What If Q&A: What Should I Do To Spread My Idea?

What If Q&A: What Should I Do To Spread My Idea?

Rajoshi Gosh in Chennai, India sent me this question via email; I am a startup founder in the developing world.1 How should I go about making the right connections in the developed world for:

  1. A product that is global in nature?
  2. A product that is specific to the developing world?

I will paraphrase Rajoshi’s question, and try to outline an answer to a not dissimilar question; How do I help to spread my idea?

But, I digress. Because I know what Rajoshi has been working on, I know why she asked that question; Her startup is launching its first product, and she wants to generate some awareness.

Jason L. Baptiste, author of The Ultralight Startup, penned a great blog post that answers Rajoshi’s more specific question.2 I suggest you read that post for an outline of the tactics that worked for him, and that you might use yourself. There are a few very minor bits of insight I would add, but overall Jason does a phenomenal job of laying out how one might go about solving the kind of problem that is confronting Rajoshi and her colleagues at this moment.

Now, back to the more general conversation about how one might spread one’s ideas. I will start with the general notion that ideas spread because people care about the ideas, and start talking about them to other people. Ideas are spread by people. Sometimes it is easy for us to forget that. In the following discussion I will use Rajoshi as my protagonist.

Epidemiology3 is the study of how disease outbreaks occur. An epidemic occurs when a disease outbreak exceeds what one might expect under normal conditions, within a relatively small area and group of people, over a given period. Disease causation, transmission and propagation need a number of factors. First, there must be an agent capable of causing the disease. Second, there needs to be a host that is vulnerable to the agent. Third, the agent and the host must meet one another in an environment that allows them to interact with one another.

The disease-causing agent must have three characteristics: infectivity, pathogenicity, and virulence. Infectivity refers to the agent’s capacity to cause infection in the host. Pathogenicity describes the capacity of the agent to cause an outbreak of disease in the host. Virulence describes with which the disease occurs, and the speed with which it spreads.4

Potential hosts too must have characteristics that are important to consider. A host might be immune, in which case the agent will fail in its bid to cause a disease outbreak in that specific host. A host might be already infected, in which case there’s no point for the agent to keep trying to cause the disease in that specific host. Finally, a host might be susceptible. This is the kind of host that every disease-causing agent seeks.

So how is this analogous to Rajoshi’s predicament? She is our agent. She has an idea that she wants to spread. Her first task is to find a small group of people who are already talking about the idea she wants to spread. This group of people represents the host. It is likely they are not having a discussion about the concept in a formulation that is exactly the same as Rajoshi’s expression of the idea. That’s okay. This group of people exhibits the quality of susceptibility. They are very likely receptive to listening to Rajoshi talk about her idea. This group is likely to engage her in discussion about her idea, and members of this group are also more likely to volunteer towards helping her spread the idea. Because Rajoshi’s idea is similar to the idea they have already discussed, it is likely that people in this group will talk to other people they know about Rajoshi’s idea without her knowing it. In other words, they are likely to become agents themselves, propagating her idea as they tell their friends about it.

So how does Rajoshi prepare herself to propel her idea once she finds this small group of people who are open to hearing her idea and engaging in an exchange with her about it? As it relates to her idea, how does she cultivate the quality of pathogenicity within herself? Jason says in his blog post that a startup should be prepared technically before it seeks PR. This is also true of Rajoshi. Before finding a group of people who would be receptive to her idea, she should prepare to discuss her idea in substantial detail. Ideally, by the time she does this she and her colleagues should have developed a list of frequently asked questions that they expect will arise when other people encounter their idea for the first time, and they should have prepared answers to the questions they expect to arise often. This is important because many smart people are skeptics at first. They will ask questions about how something works. They will ask about why an alternative solution to a problem was not used. They will challenge some of the assumptions that Rajoshi and her colleagues have made. If this happens, Rajoshi needs to have prepared well-thought answers. Her answers will prove that she’s thought carefully about what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. How she answers such questions can suggest that this is a solution that may indeed work to solve the problem she’s trying to solve, or may suggest that she is not to be taken seriously. No one I know wants to waste their time with something that will not last because the people who should be most invested do not care enough to develop answers to basic questions about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing it. It will be easier for others to embrace her idea if they believe that it is an idea that will stand the test of time. If someone raises a question that she and her team had not considered, it makes sense for her to ask for help developing the skeleton of a possible answer. That gets the person that raised the question invested in solving the problem they have pointed out. Rajoshi needs to communicate her idea in a way that is persuasive and convincing if she expects other people to adopt her idea as their own and to spread it to other people who Rajoshi is unable to reach directly.

