About four years into running DocStoc, a website that offers small business tools and documents, founder Jason Nazar started thinking that his company could do more to meet his customers' needs and grow the business. He wanted to build out a whole suite of products. All he needed were a few good ideas.
Who doesn't? But the difference is, Nazar knew exactly how to get them.
One thing you should know about Nazar is that if you attend tech start-up competitions often enough, sooner or later you'll see him pitching on stage. He's something of a pitching junkie, having participated in dozens of start-up competitions in the last few years.
In fact, he's such a fan of pitching competitions that he decided to launch one—inside his own company.
Inspired by Twitter
He was first inspired to do it when he heard how Twitter began. Before there was Twitter, there was Odeo. At a certain point, founder Evan Williams decided the company needed a complete restart so he broke up the team into small groups and gave them the assignment to come back with a new, killer business idea. Jack Dorsey came back with Twitter. If it worked for them...
So Nazar launched the same experiment at DocStoc. He divided his 40 employees into small teams of people and gave them one week to come up with a new business idea that could make DocStoc grow. They would have five minutes to pitch it to the rest of the company as well as a panel of judges.
One week later, Nazar had his new idea: License123, an online resource that lets entrepreneurs, in three steps, find out exactly which licenses and permits they need to start up pretty much any business in their city. A report with all the details costs users $10.
License123 is currently in beta, offering information in six states with about 60% to 80% of local cities covered. Nazar hopes to have most locales across the country covered by the end of the year.
He pitched License123 recently on stage at the Launch Festival in San Francisco, and won the award for best business model. "It's a no-brainer," said judge Matt Thompson, Microsoft's GM for developer evangelism.
Want to get great ideas out of your employees? Here are Nazar's tips for running a successful pitch competition at your company:
1. Clearly define the parameters.
Nazar went beyond giving his team just a one-week time constraint; the ideas had to fit certain criteria. "They had to be able to make $1 million in the first year and we had to be able to build a minimum viable product in three months," he says.
2. Pair up people who don't normally work together.
"We had engineers mixed with business people," Nazar says. "Even more so than company happy hours or hiking trips, this required them to really sit and talk and think with people they don't usually work with." Even if the comapny didn't move forward on any of the ideas, he says it still would have been the best use of company time.
3. Give the event some pomp and circumstance.
You're asking your employees to not only keep up with their normal workload but also to come up with a big, new idea. Make it a special event. On pitch day, everyone at DocStoc stopped working around noon and the rest of the day was given over to the contest. There were prizes ("iPads work well—the prizes don't have to be huge," Nazar says) and high-profile judges from the L.A. start-up scene. Then the whole team headed over to an after-party to keep celebrating their achievements.
4. Pay attention to the people's choice award.
"Everyone in the company thought License123 was the best idea," Nazar says—but the judges didn't. In the end they selected another idea for the top prize. So Nazar filed away License123. A month later when he was reviewing the company's upcoming priorities, he pulled it back out and decided to move on it. "They were so excited about it—they collectively brought it to life," he says. And that's key: When your employees are heavily invested in an idea, that's half the battle.
And whatever happened to the pitch that won? Nazar won't say. It's in the works, too.