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Magic Happens Here: The secret to harnessing the power of communities or Crowdsourcing 101

The secret to rallying people to your cause, harnessing the power of communities, and getting the crowdsourcing movement working for you.

There is a secret to harnessing the power of communities, to getting people to rally to your cause, and building enough momentum to carry you through the various cycles of innovation. It's a secret I've known about for a year or so, sharing only with a few friends & business associates, and now I'm sharing it with the world. The secret is to run really, really fast.

In 2005 computer programmer Katie Lucas wrote an excellent article on the reality behind various software development methodologies, and she summed up that reality in this rather humorous way:

It's like having a methodology for running the 100m.

"Step 1: write about running really fast. Step 2: Go and draw a plan of the racetrack. Step 3: go and buy really tight lycra shorts. Step 4: run really, really, really fast. Step 5: cross line first"

It's that step 4 that's the tough one. But if you put lots of emphasis on 1,2,3 and 5 it's possible no-one will notice and then you could probably make a lot of money selling the methodology to would be athletes who think there's some "secret" to being a 100m runner over and above being born with the ability to run fast.

She calls it the “magic happens here” step. The hard work that has to happen despite all the other techniques and best practices you may have surrounding it. It turns out that the “magic happens here” step is not just what we'd all love to avoid & why we attend conferences & buy books on personal productivity, but it's also the secret to building a community around your cause.

Sites like Twitter and Facebook have everyone buying in to the Field of Dreams idea of “if you build it, they will come.” People believe that the platform is enough, but the platform isn't enough. The platform is the methodology, but you still need the “magic happens here” step to attract people to your community.

In other words, you need to put in the hard work.

In 2003 a pale, pudgy computer nerd named John Stone posted some pictures of himself in his underwear for his friends & family to laugh at. The idea was that this would motivate him to start dieting & exercising. The trick worked & now he has a vibrant internet community of people trying to do the same thing. He writes articles & endorses products, and is generally doing rather well for himself and gets an estimated 200,000 visitors to his website every month.

The difference between John Stone & any fitness site I may want to create is that he put in the hard work. I'm still a pudgy computer nerd, but he made magic happen. He ran really, really, really fast.

Everyone wants to believe in their ability to leverage their skills and talents and do something amazing - but with relatively little effort. It's this belief that drive the “we bring your ideas to market” industry (you know, from the late night TV commercials - "call for your free inventor's kit"). The self-improvement section of the book store is filled with books promising a 4 Hour Workweek or The Simple Rule for Getting What You Want. The truth is, these books are all methodologies & skip over the “magic happens here” step just like every other methodology, which is why only a tiny tiny percentage of the people who read these books are actually successful. Results are definitely not typical. Incidentally, the 4 Hour Workweek guy owned a successful mail order vitamin company by the time he decided to cut back his work week. He definitely did not spend 4 hours a week building that company from scratch.

A few years ago, I came up with something I call The Icing Theory. It came at a time when I was reading a lot of books on marketing, sales and advertising, and I realized that most of these books focused on the icing - the things that may make may make a subtle difference once you're already in motion, but that completely ignore the core skills required to get from point A to point B. They focused on the icing & not on the meat & potatoes. Sort of like discussing the color of the car that will best get you from New York to California. Their methodologies may make a small difference (red cars are more likely to get you pulled over by the cops), but it's negligible at best & completely irrelevant to whether or not the car or your ability to drive it will get you to California.

In the mid nineties I learned about an organization called The Beehive Collective (now defunct). They were a group of programmers, who came up with ideas, rallied other programmers to work with them on their projects, and formed mini-companies to build, market, and sell these products. It was a brilliant idea. It was also a near total failure. Nobody wanted to put in the work on someone else's idea, and the person who came up with the idea was assuming that someone else would take care of the "magic happens here" step of bringing the project over the hump of nothing to something.

The same situation exists in the Open Source community today - the vast majority of open source projects are empty. They never get out of the planning stage. The person who conceived of it either assumed that the mythical open source community would swarm in & take up the cause, or the person who conceived of it ran out of steam because the project didn't really mean that much to him.

This is a good thing. It means that the only projects that get off the ground are the ones with strong leaders & a real community need. Everyone in the open source world knows that Linus Torvolds is the guy who wrote Linux, and who is still in charge of the Linux Kernel (the core of the operating system is called the Kernel). He's the guy who put in all the hard work to create Linux. He made magic happen. Now the number of people that contribute to Linux is huge. By number of developers, it's probably the largest software project ever. Linus took care of the big hump, so that thousands of programmers around the world could take care of the smaller ones.

Last Thursday at The 99% Conference, I saw Robert Hammond, President & Co-Founder of Friends of the Highline, an organization dedicated to preserving & renewing an historical elevated rail system in New York City by turning them into parks. He struck me as the perfect example of someone who ran really, really fast.

Robert spoke about being astounded by the success of his project - that he could start a successful non-profit and eventually manage a hundred-million dollar city project. He attributes a lot of his success to synergy - to being in the right place at the right time, to the lucky things that happened along the way, but none of that synergy would have happened if he hadn't been willing to put in the hard work.

He held fund raisers, he held a competition to bring awareness to his cause, he commissioned feasibility studies he commissioned studies to show how much tax revenue having these parks would bring the city over a 20 year span vs. the cost to build it, he talked to architects & designers, he called news media, he hired the lawyers to fight building projects that would destroy the Highline, and in general, he put in the hard work, and has been putting in the hard work for a decade.

It was once he started doing the work that he found out that politicians latched on to this cause because it meant people outside their normal constituency were paying attention to them (equals more voters in more demographics), and it was once he put in the hard work that he found out that the news media loves talking to people like him & hate talking to PR agencies. It was once he started doing he work that people were able to rally around his cause.

So the secret to building online communities, the secret to crowdsourcing is to put in the hard work. People will rally around a cause that's already going somewhere - that has a history and a future. That has hard work already put in to it, and will continue to have hard work put into it. People will put in some amount of effort - and most people will put in a very small amount of effort - to be part of something bigger than themselves. As long as you're willing to do the hard work & make the magic happen, other people are willing to be a part of the magic.

The secret to running a 5k marathon isn't getting 20 of your friends to run 5% of the way for you. The secret is to run the marathon yourself & get your friends to stand by the side of the road passing off cups of water.

Mark Wieczorek - April 18, 2009

© Mark Wieczorek