Drive Company Innovation with an Internal Pitch Event

Kelsey Raymond
Kelsey Raymond / July 3, 2018

We all have traditions we look forward to each year. For some, it's preparing a special meal over the holidays. For others, it's that annual vacation with friends. For me, it's Startup Weekend.

Startup Weekend—a 54-hour event at which people come together, share ideas, and launch businesses—is close to my heart. My co-worker Alyssa Patzius and I organized the first Startup Weekend in Columbia, Missouri, seven years ago when the first-place winner was none other than Zapier.

Zapier founders at Startup weekend
Zapier founders Wade, Mike, and Bryan at Startup Weekend 2011

Since then, Columbia's Startup Weekend has sold out every year and has seen other awesome startups, like EquipmentShare, House Collars, and Gladitood, grow out of the event.

Then, a few years ago, my team at Influence & Co wondered how we could bring the same kind of energy and innovation found at Columbia Startup Weekend to our own company—and that's how the internal pitch event was born.

What Is an Internal Pitch Event?

Influence & Co.'s internal pitch event is our version of a miniature Startup Weekend. Rather than a 54-hour event held over the course of a weekend, our event takes place over about eight hours during our annual company retreat. We bring the team together for two days every year to do some team bonding, talk about the future of the company, and explore the roles each of us plays in getting us to those future goals.

The internal pitch event is our employees' chance to share their ideas for ways to improve our company, the way we work, and the value we offer our clients—and turn those ideas into meaningful action. Beyond that, it's a way to bring everyone in the company together to bond, brainstorm, and build plans for something bigger than themselves.

How to Host an Internal Pitch Event of Your Own

We've taken the standard Startup Weekend process and adapted it for our own pitch events. Here's how we do it—and how you can do it:

1. Lay the event foundation and set expectations

Plan out at least one full day your team can dedicate to an internal pitch event. It's not really an exercise that works well in a short period of time, so don't try to cram the whole thing into a two-hour block at your next company-wide meeting.

Next, come up with at least three to five challenges you're facing as a company that you want your team's help addressing: big picture things like client onboarding or employee engagement. Thinking through these things early on helps employees put some structure around the ideas they plan to pitch and focus their energy on solving the right problems.

With a date locked in and problems ready to be solved, it's time to notify your team. Your email to your team should include the following:

  • The event specifics (of course)
  • A brief list of potential problems to solve
  • What you're looking for in potential solutions
  • A sheet to sign up for pitches

Because we host an internal pitch event every year, we also send out past examples of winning ideas to give everyone on the team an idea of what has worked well in this kind of environment. If you find yourself hosting these events regularly, then pass along that historical information too.

2. Begin initial pitches

That sign-up sheet is more of a jumping-off point than an exclusive list of participants. All team members should feel encouraged to share their ideas, whether they signed up beforehand or felt inspired by someone else's pitch and came up with a new idea on the spot.

Seeing people stand in front of the company and pitch their ideas tends to give others a confidence boost to share their own pitch off the cuff. For example, my team normally sees about 15 people sign up in advance, but 26 people pitched ideas last year.

Everyone who decides to pitch gets 60 seconds to explain his or her idea to the company and the event judges. Entire plans don't need to be fully developed yet. Instead, each presenter should be prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What is the problem?
  • What is the solution?
  • Whom does this impact? Does this solve a small problem for one role or a big problem that everyone in the company faces?
  • Why does this matter? What impact would solving this problem have on the company? Would it save us time, save us money, make our clients happier, make our employees happier?

Addressing these questions helps everyone else assess whether they want to see a pitch advance to the next round, and which team they want to join later.

3. Select the top pitches

Once all the pitches have been delivered, it's time to narrow down the top ideas by group vote. We do this by displaying pitch ideas on individual pieces of paper taped to a wall, giving everyone three sticky notes, and letting them vote by placing their notes on the wall next to their favorite pitch or pitches.

Casting a vote for a pitch doesn't mean an employee is signing up to join that pitch's team. These notes are simply used to help decide which pitches advance.

Your judges then count the votes and figure out which ideas will be developed over the rest of the day. This is also when your judges will determine ideal team size and work backward to select the number of top pitches that will advance. Because we have about 75 full-time team members and don't want more than eight people per team, we usually end up with somewhere between 10 and 12 ideas for our company to work on.

4. Form teams

Once the top ideas have been selected, it's time for everyone to form teams around the pitch they want to work on. Some ground rules that have worked for us: No team can have more than eight people, and every team must have representation from at least two different departments or roles.

