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When Customers Create Your Assets

If someone, in 1850, had told PT Barnum that they had a system in which customers worked long hours in their spare time to create the substance of a product which they then gave freely to a business which packaged it and sold it back to them, he might have said “Poppycock!”. Surely, even the greatest huckster of all time would see this for the impossibility that it is. And yet, this is the world that we live in, and the economic climate that we are doing business in.

If someone, in 1850, had told PT Barnum that they had a system in which customers worked long hours in their spare time to create the substance of a product which they then gave freely to a business which packaged it and sold it back to them, he might have said “Poppycock!”. Surely, even the greatest huckster of all time would see this for the impossibility that it is. And yet, this is the world that we live in, and the economic climate that we are doing business in. Understanding how to harness this grassroots power of value creation is key to survival in the new marketplace created by the information ubiquity of the Internet.

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How is it that publication has moved from magazines like Popular Mechanics in the 1940s and 1950s, where the flow of information was from the few writers to the many readers, to new publications like Readymade and Make Magazine, which rely heavily on reader contributions for content. Often, reader projects are time intensive, and required research and learning to execute. This is quite a step up from the “monthly tip contest” that Pop Mech used to run in its early days.

The obvious changing factor has been the growth of the Internet. With access to a tutorial on practically any basic building problem, and detailed descriptions of exactly how to build many higher level projects, the traditional boundaries to customer creativity are coming down.

I think though, a more subtle and crucial component to the emergence of these successes has been the recognition that ideas exist at all times in the “average” population, and it is only a matter of removing barriers to entry to let them out. A site like Instructables, or Flickr does this. Flickr, for example, has spawned a multitude of creative image processing programs, all of which were just waiting in somebody’s brain for an easily accessible database of images to plug into. Other sites, like new kid on the block Blankmakes want to remove social barriers, like the stigma of appearing in online videos (and looking like a dork). Visitors of the site are encouraged to use a downloadable mask to assume a new “open source” identity — Blank — and then send in links to the videos they create with him.

This is Fast Company though, not “Fast Internet”, so I want to bring this back to brick and mortar. The key to all this is that your customer base has so much knowledge and power for creating contained within it, and your job as an insightful businessperson is to remove the barriers to let that power for your group cause. Maybe you can form a group knowledge base for broken product fixes, and get involved yourself to encourage better customer participation and satisfaction in having their devices — computers, toasters, whatever — serviced right. Maybe it’s some sort of incentive system which gets word of mouth going in the community, because your customers needed just a little push to start talking. Or, maybe you can create something as moving as what Geocaching did for the GPS industry, opening up an entirely new niche market of gamer-GPSers. Who would have guessed.

Maybe next year people will say that about you.