Chatroulette might not be for everyone, but the randomly generated video chat site’s runaway success is a developer’s dream. Created by a 17-year old in three days, the site’s user base has doubled every day since its inception.

The concept of getting users to grow a business was a popular topic at the BRITE conference on Wednesday. As Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems once put it:

“No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”

At Columbia University, many speakers agreed — the role of the consumer has changed. And increasingly, businesses that succeed today rely on their users to create and improve products. But most businesses would kill to be in the position of Chatroulette’s founder Andrey Ternovskiy, who told The New York Times recently:

“It continues to multiply and I just couldn’t stop it from growing.”

But that’s not a situation that’s easy to recreate. Robin Chase, CEO of Meadow Networks and the founder of ZipCar, knows a
little bit about excess and scarcity. ZipCar often rent cars down
to the second. (This I know from the experience of throwing a set of keys at someone semi-patiently waiting to take off in a car as I returned it.) As Chase says:

“We have this feeling of scarcity, but I think we’re looking at
things wrong. We should be saying ‘How much do we really need? Let’s
make sure the rest is available for others to use.'”

That concept is a big part of how businesses from Skype to ZipCar work today. Similarly, a network like CouchSurfing
helps people fix the inefficiencies of travel (if you let a stranger
stay in your apartment when he or she is in your city, another stranger
will return the favor while you’re traveling). 

As a result of this mutually beneficial transaction, CouchSurfing now has more available beds than InterContinental, the biggest hotel chain in the world.

Chase says that entrepreneurs can recreate business models like this by following two main guidelines:

“Identify other people’s excess capacity and create a platform that makes use of it.”

That is one way that companies can benefit from the fact that “the smartest people” are always somewhere else. Says Chase:

“We don’t all have good ideas. Some people will have innovative ideas and you have to pluck them.”

The problem of course, is convincing individuals to expend the effort to solve your
corporation’s problems. Easily, crowd sourced projects can benefit a corporation at the expense of those contributing. And once a power imbalance like that exists, it’s hard to entice the crowd into helping.

John Gerzema, chief insights officer at Young and Rubicam, says that one key is using a “hat trick business model,”
that is good for business, good for the customer and good for social
progress:

“I don’t think crowdsourcing works when the scales are tipped in
favor of one individual. You need to have completely democratic
principles.”

Open source 3D printing company Makerbot is one business that succeeds in doing that. The company wants to change the way that people think about making and acquiring goods (Makerbot owners create their own plastic goods for pennies on the dollar). The company’s incredibly active userbase often helps solve problems that the company runs into, even improving the core Markebot product.

Makerbot founder Bre Pettis says that “With open source…when one person solves a problem, everyone benefits.”

Getting consumers to share and improve your products worldwide is a lot easier said than done, but many of the speakers today at the BRITE Conference were agreed that paying it forward is a good way to get started. Said Gerzema:

“It’s about generosity as a business model, and the idea that your generosity will come back to you.”