When too many people from one area of your company come together, they may think up great solutions—but the impact of those solutions tends to be limited to that department, not your company as a whole. Plus, one of the main goals of this event is to encourage collaboration among people who rarely work together, so this structure around team development is critical.

5. Develop pitches into plans

This is the most time-intensive portion of the entire event, usually taking anywhere from three to seven hours. How that time is broken up depends on how you've chosen to structure your event. For some, it might be a more focused work session. For others, it could be pretty flexible.

As I said earlier, we host our pitch event during our annual company retreat. It's time we as a company spend away from our day-to-day work and come together to bond as teammates. This atmosphere is perfect for inspiring creativity, so it works well alongside our pitch event.

In fact, we've found that combining the traditional team-building activities of a company retreat with our pitch event teams works really well. Our agenda tends to look something like this:

  • Initial pitches and idea selection in the morning—2 hours
  • Field day activities with the team you joined for the pitch contest—1 hour
  • Collaboration and plan development—4 hours
  • Final presentations—1.5 hours

This time breakdown allows people to start thinking about their plans during the field day activities and then really get to work on those plans later in the day.

And speaking of getting to work: During any work-specific time, it's helpful to save some leadership team members for group consultation. For example, you might want to keep your CEO, COO, and CTO from joining a specific team and instead make them available for "office hours." That way, each team has a chance to ask specific questions about the feasibility of their plans and make their presentation more compelling.

6. Present final ideas

Final presentations are easily the most fun of the whole event. The original pitches can shift and evolve pretty substantially throughout the day, and you can just feel how excited the teams are to share their plans.

In their initial pitches, everyone was asked to answer a few basic questions. Now that the teams have had time to develop those pitches into fuller plans, they should be prepared to answer the following questions:

  • Is this solving a real problem the company has?
  • How feasible is this to implement?
  • How much will this cost, looking both at hard costs and people's time?
  • What is the significance? To whom?
  • What is the expected ROI?
  • After today, what is the next step to get started?

Each presentation should last no longer than five minutes, including any Q&A between your presenting teams and your judges. Your judges will use each team's answers to these questions to select the winning ideas for your company and announce them to everyone at the event.

7. Follow up on the winning ideas

The final and most important part of your internal pitch event is the follow-up that comes after it's all said and done. Because it takes place outside your actual event, it can get buried in the day-to-day work you stepped away from to host this event in the first place.

To close the loop, you should designate someone on your judging committee to coordinate with the winning teams on timelines. Work together to identify which next steps are your biggest priorities in the following three months, six months, and year, and set aside the resources for those teams to make their plans a reality. Planning so far ahead might feel overwhelming, but remember: Not every idea that wins will be tech- or process-focused. Some are simple ideas with simple—but valuable—solutions.

What You Can Expect from Your Internal Pitch Event

You may have read everything above and thought to yourself, "That sounds like a lot of work!" And you would be right. It is a lot of work: to take your team members away from their responsibilities for two entire days to focus on this event, to come up with pitches, and to actually implement the ideas after it's over. But I promise the work is worth the rewards:

It promotes collaboration. This is a great opportunity for people who never work together to work on the same team toward a common goal. When you get input from a salesperson, a developer, and a client service rep, you get different perspectives on challenges you face on an everyday basis. It opens your eyes to the challenges other departments encounter and helps everyone see the bigger picture.

It encourages a strong ownership mentality. If you hire driven people who like to work autonomously, this is a great way to encourage them by instilling an ownership mentality. When people feel more ownership over a problem, they are better able to solve that problem. The internal pitch event exercise helps people see that they're in control of making things better for themselves, for others at the company, and for the end users. That sense of ownership really boosts employee engagement.

It results in meaningful improvements to your company. Sure, not every idea works out exactly the way it was planned in final presentations, but some ideas pitched at our events have resulted in real, measurable improvements for our company.

The first time you host an event like this, it may not be perfect—but I promise some good will come from it. If nothing else, you'll signal to your team that you are open to new ideas and excited about improving as an organization.

You never really know what will happen as a result of an internal pitch event, and that's kind of the point. You don't know—and you never will know—what great ideas your team members have if you don't give them the opportunity to share them and the resources to make change happen. An internal pitch event is one of the best ways to do so, and if you do it right, you can turn it into a tradition everyone looks forward to each year.

Hero image from via Pexels.

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