Bill Taylor: American Idol, Open Source&

& And the million-dollar idea inside you. A look at the Big Idea Group

Posted on Game Changer: March 28, 2008 1:53 PM

Maybe it's the ongoing popularity of American Idol. Or perhaps it's the tale of Paul Potts, who went from mobile-phone salesman to global celebrity with his victory on Britain's Got Talent. Whatever the reason, more and more people believe that they too possess some "hidden genius": a flair for design, a knack for writing, a gift for invention. If only there were a stage on which they could strut their stuff and win applause, acclaim and even financial rewards.

Actually, there are plenty of such stages. In all sorts of fields. With all kinds of rewards. That's the message of Michael Collins, an entrepreneur and "idea scout" who has become a kind of Simon Cowell for the creative economy (minus the bad attitude). Collins has a company, called the Big Idea Group (BIG), that organizes "roadshows" in which aspiring inventors display new gadgets, cool products, or hot technologies. If Collins and his panel of judges discover a killer idea, they help the inventor find a company to manufacture or license it.

More importantly, though, Collins enrolls the most impressive roadshow participants, whether they have a winning idea or not, into a giant database, which now numbers some 13,000 inventors. Companies eager to solve a technical problem or design a new product then hire BIG, which unleashes its collective brainpower in an "Idea Hunt" to make the innovation process faster, cheaper, and more creative. The firm has conducted Idea Hunts for giants such as Staples and Kraft Foods. And WPP, the London-based marketing giant, has bought a stake in BIG.

The most powerful ideas often come from the most unexpected places. That's why, Collins explains, companies "are now offering everyone the chance to be part of an open innovation process, to submit product ideas, share their creativity, influence the types of products and services offered."

Now Collins has a new target for his message: you and me. He has written a book, just published today, called The Million-Dollar Idea in Everyone. It is both a manifesto for why you should embrace the phenomenon of open innovation, and a manual for how to do it. So many of us, he argues, have skills, interests, passions, and insights that we can't maximize (or even exercise) in our work lives. What's different about today's environment is that there are opportunities for "everyday experts" to show what they know—and, in the process, to enhance their reputation and maybe even change the course of their career.

"This is an old idea for a new time," says Collins. "Young people in particular understand how important it is to build their personal brand. With the rise of open innovation, the opportunity to express your talents and interests is an order of magnitude greater than it's ever been."

There are all sorts of models to consider. Collins likes the down-to-earth story of Laura Cunitz, who walked away from an 18-year marketing career with IBM to pursue her true passion—knitting. Cunitz was a telecommuter during part of her career at IBM, and sought out human contact through a part-time job at a knitting store. She discovered that she had a gift for teaching and coaching knitters, especially those with complicated projects. So she quit IBM and started her own online company, Bella Knitting, to turn her passion into a career.

Or consider this below-the-earth story that I uncovered a few years ago. A Canadian gold-mining company organized an open-source challenge—inviting geologists from around the world to submit their best ideas for where this company should drill for gold. The contest caught the eye of an Australian engineer by the name of Nick Archibald, who had developed much-admired technology for oil-and-gas exploration. Archibald believed that his technology could also work for minerals such as gold, so he entered (and won) the contest, earned a huge prize, and became an instant celebrity—the Paul Potts of mining. His notoriety helped him to start his own company and issue shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

You don't always get to apply your real talents and passions at work. But there are plenty of chances to share them with the world—and, in the process, to enhance your work and maybe even change your career. What's the "million-dollar idea" inside you?

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.