Why Your Company Should Use the Kickstarter Model to Innovate

Harvard Business Review

In an impressively short time, Kickstarter has quickly become the go-to high-impact mashup of crowdsourcing sensibility and entrepreneurial endeavor. If you've got a genuinely creative idea — or even a "me, too with a twist" — Kickstarter's "crowd funding" platform offers a genuinely innovative way to finance creativity and innovation. Since its 2009 launch, Kickstarter claims that more than 4.1 million people have pledged over $619 million to fund over 41,000 projects. It's exciting.

But Kickstarter's inspiration and effectiveness at facilitating "just-in-time creative communities" — or what has also been described as "impulse patronage" — poses a provocative challenge to the C-suites of global organizations worldwide: Where are their Kickstarters? Why aren't leaders tapping the crowdfunding capabilities of their own innovation ecosystems to stimulate their people and ideas?

The Kickstarter model should be a part of the innovation infrastructure of every global enterprise that takes intrapreneurial creativity and coherent corporate culture seriously.

Internal venture capital and skunk work projects are nothing new. Corporate behemoths — like IBM and its innovation jams, 3M's open innovation efforts and Procter &Gamble's connect + develop programs — are constantly looking for ways to cost-effectively leverage their scale while safely exploring potential innovation opportunities. Many of these initiatives enjoy some success; most do not.

But one inherent challenge — flaw? — in the overwhelming majority of the innovation initiatives I've seen is how intrinsically compartmentalized, segregated and silo-ized they become. They're creative and/or innovative efforts appealing to creatives and innovators. They're not designed to appeal to the organization — let alone its ecosystem! — at large.

Moreover, funding for innovation overwhelmingly comes from "budgets" rather than any discretionary funds held by individuals or small teams. "Impulse patronage" looks and feels like impossibility to anyone who isn't a manager with a cash-flow-positive P&L and the courage to take a chance. The idea that employees could contribute their own money to help kickstart a provocative proposal is organizational heresy. Perhaps it should be. But what if a slice or sliver of people's compensation was denominated for Kickstarter-esque discretionary financing? Why not make the organization a marketplace that creates the option to tap not "the wisdom of crowds" but the "excitement of employees" or the "perceptions of personnel"?

Virtually every global enterprise of note, whether commercial or non-profit, now has the internal networks and social media tools that make internalizing a Kickstarter-like initiative technically possible. The more obvious, and challenging, concern is whether organizational leaderships have even begun to think through the innovation implications of these novel tools, technologies and techniques for creating new coalitions of creative intrapreneurs and empowered individual investors. I'd say not.

But let me steal Kickstarter's advice to artists and entrepreneurs who want to use its platform to elicit funding and support: "Audiences respond to passion, sincerity, and an ability to execute. They want to see you communicate this in your video, and they want you to offer creative rewards that are fairly priced."

How difficult or culturally incompatible would translating that call to action be for most global enterprises?

Put another way, what CEO, CMO or innovation leader wouldn't want to learn what kind new products, services, user experiences, etc. their individual employees would be willing to fund? What a fascinating — and fantastic — way to take the innovation temperature of the enterprise. What kinds of proposals would lead to regional and functional oversubscription? What kinds of projects never get funded?

Kickstarterizing the enterprise provides a powerful way of rebalancing top down innovation efforts with bottom/middle up projects that inspire cross-functional/trans-border support. If you're a P&G, a Toyota, a General Electric or a Haier, this is exactly the kind of innovation marketplace you need to be testing not just to get new ideas but to see what gets your people from all over the world interested and excited enough to invest. That is, to me, a large part of what healthy innovation cultures are all about.

Wouldn't it be a kick-in-the-head if the most innovative and creative efforts Kickstarter inspired were its effective emulation by the world's most innovative organizations?

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