Where Einstein Meets Edison

An IdeaStorm’s A Brewin’

An IdeaStorm’s A Brewin’

Apr 3, 2010

Wi-Fi enabled parking meters that automatically give you a ticket when your meter expires.Believe it or not, a group of 15 hyper-educated, TechCrunch reading, Red Bull sipping, pillars of the startup ecosystem came up with this idea.  Where, you ask?  IdeaStorm.

IdeaStorm engages students, engineers, entrepreneurs, and increasingly, investors, in an hour-long brainstorming session that generates a massive number of ideas in a fun and loose environment. Here’s how it works:

  1. Gather: Get a group of smart, creative people in a room.  After a short networking session, the whole group splits off into smaller teams of 10-15 people.
  2. Challenge: A moderator warms up everyone’s minds by asking the group a challenge question, like “What products can be improved with Wi-Fi?”  The question has to be suitably broad to get the group’s neurons firing.
  3. Collaborate: A startup founder asks the group for advice and ideas centered on challenges she is experiencing at her company.  The group collaborates and comes up with solutions.
  4. Pitch: Two or three people do unrehearsed elevator pitches about ideas that hit them in the shower this morning.
  5. Wrap up: Everyone reconvenes and votes by applause for the best and craziest ideas.

Many of the ideas are impractical and quite frankly unrealistic. But that’s the point – in a risk-free environment, smart people can let their imaginations go wild and come up with things nobody has considered. Participants then morph the initial ideas into concepts with potential.  In fact, at sessions I attended, several people talked about creating teams around ideas that came from an initially ill-considered concept.

A concept is all Adam Blake, Morgan Blake and Slava Menn had when they started IdeaStorm in September of 2009.  After starting at MIT Sloan, they looked for an outlet where they could brainstorm their crazy ideas. When they couldn’t find one, they decided to create one.  While it wasn’t originally an MIT club, Bill Aulet and Jose Pacheco at MIT’s Entrepreneurship Center immediately embraced it by signing on as sponsors and offering them space to hold the event.

Tim Rowe, CEO of Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), was one of those early sponsors. After IdeaStorm outgrew its space at MIT, Tim offered to hold the event at CIC’s offices across the street from MIT.  CIC’s mission to foster an entrepreneurial community in Cambridge was directly aligned with IdeaStorm’s goals.  “IdeaStorm is both fun and useful,” Rowe said.  “Building a startup is about combining the passion of an individual or team with as many resources as possible.  One of the most valuable resources is the experience and perspective of others.  IdeaStorm creates a safe environment for someone with an idea to get the feedback that they need, early on in the process, so that they can refine and improve their idea.  What could be more enjoyable and helpful?”

In addition, IdeaStorm is a good model for your company’s brainstorming sessions.  Indeed, IdeaStorm’s commandments promote healthy, non-judgmental brainstorming sessions.  The rules are as follows:

  1. Thou shalt not crap on ideas: Reserve judgment and your brainstorm will be rewarded with workable ideas that spring out of unworkable ones.  It’s a rule that innovation consulting firms like IDEO and frog design live by.
  2. Thou shalt love thy neighbor and her ideas: Remember that everyone in the room has to feel like they are in a safe place.  Otherwise, they won’t take risks with their ideas.
  3. Though shalt not hog the floor: A brainstorm dominator is as bad as someone that dismisses others’ ideas.  They close the floor to anyone with new thoughts. A moderator should tactfully move the conversation away from the dominator to others in the room.

So what’s the future of IdeaStorm?  “The event has doubled in size in two months and shows S-shaped growth”, according to Slava Menn.  On the potential of IdeaStorm, Menn elaborated, “We want to scale it up and make it the premier event to bring together talent from different disciplines.  When you bring together businesspeople, technologists, and investors, walls get broken down quickly and cross-pollination happens.”

While execution is the most important aspect of a startup, the ideation process is a key component throughout a new enterprise’s lifetime. Brainstorming sessions not only light the initial spark of a company, but also create the ideas that engender long-term innovation. Product features, business strategies, and monetization tactics all flow out of brainstorms.  It may sound complicated, but the IdeaStorm guys have boiled it down to a simple equation: Creative Ideas + Entrepreneurial Minds = Great Teams + Hot Startups.