Open up

A couple of years ago, a co-founder of an EPFL start-up came to me for help. Their html5 video player had just gotten fantastic reviews on gizmodo, and they wanted to make sure the English on their website was good. I suggested a few corrections, he asked me how much they owed me, and I said it was on the house. I thought their product was great, their enthusiasm was palpable, and I knew they probably didn’t have much money. He was very appreciative.

A few weeks ago, I translated an EPFL press release about another start-up. I visited the company’s website to check some details, and noticed that it had some serious problems. I wrote the two young co-founders an e-mail, telling them that I would be willing to help them polish the English on their website. I didn’t mention money explicitly, but I hinted that I was prepared to spend a couple of hours working for free, like I had with Jilion.

No response. Not even a No, thank you.

I mentioned this to a friend in EPFL’s tech transfer office. He said that it might partly be because in Europe, people don’t always welcome unsolicited e-mails; it makes them “feel attacked.” I ruminated about history and culture, thinking about all the good reasons why Americans and Europeans have such fundamentally different attitudes.

Then I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, and it hit home even harder.

I couldn’t imagine Steve Jobs not responding to an e-mail telling him his website needed work. (In truth, I can’t imagine him putting up a website with shoddy content, but, well, you get the idea.)

The old days of closed networks, high-priced expertise, jobs open exclusively for those with the right credentials or perfect portfolios, prohibitively high startup costs – those days are over. Anyone can write an app. Anyone can publish a song or a book. Anyone can write a blog. And anyone can find those amazing apps, songs, books, and blogs and share them with everyone else they know. With the Internet, we’re all benefiting from our collective intelligence more than ever before.

This new way of doing business bypasses traditional gatekeepers. It’s not about making as much money as you possibly can; it’s about opening things up, sharing your expertise, ideas, and enthusiasm, and getting good stuff out there. In an environment where attention is at a premium, shutting the door and making your stuff exclusive is exactly the wrong thing to do.

What’s the point of keeping your stuff to yourself? Maybe your idea is great, but if you don’t put it out there, how will you know? How will you get input to help make it better, so that someone will care about it and maybe even one day pay real money for it or something else you dream up?

And what’s the point of ignoring other people’s stuff or keeping it to yourself, either? If it’s really good, tell them so. Then share it. Maybe even help fund it. If you think you can help make it better, offer your expertise. There’s a big collective game going on in the playground of the Internet. Why not play?

There is, of course, a balance that must be struck. You can only spam people with me, me, me so much before they stop paying attention and block you. And you can only rant so much before people get miffed and tune you out.

To be successful on the long term, to become part of the signal and not part of the noise, I believe you have to be honest and polite. I believe you have to have something of real value to offer. And I believe you have to give as much as you take, if not more. In fact, I believe the old saying is true: What goes around, comes around.

So, apparently, does business guru Seth Godin:

… The connection economy multiplies the value of what is contributed to it. It’s based on abundance, not scarcity, and those that opt out, fall behind. Sharing your money, your ideas, your insights, your confidence… all of these things return to you. Perhaps not in the way you expected, and certainly not with a guarantee, but again and again the miser falls behind.

Earlier today a friend traveling in Cambodia put up a link on Facebook to a blog that mentions Simon Beck, a guy who spends his days walking around in snowshoes in French ski resorts, making incredible designs in the snow, like the one in the photo above. His artwork is stunning, huge — and achingly ephemeral. It can disappear in a puff of wind, a warm spell, a snowstorm.

The real take-home lesson is that I learned about this thing – which is  happening very close to where I live – not from a local newspaper or someone who had actually seen it in person, but from someone traveling in Cambodia.

That’s the beauty of our interconnected world.


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