My Idea Informants

Jul 20, 2011 Back to blog

"The future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed.” - William Gibson

“An informant. You ain't got no informants on the dock? Someone you could go to on this? Someone you got a history with? They say a police is only as good as his informants.” – Bunk, The Wire, Episode 18

Last weekend, at General Assembly, I was on a panel about venture capital with Jordan Cooper and Charlie O’Donnell.  Someone asked if investors bet on which new technologies (in contrast to new companies) will be winners.  It got me thinking.

VCs invest in the application of new technology, not the underlying technology itself.  But the world moves so fast that this is now a distinction without a difference:  if you don’t quickly form a view on the technology layer it’s impossible to back the companies that will win by exploiting it.

Charlie raised the example of QR codes and how investors in stickybits are effectively betting on QR code adoption.  The same can be said for start-ups that leverage NFC, node.js, augmented reality, Bitcoin, etc.

I try to understand the potential of disruptive new ideas as early as I can.  They are key inputs to generating investment themes.  I can be more helpful to entrepreneurs and our portfolio companies if I can draw their attention to emerging risks or opportunities.  And it’s simply fun to learn.

But you have to look for them at the "edge" of Gibson's bell curve if you want to think about them before others.  So here are some of the less obvious places where I learn about new ideas – before they hit TechCrunch and other mainstream sources.  A few of my informants, so to speak:

Hackers and tinkerers.  I still read 2600.  I explore the apps in Jailbroken app stores like Cydia (where Qik first resided and where Apple found its inspiration for their new notification system)

IRC.  Off the beaten path, stuck in the pre-social web era, but still an amazing place to chat about all things technical with people in the know

Web forums.  Reddit (tech) and Hacker News are good, but I try to spend more time browsing the long-tail of web forums on specific topics.  Also, the comments are almost always better than the “real” content

The labs.  I’m partial to places like MIT and ITP.  Both have fantastic events year round, and the people are fascinating and insightful

Gatherings.  From TED and Edge to the local tech meet-ups and everything in between

My friends.  I surround myself with people as curious as I am;  ultimately there's no better source.

Who are your idea informants?