You may know Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the award-winning actor who starred in Inception, Snowden, The Dark Knight Rises, or 10 Things I Hate About You, but one of his less-publicised accolades is that he is also the co-founder of a tech company with collaboration at its core – something it has in common with open source culture, writes Nuno Martins, Senior Solution Architect, Red Hat Sub-Saharan Africa.

For this reason, Joseph joined the Red Hat Summit in April 2021 to share his views on the power of creative collaboration. Here is what I learned from the creative tech-entrepreneur, and what I think other business leaders can learn too.

Growing the ‘GitHub for creativity’

Joseph’s company, HitRecord, which has been referred to as the ‘GitHub for creativity’, is an online platform where people from all over the world can work together on creative projects. From writers, illustrators, or musicians to modest hobbyists with a penchant for creativity, HitRecord creates a shared space where anyone can post their artistic projects and find collaborators to help turn them into a reality. When projects earn revenue, contributors are paid based on how much of their work makes it into the final product.

What started out in 2005 as an online message board used for creative feedback is now a full-scale production company. It has produced a variety of books, short films, and commercials for big brands, and has won two Emmys. The HitRecord community has evolved into an inclusive platform focused on user-made projects and harnessing the power of collaborative creation.

Creating as a community

Joseph has criticised popular social media platforms for having an ‘attention-driven model’ that leaves users feeling inadequate and less creative. While these platforms have created an avenue for people to raise their voices, he believes that they have not done a good job at productively combining those voices because everyone is in competition with one another. Social media platforms allow people to show what they have done or made, often for the sake of getting likes or followers, but they cannot make things together.

Joseph wanted to create a space where that was possible. He believes that collaboration is the internet’s greatest potential, and his most influential thinking about HitRecord was inspired by Lawrence Lessig, founding member of Creative Commons and pioneer of the free-culture movement. Like Lawrence, Joseph supports the free exchange of creative works and ideas – a view that closely aligns with the ethos of open source software communities.

Open source coding communities have leveraged the free exchange of code to build technologies such as Linux, Kubernetes, or TensorFlow that power the cloud, devices, communications, and almost anything else you can think of. It also has a vast community of coders who provide instruction, support, and guidance to each other without payment and without the limitation of having to create something all on their own.

Joseph has hit on something that the open source community has known for years, and that business leaders should pay attention to: people find joy and motivation in the process of creating something collectively. With people and perspectives from diverse backgrounds coming together, every small contribution leads to a product that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Leadership in an open environment

Open communities are not hierarchical, but that doesn’t mean there is an absence of leadership. Rather, it means that anybody can contribute to earn their place as a leader. When Joseph works on a film set, he explains, every department has a unique role to play, and it is the director’s job to make sure they are all on the same page.

A director has the creative vision, but everyone contributes to realising that vision. The director should ask: What is the movie about? What should the movie feel like, or what should it mean to our audience? And if the ideas of others working on the film align with these principles, a good director will listen to them.

Applying this to a more traditional business context, and following the example of Tony Hsieh, renowned internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Joseph doesn’t see a company’s core values as just a plaque on the wall, but a mantra for every business activity. He believes that leadership should always come from a place of principles, and the community should guide you towards them. Like Tony, Joseph wrote his company’s core values collaboratively with his whole company. HitRecord’s first core value? Community first.

This principle and his openness to being led by the community helped him pivot towards growth. When HitRecord was still a production-focused company, Joseph phoned some of the users who weren’t actively participating to find out why. They felt that they didn’t have the skills to participate, and listening to these users steered the company towards the open and instructive platform it is today.

Building communities at work

Joseph sees creativity as a universal human trait. Everyone is an artist in their own right, and creating something of value is what gives our lives meaning. From artists to software programmers, working within a supportive community allows us to create something bigger than we could ever accomplish alone. Business leaders should use this insight to think about whether their employees feel this sense of community, and if not, what they can do to foster it.

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