Idea fishing: put dinner on the table

Jan 15 2008 by Max McKeown Print This Article

If you are even remotely creative you'll never use all your own ideas. And even if you are very creative you will never create all the ideas that you need. Why? Because ideas must fit a particular situation – a combination of skills and resources to implement the idea and a market for the resulting implementation.

Ideas cannot stand alone, if you don't have the supporting structures, processes, and the other ideas, techniques, and knowledge they need then the independent idea fails.

The result of this truth is that any serious (or semi-serious) attempt to improve, innovate, or invent – from a back-of-the-napkin session in a restaurant to a multibillion dollar research and development lab – will produce too many good ideas to use and not enough good ideas to meet all your objectives.

Traditional corporate researchers tend to invent and discover for themselves and hope vaguely, if they think of it at all, that their ideas will be developed and commercialised. Meanwhile, traditional corporate development likes to have ideas ready for prime time – and to favour incremental improvement of existing ideas over radical anything in particular.

So ideas tend to be shelved if they aren't a direct fit to existing product plans and roadmaps. Corporate deadlines are demanding enough without volunteering to take risks on orphan ideas.

And yet there are alternatives. You can patent them and then actively market the patents, or actively support the commercialisation of the idea by the originator or another interested part in return for a share of the value in the new company.

Equally, it's possible to seek out the excess ideas of other companies – the stuff they have invented but have no capacity to use –in under-exploited products, patents, or just the heads and hard-drives of the inventors. Or – at the very least - be open to those ideas when they come to your attention.

That's exactly what happened in 1944, when the obscure New York based Haloid Company, a producer of photographic paper, agreed to further develop the process of electrography which had been invented by Chester Carlson. The idea had been rejected by General Electric, IBM, RCA and the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Haloid renamed it "xerography".

In 1948, the Haloid Company announced its photocopier. But it took a further year to make their first sales of the Haloid Xerox copier and until 1959, having changed its name to Xerox, for it to launch the world's first simple to use, push-button, plain white paper copier, the Xerox 914.

Nevertheless, two years later the company's revenues were $60 million. Four years later they had surpassed $500 million, and by 2006 revenues were over $15.9 billion.

Just keep in mind that all this success was based on the exploitation of a single idea formulated outside and independent of the company. Xerox borrowed an idea which they were able to turn into a global market.

Mindful of the value of innovation to the company, Xerox founded not one but two research laboratories. The second was established in 1969 and located in Palo Alto, California, 3,000 miles away from company headquarters.

The Palo Alto Research Centre or PARC benefited from its proximity to existing research laboratories, particularly the Stanford's Augmentation Research Center (ARC), founded by electrical engineer Douglas Engelbart - hiring many of their best and brightest who came bearing ideas in their heads and notebooks that had been originated, once again, independent of Xerox outside the company.

These imported ideas included the computer mouse, Ethernet networking, the graphical user interface, windows, pop-up menus, a word processing program that displayed pages the way they would look when printed, and an art and drawing program. All of which ended up included in PARC's revolutionary prototype personal computer – the Alto.

In 1979, Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, arranged a visit for himself and several others to PARC to go idea fishing as part of his desire to build a new personal computer that would go beyond anything anyone had ever seen. He already had a name for it but he does not appear to have known what features it would have until he saw the Alto prototype.

He did not have all the ideas he needed - and he knew it. But because he knew it, his reaction to the ideas he found at PARC had a real impact - as described (in iCon by Young & Simon) by Larry Tessler, the scientist who put on the demonstration:

"Jobs was pacing around the room, jumping up and down and acting up the whole time. He was just very excited. Then when he began seeing things that I could do onscreen, he watched for a about a minute and then he was just jumping around the room, shouting in the air, saying, 'Why aren't you doing anything with this?! This is the greatest thing! This is revolutionary.'

Nobody else who had ever seen the demo cared as much about the subtleties [...] what impressed me was that their questions were better than any I had heard in the seven years I had been at Xerox. From anybody – Xerox employee, visitor, university professor, student. Their questions showed me that they understood all the implications [...] by the end of the demo, I was convinced that I was going to leave Xerox and go to Apple."

Jobs and his team immediately began to adapt the ideas that they had seen (along with other ideas that they had borrowed) and build them into one integrated idea – the Apple Lisa – that then led to the Apple Mac, and then the iMac, while along the way inspiring Microsoft Windows and introducing the world to beautiful computing.

So ideas had been moved from an inventor, Chester Carlson, to create an industry, photo-copying and a multibillion dollar company, Xerox. Xerox then invested in a research facility, PARC, that hired ideas developed in a university, Stanford, with Government money, that led to a prototype computer from which an entrepreneur, Steve Jobs, borrowed ideas to revolutionise personal computing, and another, Bill Gates, borrowed again to deliver a product that really did put a computer in every home.

People who complain about that kind of borrowing have rarely delivered so much to so many.

Xerox never did make much money directly from their prototype computer or many other ideas that were (at least) in part funded by them, but they benefited from being at the centre of an innovation network as individuals left with ideas that were developed into other successful (or less successful) companies and industries.

The most famous of those spin-off companies were 3COM (with a market value of $1.7 billion) and Adobe (worth $22 billion) where individuals left with ideas that were judged to be non-compatible with Xerox's core objectives.

And while Xerox has been criticised for failing to realise the benefits of all this great thinking, it is not at all clear that they were in a position to develop the ideas in the way that they developed after they left the company.

The truth is that it is simply not possible for one company to realise the benefits of all its ideas because ideas need to come together with luck, judgement, skills, timing, motivation, and other ideas to form an innovation complete with a matching business model and delivery system.

The lesson is not that Xerox should have kept the ideas in-house or negotiated more lucrative licensing terms, or even that it should have focused its research exclusively on photo-copying. It's entirely probable that such ideas would have diverted focus, resources, and ultimately stagnated internally or even in some kind of separate division. Their eventual success owed more to ideas and people outside of Xerox than those that came from inside.

We can learn that there are ideas with unrealised potential lying unloved or under-developed in the heads of inventors, visionaries, universities, the factory floor, the retail park, the school yard, and particularly the research departments of large organizations. Microsoft and Apple did not have significant research facilities when they borrowed ideas from Xerox but they did have energy and insight.

Now that they both have research and development functions with a combined pure research budget of some $750 million annually, isn't it pretty likely that there are unloved ideas waiting to be adopted and developed? If only 10% of the budget generates such ideas then that's $75 million in unused ideas from just two companies.

The R&D spend for the USA is over $340 billion, Europe $233 billion, China $136 billion, while Japan invests over $130 billion. That's $839 billion of which, again, a conservative 10% is unused leaving $83 billion hanging around for someone to nurture and commercialise – adding a great business model to an original technological insight.

It does not seem a stretch to paraphrase John Donne, Jacobean poet, in saying that "No innovation is an island, entire of itself; every innovation is a piece of human knowledge, a part of the main."

Anything you ever do will be based on someone else's insight, idea, or innovation. So why not benefit from all that investment, go idea fishing, and innovate some new value of your own?

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

Love the article. is a great way to test the waters on any great business ideas you might have. The feedback and advice folks are getting on their ideas is really priceless and every month one idea wins $10,000 based on community votes to grow the idea. Jennifer Laycock at and Gayle Kesten at SmallBizResource both just wrote great articles about ideablob and how people are openly sharing their ideas on the site.

Allison Clark Chicago