INNOVATE

How Ideas Gain Traction

Just as important as the idea itself is the entrepreneur behind it--and the skill, passion, and effort she provides.
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When it comes to an idea gaining traction, what's more important: The idea itself, or the entrepreneur behind it pursuing it with skill, passion, and effort?

Since its inception in 2009, The Awesome Foundation, a nonprofit that offers $1000 grants to one idea at a time, has successfully bet on the latter. With an implicit mission of "funding the unfundable," says cofounder Keith Hopper, the Foundation provides grants with no strings attached and no ownership stake. So far, the Foundation has funded 829 projects. (In other words, it has granted $829,000.) 

The grants have led to several astonishing inventions--some of which have scalable, revenue-generating potential. For example, one idea led to a universal medical diagnostic test that screens for several diseases simultaneously. Another helped a musician create an "invisible violin," which is potentially "an infinitely better version of WiiMusic." Another led to a wide-scale design update of "handicapped" signs (a person-outline sitting in a wheelchair). 

What can businesses learn from the Foundation's experiences of ideas becoming realities? Two things, according to Hopper: 

Hand over the money, and get out of the creator's way. The Foundation is entirely hands off, once it hands over the money. This enables grant recipients to spearhead their own ideas with no restrictions or requirements. So while the idea itself is, of course, of some importance, what's more important to the Foundation is empowering the entrepreneur's unconditional pursuit of it.

It's this hands-off factor, Hopper believes, that businesses can learn from, if they're looking to bolster not only the in-house generation of ideas, but the execution of those ideas.

"The traditional workplace instinct is to step in and say, 'Well, let me guide you, and demonstrate why this idea might not work.' It's coming from a helpful place. But we do the opposite," he says. 

"It's not that we don't care," he adds. "It's that the best way for [an idea] to work is for it to fly under its own momentum."

When considering which ideas to support, think beyond the strictly fiscal implications. This is not to suggest that you divorce your innovation process from the importance of generating a return-on-investment. It's only to remind you that sometimes, the most groundbreaking ideas don't immediately present a fiscal payoff. 

In addition, many strong ideas contain what expert John Butman calls a "fascination" element--something that "enables you to make a connection with other people," he writes in Breaking Out. To write Breaking Out, Butman studied how dog psychologist Cesar Millan, lifestyle guru Mireille Guiliano (French Women Don't Get Fat), and TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie built empires from their ideas. In each case, their ideas had a "fascination" element--that is, a human connection.

For Mycoskie, the human connection came from the shoeless children he saw on a visit to Argentina in 2006. Solving this problem was the impetus for TOMS' now-famous one-for-one model, in which the company, for every pair it sells, gives a pair away to a child who can't afford them. Mycoskie believes this human connection was essential to TOMS' popularity. "People don't get initially excited--especially in the media--about the concepts," he tells Butman. "They get excited about the people." 

For this reason, too, the Foundation's hands-off policies have come in handy. The lack of an ownership stake--and perhaps even the lack of an emotional stake, since the $1000 investment is so small--frees the Foundation to fund ideas that have a "fascination" element, irrespective of whether the idea will ever create value, in a business sense. This is what Hopper means when he says that the Foundation's implicit mission is "funding the unfundable." 

The result, of course, is that some ideas--allowed to breathe as mere ideas--end up creating value. 

But in the early stages, the Foundation can think clearly about an idea's "fascination" potential. "It's a huge part of the success of the Foundation's overall concept," says Hopper. The fascination comes when "there’s an underdog, maybe even heroic Robin Hood component," behind the idea. "Other people love that," he says, "and it makes them want to be involved."

Last updated: Mar 5, 2014




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