When CEO Bart Steiner and his team started their idea for an innovation community, the country was clearly in need of such a thing. Bulbstorm was started in 2008 under the premise that most people around world have great ideas and passion, but don't posess all the skills they need to see their ideas through to completion. By creating an environment in which people could share their ideas safely, skills would grow, and companies could see the value of an idea by seeing how much activity grew around it.

I sat down with Steiner and Interactive Director Matt Simpson at South By Southwest (SXSW) last month to learn how Bulbstorm could be useful for startups or even pre-startup ideas. The company itself is an example of the need to change your idea when market conditions aren't optimal.

The Bulbstorm innovation community idea is that potential entrepreneurs or thinkers can share ideas with others while protecting their intellectual property securely, and revealing it slowly as trust develops with participants. There are 'Lights Out, Yellow or Green' levels where ideas are closed, partially revealed or open depending on a user's access or the idea creator's level of comfort. 'Unlike a shared Google document, in our environment, 3rd party location and access is documented and can be substantiated in the future. You can choose to have collaborators sign an NDA and manage where and how they can see the material,' said Steiner. Several entrepreneurs entered contests that Bulbstorm sponsored to get people to share business plans, and the highest rated ideas won seed money to get product out in marketplace.

For small businesses, the ability to share and develop ideas on Bulbstorm is free. Steiner told me they're not making money on that side of business, where scale and sponsorship were original business models. At the time of the company's inception, it was one of the worst environments for raising additional funding. This led the company to pivot, morphing into two products – one is the innovation community, and the other is a platform for brands to create contests around ideas on social networks like Facebook.

Their app on Facebook lets brands run 'idea challenges. ' These are a way to generate larger amounts of engagement with fans. 'Instead of asking about general stuff, why not ask your fans for ideas? Participants earn points, there are game mechanics where people earn behavior-based badges if they share idea, but also earn more credit for having a great idea they share and that people like,' said Simpson. 'We also reward people for contributing to an idea in addition to creating new ideas.' Points go towards a prize vault, which can be a store for the brand. People win simple prizes, a coupon, or even an experience. When Intel looked for great ideas around 'the phone of future,' in addition to 5,000 ideas and hundreds of thousands of engagements, the top participant was anointed 'VP of R&D For a Day' at Intel, and collaborated on the development of future home phone and it's replacement. (Link to Bulbstorm's release since the contest is no longer live on Facebook). They also report good success with $5-10 millon dollar-sized companies where they've gained great activity. Bulbstorm helped double the fan base and generated tens of thousands of interactions for a mountain biking brand. One user even got his logo submission for the brand tattooed on his back.

The company's pivot to include Facebook has kept them alive and growing with 20 employees in Phoenix, San Francisco and Milan, and 'We're hiring,' said Simpson.

Would you share your idea online with a community? What reservations might you have? Share your thoughts about this idea community in the comments below.

On a personal note, I'm thrilled to be attending the Inc. GrowCo conference next week in Las Vegas. I'll be unofficially hosting a Tweetup on 4/7 in cooperation with my Inc. colleague Tiffany Black. Please follow me on Twitter for updates, and if you're attending the conference, please introduce yourself. I love meeting my readers and getting their feedback.