Making Making Things Better Better

I’ve been hearing a lot about crowdsourcing lately.  In general it’s a good idea, tapping the collective brainpower of your fans or customer base to generate ideas you might normally have to rely on hired professionals for.  It’s been around for a long time, (think Betty Crocker recipe contests, American Idol or the 2002 vote for the new M&Ms color), but the Internet has made crowdsourcing infinitely easier and the scale infinitely larger.  The X Prize Foundation did this in 2004 when they offered a $10 million prize for the first reusable privately-built spacecraft.  $10 million may seem like a lot of money, but it’s a fraction of what it would have cost NASA to develop in both time and money.  Why?  Because they only had to pay for success.  They got the trial and error of the other contestants for free.

In a slightly different vein, Apple recently began offering free iPhone App development courses through Stanford University and iTunes.  The cost to Apple is minimal.  They just open up the developers’ software and course materials, all of which already exist.  In return they get a huge influx of iPhone Apps, all developed free.  They post the ones they like to their App Store, and sit back while they collect their share of the profits.  Of course, the developers are getting a great deal, too.  They’re getting everything they need, from the education to the the global distribution platform, to bring a useful and potentially profitable product to market.

And that’s what can be so great about crowdsourcing.  It’s symbiotic, mutually beneficial, win-win.  It’s become so popular that there’s even a crowdsourcing project designed to make crowdsourcing better (everything good goes meta).  It’s called “The Better Project,” and while it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of feedback yet, if I know the Intertubes, it’s only a matter of time.

So how can you use crowdsourcing in your small business?  It can be as simple as sending a survey, holding a contest, or opening up a blog post to comments.  You can also produce idea collections, as books, zines, bundles of fabric or free downloadable art.  You can even build your entire business around crowdsourcing, like Threadless or Prickie.  Either way, as long as your customers are getting something out of it, whether it’s a prize, a commission or just better products, they’ll be happy to share their knowledge.