What The Newest Wave Of The Collaborative Economy Means For Big Brands

Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a promising side venture, hitRECord. It’s a collaborative production company in which creatives from around the world make and remix art together—films, songs, stories, even TV shows—which hitRECord packages and markets like a traditional media production company. Since 2010, hitRECord has paid more than $1.5 million to participants. Earlier this year, Gordon-Levitt announced a “huge spike” in people joining; clearly he’s tapped into a potent idea. 

The hitRECord model builds on an age-old recipe of greatness born out of super-creative communities, in which people with diverse backgrounds and skills come together to innovate and collaborate. We’ve seen it work time and again, from the artists and artisans who came together in Florence and gave birth to the Italian Renaissance, to the origins of jazz in the melting pot of New Orleans, to the spirit of radical collaboration in the nascent programming community that transformed home computing and, ultimately, life on earth, giving rise to a world of iPhones, Twitter and an on-demand sharing economy. We see it everyday in Wikipedia. 



And yet, this particular model for radical, free-spirited collaboration poses a direct challenge to big, established brands in the entertainment industry and beyond. Gordon-Levitt brilliantly compensates and credits the people who contribute to hitRECord projects, giving them the incentive to keep contributing, which fosters a sustainable collaborative business.

It should be noted that hitRECord isn’t the only enterprise to tap into that basic idea. Lynda.com has built a successful collaborative education company (so successful it was acquired by LinkedIn a year ago), in which users customize their own educations by taking classes from individual teacher/contributors, whose compensation is tied to the popularity of their classes.

Yelp has completely disrupted the market for restaurant reviews through the Yelp Elite Squad, in which users who write great reviews—which, combined, amount to a constantly updated collaborative anthology of quality restaurant criticism—are incentivized to keep contributing not with cash but by being invited into an exclusive group with access to special events and promotions. 

The hitRECord model has produced some outstanding art, including an Emmy award-winning series “HitRecord on TV,” half a dozen short films screened at the Sundance Film Festival, plus several books and albums. I predict we’ll soon see this model of sustainable mass collaboration—of sharing of ideas and helping others succeed—applied to more enterprises beyond the art world. The shoe company Fluevog has been soliciting successful designs from customers for years.

Last year, Frito-Lay unveiled a line of “Southern Biscuits and Gravy”-flavored chips—something we can all be grateful for—as a result of a customer suggestion in its third “Do Us A Flavor” contest. Brands would do well to take that spirit of engagement with the customer a step further. It’s time to encourage not just customer suggestions but customer collaboration.

Customers in the age of social media crave deep connections with brands and with each other, and they’re eager to offer up feedback, voice their opinions and contribute ideas. Companies that bring customers into their innovation process will break out of slow, expensive and outdated product development routines. And brands that don’t collaborate with their customers will increasingly face the threat of being overtaken by brands that do. 

Of course, being open to new ideas and collaborative creativity is not without risk. Large-scale enterprises put a lot at stake in the innovation process and, though developing products in secret followed by a big reveal may be becoming largely a thing of the past, controlling parts of the process to protect a brand or shield sensitive information is not. Companies may need safe spaces that facilitate open exchange without putting them at risk, but that should not stop them from fostering collaborative conversations with their customers. 

As Joseph Gordon-Levitt has shown, extraordinary creativity is possible when people work together in a spirit of openness and generosity. Models for sustainable mass collaboration like hitRECord’s have the potential to radically transform how innovation happens far beyond the world of arts and entertainment. For anyone excited about what human ingenuity will create next, this is cause for hope and celebration. It’s not a question of whether this will happen but of when, and of who will be the leaders in embracing collaborative innovation.

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