Startups Are A Remix

Copy Transform Combine“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

Steve Jobs, Co-Founder Apple, NeXT Computing and Pixar

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Everything Is A Remix – Including Your Startup

If you have not yet discovered Everything Is A Remix, I strongly encourage you to invest the time to check it out. Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson has created a collection of short films which beautifully underscore Mr. Jobs’ definition of creativity (the term beautiful is appropriate here, as the production values are sweet).

In Part I, Kirby illustrates the derivative nature of popular music. Highlighting, among other things, how Led Zeppelin blatantly ripped off numerous American blues musicians. In contrast, many of Zeppelin’s rock-n-roll contemporaries created music that paid tribute to those who influenced them, without completely hijacking the original artists’ inspirations.

Part II explores cinema, pointing out that of the top ten grossing films from each of the last ten years, 74 out of 100 are either sequels, new versions of previously released films, or theatrical adaptations of stories first published in print. According to Kirby, “Transforming the old into the new, is Hollywood’s greatest talent.”

Of particular interest to entrepreneurs, Part III discusses the creative process of technical innovations. Kirby opens this video by stating:

“Creativity isn’t magic. It happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials. And the soil from which we grow our creations is something we scorn and misunderstand, even though it gives us so much, and that’s COPYING.

Nobody starts out original. We need copying to build a foundation of knowledge and understanding, and after that, things can get interesting.” (emphasis added)

Kirby goes on to identify the basic elements of creativity as: Copy, Transform and Combine.

Incremental advances often arise from transformations, whereas disruptive, discontinuous and radical innovations are usually the result of combinations. At the risk of undoubtedly offending some readers, here are a few highly subjective examples of each school of musical creativity.

Copier: Led Zeppelin <Don’t believe me? Watch Part I>, Jet, Beyoncé

Transformer: Eric Clapton, Public Enemy, N.W.A.

Combiner: The Beatles, Run-D.M.C., Grandmaster Flash

I implore you to watch Everything Is A Remix, especially Part III. The collective 28-minutes required to view the videos will net you far more than another episode of Modern Family. After you watch the series, please come back and read the remainder of this entry.

Drawing The Line Between Borrowing And Theft

There are a number of actions you can take to mitigate the degree to which your creations are tainted by the perception of thievery. Some of these tactics include:

Novel – If you simply create a derivative of something that has come before, put on your ski mask. Strive to transform what has come before into something that has not previously existed, rather than crafting pale imitations.

As noted in What Color Are Your Elephant’s Sunglasses, the large majority of research and development expenditures are spent on product features (e.g., smaller, faster, cheaper, lighter, etc.) Ironically, studies have shown that the majority of value associated with high-tech innovations involve unique advancements in non-product areas, such as: pricing (SaaS subscriptions vs. licensing), delivery (downloads vs. retail) and customer experience (Apple vs. Microsoft).

Attribution – Although giving credit to your inspirations does not absolve you of theft, it certainly reduces the appearance of pilfering. Lack of attribution is one of the reasons critics have attacked Jet, Led Zeppelin and other derivative musical acts. By not citing the original source of their lyrics, riffs and melodies, they highlight the nefarious nature of their lack of creativity.

George Clinton's Atomic DogSeveral years ago I passed a staff person’s office which was blaring Snoop’s “Who Am I?” which is based on Parliament’s song “Atomic Dog” (you have no doubt heard it - “Bow wow wow yippie yo yippie yay”). I asked the staff person if he was a fan of Parliament and his response was, “What’s Parliament?”

As we talked, it was clear that he assumed Snoop had written the song. And with good reason, as the complete liner notes of the 1993 release were, “Produced By: Dr. Dre.” Clear attribution by Snoop would have educated the young staff person, and millions of others, regarding classic, old-school funk.

Permission – Written permission is, with or without compensation, a great way to validate the integrity of your creations. Asking permission is just downright polite and might ultimately lead to collaboration.

Collaboration – Share your results, data, customer feedback, fans, etc. with those who inspire you. Such sharing might solicit the input of someone who previously inspired you, which could potentially propel your creativity energies into the powerful third realm of creativity: combination.

Compensation – In the abstract, paying someone for their contribution to your creation is ideal. Unfortunately, most of us live in the real world, where it is difficult to parse creativity and agree upon fair recompense for each party. However, the fact that determining evenhanded compensation can be difficult, does not absolve you from the responsibility of addressing this issue.

If you have previously given attribution, asked permission and shared the results of your work with the part(ies) who inspired you, you will be well positioned to reach an equitable economic outcome.

Creatively Destruct Something

Academics love to espouse the merits of Creative Destruction, which is the obvious (yet valid) concept that business innovations are built upon the destruction of those processes and technologies which came before. Like music, movies and blog entries, startups are a remix of that which came before.

Case in point, in addition to Kirby’s films, this article was inspired by a Malcolm Gladwell article, entitled, Something Borrowed, which I read several years ago. I purposely did not re-read it until I completed this entry, in the hopes that my thoughts would be closer to transformative, rather than mere regurgitation. You be the judge.

Note: On May 16th, 2011, The New Yorker published an excellent article by Malcolm entitled, Creation Myth. It is an excellent adjunct to Kirby’s third video installment.

Image Source: Capital Records’ “Atomic Dog” vinyl release

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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