross but no net). Given that they took off as entrepreneurs before they knew about GUIs, I don’t think you can call GUIs their catalyst.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    So, similarly it may be that George Tziralis’ suggestion of a market for start up ideas may just be an idea until someone turns it into the market for start up ideas business. It seems to me that competent impressarios with good products can reveal (or catalyze?) latent demand that wasn’t previously obvious. It happened for GUI and I don’t see why it couldn’t happen for a market for start up ideas, simply because (according to George Tziralis) such a market hasn’t existed up to this current point in time.

  • http://julesandjames.blogspot.com/ James Annan

    But with the credit comes a greater influence in the future, cos people will be more willing to listen to your ideas. A young academic who has a moderately good idea stolen from them might find they are not an (employed) academic for much longer. Isn’t credit just deferred influence?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    James, yes, credit can create the potential for future influence, though in fact most people don’t spend their credit that way.

  • http://byrneseyeview.com Byrne

    It happened for GUI and I don’t see why it couldn’t happen for a market for start up ideas, simply because (according to George Tziralis) such a market hasn’t existed up to this current point in time.

    I’m not saying it can’t exist because it won’t exist — how could that be my view, when I just said that entrepreneurs (more or less defined as “people who make something that didn’t exist yet exist”) are behind lots of market growth that you blamed on market growth? I think it’s impractical for the same reason that a market in jokes is impractical: the important thing is the delivery.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Byrne,
    I think a Jobs type figure might be able to put together an effective market for jokes, too. Sure good joke delivery may be rarer and more valuable than well-written jokes, but I don’t see why markets for both can’t exist. For example, the marketplace seeks out both comedic writers and comedic actors, although the best comedic actors are more highly compensated.

  • http://byrneseyeview.com Byrne

    For example, the marketplace seeks out both comedic writers and comedic actors, although the best comedic actors are more highly compensated.

    The problem is that many popular comedians (e.g. Robin Williams, Carlos Mencia, and the execrable Dane Cook) are reputed get their jokes from other comedians — an obscure comedian who hires a writer is essentially buying the right to run focus groups for the big shots. If the jokes are disclosed before purchase, they’ll probably never be bought; if they’re disclosed after, there’s a “lemons” problem: joke writers are likely to give their best jokes to the people with the best delivery, and their worst to the most obscure comedians, just to get good PR and avoid the association with bad acts.

    I am, of course, always one Jobs away from being proven wrong, but jobs was living in a world that had typewriters, arcade games, and typewriters; building an IP market requires lots of infrastructure and paradigms (and probably legal intervention) that we don’t have yet.

  • Pingback: The efficiency of modern philanthropy | Rational Altruist

  • Pingback: What Holds This Company Back? | EightAteEight