This brings us to the notion of virulence. How does Rajoshi make sure her idea is adopted and spoken about enthusiastically by other people?

Atul Gawande discussed this in a recent article published in the New Yorker.5 I will try to paraphrase the conclusions that he reaches in that article, but I urge you to read it for yourself.
First, Rajoshi must make her idea simple to understand and explain to other people. While it is okay if the underlying concept is technically complex, the way the idea is communicated must be devoid of unnecessary complexity. It must be simple, and easy to remember. Second, the primary benefits of the idea must be experienced by the group of people who Rajoshi hopes will adopt and then spread her idea. We are all inherently selfish beings. I find it easy to remember to excitedly tell my friend about how much a new app I have downloaded has made my life much easier. I find it more difficult to tell my friend about a new app I discovered which will make her life much easier. Third, for Rajoshi’s idea to gain massive adoption, assuming the first two conditions have been met, it helps if the cost of adopting her idea is relatively low. An app with a single step sign-on and registration will be adopted more readily than one that has a two-step sign-on and registration process. All else equal, an Internet product that allows a prospective user to try the product for free before signing up for a paid subscription for additional features will gain more adoption than one that does not allow a free trial of any kind. Fourth, if people are going to adopt and then spread Rajoshi’s idea she must get to know them and they must get to know her. Mr. Gawande describe’s a pharmaceutical sales rep’s practice of “touching a doctor seven times” in order to get the doctor to change from prescribing one medication to prescribing a new one that the sale rep’s employer wants to sell to the doctor’s patients.6 Last, people respond positively to others that they consider “nice” – remember that spreading ideas is fundamentally about people. Mr. Gawande’s article ends with an interview between him and a birth attendant in India regarding the extent to which the birth attendant had adopted recommended practices that BetterBirth, an organization dedicated to improving maternal and infant care during childbirth, had introduced to her through a series of site-visits with a much younger nurse, who had only a fraction of the experience of the birth-attendant. As it turns out, contrary to expectations the birth attendant had in fact made a lot of changes based on her interaction with the nurse. The birth attendant said she made the changes suggested by the BetterBirth nurse because the nurse ” . . . was nice”,  among other things.

It is easy to think we should remain faceless, and rely on technology to spread our ideas. It seems easier to craft one email and send it to 500 people from our contact list all at once. It seems easier to simply send one tweet to our hundreds of followers, or to simply post a Facebook status update to our friends telling them about the idea we wish to spread. That assumption is not borne out by empirical evidence. In and of itself, technology is not enough.

Technology in the form of email, social networking, communication tools like Skype, Google Hangouts, etc provide the environment in which Rajoshi can communicate her ideas to other people. However, she must harness that technology in non-scalable ways at the outset – having one-on-one interactions with the people she identifies as most likely to be open to adopting her idea. As this process continues, the group of people who have encountered, accepted and made her idea a part of their world view will grow. They too will spread the idea to other people. As the process continues her idea will begin to spread and gain currency, with technology playing an enabling role.

To quote from Atul Gawande’s article;

“Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.




  1. She is the co-founder of 34Cross. Their first product, Owlink, is a browser extension that is now available for Chrome. Rajoshi tells me versions for Firefox and Safari are in the pipeline. We have known one another since 2011 when we worked together while she was a teaching fellow at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology in Accra, Ghana. You can check out Owlink here. ?
  2. Jason L. Baptiste, How I Pitched @TechCrunch and 13 Ways to Get Press When You Launch Your Startup, accessed at http://jasonlbaptiste.com on August 3, 2013. ?
  3. I have adapted this description of disease transmission from the description provided online at http://www.epidemiologyschools.com/intro/index4.html which I accessed on August 3, 2013. Any similarities are deliberate. ?
  4. It is not a coincidence that the term viral marketing and viral coefficient have been adopted widely. ?
  5. Atul Gawande, Slow Ideas, New Yorker, July 29, 2013. Accessed at http://www.newyorker.com on August 3, 2013 ?
  6. This might mean that one should not wait till the last minute before one engages with the people one would like to adopt and then spread one’s ideas in the future. ?

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