INNOVATE

How to Get Employees Thinking Like Entrepreneurs

The benefits? They have more fun at work and you get great new ideas. Here's how to do it.
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How do you get employees at your start-up company to start thinking like founders? Simple: Let them launch a product of their own.

That's the brilliant concept behind "Innovation Days," an event created by the Indianapolis-based recommendation company iGoDigital, but which could work for any small company. Many companies take employees off-site for leisure activities or team-building exercises to help them be more motivated at their jobs. With Innovation Days, iGoDigital achieved the same benefits--and launched a brand new product at the same time.

"We shut down the office for two days, turn off our phones and email and go off-site," says Eric Tobias, iGoDigital's founder. "This year we went to a co-working space called The Speak Easy. We took it over, and spent two days building brand-new product from scratch."

iGoDigital's core business is based on providing content and product recommendations for e-commerce customers, but the new product it created during Innovation Days is Scribblr, a way to manage email signatures across an organization. The inspiration for Scribblr came when iGoDigital moved its offices: The marketing department had to struggle to get all 50 employees to change their signatures to reflect the company's new address. Executives realized there was a need for a way to update everyone's signatures while still allowing them to personalize them as they wished, and no such product existed on the market. It was also a simple enough concept that it could be built and brought to market in two days.

How do you combine launching a new product and team-building into one event? Here are Tobias' tips:

1. Get people out of their usual roles.

"We all fall into habits, and we get stuck in our own box," Tobias says. So, during Innovation Days, jobs were switched around. "We had designers making sales calls and salespeople working on the product."

To get Scribblr built within the two-day deadline, iGoDigital divided its staff into teams: "One team worked on the website; another worked on the user experience, from creating an account through using the software. Another team was responsible for back-end functions," Tobias says. Each team needed a designer and a  marketer and this approach made it easy for people to try out unaccustomed jobs.

2. Make it fun.

Innovation Days is intended as a bonding experience so the focus was on personal development and fun. In fact, Innovation Days was scheduled to coincide with the this year's NCAA "March Madness," and employees watched the games as they created Scribblr.

Tobias says, iGoDigital's executives carefully planned Scribblr so that it could be created within two normal workdays--they didn't want employees forced to work long hours. "Interestingly, three of the team members stayed very late or came in early because they were passionate about what we were doing," Tobias notes.

3. Give employees a sense of the choices you face. 

"My real goal was to ingrain the challenges that entrepreneurs face when starting a business across our entire company," Tobias says. "One of those challenges is the constant push and pull of having ideas and all these opportunities--and having to make choices and tradeoffs on a day to day basis. I wanted them all to feel that pain a little bit."

It worked better than anticipated. iGoDigital's employees came back from Innovation Days completely psyched about Scribblr. "We did it on a Thursday and Friday, and everybody got so passionate about it that they wanted to keep working on it on Monday," Tobias says. "It was an unanticipated challenge to refocus everyone on the core business." Going forward, iGoDigital's employees are allowed to spend up to two hours a week on Scribblr he adds, and the new product has had overwhelmingly positive response, with more than 200 companies interested in using it.

As for giving employees the sense of what it's like to be an entrepreneur, that worked even better than expected. "Everyone was there from the moment that it was just an idea," Tobias says. "It's like having 50 founders."

Last updated: Jun 20, 2012

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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